|ROME, 26 APRIL 2005 (ZENIT)
Answered by Father Edward McNamara,
professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University.
Q: In view of what is said in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (Nos.
1261 and 1283) is it correct and advisable to offer Mass for the
salvation of a baby who died without being baptized?
H.D., Melbourne, Australia
A: The texts of the Catechism to which our correspondent refers to say
"1261: 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,' allow 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."
"1283: With respect to children who have died without Baptism, the
liturgy of the Church invites us to trust in God's mercy and to pray for
The question of the fate of children who die before baptism is one of
the mysteries that have long perplexed bishops, theologians and, of
The problem has received even greater urgency due to the millions of
unborn children killed by abortion.
Up until relatively recently some theologians tried to solve the problem
by proposing that such children went to limbo, a state of perfect human
happiness but without the beatific vision.
This solution was never fully satisfactory, and is now practically
abandoned, above all because it is difficult to conceive a genuine and
full human happiness deprived of the divine vision for which God created
Recently the Holy Father has entrusted the International Theological
Commission with the task of studying this problem in depth and clarify
Catholic doctrine as far as possible.
With respect to the advisability of offering the Mass for the
"salvation" of unbaptized infants, No. 1283 invites us to pray for their
Since the Mass is also an intercessory prayer, then it should be
possible, in general terms, to offer the Mass for such an intention even
though we may not yet be theologically sure of what the concept of
salvation might be in this particular case.
Because of the mystery involved, the celebration of funeral rites for an
unbaptized child usually requires the permission of the local bishop who
considers the pastoral circumstances involved (see Canon 1183.2 of the
Code of Canon Law).
These rites are usually done more for the sake of the living than for
the dead. And this would be the principal factor to be considered in
deciding to permit obsequies, especially when the parents clearly
intended to baptize the child.
It is also a factor in deciding whether Mass or another simpler rite
would be more appropriate.
It is also recommended that catechesis imparted on such occasions in no
way confuse the faithful regarding the doctrine of the necessity of
The Mass formulas do not generally intercede for the salvation of the
child but rather implore that God may comfort the grieving parents with
the hope of his mercy, acceptance of his will and the consolation of
knowing that he takes care of us. ZE05042621
* * *
Follow-up: Mass for Unbaptized Children Who Die [05-10-2005]
A reader from Massachusetts says that he was disturbed by our purported
that "funeral liturgies are now more for the living than for the
deceased. The Mass, as the good father knows, is an act of worship,
praise and intercession. Our funeral liturgies never assume the deceased
is in heaven, but pray that they may be forgiven their sins and enjoy
"I have heard more than one priest comment on how funeral Masses are
more for the living than for the dead. No wonder why so many of our
people no longer believe in purgatory but have adopted the Protestant
view that one goes straight to heaven or hell upon death."
On rereading the article I can see how our correspondent received the
impression he did, although I was referring to the precise circumstances
of Masses for unbaptized infants, and not to funerals in general.
Such funeral rites are more for the consolation of the living than the
dead due to the great human sadness of the loss of a child, no matter
how strong the theological hope of salvation or even the certainty of
blessedness, as is the case of baptized infants.
Our reader is correct that adult funerals are very much intercessory
prayers for the deceased. It is this power of intercession by the
Church's prayer, rather than a presumption of instant canonization, that
should bring consolation to those left behind.
Another reader was perplexed by the problem. He wrote: "Why is it that a
catechumen who expresses his desire to be baptized but dies before it
takes place, is said to have received baptism by desire, and therefore
is fully expected to be saved; whereas, when parents fully intend to
baptize their baby, but it dies before they are able to do so, we have
doubts as to the baby's salvation? I just don't understand this."
The basic reason is that the adult is saved by his personal desire to
receive baptism, which was frustrated by death.
The desire and intentions of the parents is insufficient to substitute
[for] the infant's incapacity to express any personal intentions and grant the
gift of baptism.
However, the question is not totally clear. Some theologians have argued
that in some way the parents' desire to have the child baptized does
have some effect in the order of grace and the child is in a different
situation from the infant of parents who have no knowledge of baptism.
We are before a great mystery, insofar as it has not been revealed if
salvation means the same thing for the unbaptized infant as for the
baptized, or by what means God exercises his mercy in these cases.
