Sunday, October 08, 2006

Some thoughts about Limbo

Some time ago I had to prepare a brief piece dealing with St Augustine's De peccatorum meritis et remissione for another forum and it so happened that the perrenial 'Vatican to Abolish Limbo' story was in the news at that time, so I prepared a brief (and decidedly inadequate) treatment of some of the issues involved. It's at the suggestion of an acquaintance that I post the following in this forum (and I've not had time to re-edit it to suit the 'blog format) before the document of the ITC changes the theological landscape in this area. My basic position is largely unchanged from the time I wrote this paper - the ITC would be prudent to say no more than the Cathechism of the Catholic Church.
Comments and civil critism of my position are most welcome - albeit with a request that it be borne in mind that the piece is neither as long or as in depth as I would like it to be, and I'm aware of the various lacunae extant in the argument.

On Limbo

The announcement that the International Theological Commission was to consider the fate of unbaptised infants provoked the usual rash of stories about the (supposedly) forthcoming decision of the ‘Vatican’ to ‘abolish limbo’. One might suppose that to the eyes of the secular press, this was a somewhat amusing piece of doctrinal housekeeping by a Church whose teaching seems irredeemably medieval. However, the fate of unbaptised babies and the question of limbo does touch on weighty theological issues and on delicate pastoral matters.

Pastorally speaking the death of a baby is always difficult. Additionally, in recent years there has been an increased awareness of the number of pregnancies that end in miscarriage[1] and a greater openness allowing parents to grieve for their stillborn or miscarried offspring. When an baptised infant dies before reaching the age of reason, the Church can comfort the parents with the assurance that the merits of Jesus Christ have won their child eternal beatitude in Heaven. However, no such promise can be made with respect to unbaptised children. Thankfully, practices such as the burial of unbaptised children in unconsecrated ground (a distinction shared with suicides) have been discontinued, but the Catechism of the Catholic Church can say no more than:

As regards children who have died without Baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God, as she does in her funeral rites for them. Indeed, the great mercy of God who desires that all men should be saved, and Jesus' tenderness toward children which caused him to say: “Let the children come to me, do not hinder them,” allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without Baptism.[2]

The scandal of the millions of unborn babies killed through abortion also challenges the Church in a manner not dissimilar to the way in which the discovery of new and unevangelized countries during the age of exploration challenged the Church to meditate on the prospects of salvation for those who have never had the chance of hearing the Gospel. In the initial edition of Evangelium Vitae, Pope John Paul II seemed to propose a development in the Church’s teaching on the fate of the victims of abortion. He wrote:

I would now like to say a special word to women who have had an abortion. […] If you have not already done so, give yourselves over with humility and trust to repentance. […] You will come to understand that nothing is definitively lost and you will also be able to ask forgiveness from your child, who is now living in the Lord.[3]

However, as Dominic Farrell LC notes:

Among other things he (Pope John Paul II) pointed out that they are able to ask forgiveness from their aborted child, “who is now living in the Lord”. This phrase implied that the souls of aborted infants are currently in heaven. However, it was removed from the official Latin version. It seems the Pope had taken too strong a position on a question still under discussion. The official edition says instead, “However, you can entrust your baby to the Father and his mercy with hope.” It basically repeats the Catechism’s position.[4]

The situation that the Church finds itself in is that she can only pronounce authoritatively on the fate of the unbaptised, in a manner consistent with the divinely revealed truths about original sin and the necessity of baptism for salvation.

The doctrine of original sin was initially systematically articulated by St Augustine in his debates with the Pelagians in the 5th Century[5]. Expressed briefly (and hopefully without doing too much of an injustice to a complicated doctrine), the Church teaches that Revelation tells us that due to the disobedience of our first parents, the default condition of human beings from their conception is that of a certain estrangement from God. The extent of this estrangement is such that the Council of Florence taught:

…the souls of those who depart this life in actual mortal sin, or in original sin alone, go down straightaway to hell to be punished, but with unequal pains.[6]

Now, it is worth noting that the above teaching of the Council needs to be understood within the context of the entire doctrinal edifice of the Catholic Faith. It may be argued in particular that the council did not have in mind the case of unbaptised babies and unborn children. However, it is quite clear that the Council teaches that the state of original sin demands some remedy before the one afflicted can see God.

St Augustine devoted a great deal of attention to the question of the fate of unbaptised infants. Because the nature of original sin (as distinct from personal sin) was the key point of dispute with the Pelagians, the fate of these ‘little ones’ provided the ideal ‘test case’ for him to demonstrate the effect of man’s fallen condition. He argues with great vehemence that these children are condemned, albeit ‘under the mildest condemnation of all.’[7] He adduces numerous scriptural and theological arguments for this thesis and, distasteful as we may find his conclusion[8], it must be admitted that many of his arguments still have force today. Probably the most important argument is the relationship between the doctrine of the redemption and that of original sin. Without affirming the doctrine of original sin the universal nature of Christ’s redemptive work is gravely compromised[9]. It is a central truth of the faith that all human beings are in need of Christ’s salvation. Deny the doctrine of original sin and one denies the salvific work of Christ. Indeed, some modern reformulations of the doctrine which re-propose original sin in terms of ‘structures of sin’ and so on, rather than in terms of an inherited defect in human nature seem to offer hope of self-salvation or rather salvation by means of purely human activity in overturning these structures. Augustine also makes much of the inseparability of the categories of Eternal Life and the Kingdom of God[10]. This ties into Augustine’s ecclesiology of tightly identifying Christ with the Church and the consequent necessity of baptism into Christ for salvation. This reluctance to adopt any ‘novel and strange hypothesis’[11] is laudable, but one might ask whether the position he adopted with respect to unbaptised children was asserted too strongly in the heat of debate.

