Manualist Monday: Cardinal Billot on the baptism of children, and ecclesiastical jurisdiction over the baptized

by Gerardus Maiella

Having returned from our holiday “break”, we present for this Manualist Monday another text on baptism, from the esteemed traditional Jesuit theologian Louis Cardinal Billot’s commentary on the Tertia Pars of St. Thomas. This excerpt, consisting of the two Theses concerning pædobaptism, deals directly with the topic of ecclesial jurisdiction over all the baptized, hence our interest in it. We think it good for the reader to pay special attention to the very important argument that the Cardinal makes in footnote 6, regarding the causal rôle played by human consent in the reception of baptism and the sacramental character thereof.

Card. Louis Billot, De Ecclesiae sacramentis vol. 1, In IIIam, Q. 68, Theses XXVII-XXVIII, pp. 267ff.


(Art. 9).

The children of the faithful are to be baptized. But those baptized in infancy, when they shall have come to the age of discretion, do not have the right of ratifying by their own decision that which the patrons promised in their name, but, whether they wish it or not, they remain perpetually bound by all the obligations of Christians.

Concerning the baptism of infants, the Anabaptists have erred most of all, who, led by Muncer (in 1522) began to teach that no one is rightly baptized unless of adult age, and thus not only did they abstain from baptizing children, but they even rebaptized those who had been baptized as children, whence they claimed the name of Anabaptists for themselves. These ones, amongst all the initiators of the Pseudo-Reformation, stand out for their truculent fierceness; undaunted, they have with implacable logic taken the principles of Protestantism to their ultimate conclusions; and in them, finally, as Bellarmine notes,[1] there appears the greatest rage of Satan against the human race, who, not being content that innumerable souls of adult men have perished through the Lutherans and the Sacramentarians, wished also that the souls of infants should perish through the Anabaptists. But Erasmus, the guide and teacher of all the liberals of our age, inasmuch as he was imbued with the principles of the Protestants wherever, introduced another error. For he taught, that men baptized in infancy, when they had reached manhood, should be asked whether they would ratify what had been promised in their name in baptism; and if they should refuse, they ought to be dismissed free, and not be subjected in any way to the coercion of the Church. Against all of these errors, there advance the Tridentine anathemas, sess. VII, can. 11-14 on baptism: «If anyone should say, that no one is to be baptized, save at that age at which Christ was baptized, or in the very article of death, let him be anathema. — If anyone should say, that little children, having received baptism, for that they have not the act of believing, are not to be accounted amongst the faithful, and furthermore, when they shall arrive at the years of discretion, are to be rebaptized, or that it is preferable that the baptism of such be omitted than that they, not believing by their own act, be baptized in the faith alone of the Church, let him be anathema.» Cf. also the Second Council of Malta, can. 2,[2] and the Fourth Lateran Council, cap. Firmiter.[3]

Moreover, if we speak at present of the children of believers, the reason is not that others are excluded, but that a special question will be considered concerning these others, as has been premised above.


That children are capable of baptism, is demonstrated by many arguments. — Firstly, because they were capable of circumcision, which was the baptism of the Old Testament, just as baptism is the circumcision of the New, as it is said in Col 2:11.[4]Secondly, because otherwise those dying before the years of discretion would not have any means of salvation, yet since the Lord says: “Suffer the little children, and forbid them not to come to me: for the kingdom of heaven is for such.” — Thirdly, because since little ones die in Adam, much more can they be vivified in Christ; which would not be if they were incapable of baptism. — Fourthly, because concerning this dogma, there is had the authority of most ancient tradition, the monuments of which are most of all extant in the Pelagian controversy.[5]Fifthly, finally, it is clear from the nature of the thing, if the principles of Catholics are yet supposed. For if someone should set down, with the Protestants, that the sacraments are efficacious only to the degree to which they stir up faith, from which alone there is had justification, it immediately follows that children are incapable of any sacrament; and hence it is clear that the Anabaptists have been consistent with themselves, but the Lutherans, when they acknowledge the validity of pædobaptism, assert things which are contradictory and vie with themselves. But in Catholic doctrine, which considers the sacraments as instruments of God for conferring the grace of justification ex opere operato, there cannot be a difference between adults and infants, except that in little ones there is no possible obstacle, from the very fact that they do not have the use of their own will; but in adults, the obstacle is not removed except by means of positive acts.

