Today, December 28, the Catholic Church honors and remembers the Holy Innocents. The Holy Innocents are those Jewish infants murdered by the order of King Herod who feared that a newborn king would usurp him.
Then Herod perceiving that he was deluded by the wise men, was exceeding angry: and sending killed all the menchildren that were in Bethlehem, and in all the borders thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men. (Matthew 2:16, D-R)
The martyrdom of the Holy Innocents is a difficult theological problem. There have been those who have argued that the Holy Innocents are not truly martyrs, because martyrdom is an act of virtue and therefore a voluntary act. Yet, infants have not yet reached the age of reason and so they cannot voluntarily lay down their lives for God. So it seems that the Holy Innocents are not strictly “martyrs” since they did not willingly die for the sake of Christ.
Thomas Aquinas defends the traditional definition of martyrdom as a voluntary act of heroic virtue wherein a believer dies for Christ. He also defends the Holy Innocents as true martyrs. Here is Saint Thomas:
Some have said that in the case of the Innocents the use of their free will was miraculously accelerated, so that they suffered martyrdom even voluntarily. Since, however, Scripture contains no proof of this, it is better to say that these babes in being slain obtained by God’s grace the glory of martyrdom which others acquire by their own will. For the shedding of one’s blood for Christ’s sake takes the place of Baptism. Wherefore just as in the case of baptized children the merit of Christ is conducive to the acquisition of glory through the baptismal grace, so in those who were slain for Christ’s sake the merit of Christ’s martyrdom is conducive to the acquisition of the martyr’s palm.
Hence Augustine says in a sermon on the Epiphany (De Diversis lxvi), as though he were addressing them: “A man that does not believe that children are benefited by the baptism of Christ will doubt of your being crowned in suffering for Christ. You were not old enough to believe in Christ’s future sufferings, but you had a body wherein you could endure suffering of Christ Who was to suffer.”
– Summa theologiae II-II q. 124, a. 1, ad. 1.
Augustine and Thomas answer by associating their martyrdom with the baptism of blood. The Catholic Church, faithful to Our Lord’s teaching in John 3:3-5, states that no man can be saved without baptism. Period. Close the book. Impossible. However, there are three kinds of baptism: sacramental water baptism, baptism of blood
, and baptism by desire
The Holy Innocents, by their blood death, received all the benefits of sacramental baptism. Their infant souls were regenerate, cleansed of original sin, and infused with sanctifying grace. The Holy Innocents, then, become a very powerful apologetical argument for infant baptism! Keep this fact in your apologetical tool box. If the Holy Innocents were saved by a baptism of blood, then would not sacramental baptism with water also produce the same effects of regeneration and salvation. Of course.
Holy Innocent Infants of Bethlehem, please pray for us who are not innocent.