The International Theological Commission is pondering the fate of children who die unbaptized, with a document expected to be released by year’s end. The traditional problem about such children in Catholic theology is that attaining the beatific vision of God in heaven exceeds the capacity of human nature and requires divine grace, a grace that may be obtained by an act of free will by persons capable of making moral choices and by baptism by infants not so capable. Infants dying without baptism, therefore, pose the hard case, for there are no means apparent in the Christian revelation whereby they might attain the grace needed to reach the beatific vision.
The Catholic Church has never taught de fide on the fate of such infants, but Catholic theologians have usually said that the souls of such children, although not attaining to the beatific vision, suffer no further punishments¯a state designated by the Latin term limbus (a border, edge, or fringe), thus giving us limbo in English. Contemporary theologians are clearly uncomfortable with this result. Thus the Catechism of the Catholic Church (no. 1261) says, "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." Some news reports and many rumors suggest that, on the basis of such arguments, the International Theological Commission will recommend that the pope abolish the doctrine of limbo and declare that the souls of unbaptized infants are saved.
This would be a mistake for at least two reasons. The first is that such a conclusion is unjustifiable by traditional theological methods. The divine deposit of faith entrusted to the Church comprises the Scriptures and the Church’s tradition, and so anything the Church teaches must be adequately supported in one or both of those sources. The Church has sometimes defined and taught dogmas that have very meager foundations in Scripture, such as the Immaculate Conception and Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, but when it has done so, the dogmas have always had some bases in tradition extending back hundreds or even thousands of years. The teachings could claim the warrant of tradition, even if the warrant of Scripture was debated. But the doctrine that all unbaptized infants are saved and enjoy the beatific vision lacks foundation not only in Scripture but also in the Catholic tradition.
Indeed, the doctrine that has a basis in tradition is not that unbaptized infants are saved but rather that they are not, meaning that they are in limbo. Thus the Second Council of Lyon (1274) and the Council of Florence (1438¯1445) both taught, "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" (D 464, 693), the penalty suffered by those in original sin only generally being thought to be limited to the absence of the beatific vision, as stated in a decree of Innocent III. Moreover, Pope Pius VI at least implicitly affirmed the doctrine of limbo by condemning a contrary error at the Synod of Pistoia in 1526. Although none of these magisterial acts amounts to a dogmatic definition by the extraordinary magisterium, the direction of the tradition is obvious. Similarly, the fathers and doctors of the Church who considered the problem are nearly unanimous in affirming that the souls of unbaptized children do not enjoy the beatific vision. See Gregory Nazianzus ( Oratio 40, 23 ), Augustine ( Enchiridion cap. 93 ), and Thomas Aquinas ( Summa Theologiae App. I, 1-2 , De Malo v. 3 ). The teaching that unbaptized children enjoy the beatific vision, therefore, not only lacks foundation in the Catholic tradition but, to the extent that it has been considered, has been positively rejected by it.
As to the argument from the universal salvific will of God (1 Tim. 2:4) implicit in the Catechism , that argument holds that, since God loves all men, he wants the souls of unbaptized children to be saved, and since he surely has the means to save them, they must in fact be saved. But a moment’s reflection shows that this argument is unsound. For God loves everyone, not just unbaptized infants, and, among adult sinners, no one’s hardness of heart is so great that it cannot be overcome by divine grace; hence, if the universal salvific will of God, along with his having the means to ensure that a particular soul is saved, is sufficient to guarantee that that soul is saved, then all men without exception are saved. But since we know that some men are damned, we know that the inference from God’s salvific will to the salvation of any particular individual is illegitimate. Rather, there are sometimes intervening causes and human failures that prevent someone from being saved, and there is no obvious reason to exclude a priori the lack of baptism from among these. After all, Christ did say, "Unless a man be born again of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the Kingdom of God" (John 3:5).
Of course, some theologians, notably Hans Urs von Balthasar, have argued that, for all we know, all men are saved; that is, that we do not actually know that some men are damned. If this were a tenable view, then the argument to abolish limbo based on the universal salvific will of God would be stronger. But Avery Cardinal Dulles has shown that Balthasar’s view is far from the most reasonable reading of the Scriptures and that it conflicts with the traditional magisterial teachings of the Church and of the fathers and doctors, including Augustine and Aquinas. I would go even further than Cardinal Dulles and say that the ordinary and universal magisterium of the Church has taught that there are some human beings who are damned, Judas Iscariot being the obvious candidate (Mark 14:21). Indeed, I think it’s expressly revealed in Scripture that the devil is damned (e.g., Mt. 25:41, Rev. 20:10), and if God’s universal salvific will allow one rational creature to be lost, I don’t see any reason why there cannot be more than one.
