Friday, April 20, 2007

And you think English-language religion reporting is bad?

The bulletin at the Corriere della Sera gets it very, very wrong:
Chiesa: abolito il limbo, salvi i bimbi morti senza battesimo
CITTA' DEL VATICANO - I bambini morti senza battesimo saranno salvi. La Chiesa ha abolito il limbo con un documento della Commissione teologica internazionale, approvato dal Papa e pubblicato oggi. Il limbo, infatti, riflette una ''visione eccessivamente restrittiva della salvezza''. (Agr)

Church: Limbo abolished, babies saved without baptism
Vatican City - Babies who die without baptism are saved. The Church has abolished limbo with a document of the International Theological Commission, approved by the Pope and published today. Limbo, in fact, reflects an 'excessively restrictive restrictiveness of salvation.

Where does one begin in correcting the mistakes in such a short report? As mentioned previously, the Catholic News Service does an excellent job in reporting this story.
Readers might be interested in this two-page article I wrote which was published on Beliefnet a number of months ago which covers the main theological issues. A longer version of the same piece appeared on this 'blog back in October.

A brief and inadequate summary of the problem
I think the main problem in understanding the whole question is that it's not clearly realised that Limbo was initially proposed as a merciful doctrine. The fact is, we seem to have forgotten that as St Augustine teaches, the default condition of fallen humanity is of estrangement from God, a situation which, if it is not rectified means that we are damned. However, Christ AND ONLY CHRIST has saved us - and this salvation is ordinarily 'passed on' to us by means of our baptism and our participation in the life of grace. This participation in the life of grace heals us and elevates us to share in God's own life - namely the eternal participation in the beatific vision - this is what salvation is. Without a share of Christ's grace we are neither healed nor elevated, and thus, Heaven is an absolute impossibility.
In his defence of the universality of Christ's saving work, Augustine drew on the example of little babies because they were unable commit personal sins. Even little infants are baptised, pointed out Augustine, therefore they too need to receive Christ's salvation. This necessity of baptising infants throws into sharp relief just how dependent we are on Christ for salvation - He is the only way in which we can share in the life of God. But the logical consequence of this argument is inescapable, unbaptised infants seem to have no way of sharing in Christ's salvation. The necessity of baptism is strongly affirmed in Scripture and there is no obvious 'alternative route', and so, with great protests of anguish (he wasn't a monster, my dear readers...), Augustine is forced to argue that unbaptised children necessarily go to Hell - albeit, to suffer in the 'mildest of flames'.
This 'simple' solution didn't quite sit well with later thinkers, and the idea of limbo was proposed to better reflect God's mercy - despite being incapable of participating in the divine life of heaven, later theologians proposed that somehow God conceded the souls of these unbaptised children a state of perfect natural happiness. They weren't in heaven, but they were on a kind of 'fringe' (this is what Limbo means) so that we didn't need to worry about their suffering. The idea of limbo testifies to an instinct in the bosom of the Church that, so far as we can judge, God would not permit these poor souls to suffer. Limbo is a theological attempt to provide a merciful answer to a very upsetting question.
So why not just deduce that they are saved? Is that not more appropriate to God's mercy? And here comes the difficulty - we can only talk about the afterlife to the extent that God has revealed details to us - and in terms of the solution of this problem, there is very little in Scripture and the Tradition that allows for a definitive answer. The necessity of Baptism and the doctrine of Original Sin are central tenets of the faith. We might like to make an appeal to God's mercy, but at the same time, we cannot set our idea of His mercy against what He has revealed to us in total truthfulness.
In the past few centuries, various theologians have come up with various theories as to how Christ's grace might reach these unbaptised souls. If the Catholic News Service report is accurate, then it does not endorse any of these ideas - but does recognise that these ideas give us reason to be in a state of 'prayerful hope' about the fate of these children. We are allowed to think that there might be a way for these babies to share in God's own life.
It should be noted that this could only be possible if, somehow, Christ works to save them in some extraordinary manner which makes good the lack of baptism. Any hope we have for these babies' salvation cannot compromise the utter and total reliance of man on Christ for his salvation.
For theologians, the key point that the document makes is that we simply don't know what the fate of these babies is. The document seems to take the very sensible approach of steering away from giving an answer where none is to be given. (Indeed, I suspect that many theologians are probably convinced that unbaptised children are saved, and it may well be that this document will remind them that, in fact, the question is still open, and seemingly always will be open.) What God has told us in Scripture and Tradition does not answer the question, and therefore the Church cannot pronounce one way or the other. Parents are still under the strictest of obligations to have their babies baptised - that is the one sure way to the life of grace, and the denial of baptism through negligence is a grave thing indeed. However, should a child die without baptism, our attitude will be of prayerful hope that the God of mercy will take care of this little one according to the wisdom of his design.

That darned McBrien

Now, maybe he's being quoted out of context, but he reportedly says:
"If there's no limbo and we're not going to revert to St. Augustine's teaching that unbaptized infants go to hell, we're left with only one option, namely, that everyone is born in the state of grace," said the Rev. Richard McBrien, professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame

*Rolls eyes*
That does not follow. Note the fact that this document gives various theological theories which give a motive for prayerful hope:
The document outlined several ways by which unbaptized babies might be united to Christ:
-- A "saving conformity to Christ in his own death" by infants who themselves suffer and die.
-- A solidarity with Christ among infant victims of violence, born and unborn, who like the holy innocents killed by King Herod are endangered by the "fear or selfishness of others."
-- God may simply give the gift of salvation to unbaptized infants, corresponding to his sacramental gift of salvation to the baptized.
NONE OF THOSE THEORIES IMPLY THAT MAN IS BORN IN A STATE OF GRACE. They all 'compensate' in some sense for the lack of baptism and make Christ's grace available in an extraordinary way analagous to the so-called baptisms of blood and of desire which in other circumstances can 'compensate' for the lack of sacramental baptism. The fact that such an extraordinary and compensatory act of God can happen in some cases, is not a universalization of the state of grace.
McBrien allegedly adds:
"Baptism does not exist to wipe away the "stain" of original sin, but to initiate one into the Church," he said in an e-mailed response.
Again, that is at best misleading, and at worst outright Pelagianism. One might just stay within the boundaries of orthodoxy if one says the above sentence with the intention that membership of the Church is the primary purpose of baptism, and the removal of the stain of Original Sin (does McBrien put the word stain in scare-quotes?) is some kind of secondary effect of baptism. However, if it is intended to mean that Baptism is all about initiation into the Church and has nothing to do with Original Sin... well, that position has been condemned as heretical more times than I care to remember.
On a more positive note, see the Catechism of the Catholic Church for the truth about baptism:
1262 The different effects of Baptism are signified by the perceptible elements of the sacramental rite. Immersion in water symbolizes not only death and purification, but also regeneration and renewal. Thus the two principal effects are purification from sins and new birth in the Holy Spirit.64
1263 By Baptism all sins are forgiven, original sin and all personal sins, as well as all punishment for sin.65 In those who have been reborn nothing remains that would impede their entry into the Kingdom of God, neither Adam's sin, nor personal sin, nor the consequences of sin, the gravest of which is separation from God.

I'll stop now. I'm thinking some very uncharitable things about Fr McBrien and his Pelagian-sounding statements.
I'll add one note, however... Fr O'Brien's description of baptism being about initiation into the Church, whilst having a certain amount of accuracy, isn't exactly the richest way of describing the elevating effects of this marvellous sacrament. Initiation into the Church, yes... but also a sacramental participation in the death and resurrection of Christ our Saviour, an incorporation into the Body of Christ, rebirth as a new creature.