That said, in what follows I will not be defending the commission's report, or still less attacking the concept of limbo. Rather, I merely wish to point out a few key historical turning points that led to our current theological impasse. It was, after all, this impasse that prompted two popes, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, to reopen the question.
Not being a full-scale monograph, this posting can only highlight four key junctures in the debate: (1) St. Augustine's rejection of the prospect of eternal life for unbaptized babies as dangerously Pelagian; (2) the medieval mitigation of Augustine's grim views with its concept of a painless limbo; (3) the Jansenists' rejection of that mitigating hypothesis; and finally (4) the attack on the concept of "pure nature" by the Jesuit cardinal Henri de Lubac, which (assuming his arguments are cogent) made the concept of limbo even more problematic than it had been.
As I work through this quite brief tour d'histoire, it will become apparent that both the hypothesis of limbo and its rejection entail certain "antinomies," which is a fancy word for that reality often encountered in both philosophy and theology: Assert one thing, and soon history proves that the assertion's implications will lead to the opposite problem. In other words, an antinomy works like that popular child's toy called Wac-a-Mole: Knock down one piston and up pops another.
1. To the best of my knowledge, the term limbo to describe the painless, soteriologically neutral place where unbaptized infants go was first coined by Albert the Great in his commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard. Unfortunately for the orthodox, the fifth-century heretic Pelagius proposed something very similar.
Pelagius' denial of original sin always had one great weakness: the universal practice of infant baptism, which was too embedded in church life for him to overthrow. But why baptize babies if original sin didn't exist? Citing the very verse that the orthodox used to insist on the necessity of baptism ("No one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit," John 3:5), Pelagius granted the point but then made a distinction between the kingdom of God (for access to which baptism is required) and what he called eternal life, which, he claimed, unbaptized infants enjoy by virtue of their having immortal souls.
Now if by eternal life Pelagius meant supernatural eternal life, then his exegesis of the Gospel of John was obviously specious. But maybe he meant something like a purely "natural" eternal life? If one assumes with Pelagius that original sin does not exist, the latter option would seem not to run into the same exegetical difficulties. But of course for Augustine original sin does exist, which automatically precludes Pelagius' hypothesis of "eternal life" under any guise. But then comes the kicker in his logic: if unbaptized infants don't enjoy eternal life, then eternal death must be their fate. As George Dyer explains in Limbo: Unsettled Question:
Augustine had employed his formidable scriptural armament to exclude children from eternal life and from the kingdom of God; … and so in language that was largely scriptural he painted a chilling description of the future life of the unbaptized child. He must face the judgment of God, said Augustine; he is a vessel of wrath, a vessel of contumely, and the judgment of God is upon him. Baptism is the only thing that can deliver him from the kingdom of death and the power of the devil. If no one frees him from the grasp of the devil, what wonder is it that he must suffer in flames with Satan? There can be no doubt about the matter, the saint concludes, he must go into eternal fire with the devil.
True, in a letter to Jerome, Augustine expressed certain misgivings about this conclusion, which is understandable, given how grim his position was. But the vast bulk of his writings never deviates from this basic conclusion: At the end of time, there will be only two regions: on the right hand of Christ, the kingdom of God where the sheep dwell; and on his left, the kingdom of Satan where the goats reside.