So, in my view, the argument from the universal salvific will of God is inadequate to support the view that all unbaptized infants are saved. But there is still an important truth in that argument, which is that God wills the good of all his creatures, especially the rational ones. The key is to distinguish the creature’s natural good, the fulfillment of its nature, from its supernatural good, a fulfillment that exceeds its natural capacities and is possible only with the help of divine grace. God does indeed love the unbaptized infants, and so he wills their good, both their supernatural and their natural good¯but he acts to ensure only their natural good. Hence, according to Thomas Aquinas, in limbo the souls of the unbaptized infants enjoy the complete fulfillment of human nature, including a natural knowledge of God, the greatest possible for unaided human reason. The only thing such souls lack is the supernatural vision of God that is possible only through grace, and, according to Aquinas, they do not even regret not having that supernatural vision because they understand that it is a gift over and above anything human nature could merit and so not something they could ever have reasonably hoped to attain. They no more regret not having the beatific vision, Aquinas says, than a peasant regrets not inheriting a kingdom.
The fate of such souls is therefore not a bad fate, not a fate to be pitied. On the contrary, it is the greatest thing of which human nature is capable, and to look down on it is to hold very cheap the divine grace that makes possible for some persons something even better. On a deep level, most people who despise the fate of the unbaptized infants in limbo are assuming that human beings have some right to the divine grace needed for the beatific vision. Such people are implicitly assuming that those who, even through no fault of their own, do not attain that grace are somehow being treated unfairly or, at least, are deserving of pity, having suffered some misfortune. This is to forget that grace is a gift.
How contemporary theologians could be led into such errors, however, is an important question. I think part of the problem is that they rarely think in terms of the final end for human beings. If they did, it would be natural for them to distinguish between, on the one hand, a natural final end that is proportioned to human nature unaided by grace, is studied in natural philosophy, and supports the conclusions of philosophical ethics, and, on the other, a supernatural final end that is proportioned to human nature remade by grace, is studied in revealed theology, and supports the conclusions of moral theology that exceed those of philosophical ethics. If we think in these terms, it’s easy to see that souls in limbo attaining the natural final end but not the supernatural final end are well off, as well off as human nature can be, absent divine grace.
But many contemporary theologians eschew talk about final ends (one recently told me that I’m in a time warp because I hold to such concepts) and prefer to think in terms of the dignity of the human person. As useful as it may be in some contexts, that concept doesn’t lend itself to a division between a natural and a supernatural level: Such theologians do not usually talk about a natural human dignity and a supernatural human dignity, one supporting philosophical ethics and the other supporting revealed moral theology¯probably for the excellent reason that it would be very difficult to assign distinct contents to two such concepts. If our foundation concept is the dignity of the human person, then we may tend to think that enjoying the beatific vision is what’s appropriate to something with such dignity¯isn’t such dignity founded, after all, on the fact that we are made in the image and likeness of God? So it becomes hard not to see limbo as something bad, as a great misfortune for those who are there¯and hence the felt need to engineer their great escape.
I hope that the members of the International Theological Commission remember that the view that all unbaptized infants are saved is decidedly a modern one, a view very much in the spirit of our times. Ours is a culture that can’t bear the thought of anyone going to hell, even the people who, for all the world, seem to deserve it. Thus we have the near universal custom at Christian funerals of proclaiming that the decedent, no matter how morally dissolute his life, is now enjoying the banquet of heaven in the company of the saints, without even a short stay in Purgatory. The spirit of the age hates hell, and so hates limbo as well, which it cannot adequately distinguish from hell. Let us recall that ours is the age that produces movies like All Dogs Go to Heaven . Overturning the general teaching of the Catholic tradition and abolishing limbo on the basis of nothing but a few decades of contemporary theological speculation would be deeply congenial to the Zeitgeist but contrary to the movement of the Holy Spirit through the ages.
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In addition to which:
Stephen M. Barr says more in seventy-four pages than other introductions to the natural sciences do in several hundred. His highly readable A Student’s Guide to Natural Science (ISI, 2006) distills the history and concepts of the sciences, inserting short biographies of its major figures along the way.
Yesterday, Joseph Bottum mentioned his recent rereading of Robertson Davies’ books¯a plea not to forget the Canadian novelist who died in 1995. What the forgetful Mr. Bottum neglected to mention is that Davies delivered our annual Erasmus Lecture back in the spring of 1990 and that we published the result in the November 1990 issue of First Things . Called "Literature and Moral Purpose," the lecture is also worth not forgetting, and we’ve made it available here . As a reminder, here’s a picture of the eccentric Davies discussing his talk with Richard John Neuhaus: