by Alvin Kimel


I am fascinated by the current discussion on limbo. We are watching the development of Catholic doctrine in action. Some folks are pointing to this development as a counter-example to the claim of the Catholic Church to be the authoritative and reliable steward of revelation; but I do not see it this way. The Church knows more than she can speak, and this speaking may take many lifetimes, many generations, before she finds the needed language and achieves the needed clarity to say what she must say. The theological problem is real: given the teaching of the New Testament on the necessity of Holy Baptism for salvation, is it possible, how is it possible, for children to be saved who die without Baptism? The easy answer, of course, is simply to deny the problem—all children who die before they reach the age of reason are saved—yet the Church has refused to give the easy answer, precisely because the easy answer does not appear to be authorized by Scripture. Limbo was proposed by theologians seeking to reconcile the clear teaching of Scripture on the necessity of Baptism with (1) the gospel recognition that the God of Love does not, will not, punish those who are not guilty of personal sin and (2) the judgment that children who have not yet grown into mature rationality are incapable of enjoying the beatific vision. Limbo may now look to us to be a silly answer to the problem; but it was not judged so eight hundred years ago. It certainly cannot be said to be clearly contrary to Scripture. Limbo was the best solution the best minds of the Western Church could discern at the time. Catholics were not wrong to teach it, even though its inadequacy as a solution is now, presumably, apparent. The Church lives in history, and even with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, it simply takes time for her to come to an explicit understanding of the deposit of revelation with which she has been entrusted. Fifteen hundred years may seem, to us, like a lot of time for the Church to discern the inadequacies of the doctrine of Limbo, but we need to remember: we may still be in the early days of the Church.

I have found the following recent articles to be helpful: Zadok the Roman, Scott Carson, Jimmy Akin, and of course Mike Liccione.

9 October 2006


The traditional Catholic belief about limbo and unbaptized children is, I admit, beyond my sympathies. I think I understand something of the theological motivation behind it. It seeks to reconcile the New Testament teaching on the necessity of Holy Baptism and the passionate love of God for sinners. Yet the overwhelming majority of contemporary Catholic theologians find the theory unnecessary. In his 1988 interview with Vittorio Messori, Joseph Ratzinger spoke for this majority when he stated:

Limbo was never a defined truth of faith. Personally—and here 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. It formed part of a secondary thesis in support of a truth which is absolutely of first significance for faith, namely, the importance of baptism. To put it in the words of Jesus to Nicodemus: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the Kingdom of God” (Jn 3:5). 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. (The Ratzinger Report, pp. 147-148)

Twelve years later Cardinal Ratzinger elaborated his position:

The question of what it means to say that baptism is necessary for salvation has become ever more hotly debated in modern times. The Second Vatican Council said on this point that men who are seeking for God and who are inwardly striving toward that which constitutes baptism will also receive salvation. That is to say that a seeking after God already represents an inward participation in baptism, in the Church, in Christ. To that extent, the question concerning the necessity of baptism for salvation seems to have been answered, but the question about children who could not be baptized because they were aborted then presses upon us that much more urgently. Earlier ages had devised a teaching that seems to me rather unenlightened. They said that baptism endows us, by means of sanctifying grace, with the capacity to gaze upon God. Now, certainly, the state of original sin, from which we are freed by baptism, consists in a lack of sanctifying grace. Children who die in this way are indeed without any personal sin, so they cannot be sent to hell, but, on the other hand, they lack sanctifying grace and thus the potential for beholding God that this bestows. They will simply enjoy a state of natural blessedness, in which they will be happy. This state people called limbo. In the course of our century, that has gradually come to seem problematic to us. This was one way in which people sought to justify the necessity of baptizing infants as early as possible, but the solution is itself questionable. Finally, the Pope [John Paul II] made a decisive turn in the encyclical Evangelium Vitae, a change already anticipated by the Catechism of the Catholic Church, when he expressed the simple hope that God is powerful enough to draw to himself all those who were unable to receive the sacrament. (God and the World, pp. 401-402)

But Ratzinger’s explanation does not really explain why he deems limbo a problematic hypothesis. In the absence of further explication by the Holy Father, I propose the following two reasons to abandon the theologoumenon of limbo:

1) Limbus infantium undermines the freedom of God.

