Is water baptism necessary for salvation? The first Pope (St. Peter) wrote under inspiration the following: Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, Who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to Him.—1 Peter 3:21-22.
The Catholic Church has interpreted this as water baptism being ordinarily necessary for salvation. However, there are some extraordinary circumstances to consider. The Church also teaches officially that baptism by blood (martyrdom) is sufficient for salvation if that martyr were to die for Christ even before water baptism. Furthermore, the Catholic Church teaches that baptism by desire is sufficient for salvation if one dies while awaiting water baptism. This is usually understood to be an explicit baptism by desire in a case when someone was hoping to become a Christian.
However, is there such thing as an implicit baptism by desire? In other words, could a pagan (who has never heard of Christ or the Church) be saved in a desire for baptism that he couldn’t name? The Catholic Church traditionally answers in the positive on this. Notice, however, that this would first probably imply invincible ignorance (the person could not have known of Christ and His Church) and secondly that even in such an implicit baptism by desire, the penitent is saved by grace (not his own good intentions) and finally by being given the grace to love God above all things. If such a case were to happen, we are looking at a pagan or a Jew or a Muslim being given the grace to love the Triune God above all things.
But how could a pagan who does not know Divine Revelation love the Trinity above all things? First, there are numerous accounts of Christ appearing in dreams to Muslims in the 21st century and telling them to follow Him. (I recently did a video on this happening to Muslims.) This could easily lead to the gift of perfect contrition (sorrow for sin out of love for Jesus) even if such a person never met a Catholic priest before his death. Of course, one does not want to bank on this! This is why water-baptism is the surest and safest portal to beginning a life of salvation in Christ Jesus.
But if one does not have access to a missionary willing to baptism him and barring an extraordinary event like Christ appearing to a pagan or infidel in a dream, what else might constitute this mysterious (and misrepresented by the modernists) implicit baptism by desire? St. Thomas Aquinas answers this question:
“As stated above (1, ad 2; 68, 2) man receives the forgiveness of sins before Baptism in so far as he has Baptism of desire, explicitly or implicitly; and yet when he actually receives Baptism, he receives a fuller remission, as to the remission of the entire punishment. So also before Baptism, Cornelius and others like him receive grace and virtues through their faith in Christ and their desire for Baptism, implicit or explicit: but afterwards when baptized, they receive a yet greater fullness of grace and virtues. Hence in Psalm 22:2, “He hath brought me up on the water of refreshment,” a gloss says: “He has brought us up by an increase of virtue and good deeds in Baptism. Yet catechumens who die without baptism can be saved but only as through fire. That is, they are absolved of eternal punishment, not temporal punishment.”—ST III, q. 69, a. 4.
“No man obtains eternal life unless he be free from all guilt and debt of punishment. Now this plenary absolution is given when a man receives Baptism, or suffers martyrdom: for which reason is it stated that martyrdom “contains all the sacramental virtue of Baptism,” i.e. as to the full deliverance from guilt and punishment. Suppose, therefore, a catechumen to have the desire for Baptism (else he could not be said to die in his good works, which cannot be without ‘faith that worketh by charity’, such a one, were he to die, would not forthwith come to eternal life, but would suffer punishment for his past sins, ‘but he himself shall be saved, yet so as by fire’ as is stated 1 Corinthians 3:15.”—ST III 68 a. 2 ad 2:
“If, however, some were saved without receiving any revelation, they were not saved without faith in a Mediator, for, though they did not believe in Him explicitly, they did, nevertheless, have implicit faith through believing in Divine providence, since they believed that God would deliver mankind in whatever way was pleasing to Him, and according to the revelation of the Spirit to those who knew the truth, as stated in Job 35:11: ‘Who teacheth us more than the beasts of the earth.’”—ST II-II q. 2 a. 7 ad 3 .
In summary, St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that a pagan (without a missionary willing to baptize—which is the clearly surest route of salvation!) obtaining the gift of implicit desire for baptism (without any private revelation) must include (at a minimum) the following two things:
1. Belief in Divine Providence.
2. Belief in the need for a Deliverer.