Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Holy Innocents, the Necessity of Baptism, and the Nature of Martyrdom

Someone recently sent me a very interesting question regarding today's feast day, the Feast of the Holy Innocents, martyrs. It reads:

How should we understand the necessity of baptism in light of the Feast of the Holy Innocents, by which it is celebrated the entrance of many children into heaven without this sacrament?

At first, the answer seems simple: the Church considers these children to be martyrs and so their "baptism of blood" is what merited their entrance into heaven. "Morning Prayer" from the Liturgy of the Hours on Dec. 28 provides ample evidence of this:
  • Invitatory antiphon: "Come, let us worship the newborn Christ who crowns with joy these children who died for him."
  • antiphon for the Canticle of Zechariah: "At the king's command these innocent babies and little children were put to death; they died for Christ, and now in the glory of heaven as they follow him, the sinless Lamb, they sing for ever: Glory to you, O Lord."
  • from the Intercessions: "You rewarded the child martyrs with the first share in your kingdom ... do not let us be cast out from the unending heavenly banquet"
  • from the concluding Prayer: "Father, the Holy Innocents offered you praise by the death they suffered for Christ. May our lives bear witness to the faith we profess with our lips."

Where this becomes more difficult is in determining how it is that these children could be considered "martyrs" seeing as they had no explicit faith in Christ, nor did they die because of this faith. Brian A. Graebe, in an article for Homiletic and Pastoral Review, provides helpful clarification: "The Innocents are true martyrs not because of any decision on their part, but rather because of the conscious choice made by Herod to deny the Kingship of Christ." In other words, they may not have had any real faith in Christ, nor the willingness to die for Him, but since they died because of Him, they are considered martyrs by the Church.

But, is this an appropriate definition of martyrdom? Can anyone without an explicit faith in Christ truly be considered a martyr?

To this question, perhaps an implicit "Yes" is given by the Catechism, in its references to various righteous men who came before Christ. The seven sons from 2 Macc 7 (no. 297, 992) and the prophets of the Old Testament (no. 558, 2642) are all referred to as "martyrs" or their death as a "martyrdom" in the Catechism. This tells me that an explicit faith in Christ is not always necessary in order for one to be considered a martyr.

The A to Z Guide to the Catholic Faith (an abridged version of The Catholic Encyclopedia, published by Robert C. Broderick, Ed. in 1987) provides a further caveat. In the "Martyr" entry, we read:
"The term has also been applied in the Church to those who died natural deaths, but whose lives were living testaments of the faith. In this latter sense, it is no longer recognized as a title; but it is in this sense, and because of her 'living' sufferings that the Blessed Mother can be called the 'Queen of Martyrs' as well as being their Queen in heaven." (p. 411)
This is often referred to as "white martyrdom." Such a martyrdom is not a formal category recognized by the Church, but is a designation that springs from popular piety, as the faithful have considered the ways in which particular saints have "died to self" and even endured great suffering in order to unite themselves more fully to Christ.

Of course, the Holy Innocents did not die natural deaths, nor did they have the intention of uniting themselves to Christ through suffering. But, it can be seen from these examples that such rigid definitions as "a person who chooses death rather than to forsake his faith in Christ" or "a person who dies because of his faith in Christ" is not always strictly necessary in order for one to be considered a martyr. And at any rate, to understand martyrdom more broadly as "anyone who dies because of Christ" is really the only way to make sense of the Church's clear affirmation that the Holy Innocents are martyrs.

Now, I realize that, for some, this solution is unsatisfying. If you are among the more scrupulous who may be troubled by the fact that the meaning of martyrdom has been seemingly redefined, Dr. Jeff Mirus has written a supremely helpful article just for you, entitled "Hope from the Holy Innocents". I highly encourage you, scrupulous or not, to read it. Mirus makes the case that the Holy Innocents should be a source of hope for us. They represent all those persons who lacked an explicit faith in Christ and yet, in ways known to God alone, were granted entrance into heavenly paradise.

For more on the Holy Innocents, see the following articles:

Pax Christi,


  1. Perhaps a more satisfying response would be that the Holy Innocents (and the justified of the OT) died before the Sacrament of Baptism was a binding obligation... there is a tradition which holds that God (in His Divine Providence) withheld births for 8 days and all of the Holy Innocents were circumcised. Thus, upon their slaughter by Herod they waited with the other justified of the OT in the limbo of the Fathers until Christ's glorious Ascension.

    Lastly, I think we ought to be careful about "implicit faith"... such an idea is only found in the Magisterium under the pretense of being a "PREPARATION for the Gospel" (that is, explicit faith), not a replacement.

  2. J.S. ... your solution is to the question of how the Holy Innocents were saved. I was more dealing with the question of how they can be considered martyrs.

  3. The title of your post (and the question asked) was regarding the Holy Innocents and the necessity of Baptism. Thus, the salvation of the Holy Innocents was the intent of the question; and the posited answer by you was 'baptism of blood'. I was simply elaborating that the question of the necessity of baptism does not apply to the Holy Innocents since their death was before Baptism was an obligation.

    Your last sentence also treats the matter as a question of salvation, and not simply one of martyrdom... at least, that was how I understood it.

  4. You're right, I should have been clearer. We are both answering the question, just from different angles. I was just trying to explain why I didn't answer the question as you did. Your comment is certainly a worthy contribution.

  5. Catholics believe baptism is necessary for salvation.
    VATICAN II declared this in #7 of it’s decree Ad Gentes:
    “Therefore, all must be converted to Him, made known by the Church's preaching, and all must be incorporated into Him by baptism and into the Church which is His body. For Christ Himself "by stressing in express language the necessity of faith and baptism (cf. Mark 16:16; John 3:5), at the same time confirmed the necessity of the Church, into which men enter by baptism, as by a door. Therefore those men cannot be saved, who though aware that God, through Jesus Christ founded the Church as something necessary, still do not wish to enter into it, or to persevere in it." (Dogmatic constitution by Vatican II: Lumen Gentium 14) Therefore though God in ways known to Himself can lead those inculpably ignorant of the Gospel to find that faith without which it is impossible to please Him (Heb. 11:6), yet a necessity lies upon the Church (1 Cor. 9:16), and at the same time a sacred duty, to preach the Gospel. And hence missionary activity today as always retains its power and necessity.”


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