But neither can the obligation which is born from baptism, as it pertains to infants, pose an obstacle: so much because it is most false that obligations depend upon the consent of the human will; as because, even in those obligations which spring forth from a pact or contract, sometimes the will of a child is able to be supplied through the will of another, just as is apparent in the regulations of all laws which provide for the temporal good of children, the tutors and administrators of goods for them. How much more, therefore, are they able to have, who respond in their name and contract obligations for them in the order for the good of eternal salvation! Yet I should say this according to the fullness of law; for it ought by no means to be conceded, that the obligations of baptism depend upon the consent of our will as upon a principle through which they are induced; concerning which, see below, in the second part of the proposition.

And thus one ought to doubt not at all that children are capable of baptism. But this is not enough. For in addition, even prescinding from the danger of death, they are baptized most fittingly and with the greatest profit to them. The reason is that, in baptism, aside from the habit of sanctifying grace, they receive the infused habits of the theological and moral virtues, and especially the habit of faith. By this it happens that when the dawning of reason begins, they lay hold of the truth of faith connaturally, and are more founded and rooted in it, the infused light itself concurring with external instruction, which light is a certain habitual inclination to its proper act. “It was also fitting,” St. Thomas says in the present place, “that children be baptized, so that, nourished from childhood in the things of Christian life, they might persevere more firmly in it, according to Prov. 22:6: A young man according to his way, even when he is old he will not depart from it.” Hence Christian parents, as deputed by a special sacrament to educate the progeny for Christ and the Church, are bound to bring forward their children to be baptized; no indeed, a consuetude which obtains the force of law, does not permit that baptism be deferred without evident necessity.

Thus therefore it is concluded against the Anabaptists; now the error of Erasmus is to be excluded.


In the first place it ought to be recalled, from the things said previously concerning the character of the sacraments, that the baptismal character is essentially a deputation to divine cult in the Christian religion; a deputation, I say, induced by God Himself, the sacrament mediating after the manner of an instrument. Now he who is subjected to the divine cult according to the rite of the Christian religion, certainly is propitious to the divine cult in the Catholic Church, in which alone is the Christian religion. Hence whosoever receives the baptismal character, not by his own will,[6] nor by the will of other men, but by the divine will and law is obliged to the profession of Christianity, and is made subject to its hierarchy,[7] to which Christ committed its successions, so that it might rule the society of the faithful. But someone is able to be liable to the jurisdiction of some society according to a twofold reason and title: namely, either as a member, or as a deserter and contumacious. And baptism indeed, by reason of the character, has the force of incorporating a man to the true Church as a member, according to the Florentine Council, in the Decree for the Armenians: “Through it (Baptism) we are effected members of Christ, and of the body of the Church.” But if by external profession of heresy or schism, through which the bond of unity is sundered, a man should impede the aforesaid efficacy of baptism, he ceases to be a member of the body of the Church in act, and all benefits conjoined to this quality he ipso facto loses; yet is he not unbound from the law of Christianity, nor in any manner removed from ecclesiastical jurisdiction, because so long as the character remains, just so remains the ordination from Christ Himself by which he is made over to the Christian cult. It remains, therefore, that he be subject to the Church as a deserter, whether formal, or certainly material.[8]

It should once again be noted, that although the entire obligation of Christianity follows the character, and perdures immovably, the character itself indelibly inhering, nevertheless it was most fittingly established, that previous to the reception of the sacrament, there should intercede, on the part of the one being baptized, a solemn promise to Christ and the Church of preserving the Christian faith; it was also most fittingly provided, that if any, on account of age, were not be able to respond, patrons should respond in their place. Not, by any means, that the bond of obligation should depend upon a promise of this sort as a necessary condition, but because by means of the preceding solemn pact, men are more agreeably and efficaciously induced to observe that to which they are obliged by another. For which end the substitution of patrons serves no little thing, when the matter is concerning small children, since it is natural to man, that a promise made by his parents or tutors, in his name and for his greater good, when he was not yet of his own right, should have the same place as if he personally had consented.