That Holy Baptism is necessary for eternal salvation is an infallible truth of divine revelation. Its necessity was explicitly asserted by the Councils of Florence and Trent. But in what sense is this necessity to be understood? From the beginning, the Church has acknowledged exceptions to this rule—baptism by desire, baptism by blood. In the Melkite Catholic Church, when an infant is first brought to church, he is blessed by the priest and made a catechumen. He is entitled to a Christian burial if he should die before his baptism. The enrollment of infants as catechumens goes back to the patristic period. St Augustine was himself enrolled as a catechumen as a baby. As is well known, St Bernard and Cardinal Cajetan speculated on the possibility of vicarious baptism of desire: infants who die before baptism may be saved through the prayers of their parents. But why only the prayers of the parents? Do not the Blessed Virgin Mary, St Joseph, and all the saints pray for the salvation of these infants who are denied Holy Baptism by premature death? Will not the Savior who declared “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:16) answer these prayers? Before her martyrdom St Perpetua was given a vision of her brother Dinocrates, who had died a pagan at the age of seven. Her brother was shown to her in travail and suffering. He stood before a font of water, but not being tall enough he was unable to drink. And so Perpetua prayed earnestly for him and was granted a second vision:

I saw that place which I had before seen, and Dinocrates clean of body, finely clothed, in comfort; and the font I had seen before, the edge of it being drawn to the boy’s navel; and he drew water thence which flowed without ceasing. And on the edge was a golden cup full of water; and Dinocrates came up and began to drink therefrom; which cup failed not. And being satisfied he departed away from the water and began to play as children will, joyfully.

Cajetan’s view on vicarious baptism of desire was discussed by the Tridentine fathers during their deliberations on baptism in February 1547. Thanks in large part to the arguments of Cardinal Seripando, the fathers refused to condemn Cajetan and left the question of waterless baptism dogmatically open (see comment by Dr Thomas Pink).

The principle at work here has been well stated by the Catholic Catechism: “God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments” (1257). Recognition of the freedom of God has allowed the Catholic Church to affirm the possibility of salvation outside the sacramental bounds of the Catholic Church:

Nor is God far distant from those who in shadows and images seek the unknown God, for it is He who gives to all men life and breath and all things, and as Saviour wills that all men be saved. Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience. (Lumen gentium 16)

Salvation is by the Incarnate Word alone, for in him divinity and humanity have been reconciled and forever united. He is the mediator between God and man. Salvation is by the Church, for the Church is the sacramental, Spirit-filled body of the glorified Christ and Christ is never found without his body. Salvation is by the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, because Baptism incorporates the believer into the Church, in which he is reborn by the Holy Spirit. If we would properly understand the necessity of Baptism, we must understand the salvific relations between Christ, Church, and sacramental initiation. Baptism is not a mere legal requirement, as if God has arbitrarily decreed that he will not save anyone except those who have been washed with water in the Name of the Holy Trinity. Baptism saves because the Church saves, and the Church saves because Christ saves, and Christ saves because he is the Almighty Creator who has redeemed and deified human nature in himself.

Every person born into the world is born into a state of alienation from God. Every person, therefore, needs to be regenerated in the Holy Spirit; every person needs to be restored to a state of grace and supernatural life. The ordinary and normative “place” for this rebirth is the Sacrament of Baptism. “The Church does not know,” declares the Catechism, “of any means other than Baptism that assures entry into eternal beatitude” (1257). But our ignorance is not the limit of God’s power and freedom. God has covenanted himself to the sacramental actions of the Church; but he has not restricted himself to them. If the Holy Trinity can baptize infants in his Holy Spirit through sacramental washing, he can, if he so wills, baptize infants in his Holy Spirit apart from sacramental washing.

Perhaps it would be helpful to recall that the baptism of infants is itself an exception of sorts—specifically, an exception to the fundamental rule that the Church only baptizes those who have repented of their sins, confessed Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and committed themselves to live in obedience to God’s holy laws. The Church does not force the baptism of Christ upon the unwilling or the unsuspecting. She does not baptize indiscriminately. This is not her mandate. She baptizes only to faith and in faith. Yet very early she came to understand, even in the absence of an explicit command from the Lord, that the children of believers must not be deprived of the sacrament of regeneration. The faith of the Church, embodied in the faith of the parents, was understood to be vicariously effective. In the words of St Thomas Aquinas: “Children not yet able to use their own reasons are so to speak in the womb of the church and receive salvation not by their own act but by hers.”

2) Limbus infantium undermines the Church’s apprehension of God’s universal salvific will.

