I believe all that the Church teaches about the Desire for Baptism or the desire for Confession, which is found in Council of Trent, Session 6:
Regarding Baptism it says in Chapter 4:
“By which words, a description of the Justification of the impious is indicated,-as being a translation, from that state wherein man is born a child of the first Adam, to the state of grace, and of the adoption of the sons of God, through the second Adam, Jesus Christ, our Saviour. And this translation, since the promulgation of the Gospel, cannot be effected, without the laver of regeneration, OR THE DESIRE THEREOF, as it is written; unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God.”
Regarding Confession in Chapter 16 and Canon 4 it says:
“As regards those who, by sin, have fallen from the received grace of Justification, they may be again justified, when, God exciting them, through the sacrament of Penance they shall have attained to the recovery, by the merit of Christ, of the grace lost: for this manner of Justification is of the fallen the reparation: which the holy Fathers have aptly called a second plank after the shipwreck of grace lost. For, on behalf of those who fall into sins after baptism, Christ Jesus instituted the sacrament of Penance, when He said, Receive ye the Holy Ghost, whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them, and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained. Whence it is to be taught, that the penitence of a Christian, after his fall, is very different from that at (his) baptism; and that therein are included not only a cessation from sins, and a detestation thereof, or, a contrite and humble heart, but also the sacramental confession of the said sins—AT LEAST IN DESIRE—and to be made in its season, and sacerdotal absolution; and likewise satisfaction by fasts, alms, prayers, and the other pious exercises of a spiritual life; not indeed for the eternal punishment, which is, together with the guilt, remitted, either by the sacrament, OR BY THE DESIRE OF THE SACRAMENT, but for the temporal punishment, which, as the sacred writings teach, is not always wholly remitted, as is done in baptism…”
“CANON IV: If any one saith, that the sacraments of the New Law are not necessary unto salvation, but superfluous; and that, without them, OR WITHOUT THE DESIRE THEREOF, men obtain of God, through faith alone, the grace of justification; though all (the sacraments) are not indeed necessary for every individual; let him be anathema.”
What the “desire” means and how it is applied is, of course, a matter of debate until the Church gives a formal definition of what it intends.
Although the Catechism of Trent spoke of “desire” in many places, it only spoke of the desire that must accompany the reception of the sacraments but not whether “desire” for the sacrament can suffice in some extreme instances for the actual reception of the sacrament.
Having said all that, I think the burden of proof in the ongoing debate is upon those who insist that the use of “desire” was not intended to replace, in extreme instances, the actual reception of the sacrament when the actual reception is not possible. The word “desire,” as used in all ecclesiastical documents, refers to the wanting of something that someone does not yet have in reality. Hence a “desire” for the sacrament must then mean that the person desires to receive it before he receives it. This much everyone seems to agree upon.
The question at issue, however, is whether the word “or” means that “either the desire of the sacrament OR the actual sacrament can suffice to receive the sacrament.” Although it is true in some contexts that “or” can mean “and,” it would be superfluous for Trent to intend “and” in the case of the sacraments since in most cases (unless the person is comatose, retarded or forced, which in those cases the Tridentine catechism says to refuse baptism unless prior desire was elicited) the desire for the sacrament is assumed to be evident or is plainly evident before actual reception of the sacrament.
The fact that “or” appears in all three Council of Trent documents means there is no ambiguity on Trent’s intention to use the word “or.”
The fact that Trent applies “or” only to the two “salvation” sacraments, Baptism and Confession, means that “or” was used to secure salvation. As such, it gives the greatest possibility for the individual in eternal sin to rid himself of that sin so as to attain salvation, especially in dire cases in which reception of the actual sacrament is not possible.
This follows the teaching of Jesus that “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” Analogously, the Sacraments were made for man’s salvation, not man for the Sacraments’ salvation. In other words, it is not the purpose of the sacrament to be as exclusive as possible, but to be as inclusive as possible. Man was not made so that he could show how rigorously the sacrament could be limited; rather, the sacrament was made to see how generously and completely it could save man. In that sense it could be said that the Sacrament was made so powerful and accommodating for man that it could transmit its powers of forgiving sin even if the vehicle for reception could only be man’s desire for the sacrament since, because dire circumstances, he could not receive the administered sacrament.
Likewise, the 1994 Catechism says in 1257: “God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments.” The Catechism also says in 1259: “For catechumens who die before their Baptism, their explicit desire to receive it, together with repentance for their sins, and charity, assures them the salvation that they were not able to receive through the sacrament,” showing that the Council of Trent’s “or the desire thereof” can apply in the emergency case of someone who desired baptism but could not receive the administered sacrament due to death.
The extent and the application of the “desire” for baptism becomes a bit more speculative when the Catechism then applies it to those who have never heard of Baptism but may have likely desired it had they known about it. It says in 1260: “Every man who is ignorant of the Gospel of Christ and of his Church, but seeks the truth and does the will of God in accordance with his understanding of it, can be saved. It may be supposed that such persons would have desired Baptism explicitly if they had known its necessity.”