Which things having been set down, the argument is: The obligations of baptism do not depend upon any human promise, but on the reception only of the sacrament, in which a man, through Christ the supreme Lord and King, is into perpetuity made over to the divine cult in the Christian, that is, the Catholic, religion. Therefore, promises made by patrons in the name of an infant do not have themselves as that from which the induced obligation depends, but as a simple and solemn promise by which someone, in place of a ward, pledges his observation to that which he will be obliged from another person. Therefore, the obligations of baptism persist independently of any ratification, and equally there persists the subjection to the Church.[9] Whence the ratification itself is not able to be in the will of the one baptized, since no one may have the right of calling into question the provocation of obligation with which he should will or refuse; he is immovably obliged. Firstly because, since baptism is necessary for salvation, every man is proximately obliged to receive baptism, and by this, he is remotely obliged to live according to all the laws of the Church. Secondly because the restriction of liberty, or rather of license, in respect of those things which are of necessity for salvation, does not bring about a worse condition, but rather a happier, since in this way a man has greater security against eternal damnation, which evil is irreparable, and the greatest of all. Concerning these things, Bellarmine ought to be consulted, in De baptismo ch. 8.[10]

But you will object: Innocent III, cap. Maiores de bapt., defines as invalid the baptism of an adult who had not the will of receiving the sacrament, which definition is supported by this reason: “They who had been immersed, unwilling and reluctant, at least by reason of the sacrament would appertain to ecclesiastic jurisdiction; whence reasonably would they be compelled to observe the rule of the Christian faith. However, it is contrary to the Christian religion, that one always unwilling and inwardly contradicting should be compelled to receive and observe Christianity.”[11] Therefore, the Pontiff judges that a man, not consenting by his own will to baptism, should be said to be free from all obligations of baptism, and would only unjustly and with injury be coerced to observe Christian law.

I respond: Therefore, rather, the Pontiff thinks that whosoever has received the sacrament, and has been insigned with the character, ipso facto pertains to ecclesiastic jurisdiction, and is reasonably to be compelled to observe the rule of Christian faith. But judging the conditions of the validity of the sacrament, he says that the reluctance of will in adults, with which the unwilling were baptized, is injurious. Of which thing he presents this reason, that it is contrary to the Christian religion, that someone be compelled to become Christian through coercion; but if baptism were able to be conferred upon one unwilling and reluctant, it would be the same as if a man were able to be coerced to embrace the religion of Christ, since, the character being received, immediately he would become of the forum of the Church. Hence, far from the Pontiff saying that the obligations of baptism depend upon acceptation and human promise, rather, he clearly establishes that every baptized person, by the fact alone that he is baptized, is by no means free from the bond, even in respect of ecclesiastic power. For the rest, the difference always ought to be attended to which exists between those who are without, and those who are within. Christ did not wish that his religion be propagated through force, but by persuasion alone, nor did He bestow any power of jurisdiction in respect of those who have not yet entered into the Church through the door of baptism; for which reason in the conversion of infidels, it ought only to be accomplished in a spirit of mildness. But different is the condition of those who by reason of the sacrament are liable to ecclesiastic power; for with these, very well-known documents of canon law bear witness to the fact that such are able to be urged even by salutary coercion.

Note. In the responses to the first and third objections, St. Thomas says that children are baptized in the faith of the Church; which manner of speaking also often occurs in St. Augustine, whose doctrine the Angelic Doctor followed, and indeed, Trent also, as seen above. Furthermore, the sense of this locution is, firstly, that the sacrament which is applied to children is from its nature a sign of the Church’s faith in Christ and the most holy Trinity; secondly, that the faith of the Church in the case is the reason why a salutary remedy is employed for these ones; finally, that the Church provides to them some believers who promise fidelity to Christ for them, and pledge all the things which adult catechumens customarily pledge by themselves. See the entirety of Bellarmine’s De baptismo, cap. 11.[12]


(Art. 10).

