Questions Answered

Questions Answered by Mullady artwork on Baptism

Photos of Baptism by water, desire, and blood—Painting by
Guido Reni (1611) Massacre of the Innocents.

Question: Please distinguish between baptism by water, desire, and blood.

Answer: Since the Second Vatican Council, there has been a lot of misunderstanding about the necessity of baptism for salvation. Prior to the Council, theologians had adopted an understanding of the relation of human nature to grace, which made it clear that baptism by water was necessary for salvation. This was based on a strict division between nature and grace which went so far as to suggest that human nature had one perfection without grace, and another perfection with grace. Human nature could have two ends, and they were not strictly related to each other. Today, most theologians recognize that the theory on which this very strict division was based is spurious.

Many of the influential theologians at the Council rightly thought that this theory of the two ends compromised the ability of the Church to deal with problems like the relation of the Church to the state, characterized by the demise, over the last two hundred years, of countries with established religions. This led to an attempt to make nature and grace intrinsically related to each other. Also, there was a general tendency at the Council, motivated by an ecumenical intention, to emphasize the places where other religions agree with Catholicism. Extremes often breed extreme responses, and this, coupled with a general desertion of Scholastic logic and metaphysics, led to a blurring of the line between nature and grace. One practical fruit of this extreme position, which was not ever taught by the Council, but became common afterwards, was to undercut the doctrine of Original Sin and, thus, the necessity of baptism. Couples in baptismal preparation were sometimes told that, since babies did not have sins, the only reason for infant baptism was to formally make the infant a member of the Church. Even atheists were declared, by some, to actually be saved because they were denying ultimate things, and so implicitly denying believers. Baptism by desire was interpreted as saving everyone, even infants, without being baptized. This is not the teaching of the Church, and while these thinkers may have been motivated by the best of intentions, these intentions led to an extreme position which actually had the effect of leading people to delay baptism, or just look on it as a cultural accretion.

The Church has always clearly stated that as a result of Original Sin, every person—with the exception of the Blessed Virgin and (traditionally) John the Baptist—is born into the world without sanctifying grace. This grace is necessary to fulfill human nature because of the intellect in man. This grace comes exclusively through the Redeemer because of his death on the cross. He himself instituted baptism by water while on earth. By it, each person can share in the effects of his atonement on the cross. The Church is commissioned to preach this doctrine, and to baptize by water, which communicates not only forgiveness of sins, but also justification by the presence of the Holy Spirit. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” (Mt. 28:19) This is baptism in the Holy Spirit for a Catholic.

Everyone who is saved must be conformed to Christ. This conformity must be explicit if it can be explicitly known, and it is completed by baptism, which is commissioned by Our Lord. If the person cannot be baptized because there is no one to do it, or if the person cannot explicitly know that the Church is the means of salvation because of ignorance the person cannot remedy (invincible ignorance), then insofar as a person does what they are able (quod est in se), they can then experience grace. If neophytes preparing for baptism unexpectedly die, they are saved. Notice that this depends on free will, and is only true of someone who has reached the age of reason. This is baptism by desire. It must be completed in a baptism by water if this is known, and possible.

The third form of baptism is that which is accomplished by blood. This regards those who also cannot experience baptism by water, but give their lives for Christ in martyrdom. Again, catechumens who believe, but have not been baptized by water, would receive this kind of baptism by blood if they were martyred. The Church even extends this to the Holy Innocents who died in the place of Christ.


Question: Is it just to determine who will get a job or a service from society based on the person? Should not everyone in society be absolutely equal in what they receive?

Answer: The sin of respect of persons is against distributive justice. This is a part of the virtue of justice, which is practiced by any authority who distributes the goods and services of the community to those in need. The most common form of justice is commutative justice which is between equals in a society, and implemented by a proportion of strict equality. If I take a loaf of bread from the store, I must pay a just price for this transaction to the owner. This is based on the arithmetic of proportion: quid pro quo (thing to thing). The just price of the loaf of bread would be the same whether it was paid by peasant or prince, private citizen or president.

Distributive justice, on the other hand, is about distributing favors in a community according to contribution to the common good or need. Aquinas says: “in an aristocracy, this is judged by virtue, in an oligarchy by wealth, and in a democracy by freedom.” (Summa Theologiae, II-II, 61, 2 ad corp.) The strict determination of rights is thus not determined by thing-to-thing, but rather by the proportion of contribution or need. This is according to a geometric proportion. The standard for this is obviously not measured by thing-to-thing, but by the relation of the thing to the person. Thus, all do not enjoy a strict equality in this.

If an authority, like an employer, decides one candidate for a position is better qualified for the job because of merit, this is in accord with distributive justice because it is based on the standard by which this is judged. Different people, then, would experience the goods of the community according to a proportionately different way depending on their contribution to the society. But if the job were given to someone who was less qualified, just because he was John Doe (or she was Sally Smith) owing to their family ties, for example, then this would be unjust discrimination because it has nothing to do with the good providing the service. The same would be true of the distribution of tax burdens, or alms, or anything else.

Holiness, or personal morality, cannot be a standard, as such, for determining such things either, because this does not respect the human wisdom often necessary to provide a given good or service in filling a certain need. In communities, the holiest person is not always the person best suited to exercise authority in the distribution of goods, since they may be good at judging themselves, but have no practical sense.

The exception to this would be in passing judgement on another in a civil suit, for instance, because though commutative justice is involved here, the act of the judge is actually distributive because he is adjudicating the case in the name of the community. The same principles apply here, as in any authority.

So, it is not discrimination to offer a good to one, and not to another, if the common good is involved, and the judgement is based on who can better serve the common good. On the other hand, if the judgement is just based on factors which have nothing to do with this, then the sin of respect of persons occurs. Social justice is a union of the legal justice—which motivates the making of good laws, and distributive justice—which applies the law to a correct sharing of goods and responsibilities.

Fr. Brian Mullady, OP About Fr. Brian Mullady, OP

Fr. Brian T. Mullady, OP, entered the Dominican Order in 1966 and was ordained in 1972. He has been a parish priest, high school teacher, retreat master, mission preacher, and university professor. He has had seven series on EWTN and is the author of two books and numerous articles, including his regular column in HPR, “Questions Answered.”

Please send your questions to:
Fr. Brian T. Mullady, O.P.
375 NE Clackamas St.
Portland, OR 97232
Or please see the Ask a Question page to send it online.


  1. Avatar Martin B. Drew says:

    Augustine bishop of Hippo teaches about infant baptism , the Sacrament given with water yet the person has not yet studied about the Faith. An adult receiving the Sacrament with water also is in infant baptism. having not studied the Faith of the catholic Church .Baptism as Sacrament is with water and the words of the Trinity That is a direct answer. That of desire is one who is studying the theology of the Church and asks for the sacrament when one believes the truth . Of blood is at death one asks for baptism. The theology of Baptism the sacrament of initiation is necessary to receive the other sacraments. Depending on a persons education, or talents , or gifts a choice is made . No two persons look the same as well as in work . Yet justice always must help a person to be outstanding and accepted . The virtue of love and goodness must always be present.