Friday, April 20, 2007

ITC Limbo Document Out

Biretta-doff to Argent.Via the Catholic News Service:
VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- After several years of study, the Vatican's International Theological Commission said there are good reasons to hope that babies who die without being baptized go to heaven.

In a document published April 20, the commission said the traditional concept of limbo -- as a place where unbaptized infants spend eternity but without communion with God -- seemed to reflect an "unduly restrictive view of salvation."

The church continues to teach that, because of original sin, baptism is the ordinary way of salvation for all people and urges parents to baptize infants, the document said.

But there is greater theological awareness today that God is merciful and "wants all human beings to be saved," it said. Grace has priority over sin, and the exclusion of innocent babies from heaven does not seem to reflect Christ's special love for "the little ones," it said.

"Our conclusion is that the many factors that we have considered ... give serious theological and liturgical grounds for hope that unbaptized infants who die will be saved and enjoy the beatific vision," the document said.

"We emphasize that these are reasons for prayerful hope, rather than grounds for sure knowledge," it added.

The 41-page document, titled "The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized," was published in Origins, the documentary service of Catholic News Service. Pope Benedict XVI authorized its publication earlier this year.

The 30-member International Theological Commission acts as an advisory panel to the Vatican, in particular to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Its documents are not considered expressions of authoritative church teaching, but they sometimes set the stage for official Vatican pronouncements.

The commission's document said salvation for unbaptized babies who die was becoming an urgent pastoral question, in part because their number is greatly increasing. Many infants today are born to parents who are not practicing Catholics, and many others are the unborn victims of abortion, it said.

Limbo has never been defined as church dogma and is not mentioned in the current Catechism of the Catholic Church, which states simply that unbaptized infants are entrusted to God's mercy.

But limbo has long been regarded as the common teaching of the church. In the modern age, "people find it increasingly difficult to accept that God is just and merciful if he excludes infants, who have no personal sins, from eternal happiness," the new document said.

Parents in particular can experience grief and feelings of guilt when they doubt their unbaptized children are with God, it said.

The church's hope for these infants' salvation reflects a growing awareness of God's mercy, the commission said. But the issue is not simple, because appreciation for divine mercy must be reconciled with fundamental church teachings about original sin and about the necessity of baptism for salvation, it said.

The document traced the development of church thinking about the fate of unbaptized children, noting that there is "no explicit answer" from Scripture or tradition.

In the fifth century, St. Augustine concluded that infants who die without baptism were consigned to hell. By the 13th century, theologians referred to the "limbo of infants" as a place where unbaptized babies were deprived of the vision of God, but did not suffer because they did not know what they were deprived of.

Through the centuries, popes and church councils were careful not to define limbo as a doctrine of the faith and to leave the question open. That was important in allowing an evolution of the teaching, the theological commission said.

A key question taken up by the document was the church's teaching that baptism is necessary for salvation. That teaching needs interpretation, in view of the fact that "infants ... do not place any personal obstacle in the way of redemptive grace," it said.

In this and other situations, the need for the sacrament of baptism is not absolute and is secondary to God's desire for the salvation of every person, it said.

"God can therefore give the grace of baptism without the sacrament being conferred, and this fact should particularly be recalled when the conferring of baptism would be impossible," it said.

This does not deny that all salvation comes through Christ and in some way through the church, it said, but it requires a more careful understanding of how this may work.

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.

The document said the standard teaching that there is "no salvation outside the church" calls for similar interpretation.

The church's magisterium has moved toward a more "nuanced understanding" of how a saving relationship with the church can be realized, it said. This does not mean that someone who has not received the sacrament of baptism cannot be saved, it said.

Rather, it means that "there is no salvation which is not from Christ and ecclesial by its very nature," it said.

The document quoted St. Paul's teaching that spouses of Christians may be "consecrated" through their wives or husbands. This indicates that the holiness of the church reaches people "outside the visible bounds of the church" through the bonds of human communion, it said.

The document said the church clearly teaches that people are born into a state of sinfulness -- original sin -- which requires an act of redemptive grace to be washed away.

But Scripture also proclaims the "superabundance" of grace over sin, it said. That seems to be missing in the idea of limbo, which identifies more with Adam's sinfulness than with Christ's redemption, it said.

"Christ's solidarity with all of humanity must have priority over the solidarity of human beings with Adam," it said.

Liturgically, the motive for hope was confirmed by the introduction in 1970 of a funeral rite for unbaptized infants whose parents intended to present them for baptism, it said.

The commission said the new theological approach to the question of unbaptized babies should not be used to "negate the necessity of baptism, nor to delay the conferral of the sacrament."

"Rather, there are reasons to hope that God will save these infants precisely because it was not possible to do for them that what would have been most desirable -- to baptize them in the faith of the church and incorporate them visibly into the body of Christ," it said.

The commission said hopefulness was not the same as certainty about the destiny of such infants.

