A Common Grief, Re-observed
OUGHT WE PRAY TO OR PRAY FOR OUR SON?
When my wife and I received the diagnosis that our unborn son had Trisomy 18, a chromosomal abnormality that often results in stillbirth or early death, we began praying for his miraculous healing and, if that was not God’s will, time enough to baptize him and for him to meet his siblings. But God had different plans for Bosco Joseph Paul, who was stillborn into our arms.
There are few more difficult pains to endure than the loss of one’s child. And yet, the grief of the Christian is radically different than that of the modern pagan, whose immanentist creed does not hold forth the promise of eternal life. Christian grief is quickened by hope.
Hence, when we named our son, we entrusted him to three patron saints: St. John Bosco, the great educator of boys; St. Joseph, the model father; and St. Paul, who knew what it meant to be a person “abnormally born.” Our hope was to join our desire to these saints and the whole Church for the salvation of our son’s soul.
In the hours, days, and weeks after Bosco’s passing, we were faced with a question. Do we pray for him or do we pray to him? Should we be praying for his salvation? Or should we be asking him to intercede for ours? These are questions to which the Catholic Church has not offered definitive answers.
Though there is considerable variation in estimation, as many as 22 percent of all pregnancies end in early loss or miscarriage. When we include the number of stillbirths, as many as a quarter of all pregnancies end in loss of the child before birth.
We can, therefore, estimate that, across the globe in 2019, as many as 46 million children were lost to miscarriage or stillbirth.
But each of these little ones who perish in the darkness of the womb is more than a mere statistic. According to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (“Instruction on Respect for Human Life in Its Origin,” 1987), and confirmed by genetics and embryology, from the moment of conception there exists a human individual who is genetically and functionally distinct from his parents and who must be treated with the dignity and respect due a human person.
This presents a puzzle for faithful Catholics who accept the Church’s teaching on the Sacrament of Baptism. This sacrament is “the basis of the whole Christian life” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1213) because it is the sacrament by which we are cleansed of the taint of Original Sin and are reborn to eternal life. As Thomas Aquinas puts it, “Without Baptism there is no salvation for men” (Summa Theologiae, III, q68, a1).
But what is the status of the millions of nascent children who were never born in the first place, and yet were begotten, carried, and loved by faithful Catholic parents? Indeed, all Christian believers who affirm personhood from the moment of conception can appreciate the puzzle of the status of unborn children who never had the chance to receive baptism or make a conscious act of faith.
The taboo surrounding public discussion of miscarriage has been declining in recent years, with prominent women of faith like Meghan McCain, former cohost of The View, and Abigail Shapiro, an opera singer and popular YouTuber, sharing their stories. It seems fitting, therefore, to reflect on this very personal puzzle in solidarity with all those who have lost children to miscarriage and stillbirth and are wrestling with similar questions.
St. Thomas’s approach to this puzzle helps clarify the theological and philosophical matters at stake. As miscarriage and stillbirth were commonplace in his time, he was aware of the puzzle of the status of souls separated from their unborn bodies.
Thomas followed Aristotle in his view that, for all human beings (except the special case of Jesus Christ), ensoulment occurs after conception, when the body is sufficiently developed to be fitting matter to receive a human soul: 40 days for males and 90 days for females. Aquinas believed that at 40 days the male body was sufficiently formed, and he took as empirical evidence the appearance of miscarried children at that age.
Yet, as John Haldane and Patrick Lee have explained (“Aquinas on Human Ensoulment, Abortion and the Value of Life,” Philosophy, March 2003), the reason Aquinas held this position was his adherence to the principle that the matter must be fit to receive the form; in this case, the body must be fit to receive the rational soul created ex nihilo by God. And, had Aquinas been apprised of the evidence uncovered by modern scientific inquiry, he would have affirmed ensoulment from the moment of conception, as we now know that the human embryo is matter fitting to receive the soul, having within it the genetic seeds of all the parts of the body.
In short, the genuinely Thomistic position is that even those miscarried early in pregnancy are persons with eternal destinies.
Though Aquinas affirmed that baptism is necessary for salvation, he distinguished the ways in which baptism could be lacking in a person: in reality and in desire. For the person in whom baptism is lacking in reality and in desire, salvation is unavailable. For the person who desires it, but by some “ill-chance he is forestalled by death before receiving Baptism,” salvation is possible (Summa Theologiae, loc. cit.).
In the liturgy of the Catholic Church, the baptism of infants proceeds on the desire of the parents. In the extraordinary form, the priest asks the godparents, “Do you wish to be baptized?” Speaking on behalf of the child, they respond, Volo (“I do will it”), which means it is the respondents’ rational desire.
What, then, prevents us from believing, because my wife and I fervently desired to baptize Bosco, that he did receive the baptism of desire? Indeed, cannot all Christian parents who desired baptism for their children, but lost them to miscarriage or stillbirth, have a confident hope that their children are in Heaven? Is this not the solution most consistent with God’s unfathomably infinite mercy and universal salvific will, that “all men should be saved” (1 Tim. 2:4), and Jesus’ stated desire that the little children come to Him (cf. Mt. 19:14)?