The theologoumenon of limbo attempts to reconcile the salvific necessity of Holy Baptism and the infinite mercy of God. It also represents a mitigation of the terrible teaching of some of the Western Fathers that unbaptized children are destined to the fires of Hell. In 418 the Synod of Carthage confessed:

It has been decided likewise that if anyone says that for this reason the Lord said: “In my house there are many mansions”: that it might be understood that in the kingdom of heaven there will be some middle place or some place anywhere where happy infants live who departed from this life without baptism, without which they cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven, which is life eternal, let him be anathema. For when the Lord says: “Unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he shall not enter into the kingdom of God” [John 3:5], what Catholic will doubt that he will be a partner of the devil who has not deserved to be a coheir of Christ? For he who lacks the right part will without doubt run into the left [cf. Matt. 25:41,46].

This canon was never dogmatically received into the Church—and it needs to be interpreted in relation to the Pelagian claim that “children just born are in the same state as Adam before his fall”—yet it remains the case that the terror of infant damnation has plagued the Western Church for centuries. Even as late as the twelfth century St Anselm could write: “For they even receive everlasting torments, who never sinned by their own will. And hence it is written, ‘Even the infant of a single day is not pure in His sight upon earth.'” The profession of faith of Michael Palaeologus, which was read to the Council of Lyons II (1274) but neither formally promulgated nor even discussed by the council fathers, can be read as underwriting this view: “As for the souls of those who die in mortal sin or with original sin only, they go down immediately to hell, to be punished however with different punishments” (emphasis mine).

Underlying the doom of infant damnation is St Augustine’s theory of the massa damnata:

Hence the whole mass of the human race is condemned; for he who at first gave entrance to sin has been punished with all his posterity who were in him as in a root, so that no one is exempt from this just and due punishment, unless delivered by mercy and undeserved grace; and the human race is so apportioned that in some is displayed the efficacy of merciful grace, in the rest the efficacy of just retribution. For both could not be displayed in all; for if all had remained under the punishment of just condemnation, there would have been seen in no one the mercy of redeeming grace. And, on the other hand, if all had been transferred from darkness to light, the severity of retribution would have been manifested in none. But many more are left under punishment than are delivered from it, in order that it may thus be shown what was due to all. And had it been inflicted on all, no one could justly have found fault with the justice of Him who taketh vengeance; whereas, in the deliverance of so many from that just award, there is cause to render the most cordial thanks to the gratuitous bounty of Him who delivers. (City of God 12.21)

But as popular as the massa damnata, along with the cognate theory of reprobation by preterition, may have have been in portions of the Church in the past, it has never been formally defined by the Magisterium and appears now to have been excluded by the emphatic affirmations of God’s universal salvific will by Vatican II, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and the encyclicals of Pope John Paul II. The Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes is decisive and clear: “For since Christ died for all, and since all men are in fact called to one and the same destiny, which is divine, we must hold that the Holy Spirit offers to all the possibility of being made partners, in a way known to God, in the paschal mystery” (22). Who would dare to exclude the unbaptized infant from the possibility of sharing in the divine life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?

The crucial question before us is: Who is God? There should be no unclarity or confusion at this point. God truly is the One who sent his only begotten Son into the world to bear and bear away the sins of the world. God truly is the One who has assumed to himself human nature raised it into his divine life. God truly is the One who suffered, died and rose from the dead for the sake of his creation. God truly is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. His love for mankind knows no limits. He has committed himself utterly, even to the point of death, to the salvation of all men, women, and children. He stands before us as a Deity of absolute love. The God and Father of Jesus Christ wills our good, and we may trust him completely and absolutely.

The Catechism states: “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” (1261).

I would only add that this is neither a forlorn hope nor an improbable hope. We gladly entrust our children to the Triune God, who loves them infinitely more than we can ever hope to. There is nothing that he will not do to secure their salvation and bring them into the fullness and plentitude of supernatural life with him.

“Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them.”

11 October 2006


Over at the First Things blog, Dr Robert T. Miller has expressed his reservations about any move by the Magisterium to “abolish the doctrine of limbo and declare that the souls of unbaptized infants are saved.”