2. Augustine's vacillations provided a modest amount of wiggle room for later theologians, but the real change came with the introduction of the writings of Dionysius the Areopagite into western theology, who defined, in the typical Neoplatonist manner, evil as a privation. In that case, unbaptized infants merely lacked the grace of justification but they had done nothing to merit punishment due to personal sin. Peter Lombard adopted this view in his famous Sentences, thereby insuring its semi-canonical status, from which theologians drew various conclusions and hypotheses. Here again, rather than going into the plethora of suggestions proposed by medieval theologians, I will let Dyer provide the simple summary here:
In 1255 [Aquinas] said that children are aware of their lost destiny but feel no regret. In 1265 he said they feel no regret because they have no idea of what they have lost. . . . Saint Bonaventure, however, had quite a different reason to offer. Children in limbo, he said, enjoy a perfect balance between their knowledge and their desires, thanks to the good offices of their Creator. Since grief would imply a lack of balance, it can have no part in the lives of these children. These children stand midway between the blessed and the damned, and so they share something of each state of life. Like the damned, they are exiles from heaven; like the blessed, they know no grief. . . . [For Duns Scotus] children die in a state of personal innocence [emphasis addedScotus did not deny original sin]; by divine decree they will remain so for eternity. Were they to grieve over their loss of heaven, they would lose their innocence either by murmuring against God or by sinking into despair. This is clearly impossible. Since they died without personal fault they will remain so for eternity. Therefore there can be no unhappiness among them over what they are or what they have lost. According to Scotus, there can be no unhappiness of any sort in limbo. Grief, he remarks, is a greater punishment than the pain of sense, because it attacks a higher faculty, the human will. Since children are spared the pain of sense, they must logically be free of any unhappiness. It would be absurd to suppose that they were spared the lighter punishment and left to bear the heavier.
3. If these views seem perilously close to Pelagius' suggestion of a realm of "eternal life," Bishop Cornelius Jansen would agree. As he said in his massive two-volume Augustinus, "Scholastics who gave natural happiness or immunity from eternal fire to infants dying unbaptized had departed far from the mind of Augustine and perhaps of the Church, which had condemned the Pelagians according to his principles." In this opinion, Jansen had the backing not only of Augustine but also, it would seem, of the Second Council of Lyon (1274) and the Council of Florence (14381445), which both taught, in almost identical words: "The souls of those who die in actual mortal sin or in original sin only immediately descend into hell, even though they suffer different penalties."
The debate at this point gets complicated (as if it weren't complicated enough) with the overlapping theses of the Jansenists, the Jesuits, and the Augustinians (meaning here members of the religious order founded by St. Augustine and to which Martin Luther had once belonged). The Jansenists denied limbo and accused its Jesuit defenders of Pelagianism. In their rebuttal, Jesuits theologians often went so far in their attacks on the Jansenists that they angered the Augustinians, who then came to the defense of their patron. In this unpleasant and quite unedifying catfight, various popes intervened, both affirming the orthodoxy of the Augustinians who denied limbo but also condemning the Jansenist assertion that the Jesuit defense of limbo was inherently Pelagian.
It might seem that the Jesuit defense of a painless limbo conflicted with the Councils of Lyons and Florence, already cited above, which clearly envisioned some sort of punishment. But that was not the view of Pius VI, who condemned the Jansenist Synod of Pistoia in his encyclical Auctorem Fidei, published in 1794 (ironically, this defense of the Jesuit position came during the years of their Suppression, so they can hardly be accused of having undue influence in its formulation). Given the fact that earlier popes had cleared the Augustinians of heresy for denying limbo, Pius could hardly claim that the hypothesis of limbo was an obligatory belief. But the Synod of Pistoia went too far, for it openly asserted that limbo was part and parcel of the Pelagian heresy, and this, said Pius, was false as well as insulting to a great number of Catholic theologians. (Perhaps he was wistfully thinking here of the Jesuits, now no longer available to defend the pope against the onslaughts of the anticlerical Jacobins of the French Revolution, now proceeding apace.)
But the story does not quite end there. For several popes in succession condemned the Jansenists for a whole host of other heresies, including the following condemned propositions: All the works of unbelievers are sinful and the virtues of the philosophers are mere depravity (DS 1925); the death of Jesus was not for all mankind (DS 2005); only evil exists outside the grace of Christianity (DS 2438, 2440, 2459). These propositions obviously have implications for the notion of limbo, since if pagans can (theoretically) be saved, then why not their young children, whose only "sin" was to die before reaching the age of reason, where they perhaps could have made the same saving choice as their parents?
