Will an Unbaptized Child Go to Heaven?
Some worried Catholic grandparents get their Jewish or interfaith grandchildren secretly baptized.
As pastor of a Catholic church, I sometimes counsel Catholics in interfaith marriages who are struggling with the issue of baptism. Many of these people were brought up believing that if they did not baptize their children, the children would not go to heaven. Doctrine has changed dramatically since they were young, however, and we now teach that God saves all peoples, not only Christians. Everyone is welcome in the kingdom of heaven. The Church has also strongly affirmed its belief that the promises made to the Jewish people have never been revoked and that our faith in Jesus in no way diminishes the place of the Jewish people as God's chosen people.
Prior to the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) of the Catholic Church most Catholics were taught that unless you were baptized you could not go to heaven. The custom of baptizing infants as soon as possible after birth was predominant. Many times, in fact, mothers did not attend the baptism because it took place so soon after birth. People were encouraged not to bring their child out of the house until the child had been baptized.
This popular approach to the sacrament of baptism was based on a literal interpretation of a Christian Scripture from the Gospel of John, chapter 3, where it is written, "Unless a person is born again of water and the spirit, they can not enter the kingdom of heaven." Because of this it was customary, for example, for a Catholic nurse in a crisis situation to baptize babies in hospital even without seeking parental permission. There was a strong focus on "saving" babies from dying without baptism. Today this is radically changed in the Catholic Church.
The Church today believes in the interpretation of Scripture--both the Hebrew and Christian texts. So, for example, when we read Genesis we do not take the stories of creation as described in chapters 1 and 2 as literal descriptions of the historical creation of the world. We see them as faith stories that have a message but use the myths and stories of ancient times. In other words, we interpret the text. This principle of interpretation is common to many Jewish traditions and Christian ones as well. Thus, the interpretation of Christian Scriptures and the words of Jesus allow us to understand the meaning of the text in a different manner. We do not see the aforementioned passage from John's Gospel as physically requiring a baptism. It needs to be seen in the wider context of all of Jesus' teaching in which he speaks of God's universal salvific will. This newer interpretation is a part of the common understanding of the Catholic Church today. We believe that God saves all peoples, not only Christians.