The fate of infants who die without baptism must be briefly considered here. The Catholic teaching is uncompromising on this point, that all who depart this life without baptism, be it of water, or blood, or desire, are perpetually excluded from the vision of God. This teaching is grounded, as we have seen, on Scripture and tradition, and the decrees of the Church. Moreover, that those who die in original sin, without ever having contracted any actual sin, are deprived of the happiness of heaven is stated explicitly in the Confession of Faith of the Eastern Emperor Michael Palæologus, which had been proposed to him by Pope Clement IV in 1267, and which he accepted in the presence of Gregory X at the Second Council of Lyons in 1274. The same doctrine is found also in the Decree of Union of the Greeks, in the Bull “Lætentur Caeli” of Pope Eugene IV, in the Profession of Faith prescribed for the Greeks by Pope Gregory XIII, and in that authorized for the Orientals by Urban VIII and Benedict XIV. Many Catholic theologians have declared that infants dying without baptism are excluded from the beatific vision; but as to the exact state of these souls in the next world they are not agreed.
In speaking of souls who have failed to attain salvation, these theologians distinguish the pain of loss (paena damni), or privation of the beatific vision, and the pain of sense (paena sensus). Though these theologians have thought it certain that unbaptized infants must endure the pain of loss, they have not been similarly certain that they are subject to the pain of sense. St. Augustine (De Pecc. et Mer., I, xvi) held that they would not be exempt from the pain of sense, but at the same time he thought it would be of the mildest form. On the other hand, St. Gregory Nazianzen (Or. in S. Bapt.) expresses the belief that such infants would suffer only the pain of loss. Sfondrati (Nod. Prædest., I, i) declares that while they are certainly excluded from heaven, yet they are not deprived of natural happiness. This opinion seemed so objectionable to some French bishops that they asked the judgment of the Holy See upon the matter. Pope Innocent XI replied that he would have the opinion examined into by a commission of theologians, but no sentence seems ever to have been passed upon it. Since the twelfth century, the opinion of the majority of theologians has been that unbaptized infants are immune from all pain of sense. This was taught by St. Thomas Aquinas, Scotus, St. Bonaventure, Peter Lombard, and others, and is now the common teaching in the schools. It accords with the wording of a decree of Pope Innocent III (III Decr., xlii, 3): “The punishment of original sin is the deprivation of the vision of God; of actual sin, the eternal pains of hell.” Infants, of course, can not be guilty of actual sin.
Other theologians have urged that, under the law of nature and the Mosaic dispensation, children could be saved by the act of their parents and that consequently the same should be even more easy of attainment under the law of grace, because the power of faith has not been diminished but increased.
Common objections to this theory include the fact that infants are not said to be deprived of justification in the New Law through any decrease in the power of faith, but because of the promulgation by Christ of the precept of baptism which did not exist before the New Dispensation. Nor would this make the case of infants worse than it was before the Christian Church was instituted. While it works a hardship for some, it has undoubtedly improved the condition of most. Supernatural faith is now much more diffused than it was before the coming of Christ, and more infants are now saved by baptism than were justified formerly by the active faith of their parents. Moreover, baptism can more readily be applied to infants than the rite of circumcision, and by the ancient law this ceremony had to be deferred till the eighth day after birth, while baptism can be bestowed upon infants immediately after they are born, and in case of necessity even in their mother’s womb. Finally it must be borne in mind that unbaptized infants, if deprived of heaven, would not be deprived unjustly. The vision of God is not something to which human beings have a natural claim. It is a free gift of the Creator who can make what conditions He chooses for imparting it or withholding it. No injustice is involved when an undue privilege is not conferred upon a person. Original sin deprived the human race of an unearned right to heaven. Through the Divine mercy this bar to the enjoyment of God is removed by baptism; but if baptism be not conferred, original sin remains, and the unregenerated soul, having no claim on heaven, is not unjustly excluded from it.
As to the question, whether in addition to freedom from the pain of sense, unbaptized infants enjoy any positive happiness in the next world, theologians are not agreed, nor is there any pronouncement of the Church on the subject. Many, following St. Thomas (De Malo, Q. v, a. 3), declare that these infants are not saddened by the loss of the beatific vision, either because they have no knowledge of it, and hence are not sensible of their privation; or because, knowing it, their will is entirely conformed to God’s will and they are conscious that they have missed an undue privilege through no fault of their own. In addition to this freedom from regret at the loss of heaven, these infants may also enjoy some positive happiness. St. Thomas (In II Sent., dist. XXXIII, Q. ii, a. 5) says: “Although unbaptized infants are separated from God as far as glory is concerned, yet they are not separated from Him entirely. Rather are they joined to Him by a participation of natural goods; and so they may even rejoice in Him by natural consideration and love,” Again (a. 2) he says: “They will rejoice in this, that they will share largely in the divine goodness and in natural perfections.” While the opinion, then, that unbaptized infants may enjoy a natural knowledge and love of God and rejoice in it, is perfectly tenable, it has not the certainty that would arise from a unanimous consent of the Fathers of the Church, or from a favorable pronouncement of ecclesiastical authority.
[Editorial note: On this subject, the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “As regards children who have died without Baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God, as she does in her funeral rites for them. Indeed, the great mercy of God who desires that all men should be saved, and Jesus’ tenderness toward children which caused him to say: “Let the children come to me, do not hinder them,” allows us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without Baptism. All the more urgent is the Church’s call not to prevent little children coming to Christ through the gift of holy Baptism.”]
We may add here some brief remarks on the discipline of the Church in regard to unbaptized persons. As baptism is the door of the Church, the unbaptized are entirely without its pale. As a consequence:
Such persons, by the ordinary law of the Church, may not receive Catholic funeral rites. The reason of this regulation is given by Pope Innocent III (Decr., III, XXVIII, xii): “It has been decreed by the sacred canons that we are to have no communion with those who are dead, if we have not communicated with them while alive.” According toCanon Law (CIC 1183), however, catechumens “are to be considered members of the Christian faithful” as regard funeral rites. The Plenary Council of Baltimore also decrees (No. 389) that the custom of burying the unbaptized relatives of Catholics in the family sepulchers may be tolerated. [Editor’s note: The 1983 Code of Canon Law excepts an unbaptized child of Catholic parents, if the parents had intended to have him baptized.]
Written by William H.W. Fanning. Transcribed by Charles Sweeney, S.J..
The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume II. Published 1907. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Nihil Obstat, 1907. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York