“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.” I think Miller may be right about this. It is one thing to claim that we may reasonably and confidently hope in the salvation of unbaptized infants. It’s another thing to claim that we know by divine revelation that God will regenerate all unbaptized infants and bring them into his holy presence. Voices within the Tradition, both East and West, have differed on this question. St Gregory of Nyssa appears to have taken an optimistic view: infants who die prematurely are excluded from the life of the blessed because they are psychically incapable of this life; but this exclusion is temporary. As they contemplate divine truth their moral faculties will develop and grow, and eventually “they will draw at will from that abundant supply of the truly existent [God] which is offered.” Sts Augustine, Fulgentius, Anselm, and Robert Bellarmine, as well as the distinguished 17th century patristics scholar Dionysius Petavius, took a negative view: unbaptized infants suffer the torments of the damned [poena sensus] but only in the mildest form. And in the limbonic middle, as a merciful mitigation of Augustinian harshness, stand St Thomas Aquinas and most of the scholastic tradition: unbaptized infants are excluded from heaven (poena damni) but enjoy a natural beatitude and contentment. St Gregory of Nazianzus is often cited by Catholic scholars as anticipating the scholastic doctrine of the limbus infantium; but this seems an improbable interpretation. The scholastic theory of limbo requires an understanding of nature and grace that has never been part of Eastern theology; moreover, Gregory shared in the then common Origenist optimism of a universal reconciliation with God (apocatastasis). It is therefore likely that he anticipated, with his friend Gregory Nyssen, the post-mortem growth of unbaptized infants into supernatural joy. Within the Western tradition, the exclusion of unbaptized children from the beatific vision has been, until the 20th century, an overwhelmingly held opinion. “Historically,” states Austrian theologian Johannes Schwarz, “the doctrinal alternative to limbo never was infant salvation, but a stricter Augustinian interpretation assigning also pain of sense to the state of the children.” But while this has been true in the Western Church, this has not generally been true in the Eastern Church. Orthodox theologians are typically baffled by the Western crusade to exclude unbaptized infants from Heaven (see, e.g., Fr John Breck, “Lessons from Limbo”). The Catholic Church, precisely because she is the Catholic Church, cannot restrict Sacred Tradition to Western theological reflection.

Dr Miller believes that the trajectory of the Tradition witnesses against the salvation of unbaptized infants and cites the judgments of two ecumenical councils, II Lyons and Florence: “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.” Yet one needs to be careful with this text, which is a direct quotation of St Fulgentius. Pope Clement IV included this statement in the profession of faith that he sent to Emperor Michael Palaeologus. In The Christian Faith (Neuner-Dupuis), we read about this profession of faith that it “was not written at the Council, nor was it accepted by the Greeks as a basis for a doctrinal agreement with the Latins. It was neither promulgated, nor even discussed by the Council Fathers, but simply read from a letter sent by the Byzantine emperor” (p. 17). The Fulgentius citation was, however, subsequently included in the Florentine decree Laetentus caeli. Traditional Catholics understandably read Florence as reaffirming the Augustinian belief in the damnation of unbaptized infants, just as they understandably read Florence as consigning, without exception, “not only pagans, but also Jews, heretics or schismatics” to “the everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels” (Decree for the Copts). Yet the Catholic Church has not restricted itself to a narrow reading of Florence but has affirmed the possibility of salvation for those outside the sacramental bounds of the Church (see William Most).

The Council of Florence was the one General Council of the second millenium that had a substantial Eastern presence. Though its documents are composed in a Western idiom, this does not mean that the Oriental bishops understood themselves as abandoning in any way their fundamental theological convictions. Their subscription to the decree, therefore, does not mean that they suddenly embraced the views of Augustine and Fulgentius on original sin and infant damnation. The Council of Florence must be read with both Western and Eastern eyes. It was, after all, a council of reunion.

It is a basic rule of dogmatic hermeneutics that dogmatic statements, whether conciliar or papal, do not give direct answers to issues that were not seriously debated. In Avery Cardinal Dulles’s words: “No doctrinal decision of the past directly solves a question that was not asked at the time” (The Survival of Dogma, p. 185). If the question “Do all infants who die without baptism die in original sin?” was not being discussed and argued in the 14th century, as it apparently was not, then the Council of Florence cannot be invoked as providing a definitive, irreformable answer to the question. It may well be that many of the doctors of the council took for granted the possibility, and indeed the reality, of an infant dying “in original sin only”; but this still does not allow us to state that this opinion was formally proposed by the council. That all who die in the state of original sin are excluded from the beatific vision is indeed de fide dogma; but this does not necessarily exclude the possibility that God may regenerate souls by nonsacramental means, even though this possibility might not even have been entertained by the council fathers. This judgment is strengthened by the observation that the paragraph of Laetentus caeli that addresses baptism and original sin is not formulated in the language of solemn definition: it does not call for an irrevocable act of faith and anathematize the contradictory proposition. In his important essay “Unbaptized Infants: May They Be Saved?” Peter Gumpel asserts that the issue addressed by Florence in the paragraph on original sin is the timing of divine retribution—at the the time of death or at the final judgment. “The thesis that there are (some) infants who die de facto in the state of original sin,” he concludes, “is therefore not directly defined” (Downside Review 72 [November 1954]), p. 432).