4. Parallel to this debate on limbo was another one concerning "pure nature." If we grant that God created us all with a desire for union with him, does that not imply an "obligation" on his part to grant us the fulfillment of that desire, since he created us for union with him? But does that "obligation" on God's part not in turn undermine the concept of the gratuity of grace, which says that God is under no obligation to grant what is freely his to give? Hence the concept of "pure nature," which was, as everyone conceded, a purely theoretical distinction, made solely to guard the concept of gratuitous grace. But, as far as de facto creation went, Augustine himself says, "Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee." And does not Thomas Aquinas say that "every intellect naturally desires the vision of the divine substance" (Summa Contra Gentiles III, 3)?
That of course is only one sentence from the vast sea of Thomas' writings, and many other Thomists dispute the point, citing other texts. I cannot take a position on that debate here. All I want to say is that if Henri de Lubac is right in his book The Mystery of the Supernatural, then this conclusion inexorably follows:
It is said that a universe might have existed in which man, though without necessarily excluding any other desire, would have his rational ambitions limited to some lower, purely human, beatitude. Certainly I do not deny it. But having said that, one is obliged to admitindeed one is automatically affirmingthat in our world as it is this is not the case. . . . [Thus] the "desire to see God" cannot be permanently frustrated without an essential suffering. To deny this is to undermine my entire Credo. For is not this, in effect, the definition of the "pain of the damned"? And consequentlyat least in appearancea good and just God could hardly frustrate me, unless I, through my own fault, turn away from him by choice. The infinite importance of the desire implanted in me by my Creator is what constitutes the infinite importance of the drama of human existence.
This is hardly the place to resolve this extremely complex debate. I only wish to point out how many theological presuppositions come into play when theologians discuss the Eschaton in its relation to the sacraments, grace, free will, and sin (both original and personal). In a way, because these issues are all still outstanding, the concept of limbo has served as a kind of pis aller, an expedient invoked because something seems not quite right about either Augustine or Pelagius. Pelagius was condemned easily enough, but did Augustine have the right answer when he claimed that all newborns are vessels of wrath deserving of hell unless their parents make it to the baptismal font before they die of some congenital defect or an unhygienic midwife?
The ITC certainly demurs from the authority of Augustine here when it points to this central flaw in his reasoning: "Every man is Adam," he said, "just as, in the case of those who believe, every man is Christ, for they are his members." As the commission rightly observes, this is to put the cart before the horse: "Many traditional accounts of sin and salvation (and of Limbo) have stressed solidarity with Adam more than solidarity with Christ, or at least such accounts have had a restrictive conception of the ways by which human beings benefit from solidarity with Christ."
A further point to mention is that before the opening session of Vatican II, some bishops asked the council officially to declare that unbaptized babies are eternally deprived of the beatific vision. But the proposal was rejected because so many other bishops testified that this view did not correspond to the faith of their people. And thank God it was rejected, for it would have made so many other statements the council did make about ecumenism and world religions (and even atheism) impossible, especially the declaration that all human beings have been created with that same humanity that Christ himself had assumed, so that everyone lives in some kind of relation to him (Lumen Gentium No. 16; see Colossians 1:1518), by nature and not just sacramentally. But given the fact that the council did so declare our primal and universal solidarity with Christ, it rendered limbo even more problematic: What was made possible by the council's refusal to consign unbaptized infants to limbo itself undermines limbo, once the priority of Christ over Adam was proclaimed.
What has so bedeviled, so to speak, this debate on limbo and the unbaptized is how little consideration has been given to St. Paul's insistence that in baptism we are baptized into the Body of Christ. To hear some people's reaction to the Vatican's Statement on Limbo, one would think that baptism is a kind of celestial life-insurance policy, of relevance for the recipient alone but of no consequence to the body of the cosmos whatever (and certainly worthless tender when debased by the non-baptized getting into heaven, too!). But that is scarcely Paul's view: "We know that the whole creation has been groaning as if in the pangs of childbirth right up to the present day. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we await eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies" (Rom. 8:2223).
If the ITC Report on Limbo leads to a reappropriation of Paul's theology of baptism, I will not be at all disappointed.
Edward T. Oakes, S.J., teaches theology at the University of St. Mary of the Lake.