You may have read the disturbing news about the Phoenix priest who performed hundreds of invalid baptisms over a period of years through his improper changing of the words “I baptize you…” to “We baptize you…” A small clerical error you may think which, in reality, has had huge and tragic ramifications for hundreds of people who believed they were redeemed Christians but in reality remained under the curse of original sin. This is no small matter, since any of those persons who may have died in that state will be denied the joys of heaven and the beatific vision.
This case represents a prime example of the careless and lax attitude in free circulation today among Christians that good intentions can pave the way to heaven. Actually, that familiar adage says just the opposite, namely that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. For too many contemporary Churchmen the sacraments have become symbols of our inherent virtues. This is a further reflection of the presumptuousness of modern man who has neatly forgotten that salvation is a free gift from God, not an entitlement. In fact sacraments, and especially baptism, are visible concrete realities capable of infusing invisible grace into otherwise deadened souls. As such their form needs to be fixed and precise so that there can be no doubt as to their efficacy. Yet too many “progressive” liturgists have been playing loose and easy with long settled formulas and causing untold damage in their egoistic wake.
For example, over the past 50 years it has become popular among certain priests and ministers to baptize children in the name of the Creator, the Redeemer, and the Sanctifier, a formula that invalidates the sacrament for the simple reason that those things are divine functions – not part of the divine NAME in which Christ himself mandated baptisms be performed (Father, Son, and Holy Ghost). I am reminded of a pithy line from the movie The Princess Bride where Wesley reminds the princess after her hasty wedding ceremony, “You didn’t say it then you didn’t do it.” Words are incredibly important.
Many people today (and not a few clerics) fall back on the specious argument that a good God would not condemn anyone to hell, totally missing the reality of our human situation. Hell is in fact man’s natural destination because of the original sin which we all inherited and were conceived in. Like it or not, this is the default setting of our natural existence. It has nothing to do with our being good or bad people (though our personal actions will certainly increase or decrease the severity of hell). What is too often overlooked is that natural virtue cannot merit a supernatural reward, and that is exactly what heaven is, a supernatural existence in the company of God and his angels and saints. The natural man, born in a sinful state and lacking grace, is not entitled to such a reward. God is merciful but he is also just, and original sin gravely offended his justice, posing an insurmountable enmity between God and man. As such justice demands that the natural man can never see God in his full glory, that is the beatific vision.
But God is also merciful, so although we were born in a sinful state destined for hell, those who remain in that natural state but live naturally virtuous lives will not experience hell in the same way as the truly wicked who will be subjected to eternal punishment. There are a variety of degrees in hell commensurate with a person’s deeds on earth. The great poet Dante in his epic Divine Comedy – Inferno corroborated the view of many theologians who have described a state of natural happiness and contentment on the outer fringes of hell known as limbo. Aristotle and other Greek philosophers well understood that natural virtue obtains for man a kind of natural happiness on earth (virtue is its own reward), and that is essentially what limbo represents in eternity. But those contented souls will never know the supernatural joy of seeing God face to face, and that is why baptism is so crucial. It becomes one’s ticket out of hell.
Precisely because God does not want to condemn any person to hell he made other provisions to help us escape our natural destiny. In his infinite mercy, God sent his own Son as the Redeemer to reconcile mankind to himself through the dispensation of sanctifying grace, available to those who truly desire it. Grace builds on nature and so one’s natural disposition must be towards God and redemption. Christ made the divine intention very clear when he said, “I came that they might have life and have it to the fullest.” (Jn 10:10) This fullness of life refers to divine life, not mere human life, in which a man can only share through the action of sanctifying grace. That is why baptism is so essential, but all the sacraments as well, which when properly conferred might have the desired effect. Christ clearly mandated the channel through which baptism and all the sacraments were to be spread throughout the world. That channel was and remains his apostolic Church to whom he commanded, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” (Mt 28:19)
Salvation is a free gift from God, and we should never view it as an entitlement as many today seem to do. They implicitly reduce God to a naturalistic level. But Our Lord reminds us, “It is the Spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail.” (Jn 6:63) The means for obtaining that ultimate supernatural life is and always will be baptism, whether by water, by blood, or by desire. And with some 50 million abortions each year worldwide, every modern-day Christian should be praying daily that those innocent victims will all be given the grace to sincerely desire the baptism they were denied by their erring parents. But worse is to believe that one is already baptized and not be so in fact because of an erring minister who assumed he was more clever than God’s Church. I fear that those who deny many souls entry into paradise out of their own conceit will face the most terrible reckoning of all, and it won’t look anything like limbo.
Francis J. Pierson +a.m.d.g.