Saturday, January 12, 2008

Baptism of desire and closeness of description

Baptism is, in New Testament times, necessary for salvation. Scripture is clear on this. However, from the early centuries, the Church has recognized that baptism need not involve water--the martyr is baptized by blood even if she has not been baptized with water. This idea has been generalized into the notion of a baptism of desire. Someone who wants to be baptized but has been unable to receive the sacrament (e.g., because she is imprisoned apart from anybody willing to baptize her) is incorporated into the mystical body of Christ through her desire (when? at the hour of death? at the time when she desires it? I don't know).

A later development is that of an implicit desire for baptism (see this article by Cardinal Dulles). One philosophical difficulty, however, is in making precise sense of an "implicit" desire. One approach is to use counterfactuals. George implicitly desires baptism if it is the case that were George fully informed, he would desire baptism. This approach, however, seems to require Molinism to work if what we desire is in part dependent on our free choices. Besides, this suffers from many of the standard problems that come up in the case of hypothetical desire satisfaction accounts of welfare.

The better approach is to say that George implicitly desires baptism provided that he actually desires baptism but under some relevantly close other description. If memory serves, me this is the approach Msgr. Van Noort uses to account for the possibility of the salvation of the heathen in his superb Dogmatic Theology, though I do not recall his developing it with sufficient theoretical detail.

The problem now is of what counts as a "relevantly close" description. Van Noort's example, if memory serves, was of the non-Christian who concludes that there is a God and that he is a sinner, who is sorry for his sins and who desires God's means of forgiveness, trusting that God has such means. Unbeknownst to him, baptism is God's means of forgiveness, and so he desires baptism.

"God's means of forgiveness" is a sufficiently relevantly close description of baptism. But it does not seem true that any description will do. Suppose George, on a whim, desires to have happen to him the events described on page 113 of some random book he sees on a shelf but has never opened, so he has no idea of what is on page 113. That book happens to describe a baptism on page 113. Plausibly, that description doesn't count as relevantly close (though we could also imagine George having a religious experience that tells him that what is on page 113 is desirable, and then there might be relevant closeness, though the description will shift: what he really wants to have happen to him are "the events described on page 113 as recommended to him by God"). One reason, maybe the reason, that that description doesn't count as relevantly close is that no element of faith, hope or love need be involved if that is the description. It is just an accident--at least as regards his will (Providence can never be discounted)--that the object of desire is identical with baptism. As far as his will goes, he might as well have whimsically desired to have happen to him what is described on page 187, which let us suppose is a Satanic ritual.

So on this account, the problem of implicit desire for baptism is the problem of closeness of description. This is a problem that comes up in other contexts--it comes up in the context of love (do I really love Patrick if I "theoretically" love the smartest person in New York and Patrick is the smartest person in New York) and of double effect (if I intend to kill the first mammal I see in the zoo, and the first mammal I see and kill in the zoo is the zookeeper, did I intentionally kill a human being?) The problem of closeness of description is difficult in all of these contexts. But the fact that the problem comes up in other contexts suggests that we should not abandon the implicit desire account just because of this problem.

My earlier mention of faith, hope and love is suggestive. Desiring baptism under some descriptions is tied to faith, hope and love. Desiring it under others is not. Maybe it's not so much a question of the content of the description as of the spirit in which one desires. What makes a description relevantly close may be that it is a description of desire such that one is desiring under the description in faith, hope and love. It is necessary that the description in fact be a true description of baptism (or maybe something close enough?), but closeness is measured not in terms of content. Can such a solution be given to the other two closeness problems?


Mike Almeida said...

But it does not seem true that any description will do. Suppose George, on a whim, desires to have happen to him the events described on page 113 of some random book he sees on a shelf but has never opened, so he has no idea of what is on page 113.

I sort of like the counterfactual approach, for all of it's difficulties (which view doesn't have difficulties?). But things are much worse, it seems to me, for the description account, since it is consistent with the failure of the counterfactual account. Here's what I mean. Suppose the person (allegedly) desires baptism under the description "I want God's means of forgiveness". That seems pretty close to wanting baptism. But it doesn't matter if it isn't: pick some other nonsynonymous description that is relevantly close. It's perfectly possible that the agent desires God's means to forgiveness and (given the opacity of desire contexts) would vehemently deny that he wants to be baptised if he were fully informed. To consider another context, I might well desire the last slice of pizza, but also be fully averse to rancid food. Do I under a relevantly close description desire the slice of pizza in the box? Maybe not, no matter how close my description happens to be, since the last slice might well be rancid. In the case of baptism, the agent might have deep reservations about it, given full information and an opportunity to form his own opinion.

