Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Among the many ironies punctuating Catholic history, one of the more curious is the spectacle of theologians, dedicated to expounding doctrine on the God who “is love” (1 John 4:8), insisting that infants who die unbaptized will never see God. But, in a letter published in the print edition of the May 2010  First Things , that’s what the Rev. Brian W. Harrison does, by way of criticizing a remark Joseph Bottum made in “ The Public Square ” in the February 2010 issue. For the sake of Catholics and non-Catholics who might be confused about the topic of limbo, Fr. Harrison’s argument merits a reply.

Bottum wrote that Pope Benedict XVI “explained why limbo is unnecessary . . . for Catholics to believe in.” That’s because, in 2005, the pope endorsed the report of the International Theological Commission on the topic, which concluded:

What has been revealed to us is that the ordinary way of salvation is by the sacrament of Baptism. None of the above considerations should be taken as qualifying the necessity of Baptism or justifying delay in administering the sacrament. Rather, as we want to reaffirm in conclusion, they provide strong grounds for hope that God will save infants when we have not been able to do for them what we would have wished to do, namely, to baptize them into the faith and life of the Church.

According to a member of the commission , Sister Sara Butler, S.T.D., the main purpose of the study was to explain and defend the following statement in the  Catechism of the Catholic Church :

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. All the more urgent is the Church’s call not to prevent little children coming to Christ through the gift of holy Baptism. (§1261, 1997 English edition)

Fr. Harrison disapproves of such fast-and-loose playing. He writes:
. . . it seems questionable whether even the  Catechism of the Catholic Church has the authority officially to change Catholic teaching on those rare occasions when it enunciates some doctrinal novelty. For a catechism is intended to be a pastoral, educationally oriented compendium of already existing and settled doctrine. Its authority depends on that of previous teachings of the ordinary and extraordinary magisterium.

Harrison point outs, correctly, that there is no previous magisterial statement to the same effect as  CCC §1261. He notes that the only previous “universal” Catholic catechism, that of the Council of Trent, “affirmed categorically” that “no means for attaining salvation remains for infant children other than baptism.” In support of the Tridentine teaching, Harrison cites one older magisterial statement (a letter of Pope Innocent I in 417), and three subsequent statements of magisterial import. The weightiest is from the Provincial Council of Cologne (1860), not because it was a local council, but because its acts were confirmed by the Holy See and contain the statement “faith teaches [ fides docet ]” that infants who die without baptism, “since they are not capable of this desire [for baptism], are excluded from the heavenly kingdom.” Fr. Harrison concludes:
While the natural happiness of limbo was and is only a hypothesis, that is the case only because the Church never condemned St. Augustine’s alternative hypothesis (revived by some Catholic theologians as recently as the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries) that unbaptized infants suffer, albeit very mildly, in hell. Both permissible hypotheses excluded them eternally from heaven. The Church traditionally taught that exclusion as doctrine, not mere opinion.

So the  Catechism , the International Theological Commission, and the pope himself are wrong. They have treated as an optional—nay, dispensable—opinion what is, in fact, doctrine. Or have they?

In an access of charity, Fr. Harrison exonerates the pope:

Is Benedict XVI aware of the above documents from Catholic tradition ruling out that “hope” which the new  Catechism permits? If he has trusted and depended on theological advice like that given him by the International Theological Commission, probably not. For, astonishingly, not of the five statements mentioned . . . . is referred to in the ITC’s thirty-eight-page study.

So the pope escapes a charge of—what? heresy?—only by having been ignorant and naive. Perhaps somebody besides Fr. Harrison is relieved.

Of course, back in 1985, when he was head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Joseph Ratzinger rejected limbo without any apparent pang of conscience. In  The Ratzinger Report , he is quoted as saying:

Limbo was never a defined truth of faith. Personally—and I am speaking more as a theologian and not as Prefect of the Congregation—I would abandon it since it was only a theological hypothesis . . . . One should not hesitate to give up the idea of limbo if need be, and it is worth noting that the very theologians who proposed “limbo” also said that parents could spare the child limbo by desiring its baptism and through prayer; but the concern behind it must not be surrendered. Baptism has never been a side issue for faith; it is not now, nor will it ever be.

That does not sound like a man who forgets to do his homework.

Now, technically, Fr. Harrison and Cardinal Ratzinger are agreed on one point: limbo was and remains just a hypothesis. The difference is that, according to Fr. Harrison, the only doctrinally permissible alternative for infants who die unbaptized is a mild form of hell, whereas for Cardinal Ratzinger, heaven is also a possibility. For if parents can “spare” children limbo by desire and prayer, what would they be sparing them  for ? Cardinal Ratzinger’s view became common among Catholics after Vatican II, and it was at least acceptable among theologians even during Vatican II. The reasons for that needn’t detain us; the immediate issue is whether the reversal of thought on this subject is a reversal of doctrine, and for that reason erroneous.

The “common doctrine”—to use a technical classification—certainly was that infants who died unbaptized can never see God. Call that doctrine “NSG” for short. But, among Catholics, the question about such doctrines is always whether they have been  infallibly taught . Fr. Harrison is careful not to say that NSG has been so taught. He knows it was never formally defined as a dogma by the “extraordinary magisterium” of councils or popes; all such dogmas, on a Catholic account, are infallibly defined. So, if there’s a case that NSG was infallibly taught, the argument must be that it was infallibly taught by the  ordinary and universal magisterium of the bishops. And, to make such an argument, the criteria for affirming that form of infallibility must be clearly enunciated. Fr. Harrison doesn’t do that—even though such criteria exist.

In  Lumen Gentium §25, the Second Vatican Council asserted: “Although the individual bishops do not enjoy the prerogative of infallibility, they nevertheless proclaim Christ’s doctrine infallibly whenever, even though dispersed through the world, but still maintaining the bond of communion among themselves and with the successor of Peter, and authentically teaching matters of faith and morals, they are in agreement on one position as definitively to be held.” We know of at least one doctrine that Cardinal Ratzinger himself, as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said meets that criterion: the doctrine that “the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women.” He argued that the doctrine has been infallibly set forth, according to the criterion stated by Vatican II, because it is “founded on the written Word of God, and from the beginning constantly preserved and applied in the Tradition of the Church.” Can that be said of NSG? Not really—which is probably why Fr. Harrison doesn’t say it. So, we may safely infer that the pope believes NSG may be dropped because God never preserved it from error to begin with.

It’s fair to ask: What’s the problem? The problem cannot be that the Church is in the process of abandoning a doctrine that hardly anybody ever liked anyway. The problem, for the Fr. Harrisons of the world, is simply that the Church is abandoning a  doctrine . Catholics who call themselves “traditional” Catholics generally have a problem with Vatican II for doing precisely that on such issues as religious liberty and ecumenism. Their preferred stance for the Church is  Semper idem , to use the slogan of one of their heroes, Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani. And now, faced with the pope’s attitude about limbo, some of them have another such grievance. That the content of the particular doctrine being abandoned is irrelevant to them is a sure sign of how seriously the grievance should be taken.

Dear Reader,

We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.

Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on

Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.

Will you give today?

Make My Gift

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter First Thoughts Posts

Related Articles