A case of necessity being excluded, it is not permitted to baptize the children of infidels, their parents being unwilling. Yet if in any way it should happen that the sacrament is ministered to them, ipso facto they are constituted under the tutelage and rule of the Church.

St. Thomas also treats of this question in IIaIIæ, q. 10, art. 12, in which place he first of all gives the authority of the Church, concerning which he has these words, worthy by any consideration: “I respond that, it should be said that the consuetude of the Church holds the highest authority, which consuetude ought to be emulated in all things, because the very teaching of the Catholic doctors has its authority from the Church. Whence, one ought more to abide by the authority of the Church, than by the authority either of Augustine, or of Jerome, or of any doctor whatsoever. But this was never the custom of the Church, that the children of Jews, their parents unwilling, should be baptized, although there have been in times past many very powerful Catholic princes, such as Constantine and Theodosius, with whom most holy bishops were familiar, such as Sylvester to Constantine, and Ambrosius to Theodosius: who in no way would have omitted to procure this from these princes, if it were consentaneous to reason. And so it seems perilous to introduce anew this assertion, that, beside the consuetude hitherto observed in the Church, the children of Jews should be baptized against their parents’ consent.”

Now the intrinsic reason is, that injustice ought to be done to no man. But injustice would be done to infidels, if their children, themselves being unwilling, should be baptized. Therefore the children of infidels ought not to be baptized against the will of the parents, even under the pretext of good, since the end does not justify the means. The minor is proved, for to thrust oneself, without competent authority, into the ruling and care of those who are constituted under the power of another, is to violate the right of that other, and in consequence, to do injustice to him. But whoever baptizes the child of infidels, the parents being unwilling, thrusts himself thus without authority, etc. And indeed, one of this sort who baptizes, either has this authority immediately from God, or mediately from the Church. Not mediately from the Church, however, since She lacks power over those who are without; nor immediately from God, because God is considered either as author of nature, or as author of grace. As author of nature, He placed children under the providence and rule of their parents; as author of grace, he conferred no authority for the administration of the sacraments, beside that which is in and from the Church. Nor does that verse from the Gospel support this assertion: Going therefore, teach ye all nations, baptizing them, for, since all things which are from God are ordered, the precept and authority of baptizing ought to be understood under the condition of observing due order; namely, such that adults never be coerced by force to receive baptism, and children who are not yet of their own right, not be baptized against the will of the parents, if the parents, inasmuch as they exist without, are entirely outside the jurisdiction of the Church, and ought not to be subjected to Her coercion.

There is also a second reason, for either the sacrament would be exposed to profanation—if a child, insigned with the Christian character, should remain under the power of an infidel father—or there would be a cause unjustly posed from which there would need to follow the removal of the child from his father’s education, if the laws of the Church are to be observed which require a baptized child to be established in Christian custom.

I have said, if the laws of the Church are to be observed which require a child, even baptized wrongfully, to be educated in a Christian manner. And rightly indeed it is thus enjoined, for, that baptism should be conferred illicitly, does not prevent him from being conferred validly; nor does it prevent all the things, which by divine right are imported through impression of the character, from attending—namely, the obligation to Catholic worship and subjection to the Church, in which there results correlatively the power over the child, and the duty with respect to him. Then, therefore, the right of the Church prevails over the paternal right, because it is of a higher order, and looks to the end to which all other ends are at least indirectly subordinated. Wherefore, in a collision of rights, it is necessary that the right of the parents be removed. For which reason it happens, that although there should be an illicit administration of baptism, nevertheless in the Church there resides the authority of employing the means by which the peril of perversion might be removed from a Catholic child.[13]

You will object against the prior assertion: The right which a child has to receive baptism, ought to prevail over the right which a father has over his child, because children are more independent from their parents in those things which look to God, as Christ our Lord taught by word and example in Luke 2.

I respond to the first part, by denying the supposition, because a child has no right to receive baptism beside and contrary to the order established by God Himself: which order requires that children remain under the providence and disposition of the parents until they should arrive at the age of adulthood. And similarly, to the second part I say that children are independent from their parents in those things which look to God, so far as they neither ought to obey if the parents should enjoin something contrary to a precept of God, nor even do they require their consent in order to follow the calling of God. But these things are concerned with children already having the use of their own will, and thus they do not touch on the present article of the question at all.