All the same, I would not say that the Church entertains doubts as to
the child's salvation, as condemnation can only be received through
Other readers, from Waukesha, Wisconsin, and from North York, Ontario,
asked about norms forbidding baptism during Lent or to "priests who
refuse to administer the sacraments to children of parents who do not
Our Wisconsin reader says: "I can understand delaying adult baptism,
first Communions, weddings, etc., during Lent until at least the Easter
Vigil, but to me, not allowing infant baptism during Lent seems to be
gambling with souls." The reader further illustrates a case of the
accidental death of a baby who would have been baptized except for this
Regarding the first question, canon law (in No. 868) requires that,
before administering baptism, a priest should have some reasonable
assurances that the child will be raised and instructed in the faith.
Even if the parents offer few guarantees of being willing and able to do
so, the priest may proceed with the baptism if the godparents, some
other relatives, or the Christian community in general, will be able to
substitute [for] the parents in giving the necessary formation.
Thus, for example, if the parents do not practice but are willing to
send the child to catechism classes for first Communion when the time
arises, then this is often sufficient. If these conditions cannot be met
he has to defer the administration of the sacrament explaining the
reasons to the parents.
However, since the variables are infinite, one cannot dictate
theoretical solutions and I would be loath to criticize a priest's
decision while ignorant of the specific circumstances.
The tragedy of the second case shows that even apparently reasonable
norms can lead to unintended consequences.
I am personally less then enthusiastic about the norms forbidding infant
baptisms during Lent that exist in several dioceses. To my mind they are
not totally compatible with the spirit of canon law in No. 867 and No.
1250 of the catechism which states: "The Church and the parents would
deny a child the priceless grace of becoming a child of God were they
not to confer Baptism shortly after birth."
It is true that infant deaths are rare in the developed world, but it
does not appear to justify a long delay.
I do comprehend the pastoral reasons that often lie behind them,
especially in areas where the baptism of a child has become more of a
social than a religious event, sometimes rivaling weddings for displays
of fashions and festivities and hence incompatible with the Lenten
All the same, I do believe that priests, and the pastoral norms in
general, should accommodate parents who desire to have their children
baptized as soon as possible after birth for genuinely religious
reasons, especially if they agree to moderate any external celebrations
On the theme of infant baptism in general, a California reader asks: "I
have often wondered about the necessity of baptizing children since the
early Church did not consider it imperative. Certainly we totally submit
to the teaching of the apostles. There could be no teaching more clear
than their limiting baptism to those who can choose it for themselves."
I am afraid that I do not think that this supposed teaching is so clear
at all, although the space available precludes a full treatment of this
In the first place, Christian baptism replaced circumcision as a more
universal sign of belonging to God's people, and this Jewish rite was
performed eight days after birth.
There is also some, albeit inconclusive, evidence of the presence of
infant baptism when we read in the Scriptures that certain persons were
baptized together with "all their family" or "their entire household."
Such expressions, at the very least, would not exclude the presence of
Likewise the scant descriptions of the rite of baptism offered in the
Bible, which explicitly refer only to adult Jewish and pagan converts,
are insufficient to conclude very much about the pastoral practice of
the apostles, for while there is no mention of infant baptism, nor is
there any mention of baptism of adult members of Christian families.
Christ's command in Mark 16:16 refers to evangelization of pagans. It is
necessary for new disciples to manifest their faith before receiving
baptism which implies a radical change of life. Such a change should not
be necessary in the children of Christian families educated in the faith
from an early age.
There is much stronger evidence in the following generations. The bishop
martyr St. Polycarp, who as a young man had been a disciple of St. John
the Evangelist, affirmed that he had served the Lord for 86 years, which
makes it highly probable that he was baptized in infancy.
There is also evidence for the practice in St. Justin (martyred in 165)
and other second-century writers, such as Origen, who presents infant
baptism as an apostolic tradition.
Finally a correspondent expands on the original topic and asks about
"praying for those not of the Catholic faith. Would it be permissible to
have a Mass said for a deceased non-Catholic?"
The Church already prays for non-Catholics at Mass when, for example in
Eucharistic Prayer IV, we ask "for all those whose faith was known to
Although a requiem or funeral Mass is usually not offered for a
non-Catholic, there does not seem to be any difficulty in offering the
intention of a Mass for a non-Catholic living or dead, just as we may
pray for them in any other circumstances.
There might be particular situations in which this may not be advisable
but, at least in principle, it is possible. ZE05051027