What happens if someone is baptized, but does not receive the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist? Was not our Lord clear that those who never drank His blood would perish? It is a great question, and I will seek to give an answer from three ancient witnesses, all deemed Saints by both Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholics, and Anglicans today.
During the life of a well renowned African theologian & Bishop, St. Fulgentius of Ruspe (A.D. 467-527+), a letter was written to him from Ferrandus Fulgentius, who himself was a renowned theologian and canonist in North Africa, wherein it was asked whether a persons who had been baptized unconsciously without receiving the Body and Blood of Christ was still condemned since, “unless a man eat the flesh of the Son of Man, He has no life in him”. The Catholic historian Fr. William Jurgens describes this letter (#11) in the following summary: “It concerns ‘the servant of a certain religious man, a youth in age and an Ethiopian in color, whom I believe was captured in the most remote parts of the barbarian province, where the dry limbs of a man are drakened by the fiery heat of the sun’. The young black captive, at any rate, was given to a Church, and there became a Catechumen. Now he is desperately ill, and unconscious. In his unconccious state the Baptism that he had desired can be given him; but what if he never receive the Eucharist? For unless a man eat the Body of the Lord and drink His blood he cannot have life in him.” (The Faith of the Early Father, Vol. III, p. 289 ff. 4). In his response epistle (#12) , St. Fulentius answers in the follow manner:
“I think, holy brother, that what we have discussed, confirmed by the word of the preeminent teacher Augustine, should leave no room for doubt at all, that anyone of the faithful becomes a participant in the Body and Blood of the Lord when in Baptism he has been made a member of the Body of Christ; and, having been brought into the unity of the Body of Christ, he is not to be alienated from the assembly of that Bread and Cup, even if before he can eat that Bread and drink that Cup he depart from this world” (translation, ibid. Jurgens, p. 286)
This is quite interesting since there are nine passages in St. Augustine which seem to say the opposite, namely, that as baptism was required to inherit eternal life even for infants, the same with regard to the Eucharist. However, we must observe that St. Augustine was not answering the specific question of what occurs when an infant is baptized and then does not receive the Eucharist. Perhaps what St. Augustine says on the matter of baptizing catechumens who are unconscious (De Adulterinis Conjugiis 1.26, 33), namely, if they expressed the right desire while a catechumen should be baptized, would shed light on this specific conundrum. We do know that St. Augustine taught very explicitly that baptism itself makes an infant or person a member of the body of Christ, and that infants pose no obstacle or obstruction to receiving the grace. He says no less in On Merit and the Forgiveness of Sins (Book III, Ch. 7) : “The inevitable conclusion from these truths is this, that, as nothing else is effected when infants are baptized except that they are incorporated into the church, in other words, that they are united with the body and members of Christ, unless this benefit has been bestowed upon them, they are manifestly in danger of damnation.” . If an unconscious catechumen, to whom St. Augustine put the condition of true desire, can be legitimately baptized for incorporation into Christ, how much more the infant whom St. Augustine says has no obstacle for baptismal grace whatsoever (Ep 98.10)? What would even compel this even more is that St. Augustine also spoke of the idea of a “baptism by desire”. In Book 4.22 of his 7 Book work “On Baptism, Contra Donatists”, he writes the following: “That the place of Baptism is sometimes supplied by martyrdom is supported by an argument by no means trivial, which the Blessed Cyprian adduces from the thief, to whom, though he was not Baptized, it was yet said, ‘Today shalt thou be with Me in Paradise.’ On considering which, again and again, I find that not only Martyrdom for the sake of Christ may supply what was wanting of Baptism, but also faith and conversion of heart, if recourse may not be had to the celebration of the Mystery of Baptism for want of time. For neither was that thief crucified for the Name of Christ, but as the reward of his own deed; nor did he suffer because he believed, but he believed while suffering. It was shown, therefore, in the case of that thief, how great is the Power, even without the visible Sacrament of Baptism, of what the Apostle says, ‘With the heart man believeth unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.’ But the want is supplied invisibly only when the administration of Baptism is prevent, not by contempt for religion, but by the necessity of the moment”. Therefore, I think if St. Augustine thought that baptismal grace was available for a desiring catechumen, whether dying immediately or receiving the physical sacrament while unconscious, that he would answer in the affirmative to the question of whether an infant who oddly dies just after baptism before receiving the Body and Blood of Christ would inherit eternal life.
One more person to reference here is a contemporary of St. Augustine, Pope St. Innocent I, holding Papal office from 401-417. It has been argued that this Pope taught even infants who were baptized, but did not receive communion were damned. This is taken from Epistle #30 [Inter Caeteras Romanae] , which was written as a response-epistle by St. Innocent to the Bishops gathered into the Council of Milevis in AD 417. It seems very unlikely given the words read in context. I take the following English translation from Jugens (vol. III, p. 182):
“But that which your fraternity asserts the Pelagians preach, that even without the grace of Baptism infants are able to be endowed with the rewards of eternal life, is quite idiotic [perfatuum]. For unless they shall have eaten the Flesh of the Son of Man and shall have drunk His blood, they shall not have life in them. But those who defend this for them without rebirth seem to me to want to quash baptism itself, when they preach that infants already have what is believed to be conferred on them only through Baptism”
I don’t see how this would necessitate a damnation for baptized infants who happen to die before receiving at the Lord’s altar.
Lastly, in another letter of St. Innocent (Letter #6, Consulenti Tibi), he answers some questions on discipline, particularly the question of someone who, after receiving Baptism, returns to a life of sin and lived his whole life given to pleasure, and then comes back asking for penance and the grace of communion. St. Innocent answers (again, from Jurgens, vol. III, p. 180):
“The former rule in their regard was more difficult, the recent more lenient, because mercy has intervened. For the former custom held that penance was to be granted but communion denied. For in times when there were cruel persecutions, lest the ease with which communion was granted might not restrain men, confident of reconciliation, from a lapse, communion was rightly denied; but penance was granted, lest the whole be entirely denied; and by reason of the times, forgiveness was made more difficult. But after our Lord restored peace to His churches, terror having now been removed, it was decided that communion should be given to the dying as a Viaticum…”.
When he says in describing the older more rigorous discipline, he says penance was provided ,”lest the whole be entirely denied”. This would furnish proof that St. Innocent did believe there was some hope of men gaining eternal life without partaking of the Body and Blood of Christ, however much more difficult in that set of circumstances.