"It must be clearly acknowledged that the church does not have sure knowledge about the salvation of unbaptized infants who die," it said.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict, was president of the commission and head of the doctrinal congregation when the commission began studying the question of limbo in a systematic way in 2004.

U.S. Cardinal William J. Levada now heads the commission and the doctrinal congregation. Cardinal Levada met with the pope to discuss the document Jan. 19 and, with the pope's approval, authorized its publication.
I'm loathe to comment before reading the document itself, but CNS seems to have given an intelligent reading of the document and has stated quite clearly that the ITC doesn't have Magisterial authority. We cannot expect intelligent reporting of this in the secular press. Expect headlines to speak of the 'Pope' or 'the Vatican' 'abolishing Limbo'.
What we actually seem to have is a rather measured document which does not declare the automatic salvation of the unbaptized and does not totally dismiss limbo as being an unsupportable theological position. The report suggests that it does not obscure the genuine difficulty of the question and insists on the necessity and obligation of baptism.


Anonymous said...

Check out Fr. Brian Harrison's article on Limbo at

This is an excerpt

After Pope John Paul II's retraction, in the final and definitive version of Evangelium Vitae #99 (cf. Acta Apostolicae Sedis, vol. 87 [1995] p. 515) of the initial version's statement that aborted babies "now live in the Lord" (i.e., are in Heaven), it appears that the only papal statement expressly mentioning the destiny of aborted infants is that of Pope Sixtus V, whose Constitution Effrænatam of 29 October 1588 not only abstains from raising any hopes that they may attain the beatific vision, but positively affirms that they do not attain it!

The main purpose of this document was to reinforce civil and canonical sanctions against those who carry out abortions and sterilizations in the papal states: it goes so far as to prescribe the death penalty for both these offences. The Pope begins by affirming the need for sterner measures to be taken against "the barbarity ... of those who do not shrink from the most cruel slaughter of fetuses still coming to maturity in the shelter of their mothers' wombs" ("... eorum immanitatem ... qui immaturos foetus intra materna viscera adhuc latentes crudelissime necare non verentur" — my English translation.) Pope Sixtus then continues, by way of explanation (my translation and emphasis):

For who would not detest a crime as execrable as this — a crime whose consequence is that not just bodies, but — still worse! — even souls, are, as it were, cast away? The soul of the unborn infant bears the imprint of God's image! It is a soul for whose redemption Christ our Lord shed His precious blood, a soul capable of eternal blessedness and destined for the company of angels! Who, therefore, would not condemn and punish with the utmost severity the desecration committed by one who has excluded such a soul from the blessed vision of God? Such a one has done all he or she could possibly have done to prevent this soul from reaching the place prepared for it in heaven, and has deprived God of the service of this His own creature.

Thus, three times in the one paragraph, in different ways, the Pope affirms that aborted babies are excluded from the beatific vision. It is obvious he is taking for granted the broader thesis that those infants in general who die unbaptized suffer the same deprivation. It would also be gratuitous, in view of the force of the Pope's language and his use of the word "eternal", as well as the whole of the previous tradition of the Church, to postulate that perhaps Sixtus V only meant to affirm here that the "exclusion" of such infants from Heaven is at least temporary, i.e., that he wasn't rejecting here the possibility that Limbo is really only a kind of Purgatory for infants. The original text of the above paragraph is as follows: "Quis enim non detestetur, tam execrandum facinus, per quod nedum corporum, sed quod gravius est, etiam animarum certa iactura sequitur? Quis non gravissimis suppliciis damnet illius impietatem, qui animam Dei imagine insignitam, pro qua redimenda Christus Dominus noster preciosum Sanguinem fudit, aeternae capacem Beatitudinis, et ad consortium Angelorum destinatam, a beata Dei visione exclusit, reparationem coelestium sedium quantum in ipso fuit, impedivit, Deo servitium suae creaturae ademit?" (ibid.). The Latin text of this Constitution can be found in P. Gasparri (ed.), Codex Iuris Canonici Fontes, vol. I, p. 308.

Anonymous said...

I am late to this thread. I am also the mother of an aborted daughter & the grandmother of a grandson who, at 8# & a completely normal delivery, was born dead. For you, or St Augustine or any Pope, to tell me that these helpless children cannot be confided to God's Mercy is merciless. To tell me, "oh don't worry, they're in the lighter flames of hell or on the fringes or heaven" is also merciless. It would be infinitely more merciful for God to send me to hell & allow them to enter heaven.
In straining at gnats, you've swollowed a camel & only JPII seems to have avoided that indigestion. I.e., in the (correct) belief that salvation is only possible through Jesus Christ, you constrain Jesus himself & that salvation he won for all of us. Especially those most in need of his mercy.
This wouldn't be so bad if you simply tie yourself up in knots in your ivory tower but, in fact, you're also binding those who look to you for guidance.