Edouard Hugon, O.P. on baptism of children

by Gerardus Maiella

We begin our (hopefully weekly) feature of Manualist Mondays with an excerpt from Edouard Hugon O.P., a prominent neo-Thomist of the first half of the 20th century. Among other things, he was involved in the drafting of the 24 Thomistic Theses, and wrote a course of Thomistic philosophy (Cursus philosophiæ thomisticæ) and a commentary on the dogmatic portions of the Summa theologiæ (Tractatus dogmatici). The following text is taken from Tractatus dogmatici vol. III (1927, 5th ed.), De sacramentis in communi et in speciali, De baptismo, q. 3, pp. 230-233.



According to art. 9-12 of St. Thomas

I. There are many questions to be resolved concerning this matter. In the first place it may be asked, whether children require baptism, or whether they are able to be saved by some other remedy, and this question we have already given what is required in art. 1, where we have shown [baptism to be necessary by] the necessity of means for all, both children and adults. It is able to be asked, in addition, where children are capable of baptism, and whether it is expedient for them to be baptized, or whether one rather ought to wait until they have matured and desire baptism of themselves. To this there pertain many errors condemned by the Church. Already in the time of St. Cyprian, the bishop Fidus desired that infants ought not to be baptized unless after the eighth day; whose opinion Cyprian and the African bishops rejected. Then, in the Middle Ages, Peter de Bruis and the Waldenses contended that children are not able to receive baptism, because they are not able to believe. The Anabaptists also asserted this. Erasmus equally wished that children, when they should mature, ought to be asked whether they wish to ratify the [baptismal] promises made by their sponsors; and if they should not wish to do so, they ought not to be compelled to Christian life.

This error was revived by the Rationalists and Modernists.

II. Conclusion: Not only are children capable of baptism, but it is also necessary and fitting, that they be baptized. — Here are relevant the documents and arguments with which we showed above the necessity of baptism.

It is proved further. It is clear, from the Old Law, that the children of the Jews were circumcised before the use of reason. Thence it is concluded that infants in the New Law are held to receive baptism, which is the successor of circumcision.

Christ stated that infants are capable of the kingdom of Heaven, according to His words: For the kingdom of Heaven is for such (Matt. XIX, 14).

But he who is capable of the kingdom of Heaven is capable of baptism, without which no one is able to enter into that kingdom (John III, 5). Therefore from the words of the Lord it is inferred, that very young infants are capable of baptism.

Likewise it is licit to argue from the Apostle: It is clear, that children contract original sin from Adam (Rom. v, 12-21). But, if Adam was able to render all liable to sin, so also a fortiori Christ is able to redeem all: «Therefore, as by the offense of one, unto all men to condemnation; so also by the justice of one, unto all men to justification of life» (Rom. v, 18). Therefore much more are children able to receive grace through Christ in baptism.

The patristic tradition and the practice and declarations of the Church we have already set forth in art. 1. Yet it helps to recollect the words of Innocent III: «God forbid, that all children should perish, such a multitude of whom perish daily» (D 410); and the profession of faith imposed upon the Waldenses: «We approve, therefore, of the baptism of infants, whom, if they should die after baptism, before they committed sins, we confess and believe them to be saved» (D 424).

But the Council of Trent condemned the error of the Anabaptists and Erasmus: «If anyone says that when the little children thus baptized have grown up, they are to be asked whether they wish to ratify what their sponsors promised in their name when they were baptized; and if they answer that they are unwilling, they are to be left to their own judgment and are not, in the meantime, to be compelled to a Christian life by any penalty other than the exclusion from receiving the Eucharist and the other sacraments until they repent, let him be anathema» (Sess. VII, De bapt., can. 14).

Also serving our purpose here is the Tridentine definition: the sacraments confer grace ex opere operato to those not imposing an obstacle. But children do not impose an obstacle, which is the intention of remaining in sin; for they entirely lack their own will. Therefore the sacrament of baptism confers grace to them ex opere operato.

