Back in October, I wrote in this space about how the Vatican’s International Theological Commission (ITC) was preparing a document on the fate of unbaptized infants that, by some accounts, would say that such infants are saved and enjoy the beatific vision. I noted then that the Catholic Church has never taught de fide on this topic, and I argued that the ITC’s taking the position rumored would be a serious mistake. The reason, I said, is that the Scriptures are simply silent on this topic and sacred tradition runs strongly contrary to the idea that such infants are saved. Hence, nothing more positive can be justified by traditional methods of theological argument than the guarded view, already stated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (no. 1261), that it is possible that such infants are saved and we may hope that they are.
The ITC has now issued its document . It is in many ways unlovely, being excessively long and repetitious and full of sometimes unintentionally humorous irrelevancies; I’ll leave you guessing, for example, as to what the founding of the African Union has to do with the fate of unbaptized infants or why footnote 104 refers to the Live Aid concert of 1985. For all its faults, however, the document gets right the essential point: "Our conclusion is that [there are] . . . grounds for hope that unbaptized infants will be saved and enjoy the beatific vision" (no. 102), but "the church does not have sure knowledge about the salvation of unbaptized infants" because "the destiny of . . . infants who die without baptism has not been revealed to us, and the church teaches and judges only with regard to what has been revealed" (no. 79). In other words, after 42 pages, 135 footnotes, and more than 22,000 words, the ITC has said no more than what the Catechism had said back in 1994: It is possible that unbaptized infants are saved and so we may hope that they are, but we do not know for sure because God has not revealed to us their destiny.
In fact, the ITC even seems to back off slightly from the position taken in the Catechism , for the ITC expressly notes that the traditional teaching on limbo "remains a possible theological opinion" (no. 41). And no wonder, for in the section of the document treating the history of the question, the ITC assembles quite an array of authorities tending in various ways to oppose the view that unbaptized infants are saved. The list includes Pseudo-Athanasius, Anastasius of Sinai, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory Nazianzus, Augustine, Jerome, Fulgentius, Avitus of Vienne, Gregory the Great, Anselm of Canterbury, Hugh of St. Victor, Peter Abelard, Peter Lombard, Innocent III, Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus, Robert Bellarmine, Paul III, Benedict XIV, Clement XIII, Pius VI, and Pius XII.
Surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, what arguments does the ITC adduce to explain why it hopes that unbaptized infants be saved? After "provid[ing] a new context" by referring to the wars of the twentieth century, the modern temptation to despair, the improvement of global communications and travel, and the fact that we all feel bad when we see children suffer (none of which, of course, is in the least relevant), and after quoting and requoting (sometimes three and four times) the same passages from Scripture¯passages that the ITC had already conceded don’t settle the issue (no. 9)¯the argument comes down to this: God’s universal salvific will, plus the fact that Christ entered into solidarity with all humanity in a "great cosmic mystery of communion" (no. 92), give us "grounds for hope that unbaptized infants . . . will be saved" (no. 102). Given all the doctors, theologians, and popes on the other side of the question, one might think of this argument as being the triumph of hope over expertise.
Even calling it an argument, however, is generous. It amounts to nothing more than saying, "There seems to be a tension between . . . the universal salvific will of God on the one hand and the necessity of sacramental baptism on the other," because the latter "seems to limit the extension of God’s universal salvific will" (no. 10).
The answer to this, of course, is obvious and well-known in sacred tradition. Although God wants all men to be saved, nevertheless some men are damned to hell (a fact the ITC acknowledges by quoting from the Synod of Quiercy), and if God’s universal salvific will is compatible with some men being damned to hell, then there’s no problem at all with it being compatible with some unbaptized infants enjoying a natural but not a supernatural happiness in limbo. God wills all men to be saved, provided that certain conditions are met¯for instance, that they not die in a state of mortal sin. Once we are clear that God’s universal salvific will is conditional in this way, the question becomes whether sacramental baptism is such a condition for infants, and the tradition strongly (though not conclusively) supports the idea that it is.
The "tension" the ITC perceives between God’s universal salvific will and the necessity of sacramental baptism arises only if one thinks that that will entails that all human beings are in fact saved, which is rather the opposite of what the Catholic Church has traditionally taught (see Avery Cardinal Dulles’ review of the question in First Things , May 2003). As obvious as this point is, the ITC never responds to it.
The commission would have done better to limit itself to saying that God’s saving power is not confined to the sacraments, and that he can certainly save unbaptized infants if he so chooses; but that we do not know whether he has done so because he has not revealed this to us. The ITC’s argument about the universal salvific will of God is an attempt to make it seem more likely than not that God has chosen to do this. That argument must fail because, if it succeeded, then it really would have been revealed to us what God has chosen in this instance, and the ITC expressly concedes that this is not so. Having reached this inevitable latter conclusion, the ITC should have been consistent and not ventured an obviously inadequate argument for the speculation it prefers.
I am being tough on the ITC because I thought it was clear from the outset that no conclusion beyond that of the Catechism was supportable, and I think it was imprudent to spend a great deal of resources to reaffirm that view while raising and then dashing the hopes of many devout Catholic parents who have lost an unbaptized child and dearly wished to hear a new teaching.
Still, the commission members deserve credit here. It would have been easy and pleasant to have said that we know that infants who die without baptism are saved. Doing so would have earned the members of the commission great praise for their supposed broadmindedness, and it would have given comfort to many people. But reaching the easy and pleasant conclusion would also have been theologically irresponsible and a falsification of the gospel. In the end, the ITC got this one right, and I applaud its members for preaching the true gospel out of season.
Robert T. Miller is an assistant professor at the Villanova University School of Law.