This article first appeared at Catholic Stand.
The Archdiocese of Przemyska, Poland, recently announced the planned beatification of a martyred Polish family who hid Jews from the Nazis during World War II and were subsequently executed for their heroic deeds. The mother’s unborn baby, whom Pope Francis also declared a martyr in December, will be one of the beatified. The unborn baby’s beatification will be the topic of this article.
Beatification and Martyrdom
Beatification is a “declaration by the Pope as head of the Church that one of the deceased faithful lived a holy life and/or died a martyr’s death and is now dwelling in heaven” (see also the Catholic Encyclopedia). So, on September 10, 2023, the Church will acknowledge this family’s heavenly glory. The issue here is that the unborn baby was not baptized and was not, by definition, a martyr. A martyr is someone “who chooses to suffer, even to die, rather than renounce his or her faith or Christian principles.”
An article at Catholic Culture on martyrdom explains,
The great moral theologian, Dominic Prummer O.P., says: Acts of Fortitude. . . . these acts reach their peak in martyrdom. Martyrdom is the endurance of bodily death in witness to the Christian religion. Therefore three conditions must be verified for martyrdom: a) actual death; b) the infliction of death by an enemy out of hatred for Christianity. c) the voluntary acceptance of death.” The same article adds, “We [the Church] count as an exception the Holy Innocents, whom the Church, although they lack the usual element of acceptance [emphasis theirs] of death, nevertheless honors as martyrs in the liturgy because they died in the place of the infant Christ and received the Baptism of Blood.
Now, if the baby was not baptized and could not choose to suffer for the faith, how could he/she be in heaven or be a martyr?
Regarding martyrdom, its definition is not a doctrine and popes have the authority make exceptions to the rule. For instance, Saint Pope John Paul II declared Maximilian Kolbe a martyr during his canonization even though he did not die for the faith but for another prisoner at Auschwitz.
Regarding beatification, my opinion is that all children who die before they can exercise reason go to Heaven. In an article I wrote last year for the Homiletic and Pastoral Review, I laid out several reasons for my view using Scripture and the Church’s extrabiblical documents on this matter. If you do not have time to read this, please allow me to present a few interesting and important points.
The Church’s Ongoing Discussion
St. Augustine of Hippo opined that deceased unbaptized children enter hell where God subjects them to eternal fire. Augustine explicitly rejected the idea of a middle ground, stating, “. . . let no one promise for the case of unbaptized infants, between damnation and the kingdom of heaven, some middle place of rest and happiness . . ..” However, Augustine also believed that God would punish these children with the “mildest” and “lightest condemnation of all” because they were not guilty of personal sin (Handbook, chapter 93). I was surprised that St. Augustine had such a strict view regarding deceased unbaptized children.
St. Thomas Aquinas held a slightly different opinion. Like Peter Lombard, one of Aquinas’ scholastic predecessors, Aquinas argued that children who die unbaptized will suffer the pain of separation but will not experience the pain of sense because they neither merited heaven nor committed personal sin deserving of hellfire. God will eternally place them in a compartment of hell called the limbo of the children in which they will exist in natural beatitude. Thus, they will experience a purely natural happiness but not the supernatural happiness of the saints (see q. 1, a. 2). This is the Limbo of which Catholics typically speak when talking about this subject.
Then, citing Gaudium et Spes, the International Theological Commission wrote,
Furthermore, there is the renowned statement of the [Second Vatican] Council which asserted: ‘since Christ died for all, and since all are in fact called to one and the same destiny, which is divine, we must hold that the Holy Spirit offers to all the possibility of being made partners, in a way known to God, in the paschal mystery.’ Although the Council did not expressly apply this teaching to children who die without Baptism, these passages open a way to account for hope in their favor.
So, the Catholic Church has wrestled with this question for centuries without arriving at a firm conclusion, but it is at least open to the possibility that deceased unbaptized children can go to Heaven. However, I believe that Jesus’ words give us more than just a “hope in their favor.”
In Luke 18:15-16 (RSV-CE), Jesus admonishes His disciples for rebuking those who brought their infants and young children to Him. Jesus said, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God.” Then Jesus says, “Whoever does not enter the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”
First, Jesus says the kingdom of God “belongs” to infants and young children. Therefore, per Jesus’ declaration, infants and young children, despite their baptismal state, have a right to the kingdom because it “belongs” to them. Jesus died for them, just as He died for all humanity, and he promises that the kingdom is theirs. Although Original Sin deprives infants of sanctifying grace until baptism, God has redeemed them, and per Jesus’ words, He does not deprive them of the kingdom.
Next, Jesus commands us not to hinder infants from coming to Him. Since Jesus never instructs His people to abstain from an action or behavior in which He engages, Jesus would never hinder children from coming to Him. So, Jesus would not hinder a child at bodily death, innocent of personal sin, from coming to Him. How these babies “come” to Him after death is beside the point. As mentioned, Jesus has redeemed them and has promised the kingdom to them. They merely need to enter His redemption via grace.
Third, Jesus tells adults that they must humble themselves like children and be as innocent as they are. However, infants and young children are already innocent and humble. All they must do is “come” to Jesus. If circumstances (e.g., miscarriage, abortion, parental neglect, famine, war, etc.) deprive them of this opportunity during their earthly life, Jesus will not deprive them after bodily death per His promise.
Also, Jesus gives us some added insight in Matthew 18 about the fate of these infants. In verses 10 through 14, Jesus says, “See that you do not despise one of these little ones …. So, it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.” Accordingly, infants who die without baptism, will not perish because God does not will it. If God does not will them to perish, and they do nothing to resist His will, then God will not allow them to perish.
We must keep in mind that Jesus’ promise in Luke 18 does not negate ecclesial and parental responsibilities to baptize children. In fact, the Church/parents must uphold their baptismal responsibilities with the highest reverence. For, our Lord also revealed, “See that you do not despise one of these little ones, for … their angels aways behold the face of my Father who is in heaven” (Mt 18:10). Therefore, parents and the Church have a moral responsibility for ensuring they baptize children as soon as possible.
So, the Polish family’s deceased unborn baby is, one way or another, in Heaven, and the Church will confirm this child’s state in September. The questions remain – Is the Church moving toward an infallible decree that deceased unbaptized children will enter the Beatific Vision? Is the Church changing the definition of martyr to include those who do not have rational faculties yet are killed by someone with anti-Christian motives? Is the Church merely making an exception for this particular unborn baby? We’ll just have to wait and see.