Can the Pope Declare an Unbaptized Infant a Martyr and a Saint?

The tradition of the Church requires humility on our part—the humility not to say we know anything more or anything less than what we certainly know.

On September 10, 2023, a Mass was held in Markowa, Poland, during which the Ulma family in its entirety was beatified: Józef and Wiktoria and six of their children mentioned by name: Stanisława, Barbara, Władysław, Franciszek, Antoni, and Maria. Wiktoria was in the third trimester of pregnancy with a seventh child. The Nazis killed all of them on March 24, 1944, for the “crime” of sheltering Jews. (Their eight Jewish guests were also killed.) On the same day in Rome, Pope Francis, in his Angelus address, said that the Ulma’s “seven children” had been beatified. 

We rejoice in the recognition of the heroism of this faithful Polish family, but the pope’s words do raise a theological question: Does a pope have authority to declare an unbaptized infant, whether in the womb or newly born, a martyr or a saint? I have received considerable flak for maintaining that he does not, but the reasoning is not difficult to grasp—and much hinges on it.

Let me begin with an objection. In Summa Theologiae II-II, Q. 124, art. 1, ad 1, St. Thomas Aquinas discusses the Holy Innocents:

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily

Email subscribe inline (#4)

Some have said that in the case of the Innocents the use of their free will was miraculously accelerated, so that they suffered martyrdom even voluntarily. Since, however, Scripture contains no proof of this, it is better to say that these babes in being slain obtained by God’s grace the glory of martyrdom which others acquire by their own will. For the shedding of one’s blood for Christ’s sake takes the place of baptism. Wherefore just as in the case of baptized children the merit of Christ is conducive to the acquisition of glory through the baptismal grace, so in those who were slain for Christ’s sake the merit of Christ’s martyrdom is conducive to the acquisition of the martyr’s palm. Hence Augustine says in a sermon on the Epiphany (De Diversis lxvi), as though he were addressing them: “A man that does not believe that children are benefited by the baptism of Christ will doubt of your being crowned in suffering for Christ. You were not old enough to believe in Christ’s future sufferings, but you had a body wherein you could endure suffering of Christ Who was to suffer.”

It looks as if St. Thomas is saying that any child, even an unbaptized one, becomes a martyr if killed out of hatred of Christ.

There is, however, a very important difference between the Holy Innocents and children born after the institution of the New Covenant. The Holy Innocents were Jewish baby boys who had been circumcised into the Old Covenant. The Church Fathers teach that circumcision was the sign of faith in the Redeemer to come, and thus it was an anticipation of—and carried similar effects to—Christian baptism, at least as far as removing original sin, which bars the way to Heaven. Thus, St. Thomas explains elsewhere in the Summa (III, Q. 70, art. 4):

All are agreed in saying that original sin was remitted in circumcision…. [B]y circumcision, children received the power of obtaining glory at the allotted time, which is the last positive effect of grace…. Grace was bestowed in circumcision as to all the effects of grace, but not as in baptism. Because in baptism grace is bestowed by the very power of baptism itself, which power baptism has as the instrument of Christ’s Passion already consummated. Whereas circumcision bestowed grace, inasmuch as it was a sign of faith in Christ’s future Passion: so that the man who was circumcised, professed to embrace that faith; whether, being an adult, he made profession for himself, or, being a child, someone else made profession for him. Hence, too, the Apostle says (Romans 4:11), that Abraham “received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the justice of the faith”: because, to wit, justice was of faith signified: not of circumcision signifying. And since baptism operates instrumentally by the power of Christ’s Passion, whereas circumcision does not, therefore baptism imprints a character that incorporates man in Christ, and bestows grace more copiously than does circumcision; since greater is the effect of a thing already present, than of the hope thereof.

An article published at the EWTN website explains, in harmony with the Angelic Doctor:

While the Church has long recognized the sanctity of the [Holy] Innocents, it has never formally taught any specific explanation. The New Covenant with its moral obligation of baptism, and its certainty of grace, had not yet been promulgated when they died. Thus, there can be, at best, an analogy to baptism of any kind, including baptism of blood. However, as St. Thomas Aquinas explains of the Old Covenant, while the sacraments of the Old Law did not impart grace by themselves, God granted it to those who obeyed and believed Him by keeping His covenant. In this way the rites of the Old Law justified in view of the Messiah, and in circumcision’s case, in view of His Passion.

