A few days ago, a reader wrote asking whether it was possible to hope for the salvation of miscarried children.  I replied with the words of the Catechism:

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.

I noted that this is possible because, as the Catechism points out (CCC 1257), though we are bound by the sacraments, God is not bound.  The basic rule of thumb here is that God, under carefully controlled laboratory conditions, can do whatever he likes.  Our job is not to tell him his business, but to look to ours.

This, however, raises a question for many Catholics, more or less reflected in this response from a puzzled reader:

So it is better to have never heard of Christ and possibly be saved then to have heard of him and not have been baptized, at least it is not worse. I agree one needs baptism my argument is with the teaching that one can be saved without hearing the name of Christ hence my question do you have to agree with everything in the catechism. I agree with Jesus who says “no one comes through the Father except through me.” Has this always been the teaching of the Church or just in the past 50 years or so since Vatican II. If this is the case why go out and proclaim the gospel, what of the Great Commission? Now one may say it is better to preach the gospel because that way you know one could be saved and without preaching it and baptizing it is not for sure. Well that argument seems weak to me. Again when did the Church begin saying this?

There are a couple of different things being asked here, and it’s important to disentangle them.

First, what is being asked is “Why bother evangelizing if God can save people with their being baptized or hearing about Jesus?” (This reader appears to put emphasis on “hearing about Jesus” more than baptizing.  Others do the opposite and emphasize baptism over merely hearing the gospel.)

Second, there is the corresponding notion that, at the end of the day, what this means is that there are two means of salvation: Jesus Christ and ignorance.

Third, there is the lurking notion that all this is a recent idea in the Church, or at any rate, something the Church cooked up well after the apostles.

Finally, there is the corresponding notion that if the Magisterium teaches something that puzzles us, the first question we need to ask is, “Do you have to agree with everything in the Catechism?”

Taking these questions one at a time:  The answer to “Why bother evangelizing?” is severalfold.  First, because Jesus Christ commands it and our business is to do his will.  He himself makes this clear when he says,

“Not every one who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers.’  (Matthew 7:21-23)

So salvation through disobedience is an inadvisable route for a Christian to take. 

Secondly, is the fact that evangelism is supposed to be an act of love for one’s neighbor, not an abstract theory or a controlled experiment on a placebo group.  If you are in a boat and you see a man drowning out on the open sea, your response is not, “Why bother throwing him a life preserver since God, in his sovereignty, could bring a porpoise to drag him in to shallow water?”  The fact that God can do what he likes does not relieve us of the moral responsibility to do what we can.

So, in the case of evangelization, our hope that God will supply what we lack in our ability to care for all the children of the world who die without baptism is not an excuse to do nothing.  It is a call to do more.  For the same reason, the fact that some kids have naturally robust immune systems given them by the grace of God is not a reason to blow off vaccinations for our kid.  In both cases, God is the author of salvation of life, but we remain gravely responsible to do our bit.  As Paul says, “How are men to call upon him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher?” (Romans 10:14-15)

Of course, Paul has in view an adult convert here.  One can preach all you like to an infant or a profoundly mentally disabled person and they will still not be able to make an act of conscious assent to the gospel as, for instance, an Evangelical would prefer to see.  But they can still be baptized.  The point of the sacrament is not that it is a reducing valve designed to make sure only the baptized will be saved.  Rather, it is intended to be a sure encounter with grace, not the only possible encounter with grace.  So it simply is not so that “it is better to have never heard of Christ and possibly be saved then to have heard of him and not have been baptized”.  What is best is to hear the word of Christ, believe in him, and be baptized.  What is also good is to hope for those, like the Good Thief, who believe in Christ yet who, through no fault of their own cannot be baptized.  What is bad is to conclude that God’s sovereignty means that my responsibility to obey Christ ceases to exist.  Paul has sharp words for the proposition, “Let us sin that grace may abound.”

So it’s not so that there are two ways of salvation, Jesus and Ignorance.  Jesus is the one and only way of salvation.  All who are saved are saved through him.  However, acknowledging that fact does not mean that all who are saved through him are necessarily conscious of the fact that he is the one doing the saving.  Jesus, in the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25), describes the saved among the Nations (i.e., pagans) as utterly surprised by their situation.  “Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?” (Matthew 25:37-39).  The point of the parable is, once again, that though we are bound by the sacraments, God is not bound.  The sheep just thought they were doing the decent thing, but in fact they were living out the reality that Paul describes when he describes the Judgment of the Pagans:

When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus. (Romans 2:14-16)

Paul’s point is not “Ignorance saves”.  His point is that Jesus doesn’t wait around till we know his name before he starts working to save us.  And he will take any step of obedience to him, even from people who do not know his name and have only “the law written on their hearts” as a toehold to call us to more grace and more obedience to him.  He is the light the lightens every man (John 1:9), not just those who happen to know his Name.  Of course, that does not mean that those who have a glimmer of the light of the Spirit should be left in dim twilight.  It means they should have every opportunity to be brought into the full broad daylight of the Sun of Righteousness just as starving men who have gotten a whiff of the banquet and followed their noses should not be denied a seat at the feast.

The mention of all these biblical texts brings us to the next point: namely, that the truth that we are bound by the sacraments but God is not bound is not something new in the life of the Church.  For instance, the Church has, since antiquity, honored the unbaptized Holy Innocents (who also never heard of Jesus or the preaching of the gospel) as saints.  Similarly, it is St. Thomas (not Vatican II) that tells us in Summa II. 68.2.c. that God “is not bound to the visible sacraments.”

Which brings us back to the beginning, namely, that we are bound by the sacraments, even though God is not bound.  One of the things this means is that we need to pay attention to the sacrament that is the Church itself in its ordinary teaching.  No, it’s not the case that we are compelled to assent to every last syllable in the Catechism.  But we are called to be docile to the Church.  Catholic teaching is much more flexible than “That which is not forbidden is compulsory.”  But at the same time, our attitude to the Church’s ordinary teaching is not supposed to be “How little of this can I get away with believing?” or “If it doesn’t immediately make sense to me, am I free to reject it?”

We are instead, called to be challenged by Church teaching and to try to shape our lives according to it (especially when it makes us uncomfortable), not to seek to blow it off at the first opportunity.  The Church’s hope for unbaptized babies is just that: hope, not certitude.  Still less is it an invitation to ignore our Lord’s command to evangelize and baptize.  We are charged with a great commission and it is our place to carry that out.  What God may or may not choose to do in the meantime is his affair, not ours.