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The three baptisms
Fr. Joseph Pfeiffer

Originally featured in the March 1998 issue of The Angelus magazine.

In the past three years, there has been increasing discussion within traditional Catholic circles concerning the issue of the three baptisms. There have been a number of works, even videos, that have come into circulation on the topic, each of which seems to uphold essentially the same view, namely:

"unless one is baptized with the baptism of water "in re," "in actuality," that one will necessarily be damned (i.e., deprived of the beatific vision).

The proponents of this doctrine are followers of the teaching of the famous American Jesuit, Fr. Leonard Feeney, who cites the dogma Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus ( Outside the Church there is no salvation) against anyone who would claim the existence of three baptisms.

How necessary is the sacrament of baptism? What are the so-called "three baptisms"? Is this distinction of baptisms a novel distinction designed by the liberals to destroy in the minds of men any thought that the Catholic Church is absolutely necessary for salvation? Is this distinction truly contrary to the dogma Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus?

Such questions are often posed by the followers of Fr. Feeney, questions that they claim point to only one "true" answer, summarized in the following conclusion, taken from Fr. Feeney himself in his 1952 book, Bread of Life, where he states on p.25:

It is now: Baptism of Water, or damnation! If you do not desire that Water, you cannot be justified. And if you do not get it, you cannot be saved.

The necessity of baptism

Did not Our Lord Himself say that "unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost he cannot enter into the kingdom of God" [Jn. 3:5]? How necessary is it to be baptized, according to the saints and the Churchís teaching? The Council of Trent teaches in the following de fide canons:

Can. 4. If anyone shall say that the sacraments of the New Law are not necessary for salvation, but are superfluous, and that although all are not necessary for every individual, without them or without the desire for them through faith alone men obtain from God the grace of justification; let him be anathema (On the Sacraments in General, Dz. 847, emphasis added).

Can. 5. If anyone saith that baptism is optional, that is, not necessary unto salvation; let him be anathema (On the Sacrament of Baptism, Dz. 861.).

From the above teaching of Trent, which is a canonization of the teaching of St. Thomas on the necessity of baptism, it is de fide that baptism is necessary in a double way, by a necessity of precept, and more importantly, by a necessity of means. A thing is necessary for salvation by a necessity of precept, when it obliges because of the command of a superior. If the command is not known, or too difficult to fulfill, one is not obliged to fulfill it. In such a way, Sunday Mass attendance is necessary for salvation. Infants are not obliged to attend Mass, and even adults, if they are ill or a great distance from Mass, are not obliged to attend.

A thing is necessary also by a necessity of means when by its own nature or by the Divine institution it is so necessary for salvation, that without it, salvation cannot be obtained, even if it is involuntarily omitted. In this manner sanctifying grace is necessary for eternal life.

Baptism is necessary by a necessity of means for salvation by the Divine institution, since it is the God-given means of entrance into the Mystical Body of Christ, in which body alone is found sanctifying life, True Faith, Divine Hope and Divine Charity. Baptism is the doorway to the indwelling of the Holy Ghost, which is the beginning of heaven. Is baptism necessary? Yes. It is a necessary means, a means to obtain the reality of sanctifying grace, that grace found only in Christ:

He that loveth me shall be loved of my Father, and I will love him and will manifest myself in him...we will come to him and make our abode with him. (Jn. 14:21-23)

According to Trent, baptism is so necessary that it must be had, in re aut in voto - in reality or desire, before one can be in the state of Justification, or Sanctifying Grace. The Fathers of the Council state the following in Chapter 4 of Session 6:

In these words a description of the justification of a sinner is given as being a translation from that state in which man is born a child of the first Adam to the state of grace and of the "adoption of sons" [Rom.8:15] of God through the second Adam, Jesus Christ our Savior; and this translation after the promulgation of the Gospel cannot be effected except through the laver of regeneration or a desire for it as it is written: "Unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God." [Jn. 3:5]  (Dz. 796, emphasis added)

Before proceeding, please note that in this above passage, Trent interprets John (3:5) to mean that one must be baptized with water, either in reality or in desire to attain justification. All Catholics, therefore, are obliged to accept this interpretation of Trent. St. Augustine in City of God, Book 13, Ch.7, gives a similar interpretation to these words, as well as Hugh of St. Victor in his Summa Sententiarum, Tract. V. Cap. V.