Pope Innocent III taught this very clearly:

Baptism has taken the place of circumcision. Therefore as “the soul of the circumcised did not perish from the people” [Genesis 17:4], so “he who has been reborn from water and the Holy Spirit will obtain entrance to the kingdom of heaven” [cf. John 3:5]. Although original sin was remitted by the mystery of circumcision, and the danger of damnation was avoided, nevertheless there was no arriving at the kingdom of heaven, which up to the death of Christ was barred to all. But through the sacrament of baptism the guilt of one made red by the blood of Christ is remitted, and to the kingdom of heaven one also arrives, whose gate the blood of Christ has mercifully opened for His faithful. (Denzinger 160-61)

When we reach Christ the Redeemer, in short, the whole situation shifts. The one whom the Old Covenant signs pointed to is now really present in His Incarnation and in the Holy Eucharist. He has instituted the seven sacraments as efficacious signs of His life-giving Passion. Above all, He instituted baptism as a sacrament of the New Covenant, a sign that effects the cleansing it signifies. In the words of our divine Savior: “Unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven” (John 3:5). This supernatural birth makes man a Christian; therefore, it makes him holy (as long as sanctifying grace is retained); therefore, it makes him a possible martyr.

When St. Thomas defines the three kinds of baptism—of water (the sacrament), of blood (martyrdom), and of the Spirit (i.e., of desire)—he explains it thus:

The shedding of blood for Christ’s sake, and the inward operation of the Holy Ghost, are called baptisms, in so far as they produce the effect of the baptism of water. Now the baptism of water derives its efficacy from Christ’s Passion and from the Holy Ghost. These two causes act in each of these three baptisms; most excellently, however, in the baptism of blood. For Christ’s Passion acts in the baptism of water by way of a figurative representation; in the baptism of the Spirit or of repentance, by way of desire; but in the baptism of blood, by way of imitating the (divine) act. In like manner, too, the power of the Holy Ghost acts in the baptism of water through a certain hidden power; in the baptism of repentance by moving the heart; but in the baptism of blood by the highest degree of fervor of dilection and love, according to John 15:13: “Greater love than this no man hath that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

In other words, the Christian martyr imitates Christ, who knowingly and freely laid down His life out of charity. The free and knowing confession of the Faith is required for Christian martyrdom, even as some personal, active desire for salvation is necessary if there is to be a baptism of desire or repentance. In the Christian era, a desire for the sacrament of baptism, or the voluntary acceptance of a death inflicted on a believer out of hatred for Christ, is needed if sacramental baptism is to be bypassed (as it were). A baby who is neither incorporated into the Old Covenant by membership in the people of Israel nor incorporated into the New Covenant by baptism or a personal act of faith is not a “martyr,” a word that means “witness”—as in, “one who bears witness or gives testimony,” according to its etymology.

Hence, Pope Pius XII, in his 1951 “Address to Midwives”—a key magisterial text still cited in postconciliar documents—teaches, with the superb clarity for which he is known:

If what We have said up to now concerns the protection and care of natural life, much more so must it concern the supernatural life, which the newly born receives with baptism. In the present economy there is no other way to communicate that life to the child who has not attained the use of reason. Above all, the state of grace is absolutely necessary at the moment of death; without it salvation and supernatural happiness—the beatific vision of God—are impossible. An act of love is sufficient for the adult to obtain sanctifying grace and to supply the lack of baptism; to the still unborn or newly born this way is not open. Therefore, if it is considered that charity to our fellowman obliges us to assist him in the case of necessity, then this obligation is so much the more important and urgent as the good to be obtained or the evil to be avoided is the greater, and in the measure that the needy person is incapable of helping or saving himself with his own powers; and so it is easy to understand the great importance of providing for the baptism of the child deprived of complete reason who finds himself in grave danger or at death’s threshold.