The Decree for the Copts also includes a statement on the necessity of baptism for children:

With regard to children, since the danger of death is often present and the only remedy available to them is the sacrament of baptism by which they are snatched away from the dominion of the devil and adopted as children of God, it admonishes that sacred baptism is not to be deferred for forty or eighty days or any other period of time in accordance with the usage of some people, but it should be conferred as soon as it conveniently can; and if there is imminent danger of death, the child should be baptized straightaway without any delay, even by a lay man or a woman in the form of the church, if there is no priest, as is contained more fully in the decree on the Armenians.

Gumpel notes that the Latin can be equally translated as “for there is no other remedy available for us by which we can come to their rescue” and suggests that this fits in well with the context of the decree, whose aim was “to eradicate the Jacobite practice of delaying Baptism or of using other means in its place” (p. 434).

In his book Limbo: An Unsettled Question (1964), George J. Dyer surveys the history of theological reflection on the question of the salvation of unbaptized infants. He concludes:

During the centuries of the limbo controversy the Church refrained from taking sides. She stepped into the dispute repeatedly, but only to lay down certain rules. Limbo might be defended; it might be rejected; the Church made it clear that neither the defenders nor the opponents of limbo had the right to censure their antagonists. The Church’s action may seem indefinite, but actually it brought an end to the long dispute. But insisting on the orthodoxy of both Augustinians and limbo theologians the Holy See robbed the question of much of its forensic value. … The papal decisions of 1758 and 1794 drew the sting from the controversy, and the dispute itself did not long survive. The Church treated the doctrine of limbo and the denial of limbo simply as “opinions” of theologians; she has been content with her decision to the present day. (pp. 88-89)

Might one argue that the exclusion of unbaptized infants from the beatific vision has been infallibly taught by the ordinary magisterium of the Church? This is a plausible claim, yet to establish it one must not only demonstrate that this was a common, perhaps the common, opinion of the bishops of the Church, but also that they have taught it with a moral unanimity and dogmatic definitiveness. That such moral unanimity and dogmatic definitiveness was ever achieved seems unlikely, given Eastern understanding of original sin, baptism, and theosis. And within the second millenium Western Church there have always been those who have found problematic the automatic exclusion of unbaptized infants from Heaven. The great Cajetan was one such theologian. Despite concerns, the fathers of the Council of Trent refused to formally condemn his views. In preparation for his study of limbo, Dyer surveyed 19th and 20th century catechetical literature. In the 19th century only half the catechists surveyed taught the existence of limbo, and only two of them mentioned it by name. In the 20th century, only one-third of the surveyed catechists taught the doctrine (p. 89). In the essay cited above, Gumpel reports that 20th century Catholic theologians increasingly became unwilling to assert the exclusion of all unbaptized infants from the beatific vision as a necessary Catholic belief. In the early 1950s, for example, the respected manualist Ludwig Ott listed the following as legitimate Catholic views:

The spiritual re-birth of young infants can be achieved in an extra-sacramental manner through baptism by blood (cf. the baptism of the children of Bethlehem). Other emergency means of baptism for children dying without sacramental baptism, such as prayer and desire of the parents or the Church (vicarious baptism of desire—Cajetan), or the attainment of the use of reason in the moment of death, so that the dying child can decide for or against God (baptism of desire—H. Klee), or suffering and death of the child as quasi-Sacrament (baptism of suffering—H. Schell), are indeed possible, but their actuality cannot be proved from Revelation. (Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, p. 114)

In preparation for Vatican II, a schema was prepared entitled “To Save in Its Purity the Deposit of Faith.” This schema included a chapter condemning those who criticized limbo. When the schema was discussed by the General Preparatory Commission, a number of cardinals and bishops objected to it. The chapter was cancelled. Limbo is pointedly omitted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992), and in the original version of Evangelium vitae, Pope John Paul II went so far as to tell women who have had abortions, “You will come to understand that nothing is definitively lost and you will also be able to ask forgiveness from your child, who is now living in the Lord.”

Robert Miller is correct when he writes that “the direction of the tradition is obvious,” but he has misread that direction.