You will object against the posterior assertion: Either the right of the parents is violated, or not. If it is not violated, therefore unjustly is it said that it is illicit to baptize the children of infidels against the will of the parents. If it is violated, therefore it is absurd to say that the Church is able to remove the one baptized from paternal instruction, because no one can be deprived of his right by an unjust action.

I respond: The right of the parents is violated, but I deny the consequence. To the reason added, I distinguish. No one is able to be deprived of his right by an unjust action directly, as by a proper principle of loss of right, I concede. Indirectly, as by that which induces another cause, to which there follows a prevailing right by which a right of an inferior order is destroyed, I deny. And thus it is in the present matter, for the right which the infidel parents have of educating the child is not destroyed by reason of the unjust and inordinate action of the minister, but by reason of the sacramental character by which the child is made a Catholic, and to that extent begins to pertain to the providence and forum of the Church.

You will insist: Grace does not destroy nature, and thus the natural law is not dissolved through baptism. But the natural law assigns to parents power over their children. Therefore a child can never be taken away from the paternal power by reason of the sacrament.

I respond: I concede the major, and I distinguish the minor. The natural law assigns to parents power over their children, and at the same time assigns to the Church power over the baptized, I concede. Otherwise, I deny. Wherefore I distinguish the consequence. Therefore, a child cannot by reason of the sacrament be taken away from the paternal power, as if the father, by reason of the sacrament, had lost his right over the child, I concede the consequence. The child cannot be taken away for this reason, that in the collision of paternal right with the duty of the Church, the right of the Church prevails in the order for Christian education of the child, I deny the consequence.[14]

You will again insist: It would follow that the Church has the right of taking away from paternal power all the children of heretics and schismatics, that the Catholic education might be provided for them; which obviously is absonous.

I respond by conceding the sequel, if we speak here of the very right itself. But now, the exercise of this right often is entirely impossible; moreover, in these circumstances, in which it would bring with it a greater evil, or would impede a greater good, it is preferable to omit it, according to the general dictate of prudence. Yet divine Providence has permitted that in these our times, certain examples be given, so much for the manifestation of the sanctity and efficacy of the sacrament, as for the attestation of the right and office which the Church has regarding the baptized.

Note. — When it is said that it is not licit to baptize the children of infidels, the parents being unwilling, it is clear that this prohibition does not concern exposed infants, because regarding these, the parents have renounced their right. Again, there is always an exception to be made for the article of death, for just as in extreme corporal necessity all goods are common, so in extreme spiritual necessity, an infant is constituted under the care and providence of anyone whosoever. For this reason, the order of natural law is not overturned if, absent the consent of the parents, and even against their express will, an infant is baptized. No indeed, the law of charity strictly obliges one to procure the remedy of salvation, if this can happen without sacrifice of a greater good; concerning which, see the authors of moral theology.

Note, furthermore, that madmen and those who are insane, if they be perpetually such, are of the same condition as infants. Whence nothing is required on their part, whether for validity or for the fruit of baptism. But if sometimes they have had the use of reason, for validity it is necessary that they should have at some time the unretracted intention of receiving baptism; but for the fruit of justification, it is necessary that there be in them habitually the dispositions requisite in other adults.

[1] De sacramento baptismi, lib. I, cap. 8, in Disputationum Roberti Bellarmini Politiani, S.R.E. Cardinalis, De controversiis christianæ fidei, adversus huius temporis hæreticos (ed. Tri-Adelphorum, 1613) vol. III, coll. 240ff.

[2] D 65.

[3] D 357.

[4] “In whom also you are circumcised with circumcision not made by hand, in despoiling of the body of the flesh, but in the circumcision of Christ: buried with him in baptism, in whom also you are risen again by the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him up from the dead.”

[5] Elegantly does St. Augustine express it, in De baptismo, lib. IV, cap. 23: “The entirety of the Church holds to what has been handed down, when little infants are baptized, who certainly are not yet able to believe with the heart unto justice, and to confess with the mouth unto salvation…; yea indeed, who by crying and wailing when the mystery is celebrated amongst them, drown out the mystical words with their voices; and yet no Christian shall say that they are baptized in vain.” ML 43, coll. 174.