Alexander R Pruss said...

That's a nice objection. I don't have a good answer. I think the same issue comes up for the other issues where closeness of description seems to matter, namely that the relevant closeness of the description might be trumped by a relevantly close description connected with an opposed desire.

Your objection applies equally well to explicit desire accounts. Take the fellow who wants to be baptized but doesn't want water to be poured over him. Yes, his desires are inconsistent. And perhaps he is irrational.

It might be that the description account does also have to look at counter-desires, and the relevancy of their descriptions.

Or perhaps the thing to say is that one doesn't fully desire the last slice of pizza, but one desires the last slice of pizza ceteris paribus. Perhaps salvation through implicit desire requires that one implicitly desire the means of salvation above every other self-centered good?

But I agree that both views have their difficulties. For instance, on the counterfactual approach if cashed out in a Molinist way, whether one would accept baptism may well depend on fine details of how it is offered. Thus, it may be true that if one were offered baptism by a bearded person, one would refuse, but if one were offered baptism by a clean-shaven person, one would accept. Does one count as implicitly desiring baptism then? One solution would be to ask: If one were offered baptism, would it be by a bearded or a clean-shaven person? But that means that whether one implicitly desires baptism depends weirdly on questions about whether the people most likely to offer baptism in one's vicinity are clean-shaven or bearded.

Similar issues, I think, will come up for non-Molinists.

What one needs for the counterfactual approach is perhaps some sort of "normalcy" condition. If one were offered baptism, would one normally agree? (One might not agree early in the morning prior to having one's daily dose of caffeine, but perhaps that doesn't matter--or maybe it does?) If you like this approach, you could make the same move I make. Just as the closeness problem for descriptions comes up in other situations, so the normalcy problem for counterfactuals comes up in other situations (e.g., in dispositional analyses of things).

My own preference for avoiding the counterfactual approach is that I've grown convinced that counterfactuals are so contextually sensitive as to be an almost completely useless tool for almost anything (except perhaps rational deliberation).

Mike Almeida said...

My own preference for avoiding the counterfactual approach is that I've grown convinced that counterfactuals are so contextually sensitive as to be an almost completely useless tool for almost anything (except perhaps rational deliberation).

I agree that counterfactuals are context sensitive, but maybe for difference reasons from yours. In my view, what things in other worlds are counterparts of you is a largely indeterminate matter. And what worlds are counterparts of this world is too a largely indeterminate matter. These indeterminaces get resolved in various ways depending on context. But this is not at all lamentable. It rather reveals something very interesting about modality. In fact, this (more or less) Lewisian view of modality is immensely helpful to Anselmian theists. I'm sure it provides the modal resources to resolve some intransigent problems in philosophical theology. So naturally I find the vew appealing.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I'll want to hear more about that some day. Sounds very interesting.

Ilíon said...

Why is it that so many apparently rational people are knuckling under to "feminist theory" and writing/saying "she" in cases where the sex of the hypothetical person is unknown and/or irrelevant? In such cases, the correct English pronoun is the neutral "he."

This timorousness is both factually/grammatically wrong and utterly foolish -- for the "feminists" will not respect you one whit more for employing their vapid terminology; rather, they will respect you less and will demand further concessions seeing how easily you rolled on that one.

Ilíon said...

How about this "compromise?"

If one simply *must* use the grammatically incorrect "she" when speaking positively of some hypothetical person the sex of whom is irrelevant (for instance, when speaking of a hypothetical philosopher or a hypothetical baptismal aspirant), then ought not one to also use “she” when speaking negatively of some hypothetical person the sex of whom is irrelevant (for instance, when speaking of a hypothetical mass murderer)?

How often does one actually see this in practice? Is it not the case that hypothetical philosophers are (these days) frequently “she” (sometime, more frequently “she” than “he”) and hypothetical mass murderers are always “he?” And, if this is so (as seems to me to be the case), then is this not the very “stereotyping” to which the “feminists” pretend to be objecting?

Heath White said...

First comment: couldn't you desire baptism *quite explicitly* but in a non-saving way? Suppose I want to get baptized because I think it will make my grandma happy, or because I think it's really cool to get wet in church. Is that a means of grace? I wouldn't think so.

Second comment: Isn't what's happened just that baptism in the literal water-involving sense is the standard method for being incorporated into the people of God, or for having your original sin forgiven, or what have you. And everyone recognizes that God is not going to stand on points of ritual when someone's heart is in the right place. So "baptism of desire" is just shorthand for "having your heart in the right place", i.e. having whatever disposition that makes you a candidate for God's grace. The debates are about what that disposition is. And if that's the situation, then "baptism" is being used wholly metaphorically.

