What do people mean by being baptised on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptised on their behalf? Why am I in peril every hour?

St Francis de Sales comments:-

This passage properly understood evidently shows that it was the custom of the primitive Church to watch, pray, and fast for the souls of the departed. For, firstly, in the Scriptures ‘to be baptised’ is often taken for afflictions and penances; as in St Luke, chapter XII, where our Lord speaking of his Passion says, ‘I have a baptism wherewith I am to be baptised, and how am I straitened until it be accomplished!’ – and in St Mark, chapter X, he says, ‘Can you drink of the chalice that I drink of, or be baptised with the baptism wherewith I am baptised?’; in which places our Lord calls pains and afflictions baptism. This then is the sense of that Scripture: if the dead rise not again, what is the use of mortifying and afflicting oneself, of praying for and fasting for the dead? And indeed this sentence of St Paul resembles that of the Machabees, ‘It is superfluous and vain to pray for the dead if the dead rise not again’ .

But secondly, it must not be said that the baptism of which St Paul speaks is only a baptism of grief and tears, and not of fasts, prayers and other works. For thus understood, his conclusion would be very false. The conclusion he means to draw is that if the dead rise not again, and if the soul is mortal, in vain do we afflict ourselves for the dead. But, I pray you, should we not have more occasion to afflict ourselves by sadness for the death of friends if they rise no more? (‘The Catholic Controversy’, III, V).

Bellarmine adds:-

This interpretation fits best with what follows, ‘Why am I in peril every hour?’, as if to say, ‘why do some afflict themselves in praying for the dead, and why do I afflict myself in preaching the gospel, if there is no resurrection of the dead?’

And again:-

 It is objected that the apostle should not have said, ‘why are people baptised on their behalf?’ but ‘why are we baptised on their behalf?’, since all Christians pray for the dead. I answer that the apostle wished to argue not from the custom of Christians, which might be rejected by the unbelievers as being something new, but from the custom of the Jews, who like their ancestors and following the example of the Scripture fasted and prayed for the dead (‘Controversies’, VI, VI).

St Ephraim, ‘the harp of the Holy Ghost’, had already expounded St Paul in this way, sixteen hundred years ago.


St Paul’s second epistle to the Thessalonians is a locus classicus:-

And you know what withholds, that he may be revealed in his time. For the mystery of iniquity already works; only he who now holds is to hold until he be taken out of the way. And then that wicked one shall be revealed (2 Thess. 2).

Bellarmine comments:-

Here Paul speaks, not venturing to write openly about the overthrow of the Roman Empire, which nevertheless he had clearly explained when he was with them, and the meaning is: ‘Do you know what hinders the coming of antichrist? I told you, the Roman Empire hinders it, because its sins are not yet completed, and Antichrist, who will take this empire out of the way on account of its sins, will not come until they are completed. And so the one who now holds is to hold, that is, to reign, until he be taken out of the way, that is, abolished, and then that wicked one will be revealed (Tomus II, Liber III, caput V).

As Bellarmine shows in loc., this is a common view among the fathers, even though Augustine acknowledges that other interpretations are possible.  That the Roman imperial power was the historic force preventing Christ’s enemies from coalescing under one visible head was believed, strange as it may seem, even when the emperors were pagans and persecutors. It was still believed, naturally enough, when the emperors became the Church’s patrons   and protectors. It is as if, the birth of our Lord having been heralded by the decree going forth from Caesar Augustus, Caesar Augustus’s power must disappear before the anti-decree will go forth. But has not this been, as Maritain wrote in his study of St Paul, disproved by the facts?

The Eastern Roman Empire continued until Whit Tuesday, 1453. Within a lifetime the Protestant revolt had begun: the greatest undermining of the faith yet known. The Emperors of the West continued to have the Roman name until August 6th, 1806. In the lifetime that followed this, the basis of natural religion, namely belief in a personal God, ceased to be part of the general heritage of mankind. Insofar as the Roman imperial power and tradition continued, it was vested in the Austrian emperors until Hallowe’en 1918. In the lifetime that followed this date, natural law was destroyed. The Fathers, and Bellarmine, do not say that Antichrist would appear the day after the dethroning of the last emperor, but that the imperial power was preventing his arrival. Anti-Christian forces would always be at work, but independently one of another; once the imperial power was removed, they would, somehow, be freed to co-ordinate their efforts in view of a supreme attack. Finally, the last heir apparent to a reigning emperor died last year on Independence Day. It remains to be seen what will happen next.

Today in the old calendar falls the commemoration of St Paul, the apostle who resisted Peter to his face while remaining humbly subject to him in his heart. It is also the 24th anniversary of the consecrations at Econe by which Archbishop Lefebvre made provision for his work to continue after his death. I well remember the day, though I was only a school-boy at a typical post-conciliar Catholic school and had no connections with ‘traditionalist milieux’. Our head of R.E., who, as I realised some years later, was a modernist, came into our classroom quite excited at the end of the day, and told us that something historic was happening. He told us about the Eastern schism and about the Protestant Reformation, and then told us that today a third schism was taking place. Yes, it was a very potted version of church history. He explained that until the 1960’s, Catholics had generally thought that if people in other religions were ever saved, it would be in spite of their religions and not because of them. But now, he said, the Church had changed her ideas and decided that people in other religions could be saved because of their religions, not just in spite of them. Only one French archbishop had refused to accept the new ideas, and now he was going into schism by ordaining some bishops. Little catechised though I was, I remember thinking that though this French archbishop must be a very bad person to be breaking away from the Church, I preferred the old ideas to the new ones.

It is surely a unique case in Church history (Aeliane, correct me if I err.) There have been plenty of people who have broken with the Church and still wanted to claim the name of Catholic. But this is a movement which not only acknowledges all the dogmas, but which also recognises the Pope and the bishops whom he appoints as the legitimate rulers of the Church, and denies that its own bishops and priests have any power of governance. I suppose the Anglican Papalists are or were similar, but they were clearly not members of the Catholic Church. It is an unnatural situation and therefore surely cannot endure. The SSPX general chapter begins today and looks likely to be a crucial one. A novena is being promoted, starting today: the Veni, Creator Spiritus, ‘Immaculate heart of Mary, pray for us’ (thrice), ‘St Pius X, pray for us’. And maybe we could also ask St Paul to speak to St Peter about it all.