The Holy Innocents, Hebrew boys incorporated into Christ through the Old Covenant that pointed to Him, simply cannot be taken as models for children who come into the world after Christ and outside of Israel. On the one hand, these children cannot be part of the Old Covenant, which has been superseded and in itself abolished; and, on the other hand, they cannot become part of the New Covenant except through baptism, since they cannot profess the Faith for themselves. The sacraments are now the exclusive known and guaranteed way to obtain or to increase the supernatural life of sanctifying grace.

But what about parents who desire baptism for a child, and yet the child dies before baptism occurred? Is there no hope for such a child?

Many people attempt to give arguments that are too definitive one way or the other on this question. But the tradition of the Church offers us a clear answer that requires humility on our part—the humility not to say we know anything more or anything less than what we certainly know.

What is it that we know? 

All mankind inherits the sin of Adam—it is the sin of our origin, hence the term “original sin”—and this sin bars entry into the kingdom of Heaven (see the dogmatic teaching of the Council of Trent’s Decree on Original Sin). God has provided a remedy in the cleansing waters of baptism. He has guaranteed that He will give His grace to those who approach His sacraments properly disposed to receive them. For infants brought to baptism, the Church, as a merciful mother, supplies what they are as yet incapable of giving, namely, assent to grace.

At the same time, God Himself is not bound by those sacraments. Consequently, while we are obliged to seek out the sacraments (this He has explicitly commanded us to do), He remains free to give His grace to whom He will and as He will. Being both just and merciful, He does not act randomly; yet His ways are not our ways, and, apart from what He has explicitly revealed to us, we have not been given access to the mysteries of His will. 

Moreover, we know from revelation that those who are baptized receive the life of Christ and will inherit the kingdom of Heaven if they do not forfeit it through sin. He has not revealed what will happen to unbaptized babies. We can be assured that He loves them even more than we do and that however He decides to care for them will be imbued with both His justice and His mercy. We may hope and pray that God will distribute “uncovenanted” graces, but if we dare to tell Him what He should do or must do, we forfeit the humility of creatures and deserve a smackdown like the one Job received in the whirlwind.

God is not bound by the sacraments, but the Church is, and therefore so is the pope. That is why the pope has no authority to canonize an unborn or newborn baby who had not been baptized, regardless of how he/she was killed. It may be that a parent’s sincere desire for a child’s baptism would be accepted by God as sufficient; it may be that hatred of Christ directed against Catholic parents would suffice to mantle their entire family in God’s favor. But He has not told us that, nor does it necessarily follow from anything explicitly revealed; and thus, the Church has no power to teach it.

My objection, then, is not to the salvation of this little infant of the Ulma family; that’s in God’s hands. My objection is to Pope Francis once again exceeding his office by canonizing someone unbaptized who cannot be known to have been incorporated into the Church in the ways revealed to us for that to occur (namely, the three baptisms mentioned by St. Thomas). Those who defend this latest papal action fail to make distinctions between what we know and what the Church is limited to versus what God knows and may accomplish. My objection, then, is not to the salvation of this little infant of the Ulma family; that’s in God’s hands. My objection is to Pope Francis once again exceeding his office.Tweet This

Come to think of it, confusion and even conflict between what God has revealed—the deposit of faith to which the Church is solemnly bound—and what His human representatives in the hierarchy want to put on the lips of the “God of Surprises” is not exactly rare in our day and age. It seems to be the modus operandi of the Synodal Process, which turns deviations into “developments” and extrapolates from what God promises to do in us to what we want Him to do for us. Faithful Catholics will hold fast to the dogmas of the Faith and push back against wild speculations and novelties.

No theologian argues that beatification is infallible, so we are not looking at a conundrum of that sort here. But what if this pope or a future pope canonized an unbaptized infant? It is well to remember that the infallibility of canonizations remains a disputed question. And frankly, as time goes on, the case against it grows stronger. Wouldn’t it be the ultimate irony if the Francis pontificate turned out to be crucially instrumental in that development of doctrine?

[Photo Credit: OSV News photo/Patryk Ogorzalek/Agencja via Reuters]


Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on

Editor's picks

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...