But by the words “it may be supposed” the Catechism admits this is an area of speculation, especially since there is no prior Church teaching on this specific issue.
But since Pius IX clearly teaches in Quanto Moerore of 1863 that those who live in Invincible Ignorance can, with the right life, obtain eternal life, which thus implies that eternal life can be obtained without the actual reception of the sacrament of baptism, then it appears there is at least one case in which the 1994 Catechism’s statement “it may be supposed that such persons would have desired Baptism if they had known its necessity” could be applied.
All these speculations, of course, are not ours to decide, only God’s. God, not we, have the final say on who is saved and who is not saved, and there the debate should rest. As even Pius IX said in Singulari quandem of 1854: “…it is necessary to hold for certain that they who labor in ignorance of the true religion, if this ignorance is invincible, are not stained by any guile in this matter in the eyes of God. Now, in truth, who would arrogate so much to himself as to mark the limits of such an ignorance, because of the nature and variety of peoples, regions, innate dispositions, and of so many other things?"
"For, in truth, when released from these corporeal chains ‘we shall see God as he is,’ we shall understand perfectly by how close and beautiful a bond divine mercy and justice are united; but, as long as we are on earth, weighed down by this mortal mass which blunts the soul, let us hold firmly that, in accordance with Catholic teaching, there is ‘one God, one faith, one baptism’; IT IS UNLAWFUL TO PROCEED FURTHER IN INQUIRY.” (Denz 1647).
Some will argue: “It is a solemnly defined dogma that there is neither salvation nor remission of sins outside the Church,”
But the fact is, it is precisely the objector’s statement that Pius IX used to preface his teaching on Invincible Ignorance in Singulari quandem of 1854. To begin the paragraph he says:
“For it must be held by faith that outside the Apostolic Roman Church, no one can be saved; that this is the only ark of salvation,” thus affirming the Church’s teaching.
But it is in this very context that he goes on to say that the Invincibly Ignorant can be saved, thus showing that “outside the Church there is no salvation” was not dogmatized to exclude the Invincibly Ignorant who can be saved, but to show that they are not to be considered “outside the Church” but inside the Church.
As such, the Church teaches that “extra ecclesium nulla salus” is not the black and white issue that some try to make it, but, like many things in life, it has contingencies based on the context within which it was made and is to be applied. In the case of EENS, the Church is clear there exists contingencies, and we ignore these contingencies to our own detriment, especially in cases in which our own loved ones are in Invincible Ignorance.
Also, it is wrong to argue that: “Baptism is in natural water and to say otherwise is heresy,” without adding in the Council of Trent’s contingent phrase “or the desire thereof” for both Baptism and Confession. Unless the debater can make an airtight case that “or the desire thereof” cannot, under any circumstances, either suffice for the reception of the laver of Baptism or receive the laver sacramentally, and back it up from dogmatic Church teaching and Scripture, then the argument is fallacious.
As for the argument that the Canons of Baptism at Trent declare: ‘CANON II: If any one saith, that true and natural water is not of necessity for baptism, and, on that account, wrests, to some sort of metaphor, those words of our Lord Jesus Christ; Unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost; let him be anathema.’
We must remember that in any interpretation, whether it be biblical or ecclesiastical, the context, both immediate and extended, must be included before any decision is made on the meaning and intent of a particular sentence.
As such, the Council is not teaching against “or the desire thereof” in this Canon, nor could it do so, otherwise it would be contradicting itself. It is clear by the Canon’s chosen words that it is specifically teaching against those outside the Catholic Church (e.g., Calvinists) who turn John 3:5’s words, “Unless a man is born of water and the Spirit” into “some sort of metaphor,” rather than being an explicit command and dogma that water is necessary and effectual for salvation in Baptism. It was the general Protestant belief that the water of John 3:5 was merely symbolic. Some thought it was symbolic of the Bible; others of spiritual cleansing; others of the amniotic fluid. But the Catholic Church said it was the very means of grace and salvation.
Further, no Catholic would ever say that “natural water is not of necessity for baptism,” since Chapter 4, Session 6 of Trent clearly says it is necessary. Rather, the Catholic, who is also bound by the words “or the desire thereof,” must reason that the “desire” for the water of baptism is permitted by the Church to suffice, in some cases, for the actual reception of the water.
Likewise, the argument that Canon 5 says: “If any one saith, that baptism is free, that is, not necessary unto salvation; let him be anathema,”
Once again, no one who argues that the phrase “or the desire thereof” means that “baptism is free and not necessary.” Rather, he is arguing the exact opposite. That is, to the Catholic, baptism is so necessary that the very desire for the water of baptism is required in order to be saved if a situation arises in which the laver of baptism is not possible to receive.
The only ones who were saying that baptism is free and not necessary were the Protestants who believed that the water and baptism itself were “mere metaphors” for some symbolic effects.