First, let's review.
Baptism is the necessary sacrament for one to receive to enter the Kingdom of Heaven (John 3:5). While ideally one would receive this sacrament, the Church has understood from her foundation two other ways to receive the graces of this sacrament.
The Baptism of Desire is received by someone preparing for baptism but dying before the sacrament is conferred, or by a person who never hears about Christ but lives a good life as their culture understands that to be. The Baptism of Blood is received by someone who is martyred for the faith, but isn't baptized.
This understanding of the Baptism of Desire gives rise to a possible interpretation. A couple wants to have children and to have them baptized. They conceive a child, but tragically, this baby dies before birth. Some theologians have proposed that the intention of the parents to have their child baptized would confer the grace of baptism upon the child.
The International Theological Commission, a group of theologians entrusted to study questions proposed by the pope, published a document on this topic in 2007. The commission made a distinction between adults and babies. An adult who is baptized by the Baptism of Desire had made a positive choice to pursue baptism by attending Mass and RCIA classes and turning his or her life toward Christ. However, an infant isn't capable of making this personal choice. Without the personal choice, the commission couldn't see how the Baptism of Desire could be conferred on infants.
While personal choice is needed to receive the Baptism of Desire, such a choice isn't necessary to receive the Sacrament of Baptism. By virtue of the sacrament, God renovates the soul, removing original sin and infilling the person with the Holy Spirit. This great reality and the goodness of this gift are why the Church has from her beginnings urged parents to have their children baptized soon after birth so that they may enjoy this great gift and be destined for Heaven.
What does the Church then say to parents who worry about children who died before receiving baptism? At the end of the document in 2007, the commission admitted that it hasn't been revealed to us to say for certain. But I agree firmly with the commission that there are firm grounds to hope that these children will be gathered by God and enjoy the new creation with us.
Father Mayo is pastor of Holy Rosary Parish in Warrenton. RELATED ARTICLE(S):DEAR FATHER | Bells at Mass bring joyful noise to the Lord, focus attention on altar