The recent beatification of Józef and Wiktoria Ulma with Seven Children was significant in several ways.Not least among these was the fact that the seventh child was a stillbirth, dead in the moment he was born — indeed, for much of the beatification process this baby was thought to have been unborn. This lends the beatification a certain pro-life significance in addition to its significance to Catholic-Jewish relations and to the Church’s departure from its past relationship with the political extreme right in many parts of Europe. As the Dicastery for the Causes of Saints explained, the final Ulma baby had the “baptism of blood,” a way in which grace is communicated to unbaptized people who are killed as martyrs. The Holy Innocents whom King Herod massacred in place of the infant Jesus fall into the same category.
Someone interested in thinking and feeling with the Church (sentire cum ecclesia) would perhaps see the beatification of a stillborn baby as yet more evidence that Catholicism is moving away from rigorously applying the speculative theory of Limbo to any and all deaths of unbaptized children who have not yet reached the age of reason. If such a person was concerned about the fact that there is relatively little support for this shift in the scholastic and manualist theological formulae, or even in the normal account of the economy of salvation, this might inspire deeper meditation on the mystery of God Himself. God is not bound by His own sacraments and if the mind of the Church is clearly moving in a direction that introduces ambiguities or wrinkles into the sacramental economy then that should draw us into a deeper meditation on God’s majesty and its relationship with His mercy. How wonderful that He isn’t limited by the hardest and most difficult edge cases of the way things normally work. God’s greatest attribute, after all, is Mercy.
Peter Kwasniewski, however, is not most people, and his level of interest in thinking and feeling with the Church has been growing increasingly dubious for years. The outspoken traditionalist author and speaker For Kwasniewski posted on his Facebook page that, the “obvious answer to this question is No” when it comes to the last Ulma child’s sanctity. “If Pope Francis actually thinks he canonized (sic) an unborn child,” continued Kwasniewski, “that’s an absurdity almost worse than any of his others.”
In a reply to his post, he asserted, “There is no ‘baptism of desire’ or ‘baptism of blood’ for [infants], since they cannot intend anything. The Holy Innocents were saved because they were circumcised and thus belonged sacramentally to the covenant, as St. Thomas explains.” He also provided a link to an article he wrote all about it, which he said explains “why the Holy Innocents are not a relevant model.” (What if one of the Holy Innocents was not yet eight days old, and thus uncircumcised? What does Kwasniewski think would have happened if Herod’s soldiers had accidentally killed a girl? Would she have been doomed for lacking a foreskin to be removed?)
If this is the case, why do we baptize infants at all? Since they cannot intend anything and, apparently, the intent of their parents means nothing when it comes to baptism of blood or desire (even though the Church says it does), why do we consider infant water baptism valid? Of course, Kwasniewski’s way of thinking provides a ready-made solution based upon his personal understanding of “tradition,” which he believes is infallible and binding on everyone else. Since infant baptism by water is done “by the book,” Dr. Kwasniewski assures us that his questions of intent do not apply and it is enough to satisfy his wrathful God.
It is worth noting that there are many venerated saints in the Catholic Church who died before gaining the usual Sacrament of Baptism, as they died as catechumens or new believers, but whom the Church believes had, like the last Ulma child, “baptism of blood.” Notable among these are SS. Saturninus, Secundulus, and Revocatus—the men martyred alongside SS. Felicity and Perpetua. Many more such examples exist in the Catholic Church, and Kwasniewski would likely say that, since they were adults, they intended to be baptized and thus it “counted.”
To deny this to a new child is a disgusting display of legalism. How is a baby who—through no fault of his own—has not had the stain of original sin formally removed through sacramental baptism, less worthy to attain heaven than baptized adults who have spent their lives sinning and repenting? The Church, in beatifying the Ulma baby, is giving witness to God’s mercy. Kwasniewski, on the other hand, is just displaying the contents of his whitewashed tomb: empty, like the house from which the unclean spirit is driven (cf. Mt 12).
To put it bluntly, a number of questions invite themselves when it comes to Catholic thinkers who die on these sorts of hills: why this? Why now? Where is the appetite for insisting that a baby stillborn during his mother’s execution by the Nazis is in hell, and how on earth does this appetite come to be? (Yes, according to the theory, Limbo is a part of hell, though without suffering, and babies who go there remain for all eternity and have no hope of salvation.) We have the same sorts of questions about — for example — Edward Feser’s fascination with marshaling arguments for the death penalty, but at least that issue is limited to the temporal punishment of people who have done something wrong. Kwasniewski is interested in the eternal punishment of a newborn baby, something that he feels is a serious enough issue to call a beatification into question.
But beatifications aren’t infallible; canonizations are. As the Ratzinger CDF explained (Doctrinal Commentary, §11), canonizations are infallible not because they are themselves dogmas but because they are “truths connected to revelation by historical necessity,” like the legitimacy of papal elections and which ordination lineages are and aren’t valid. In other words, the safeguards of infallibility apply because the faithful would be getting seriously misled on a human level otherwise. Again, this applies only to canonization, so one would expect that, whatever issues Kwasniewski has with the Ulma beatifications, they would be resolved if and when the family are canonized … except Kwasniewski denies the infallibility of canonization, too.
In a way, it has to be admired how meticulously Kwasniewski has arranged this. His position here cannot be refuted or disproven by anything in objective reality—his position is unaffected by any doctrinal developments, changes in Vatican policy, or official Church teachings short of, perhaps, an ex cathedra dogmatic definition. Outside that remote possibility, his intellectual project has served to render his opinions undisprovable. Nothing in the outside world can make him change his mind, only his own interpretations of his proof texts shifting on their own. It brings to mind a well-known line from William Gibson’s 1984 science fiction novel Neuromancer: the novel’s Tessier-Ashpool family, according to one of its own members, is “growing inward, generating a seamless universe of self.”
Kwasniewski’s universe of self does seem seamless, or at least well-constructed, for now. And there’s a not-insignificant number of Catholic fundamentalists and radical traditionalists who entertain similar fantasies. But it’s not the universe where beatifications and canonizations happen, where martyrdom occurs, where the life of the Church is lived, or where we are ordained to “eternal happiness or woe.” Kwasniewski would do so much good for the world and for himself if only he joined the rest of us in that real universe.
Image: “The Virgin and Child Surrounded by the Holy Innocents” by Peter Paul Rubens. From Wikimedia Commons.