Baptism of desire and blood

Since the baptism of water is so necessary as an indispensable means, what are the three baptisms? Some claim that they are a liberal phenomenon found "dogmatized" in the Baltimore Catechism and endorsed only by liberal theologians and modernists who use this distinction to take away the need for water, and the Church. The baptism of water is the first baptism. What are the other two?


The baptism of desire (flaminis) is described by the Church Doctor St. Robert Bellarmine - in accordance with St. Thomasís definition of the same - as follows:

Perfect conversion and penitence is rightly called baptism of desire, and in necessity at least, it supplies for the baptism of water. It is to be noted that any conversion whatsoever cannot be called baptism of desire; but only perfect conversion, which includes true contrition and charity, and at the same time a desire or vowed intention of baptism (De Sacramento Baptismi, Liber I cap. VI).

St. Alphonsus Ligouri defines the baptism of blood (sanguinis) as:

The baptism of blood is the shedding of blood, or death suffered for the faith or for some other Christian virtue... this baptism... remits the fault and the punishment due sin (Theologia Moralis, Tomus III, Tract II, authorís translation).

Fr. Feeney states in Bread of Life that these two "so-called" baptisms are really but two forms of the same modern diabolical hoax of desire:

Desire is a splendid diabolical word with which to confuse people. Up until recent times, even the most ambitious of the theologians of the Church never dared to use it in connection with baptism except in a study of the nature of justification, which still left the problem of salvation unsolved - salvation by "Baptism of Desire" (p. 39).


Despite the above claim of Fr. Feeney (that theologians never dared to speak of desire except as to its producing of justification), Catholic theologians, especially since the time of Hugh of St. Victor (d. 1141 AD), have unanimously referred to a threefold distinction of baptisms. In the 1000 years of Church history prior to Hugh there are also to be found amongst the Fathers, including some of the Popes, explicit references to these other two baptisms. The triple distinction of baptisms is referred to in the following manner by Hugh of St. Victor himself:

On the Triple Baptism. There is a triple baptism, the river, the flame and the blood. The river in water, the flame in penance, the blood in martyrdom [authorís translation].

Hugh wrote these words in the early 12th century and they are contained in the 177th volume of the famous Latin Patrology of J.P. Migne in the appendix of the dogmatic works of Hugh. Hugh is brief in this appendix, but in his widely read Summa Sententiarum, he devotes a chapter to proving the existence of these three baptisms from the Fathers of the Church and against the heretic Peter Abelard, who refused to believe in the baptismus flaminis referred to in English as the baptism of desire.

Hugh of St. Victor, around 1125, wrote to his friend, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, and asked him to write against the teaching of those who deny the doctrine that salvation may be obtained by desire for baptism. St. Bernard obliges in his Letter 77 to Hugh of St. Victor. St. Bernard, by far the greatest Doctor of the 12th century, writes plainly and clearly, using the authority of Sacred Scripture and the Fathers of the Church to back up his belief in what is called the baptism of desire. He states at one point in his letter:

We adduce only the opinions and words of the Fathers and not our own; for we are not wiser than our fathers... Believe me, it will be difficult to separate me from these two pillars, by which I refer to Augustine and Ambrose. I confess that with them I am either right or wrong in believing that people can be saved by faith alone and the desire to receive the sacrament, even if untimely death or some insuperable force keep them from fulfilling their pious desire (Letter 77, 1, 8).

St. Bernard continues, quoting the authority of Scripture to affirm his above assertion that Ambrose and Augustine are right in stating that desire can, in extraordinary cases, supply the want of baptism:

Notice also that when the Savior said "Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved," He cautiously and alertly did not repeat the phrase "who was not baptized," but only "Whoever does not believe will be condemned" [Mk. 16:16]."

Doctrine of theologians

In the treatises on baptism in almost any theological manual of the past several hundred years, one will find the treatment of the three baptisms under the heading of the necessity of baptism. In no case does the Catholic theologian speak of baptism of desire in such a way so as to have "still left the problem of salvation unsolved - salvation by Baptism of Desire."