A Thomistic objection to this line of reasoning is that Aquinas himself would not affirm it, as he held that the unborn cannot be baptized, and that unbaptized children are in Limbo.
Aquinas developed the medieval view of Limbo (from the Latin limbus, meaning “hem” or “border”) as a resting place for those who died unbaptized before the age of reason and free choice. His doctrine of Limbo can be seen as a middle ground between the stern Augustinian approach, in which unbaptized infants go to Hell, and freewheeling universalist Pelagian teachings. For St. Thomas, the unbaptized child is separated from the beatific vision of God due to Original Sin alone and does not suffer the torments of the damned. Lacking the germ of supernatural faith that comes from baptism, the unbaptized child in eternity does not suffer but enjoys natural goods proportionate to his nature (cf. De Malo, q5, art. 3).
Yet, whatever the merits of Aquinas’s theological opinions regarding Limbo, he does not deny that the unborn can receive sanctifying grace in the womb. Hence, children in the womb can “by a kind of privilege…receive the grace of sanctification” (Summa Theologiae, III, q68, art. 11). Such children who die, on Aquinas’s terms, are not in Limbo.
The same logic Aquinas applies to parents baptizing infants, who supply the necessary intention on behalf of the child, can be extended to the intentions of parents to baptize their unborn children. What were extraordinary privileges for Jeremiah and John the Baptist, who did not have Christian parents, can thus be seen as foreshadowing the privileges of miscarried and stillborn children of Christians, under the new covenant of grace.
It could be objected that such a doctrine risks introducing cracks into the theological edifice of the Church. But the solution seeks rather to balance the universality of Original Sin and the need for baptism, on one hand, and God’s infinite mercy, universal salvific will, universal provision of sufficient grace, and entrustment of children to the care of parents in the orders of nature and grace, on the other.
Another objection is pastoral. If parents don’t believe in the strict necessity of the communication of grace by physical waters and words of the baptismal formula, then will they not become lax about getting their children baptized in a timely fashion?
But this objection misunderstands the nature of the desire of faithful parents. Their desire is to baptize their unborn children according to the proper matter and form with all deliberate speed. The lack of reasonable urgency when circumstances permit belies a defective desire.
On the question of whether we pray for Bosco or to him, one could raise a liturgical objection. There is a holy practice in the Church to pray for the unbaptized unborn, rather than to them. In the 1970 Roman Missal, in the Funeral Mass, the unbaptized child is entrusted to God’s loving care. To take another example, the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance (commonly known as Trappists) of New Melleray Abbey in Dubuque, Iowa, who have a ministry of making caskets for young children, pray for those children perpetually.
Does it make sense that the Trappists are praying for my son while I pray to him?
Metaphysically speaking, Bosco either has the beatific vision or he does not. He is, therefore, either capable of interceding for us or he is not. So it would seem to violate the principle of noncontradiction to hold that he could be both prayed for and prayed to at the same time and in the same respect.
Yet, when one considers the respective epistemic situations of the Trappists and the parents of the children for whom they pray, the conundrum dissipates. Lacking access to the subjective intentions and desires of parents, the Trappists’ epistemic situation provides them a good reason to pray for all the children for whom they make caskets.
This is fitting, for the Vatican’s International Theological Commission expressed the view that the Church herself rightfully intercedes to supply the desire for baptism (“The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized,” 2007). In this way, the Church has expressed hope for the salvation of all unbaptized children, even those whose parents did not will their baptism. Are there not even stronger grounds to hope for the children of those who did will it?
Meanwhile, parents know their desire for the baptism of their children. Therefore, it can be fitting for those parents, with a confident hope rather than absolute certainty, to ask for the intercession of the child whose baptism they desired.
One can analogize the faithful’s prayers to persons under consideration for beatification. During this process, the postulator of a cause gathers from the faithful information about any favors received or potential miracles through the Servant of God’s intercession. Those who have prayed for and received such favors prior to the person’s beatification and canonization have good reasons for a degree of certitude regarding the person’s sainthood, apart from the Church’s formal beatification and canonization.
Or, again, in the Church’s liturgical practices on All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, the celebrant might subjectively believe a dead though uncanonized faithful Christian is in Heaven, when he is actually in Purgatory; or the celebrant might believe that a faithful dead person is in Purgatory, when he is actually in Heaven. In situations of epistemic uncertainty, God alone sorts out whatever merit and effect attaches to the fors and tos of the Church’s prayers with respect to the dead.
After Bosco died, a wonderfully charitable nurse helped smuggle our seven children past the COVID police to his hospital room. They sang a goodbye song to him, “The Coventry Carol,” written in the 16th century in commemoration of the Massacre of the Innocents. My family believes Bosco now laughs with Herod’s victims — glory be! — and that he joins them in prayer for us, till we rise from the East.
“The parents and the Church as a whole provide a context of faith for the sacramental action. Indeed, St. Augustine teaches that it is the Church that presents a child for baptism. The Church professes her faith and intercedes powerfully for the infant, supplying the act of faith that the infant is unable to make; again the bonds of communion, both natural and supernatural, are operative and manifest.”
— International Theological Commission, “The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized” (no. 98)
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