22 October 2006


At the heart of the debate about limbo is a profound disagreement about God: Is the God of the gospel a God of absolute love who desires to bring all humanity into his triune communion? To this question, I give an emphatic yes. If there is a gospel worth preaching, if there is a gospel worth praying, if there is a gospel worth living and dying, then the answer is and must be yes. Christ Jesus has died for the sins of the world. His love knows no limits, no qualifications, no mitigations. For us he has destroyed sin and death. For us he has taken our humanity into the indestructible life of the Father and the Son in the love of the Holy Spirit. The second person of the Holy Trinity is the God-man, and in him we have become God (St Athanasius). This is the gospel, the only gospel. If this gospel is true, then the fate of those unbaptized children who lack the ability to accept or reject the love of God is of paramount concern. Will the God who suffered the agonies of Golgotha in love of all human beings exclude even one unbaptized infant from Heaven?

Edward Schillebeeckx precisely states the theological issue:

It must follow from the universal salvific will of God that everybody must have a real possibility of attaining to heaven. A child which did not receive baptism through no fault of its own—and this fault never exists on the part of the child—must therefore still possess another real chance of heaven. This chance is founded in the universal idea: Deus non alligatur sacramentis….

The ecclesiastical documents which say that whosoever dies in the state of original sin cannot attain to heaven, do not say anywhere that a child who dies without baptism does in actual fact die in original sin: and whosoever maintains that children dying without baptism (viz. without a real chance to be baptized) are per se excluded from heaven, denies the reality of a gratia sufficiens for this child, and would have to conclude logically that Christ did not die for this child. (Quoted in Peter Gumpel, “Unbaptized Infants: May They Be Saved?” Downside Review 72 [November 1954], pp. 375-376)

So also Michael Schmaus:

In view of the necessity of baptism, a special problem is presented by little children, incapable of answering for themselves, who die without baptism. The Church regards their eternal destiny with great concern. Scripture itself gives no solution to the problem, but we may say the following: it would be hard to reconcile it with the saving will of God if even one child, without being able to make a personal decision for or against Christ, were to lose salvation, i.e. the fulfillment of the encounter with God, forever. (Dogma [1975], V:168)

In his recent blog article, Robert Miller confronts this issue head on:

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).

Dr Miller’s argument is simple: God has the power to efficaciously and irresistibly bring all human beings to faith and salvation. He chooses not to do so. We know this because we know that some men are damned. Therefore, it must be the case that excluding unbaptized infants from the beatific vision does not conflict with his universal salvific will.

Here is the Augustinian logic that has haunted the Catholic Church for sixteen hundred years. It is this logic that has led Western theologians to that strong predestinarianism that undermines the preaching of the gospel itself (see my articles on predestination). Within this theological vision, reprobation, double predestination, and limited atonement are always close at hand. We may speak the words of God’s universal love, yet what we know, what we think we know, is that God efficaciously chooses some for salvation and leaves the rest to their doom. Yet do we actually know this? The Catholic Church, in fact, does not know this, as clearly evidenced by the history of the Congregatio de Auxiliis. What the Catholic Church does know, as revelation from God to be believed by divine faith, is that God wills the eternal salvation and supernatural beatitude of every human person he has created. The Second Vatican Council could not have been any clearer: “For since Christ died for all, and since all men are in fact called to one and the same destiny, which is divine, we must hold that the Holy Spirit offers to all the possibility of being made partners, in a way known to God, in the paschal mystery” (Gaudium et spes 22). Here is the gospel, and it is this gospel that must be allowed to guide our reading of Holy Scripture and Holy Tradition, including the decrees of ecumenical councils such as Florence and Trent.

In his book Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved”? Hans Urs von Balthasar notes that the Church made a critical turn with St Augustine’s teaching on Hell:

Augustine interprets the relevant texts in such a way as to show that he plainly and simply knows about the outcome of divine judgment. And all those bowing to his authority, from Gregory the Great through the early and High Middle Ages—Anselm, Bonaventure, and Thomas not excepted—to the Reformers and Jansenists will become knowers in the same sense, taking this knowledge as a fully secure basis upon which to construct their further speculations about God’s twofold predetermination post or ante praevisa merita. (p. 65)

It is this knowing of divine judgment, combined with a specific understanding of the operations of divine grace, that underwrites both the scholastic construal of predestination and the scholastic construal of the limbus infantium. Because we “know” that God could, by means of his efficacious, infrustrable grace, bring all human beings to faith and eternal life, and because we “know” that God has chosen not to do so (alas, poor Judas, we knew him well), so we “know” that some unbaptized infants may die, probably have died, in original sin and are thus excluded from the joys of heaven.