Just as in the natural order, children have nutriment and other necessities of life by means of others, so in the supernatural order they receive salvation through an act of the Church, they intend through the act of those by whom they are offered and believe through the Church. «Now the faith of one, indeed of the whole Church, profits a child through the operation of the Holy Ghost, Who unites the Church and communicates the goods of one to another» (ST IIIa, q. 68, a. 9 ad 2).

III. On the children of Jews and other infidels (art. 10). — Durandus held that baptism, conferred upon the children of Jews, the parents being unwilling, was invalid (IV Sent., d. 4, q. 6, a. 13). Contrariwise, the Scotists assert that the children of unbelievers, subject to a believing prince, are able licitly to be baptized, even when the parents are unwilling, but the prince should provide lest greater evils follow thence (In IV Sent., l. 4, q. 9).

St. Thomas solved the question best: they are indeed baptized validly, but it would be contrary to natural justice if children, not yet having the use of free will, should be thus baptized, just as if someone having the use of reason were baptized unwillingly.

The Church has approved and sanctioned the teaching of St. Thomas. Many declarations have been advanced concerning this matter, but the most celebrated is the decision of Benedict XIV, in his letter of 28 Feb 1747, and in his letter of 15 Dec 1751.[1]

The opinion of Durandus, Cajetan says, is most foreign to reason, and Benedict XIV calls it singular, which has never found approval or esteem. No indeed, the Holy Office, against it, has many times decreed that baptism conferred in this manner is valid: thus the decrees of 3 Mar 1633, 30 Mar 1638, 23 Dec 1698, and 8 Mar 1708. Indeed and in fact, a sacrament is valid provided that there is observed the due application of the matter and form by a minister who has the intention of doing what the Church does. But the will of unwilling parents does not change the due application of the matter and form, nor the intention of the minister. Therefore.

But the opinion of the Scotists is rejected by Benedict XIV, who follows and claims the opinion of St. Thomas.

He teaches that, generally, children ought not to be baptized when their parents are unwilling. It is obviously of natural law, as the Angelic Doctor here explains, that children not be taken away from the care of their parents. But, if children are baptized in this manner, they then ought to be taken from the care of their parents. Therefore the natural right would be injured if they were baptized, their parents being unwilling. It would also be dangerous, St. Thomas adds, to baptize the children of infidels in such a manner, which children would easily return to infidelity on account of the natural affect to their parents.

Yet if the children have been baptized, they are on account of baptism a thing of the Church (res Ecclesiae), they are joined to the body of the Church, and the Church obtains the right over them; and, that she might provide for their spiritual safety, she is able to separate them from their parents. Thus teaches Benedict XIV in the document already cited, which doctrine Pius IX confirmed in practice in the very famous case of Edgardo Mortara.

All theologians agree that children at the moment of death ought to be baptized, even if the parents are unwilling, because then the obstructions indicated above are not present, and the salvation of the soul ought to have superior force; and they are equally able to be baptized, if one of the parents should consent, whether the father or the mother, or the grandfather or grandmother in defect of the mother, because then the natural right which is in them is committed to the Church.

The whole doctrine is best recovered in the Code. «Can. 750, §1. An infant of unbelievers, even when the parents are unwilling, is licitly baptized, when he is in that critical point of life, that he may reasonably be foreseen to be about to die, before he should attain the use of reason.

§2. Outside the danger of death, provided that there is provision for his Catholic education, he is licitly baptized:

1° if his parents or guardians, or at least one of these, consent.

2° if the parents, that is, the father, grandfather, grandmother, or guardians, are lacking, or have lost the right over him, or are in no wise able to exercise that right.

Can. 751. Concerning the baptism of infants of two heretics or schismatics, or of two Catholics who have lapsed into apostasy, heresy, or schism, the norms established in the above canon generally should be observed.»

[1] That document is related in the Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, «Baptéme des infidèles», col. 342ss.