Brandon said...

I wonder if we could make the following taxonomy of baptisms of desire:

Type I. Baptism of desire is a genuine, albeit extraordinary, form of baptism.

Type II. Baptism of desire is not genuine baptism but is close enough that we may reasonably think (or hope) that God will count it as close enough.

Baptism by blood has always been treated as a case of Type I; the idea behind 'implicit desire' seems Type II. Thomas Aquinas seems to me to be unclear about whether the baptism by desire (in cases like the prison case) is Type I or Type II; sometimes it sounds like Type I, but sometimes he counts it under the principle that "with God, desire counts as the deed" (ST III.68.2). If baptism by explicit desire is Type I, then it is reasonable to think of baptism of vicarious desire (where an infant dies before its parents can baptize it) is Type I as well. One potential problem with the description account is that it becomes difficult to see why any of these would be Type I rather than Type II -- it's easier to see how the description account yields Type II.

One of the reasons for generalizing to baptism of desire in the first place seems to me to have been actually due to the sacrament of reconciliation: there are a lot of good reasons for holding that the grace of penance can be received whether confession is made actually or in desire (Trent is explicit about it, I think; Trent also allows reception of Eucharist by desire, following Aquinas). And there are important analogies between penance and baptism (Thomas Aquinas recognizes this, I notice). And thus I think, in the end, that neither the counterfactual account nor the description account is quite right; all these non-water baptisms really just recognize that grace through the sacraments is a multi-stage thing. Thus (to use an example from Aquinas) one gets forgiveness of sins even before actually confessing simply by genuinely wanting to confess; but actually confessing gives a "fuller remission" of some sort. Likewise, Christ begins to give grace in the Eucharist prior to anyone's actually taking and eating, simply in virtue of being present and the congregations desire for union with Him. Everyone gets this grace who wants to partake, even those who, for whatever reason, cannot. And so with baptism. This suggests, though, that there is perhaps no (known) principle governing it: it is a matter of the free working of Christ and His Spirit (who blows where and when He wills). But there are a lot of issues here.

Alexander R Pruss said...


Your second comment is really interesting!

I don't know what to make of the first. One issue is that I think this it is generally held that the baptism of an adult does not yield the forgiveness of sins when the adult is unrepentant. You may laugh, but I first came across this doctrine in Chaucer's The Parson's Tale, where it is attributed to Augustine (I don't know if the attribution is accurate): '[I]f a man be baptized after that he hath synned, Seint Augustyn seith, "but he be penytent for his olde synful lyf, he may nat bigynne the newe clene lif." For, certes, if he be baptized withouten penitence of his olde gilt, he receyveth the mark of baptesme, but nat the grace ne the remission of his synnes, til he have repentance verray."' I don't actually have a better reference, sorry.

I do not know whether "the mark of baptesme" counts as a valid baptism or not. The quote suggests it does, but I am not sure. If even an adult baptism might be invalid because of insufficient intentions on the part of the baptized, a fortiori that should apply to a baptism of desire where the intentions seem more significant.

Anyway, if a baptism by desire does not involve repentance, the question whether the baptism of desire is valid is moot if the person ever committed a mortal sin in life.

Alexander R Pruss said...


Thanks for these helpful ideas!

Could you give me references to the confession by desire in Aquinas? Thanks again.

Brandon said...

He mentions it briefly at ST III Supp. 6.1 and Supp. 10.1 (which means it's also in the fourth book of the Sentences commentary somewhere, too, and I've read somewhere that Bonaventure has it somewhere in the same place in his Sentences commentary, but I haven't had a chance to check those references). Penance is the easy case, but even there it's slightly tricky, though, because you can receive the grace of forgiveness prior to the sacrament simply in virtue of contrition; but this is not the sacramental grace conferred by penance, which requires beyond contrition the desire to confess. (I'm fairly sure Aquinas has this view, although I find some of what he says obscure on the matter; Trent certainly teaches this.)

With regard to my theory about the role of penance in the doctrine, having re-read the relevant texts, I might be wrong: Thomas kind-of indicates the analogy between penance and baptism in the places noted above, but the use seems to go the other way (showing penance of desire by analogy with baptism of desire). I notice, as well, that he doesn't seem to use it when actually talking about baptism by desire in the Summa (ST III.68, III.69) -- the customs of the Church with regard to adult baptism (e.g., that there's no rush to baptize adults) seem to play a larger role. So it's probably more complicated than I suggested.