[6] Nor does it matter that in an adult there is required free consent in order that he receive the sacrament. For that consent is not required as causing the sacrament or the effect of the sacrament, but only as removing the impediment of a contrary will, for that the divine law has set down that one who is unwilling would not be a fitting subject of a sacrament. But if consent is not in any way the cause of the character, even the obligations which follow the character do not have their principle in the consent of man, but in the will alone of God who is the supreme lord of all.

[7] Note that hierarchy is not taken now in the same sense as it was taken previously, in the treatise De sacramentis in communi, thes. XI. For hierarchy, or sacred supremacy, is taken in a threefold way. First, purely actively, and thus it is Christ alone who is the highest and supreme hierarch. Second, passively, for the whole complex of the multitude of Christians subject to the supremacy and governance of Christ. Thirdly, in a mixed sense, at once passively and actively, for the order alone of sacred ministers who, in this very multitude liable to the governance of Christ, have themselves actively toward the rest, that is, toward the laity; the clerical order, I say, through which the Christian people is ruled, and thus the word is taken in the present matter.

[8] Hence that famous epistle which, in the time of persecution in Germany, the immortal Pontiff Pius IX sent to Emperor Wilhelm:

“Toutes les démarches du gouvernement de Votre Majesté tendent depuis un certain temps, et cela de plus en plus, à la destruction du catholicisme. Lorsque je réfléchis sur les motifs qui ont pu amener un plan de conduite aussi rigoureux, j’avoue que je n’en puis trouver. D’autre part, j’entends dire que Votre Majesté n’approuve point cette manière d’agir de son gouvernement… Mais s’il est vrai que Votre Majesté ne l’approuve point…, Votre Majesté a-t-elle la certitude que ces mesures amèneront un autre résultat que l’ébranlement de son trône? Je parle courageusement, car la vérité est mon bouclier, et je le fais pour accomplir jusqu’au bout un de mes devoirs, qui m’oblige à dire la vérité à tous, et par conséquent à celui-là même qui n’est pas catholique; car quiconque a été baptisé, appartient en quelque mesure au Pape, (ce n’est pas ici le lieu de l’expliquer). Je suis convaincu que Votre Majesté accueillera ces remarques avec sa bienveillance ordinaire, et donnera des ordres appropriés à la circonstance dont il s’agit. En attendant.., etc. Du Vatican, le 7 Aout 1873. Pius Pp. IX.”

[9] It would not be similar of him who had been ordained a priest in infancy, as regards the obligation of celibacy; for the obligation of celibacy does not follow the priestly character per se, but was annexed to it by ecclesiastical law. But the Church does not have the power of imposing this law absolutely and antecedently, but to those only who receive sacred Order, knowing proper what is the onus adjoined to it.

[10] De sacramento baptismi, lib. I, cap. 8, in Disputationum Roberti Bellarmini Politiani, S.R.E. Cardinalis, De controversiis christianæ fidei, adversus huius temporis hæreticos (ed. Tri-Adelphorum, 1613) vol. III, coll. 240ff.

[11] Corpus iuris canonici (ed. Friedberg), vol. II, Decr. Greg. IX, lib. III, tit. XLII, cap. III, coll. 646.

[12] De sacramento baptismi, lib. I, cap. 8, in Disputationum Roberti Bellarmini Politiani, S.R.E. Cardinalis, De controversiis christianæ fidei, adversus huius temporis hæreticos (ed. Tri-Adelphorum, 1613) vol. III, coll. 254ff.

[13] Cf. La Civiltà Cattolica, series 3, vol. 12, p. 385ff, Il piccolo neofito Edgardo Mortara.

[14] “Non è violato il diritto (paterno), ma resta eliso da un maggiore…Ora qual cosa più commune e più volgare in ogni maniera di società, che questa collisione di diritti, per la quale uno resta in certa guisa obliterato e inefficace per la manifesta prevalenza di un altro, sopratutto allorchè questo è di ordine superiore?” La Civilta Cattolica, loc. cit.