Notwithstanding the weight of St Augustine’s arguments, the notion of these little children suffering seems at odds with the mercy and goodness of God and a variety of theological positions were developed which mitigated the severity of his position. In particular, it was seen that the distinction between the ‘poena damni’ (exclusion from the beatific vision) and the ‘poena sensus’ (material or sensible suffering of Hell) could afford a certain tempering of the position by suggesting that those infants might suffer the former only. The scholastic proposition that a state of purely natural happiness might not be incompatible with separation from the beatific vision[12] (i.e. the state[13] of limbo) can therefore be seen as a merciful solution to a thorny theological problem.

The idea of limbo did receive some occasional magisterial support (e.g. when Pius VI condemned the synod of Pistoia for dismissing Limbo as a ‘pelagian fable’[14]) and broad popular acceptance until relatively recent times, but has not been authoratively taught by the Church as dogma. There is a certain theological elegance about this scholastic speculation, but it must be frankly admitted that it does not seem that a plausible case can made for it being a revealed truth, or necessarily implied by revealed truths.

In addition to St Augustine’s position and that of limbo, attempts have been made in more recent times to consider the question in terms of God’s universal salvific will. Whilst sacramental baptism is the ordinary means of salvation made known to us by Christ, the Church humbly acknowledges that God is not bound to confine Himself to her sacraments and we therefore cannot exclude extraordinary means of salvation. Most commonly recognised amongst these is that of the baptism of desire of the catechumen and the baptism of blood of the unbaptised martyr. Amongst the latter, the most extraordinary case is that of the Holy Innocents who are venerated as saints and martyrs despite not being killed for adherence to the Gospel; rather an accident of time and space meant that they were slaughtered out of Herod’s hatred for Christ. Amongst the possible solutions to our dilemma listed by Ott[15] are baptism by vicarious desire (this would only apply to the children of Christian parents, presumably), the child being granted the privilege of reason at the moment of death to decide for or against God or the suffering and death of the child as a quasi-baptism (one immediately thinks of abortion, in particular). In addition, I also note that St Thomas Aquinas in considering whether an unborn child might be baptised says:

Children while in the mother's womb have not yet come forth into the world to live among other men. Consequently they cannot be subject to the action of man, so as to receive the sacrament, at the hands of man, unto salvation. They can, however, be subject to the action of God, in Whose sight they live, so as, by a kind of privilege, to receive the grace of sanctification; as was the case with those[16] who were sanctified in the womb.[17]

However, it would seem that there is no truly convincing argument in favour of any one of these particular ‘extraordinary means’.

It is worth reflecting briefly on the particular context in which the question of limbo is being considered. There seems to be a declining belief in the reality of damnation and a move towards a de facto universalism. In such a context, the previously merciful teaching of limbo becomes an abomination. Additionally, with the trend towards eliminating the concept of super-nature, the idea of a natural beatitude loses coherence. However, if the decision is taken to ‘abolish limbo’ (i.e. forbid it as a permissible theological position) do we not run the risk of sliding into universalism and denying the general necessity sacramental baptism by presumptuously relying on ‘extra-ordinary means’ about which the Lord has not chosen within the deposit of revelation?

If we turn to the liturgy and the law of the Church we see that her mind is not to treat baptised and unbaptised child similarly. There is a particular funeral rite for unbaptised infants and there remains the obligation to baptize every child in danger of death[18] (even against the wishes of the parents[19]).

With all due respect to St Augustine, I would suggest that we might more accurately say, not that infants who die before baptism are condemned, but that infants before baptism are under condemnation by being under original sin. Beyond that, I think that we can prudently affirm no more than the sober optimism of Catechism[20].

[1] Various studies suggest that as many as 50% of all pregnancies may end in miscarriage. About half of them occur before the parents are aware of the pregnancy.

[2] CCC 1261

[3] Evangelium Vitae 99 (English Version - )

[4] Dominic Farrell LC, Is Limbo in Limbo,

[5] CCC 406

[6] Council of Florence, Latentur Caeli, DH 1306

[7] St Augustine, De peccatorum meritis et remissione I, 16.21

[8] Let us not forget the fact that St Augustine himself was troubled by this conclusion. C.f. ibid I, 21.30

[9] c.f. ibid I,16.21-19.25

[10] Ibid I, 20.26-21.30

[11] Ibid I, 20.26

[12] Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, 114

[13] Often conceived of as a ‘place’. In eschatological discourse such spatial language is best considered as (very) analogical.

[14] DH 2626

[15] Ludwig Ott, op. cit. 114

[16] i.e. Our Lady and St John the Baptist

[17] St Thomas Aquinas, ST, III, 68, 11 ad 1

[18] CIC 867 §2

[19] CIC 868 §2

[20] c.f. CCC 1261

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