Yet we know none of these things. What we do know with absolute certainty is the gospel: the Holy Trinity wills the eternal and supernatural good of every human being. The only power in the universe that can frustrate this divine will, eternally established and sealed in the shed blood of the incarnate Son, is the free choice of the sinner. This is not a limit imposed by the creature upon the Creator, but a limit created by the Creator and freely accepted by him in kenotic, suffering love. The risen Christ has triumphed over the principalities and powers of this world; he has triumphed over the bondage of sin and the annihilation of death. No “intervening causes and human failures” can now impede the fulfillment of his kingdom. Christ is risen, and we will be raised with him. Yet the lonely sinner retains the freedom, or more accurately, is graciously given the freedom, to exclude himself from the joys and graces of eternal communion with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Despite the victory of the resurrection, despite the boundless love and generosity that has been poured upon him, he may still speak a final, irrevocable “no.” “Heaven reposes upon freedom,” writes Joseph Ratzinger, “and so leaves to the damned the right to will their own damnation” (Eschatology [1988], p. 216).

But the infant does not possess this freedom. He can speak neither “yes” nor “no.” That this incapacity cannot prevent God from eradicating the original sin of the infant is demonstrated by the Sacrament of Holy Baptism. The Church confesses that through baptism even babies, though incapable of consent, are regenerated in the Holy Spirit and incorporated into the divine life of the Holy Trinity. Should they die before coming to the age of reason, they will be embraced by God’s love and brought to glory—so we confidently proclaim and believe. Why do we trust the promises of the sacrament? Because we know the God who made these promises. And because we know this God, we know that he will never abandon the children who have died and will die without the visible Church. Theologians speculate on the various ways God might choose to sanctify these children, either before their deaths or at the moment of their deaths. Given that the revelation has not provided explicit information, all proposals remain speculative. Yet what is not speculative is the God who has accomplished the salvation of humanity on the cross of Calvary. This is a God who will overcome every obstacle to fulfill his saving will for those whom he has made in his image. Because of what God has achieved in the life, death and resurrection of his Son Jesus Christ, because of who he has revealed himself to be in his eternal trinitarian being, we entrust our children to him with sure and confident hope.

When I first started reflecting on the subject of limbo two months ago, I thought it was a minor matter. But I have come to realize that crucial issues are at stake—indeed, nothing less than the preaching of the gospel itself. If we doubt the intensity of God’s love for every human being, if we doubt his commitment to our good and the good of every person, if we doubt the comprehensive and transforming power of Christ’s resurrection, how can we preach the gospel with evangelical conviction?

24 October 2006


“It is truly sad,” writes William Most, “to see persons fighting with all their might to insist that it is at least likely that God, who is Infinite Goodness, sends unbaptized babies into eternal fire, to suffer forever, when they are completely innocent of any personal fault.” Yes, it is indeed sad—but not only sad but scandalous. That the great Doctor of Grace could have even entertained this possibility astounds the Christian imagination. Fortunately, the medieval doctors saw the horrific injustice of this possibility and advanced the theory of limbo as a generous and merciful attenuation: unbaptized infants are excluded from participating in the fullness of the divine life, but are granted the enjoyment of natural beatitude. In the words of St Thomas Aquinas: “The infants are separated from God perpetually in regard to the loss of glory, which they do not know, but not in regard to participation in natural goods, which they do know…. That which they have through nature they possess without pain” (De malo 5.3.4). For Aquinas, this ignorance of the loss of supernatural good allows for a positive happiness: “Although unbaptized infants are separated from God as far as glory is concerned, yet they are not separated from Him entirely. Rather are they joined to Him by a participation of natural goods; and so they may even rejoice in Him by natural consideration and love” (II Sent. 33.2.5). The condition of the infant in limbo might be compared to a small child visiting an art museum with his mother. He is delighted with the marvels of the building, the shiny marble floors, the high ceilings, all the different pictures and sculptures, the hushed silence, the tour guides leading various groups from room to room, and of course the museum shop. The child is unable to appreciate and experience the beauty of these artistic masterpieces; but he does not know what he is missing and is thus happy. The soul in limbo is fulfilled in his natural loves and desires. Not a bad fate, not a bad fate at all … yet still not heaven.

For 700 years the overwhelming majority of Catholic theologians were content with St Thomas’s theory. Protests on behalf of the harsher Augustinian view have periodically been raised, but the Thomist position has “certainly the balance of success on its side” (see the Catholic Encyclopedia). In the past sixty years, though, an increasing number of Catholic scholars have advanced theories allowing for the possibility that God might grant the infinite joy of heaven to unbaptized children; and the Catholic Catechism has encouraged the faithful to trust in God’s mercy and love and to hope and pray for their supernatural fulfillment (CCC 1261; cf. Evangelium vitae 99). And if we may hope for the deification of our children, then we may pray for the deification of our children; and if we may pray for them, we must acknowledge the possibility (nay, likelihood!) that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ will answer our prayers and that at the final assize limbo will ultimately prove to be empty.