All of these manuals (99.9% of which are written in Latin), like St. Bernard, quote the authority of Ambrose and Augustine, both saints and Fathers of the Church. They usually quote at least several other saintly authorities, as well as a few popes of the past two millennia in defense of the doctrine that there truly is a triple distinction of baptism, that this distinction is a Catholic distinction, that it is the constant teaching of the Church. The saints and Catholic theologians of the past millennium who write on the topic of the triple baptism are in agreement with Sts. Bernard, Ambrose, Augustine, including the Angelic Doctor himself, St. Thomas Aquinas, the Common Doctor of the Church. St. Thomas (d. 1274) wrote in support of the Fathersí and Doctorsí teaching that there are three modes of baptism, in the Tertia Pars (Q. 66, A. 11; Q. 68, A. 2) of the Summa Theologica. Concerning this great work of St. Thomas, Pope Leo XIII in Aeterni Patris writes:

The Fathers of Trent made it part of the order of the conclave to lay upon the altar, together with the code of Sacred Scripture and the decrees of the Supreme Pontiffs, the Summa of Thomas Aquinas, whence to seek counsel, reason and inspiration.

Such is the teaching of the above saints. One would think, however, from reading some of the recent works of the followers of Fr. Feeney that the doctrine of the baptism of desire was held as an obscure opinion amongst some misguided Catholic theologians and saints - saints who got it wrong in deference to St. Thomas, who believed the doctrine only in deference to St. Augustine, who held it because he once heard a sermon of St. Ambrose, "On the Death of Valentinian" in which the saint states that the unbaptized 20-year-old emperor, who was murdered in the Alps while on his way to be baptized by Ambrose, had saved his soul because of his ardent desire for baptism and his supernatural virtue. In that sermon written by St. Ambrose, he writes:

But I hear that you mourn, because he did not receive the sacrament of baptism ... Does he not have the grace that he desired; does he not have what he asked for? Certainly what he asked for, he received. And hence it says ĎBut the just man, if he be prevented with death, shall be in restí [Wis. 4:7] (PL 16, 1374).

Mr. Thomas A. Hutchinson of Charlemagne Press dismisses this teaching of St. Ambrose, and the teaching of his disciple, Augustine (City of God, Bk. 13, 7; On Baptism, Bk. 4, Ch. 22), and his disciple, St. Thomas (IIIa, Q. 66, A. 11), as a "misunderstanding" in his book Desire and Deception (1994). He states:

But he uttered in the course of this sermon three fateful sentences, upon which a whole structure of thought has since been built up... Very many people throughout the centuries, his own disciple, St. Augustine included, have taken those three terse lines to mean that St. Ambrose believed that Valentinian had been saved without actually passing through the waters of baptism. But, in fact, this is an incorrect interpretation of his writings (p. 26) ... But this brings us to Trent, and yet another Ambrose-Augustine style misunderstanding (p. 54, emphasis added).

Are we to assume that Mr. Hutchinson and like-minded followers of Fr. Feeney have a better understanding of Ambrose than Augustine, his own disciple, who was baptized by the same Ambrose? Are we to assume that the Fathers of Trent erred in seeking their "counsel, reason and inspiration" from a St. Thomas who wasnít able to grasp Augustineís "misunderstanding" of Ambroseís emotional homiletic moment? We must assume likewise that poor St. Bernard, and Hugh of St. Victor, as well as a host of other saints and Doctors before and after Aquinas, such as Sts. Bonaventure (Comment. in Libris IV Sent., Lb. IV), Robert Bellarmine and Alphonsus Ligouri (Theologia Moralis, Liber VI), based their belief in the salvific power of supernatural desire for baptism on that so-called fateful day of Valentinianís funeral?

