The baptism of Jesus, where the Lord entered into and sanctified the waters, points to our own. Of course, the Son of God did not need to be baptized to have life in heaven, but we human beings do need the grace of baptism to gain this eternal life.
Christ himself tells us of the vital importance of baptism: “Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit” (John 3:5). This truth of our faith is troubling for some and raises the questions: Does this mean that only baptized Christians go to heaven? Is everyone who dies without formally receiving the sacrament of baptism necessarily condemned, even babies who have done no wrong and non-Christians who are good and decent and virtuous?
When humanity in the persons of Adam and Eve set themselves against God, a consequence of this Original Sin for all of us was disharmony in the human condition and a rupture in our blessed relationship with God. Clearly, to be united with God in heaven, this state which separates us from him must be remedied. The grace of baptism is therefore necessary for salvation because it is what removes this impediment of Original Sin, as well as any personal sins, and gives us new life.
Our Savior Jesus established his Church and the sacraments, including baptism, as the ordinary means to bring his grace of eternal life to the whole world. While the Lord expects that we make use of these ordinary means given by him, God himself is not bound by the sacraments (CCC 1257). The Church understands that those who have not received sacramental baptism by water may nevertheless be saved by extraordinary means of grace, such as “baptism of blood” or “baptism of desire.”
The Catechism affirms that those who offer the supreme witness for the sake of the faith and die as Christian martyrs receive the saving grace and fruits of baptism by their death (CCC 1258). Also, if there is an earnest wish to be baptized in Christ at the time of death, such as with a catechumen in RCIA or with an infant whose parents are preparing for the sacrament, that desire, together with repentance and charity, “assures them the salvation that they were not able to receive through the sacrament” (CCC 1259). Even those who through no fault of their own are ignorant of Christ and the Gospel, but they seek the truth and do the will of God as best as they understand, can be saved by this “baptism of desire” (CCC 1260).
In other cases, we remember that God delights not in anyone’s death. Regarding other unbaptized babies, including those who die before birth, either by abortion or naturally, the Church in hope commends them to the loving and merciful arms of our heavenly Father, whose will is that all should be saved and live (CCC 1261).