The teaching of the popes

What do the popes teach of this baptism of desire? Do they uphold, as the followers of Fr. Feeney, that baptism of desire and blood are contrary to the dogma Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus? Innocent III, the first pope to define the dogma of Salvation only in the Church, also taught that desire for baptism supplies for the effects of baptism, in the case that water baptism cannot be received - due to impossibility, not neglect or contempt (cf. Augustine, On Baptism, Bk. IV, Ch. 22). Hence in his decree about a Jew who, in danger of death, attempted to baptize himself, since those around his death bed refused to baptize him, he decrees:

We respond that, since there should be a distinction between the one baptizing and the one baptized, as is clearly gathered from the words of the Lord, when He says to the Apostles: "Go, baptize all nations in the name etc.," the Jew mentioned must be baptized again by another, that it may be shown that he who is baptized is one person, and he who baptizes another ... If, however, such a one had died immediately, he would have rushed to his heavenly home without delay because of the faith of the sacrament, although not because of the sacrament of faith (Dz. 413, emphasis added).

Pope Innocent II taught the same with regard to a priest, when after his death it was found that he had not been baptized. He writes:

Read (brother) in the eighth book of Augustineís City of God where, among other things it is written, "Baptism is ministered invisibly to one whom not contempt of religion but death excludes." Read again the book also of the blessed Ambrose concerning the death of Valentinian where he says the same thing. Therefore, to questions concerning the dead, you should hold the opinions of the learned Fathers, and in your church you should join in prayers and you should have sacrifices offered to God for the priest mentioned (Innocent II, Letter Apostolicam Sedem, Dz. 388, emphasis added).

Notice that these popes, like St. Bernard, follow the teaching of Sts. Ambrose and Augustine. Does this mean that we can hold their teaching as optional? Are we to claim that Fr. Feeney, Mr. Hutchinson and the like have a better understanding of the relationship between Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus, and the doctrine of the necessity of baptism? That the theologians of the past millennium and doctors of the same period, when they write of baptism of desire and blood as included in Trentís notion of the necessity of baptism were not theologically bright enough to see the supposed "contradiction" between the Gospel of St. John (3:5) and desire and blood, between Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus and the same? As Catholics we submit to the unanimous teaching of our authorities.

Is baptism of desire contrary to Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus?

Bishop George Hay, Bishop of Edinburgh, Scotland (d. 1811), in his excellent Catechism, The Sincere Christian, devotes a good portion of Volume II of the work to the question of salvation out of the Church. He says that it is impossible to be saved outside the Church, because the Church is the rule or measure of faith, without which faith it is impossible to attain heaven. Natural good will is not enough to be saved. Anyone who dies with natural good will alone cannot be saved. However, if God gives the grace to embrace the true faith, and one accepts - that is baptism of desire - he is truly a member of the Church, and can therefore be saved inside the Church. In Volume I he explicitly affirms that baptism of desire saves souls who cannot receive baptism of water. Let us conclude this article with the teaching of this great bishop:

In like manner, suppose a person living in a false religion dies without giving any sign of embracing the true faith, or without being reconciled to the Church of Christ, we can never say of such an one with certainty that he is lost; all that we can say must be under the same condition as in the other case: if he has actually died as he lived, separated from the true Church of Christ and without the true faith of Christ, he cannot be saved. But if God, of His great mercy, has given him in his last moments light and grace to see and embrace the true faith, and he has corresponded with so great a favor as God requires, he will be saved....

Q. 28. But, in the case proposed, if a person in his last moments shall receive the light of faith from God, and embrace it with all his heart, would this suffice to make him a member of the true Church in the sight of God?

A. Most undoubtedly; the case is the same in this as in that of baptism. Though Jesus Christ expressly says, "Except a man be born of water and the Holy Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God" (Jn. 3:5), which establishes the absolute necessity of baptism for salvation; yet, suppose a heathen should be instructed in the faith of Christ, and embrace it with all his heart, but die suddenly without baptism ... in the above dispositions with sincere repentance and a desire for baptism, this person will undoubtedly receive all the fruits of baptism from God, and therefore is said to be baptized in desire. In like manner, suppose a person brought up in a false religion embraces the true faith, which God gives him in his last moments - as it is absolutely impossible for him in that state to join the external communion of the Church in the eyes of men, yet he certainly will be considered united to her in the sight of God, by means of the true faith which he embraces, and his desire of being united to the Church, were it in his power.  (Sincere Christian, Vol. 2, pp.322-323.). © 2013                    home                    contact