Yet the supporters of limbo have not abandoned the field. They continue to protest that the consistent dogmatic teaching of the Church on the necessity of Holy Baptism disallows the possible emptiness of limbo. This insistence on fidelity to the past dogmatic teaching of the Church must be applauded. The Church does not reinvent her teaching from generation to generation but faithfully passes on that which she has received. Yet development of doctrine does occur, and such development forces the Church to interpret her past dogmatic teachings in light of deeper understanding of the truth. As Cardinal Newman taught the Church, “doctrine cannot but develop as time proceeds and need arises…. [These] developments are parts of the Divine system, and … therefore it is lawful, or rather necessary, to interpret the words and deeds of the earlier Church by the determinate teaching of the latter” (An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine I.4.3.8). Dogmatic statements do not contain the truth in themselves but point away from themselves to the divine realities in which they are objectively grounded and to which they bear authoritative witness. A degree of eschatological provisionality, though never falsehood, is therefore inherent to dogma. The teaching of the Church lives forward. Dogma must always be interpreted in light of the divine realities to which they refer, in accordance with the Church’s ever-deepening apprehension of these realities. Dogmatic propositions always remain open to the revelation of Christ, as embedded in the apostolic deposit of faith. A literalistic fundamentalism is just as false in the interpretation of dogma as in the interpretation of Holy Scripture. We must read dogma with the Church, in union with the living consciousness of the Church.

This past week I discovered two articles by a Franciscan friar, Br Alexis Bugnolo: “The Heresy of Universal Salvation with a vengeance” and “Modernism vs. the Primacy of Christ.” Br Alexis is convinced that though God wishes all men to be saved (antecedent will), he does not will that all men be saved (consequent will), “because He wills all men to be free, even if they choose to be damned.” But on the basis of this perfectly orthodox assertion, Br Alexis draws the following remarkable conclusion: because God wills all men to be free, “in such a will it is theologically and metaphysically impossible to include an antecedent will that all the unborn be saved, without their consent.”

One should always take a deep breath before asserting what is and is not metaphysically possible for God. Here Br Alexis should have taken several deep breaths. His claim is obviously wrong. The Catholic Church proclaims that God saves all baptized infants who die before the age of reason, even though they are incapable of consenting to their salvation at the moment of their deaths. As the Council of Florence declares: “No satisfaction for past sins is enjoined upon those who are baptized; and if they die before they commit any sin, they attain immediately to the kingdom of heaven and the vision of God.” Thus we may assert, without qualification, that God has predestined to eternal salvation all baptized children who die before the necessary minimal development of their moral capacity. Given that all persons in heaven freely choose heaven and therefore freely choose to love and adore their Creator, we must assume that, in a way beyond our understanding, it is possible for God to efficaciously and infallibly “grow” baptized infants into authentic and irrevocable consent and love. And if God can do this for the baptized, he can equally do so for the unbaptized, if he should so choose. I don’t imagine that the Omnipotence would find such a task metaphysically impossible to accomplish at all. It is just as easy for God to spiritually regenerate unbaptized infants as baptized infants—and to do so in and with the Church.

But Br Alexis’s conviction does not rest on this piece of specious reasoning. It rests, rather, on the dubious discernment that the gratuity of salvation requires the salvation of the few:

However, as has always been taught there is a distinction between the theoretical and practical order; and it is always possible for God to justify souls in the womb. Christ and Mary, and other saints, it appears, had this grace. But if by exception, this is extended to all the unborn or even the hope of it to all, rather than to a few, a gross inequity results; because this grace must be exceptional, otherwise it is not a grace but a due. And to say that Christ merited the salvation of the elect, must always be understood by His words narrow and crooked is the way to Life and few there are who find it. If an unborn child cannot think or will, then how can he find somethign so difficult? Therefore if there is such a grace it must be rare. And of course, hypothetically if any unborn child who dies such was elected, then he has such a grace, because as Christ says, no one can snatch them from My hand.

And again:

If all those who died before reason and without baptism receive an opportunity for salvation, which they must if there is no Limbo, then the absolute universality of the offer of salvation in Christ seemingly obtains a right for all men to be offered salvation. For otherwise there is no objective basis for saying that all men are not due the offer of salvation, and hence, the offer of salvation is no longer a grace, for “grace” means “given freely”, as a gift, and a gift given to all, cannot be distinguished from a given which all have the right to be given. And this detracts from God’s Glory, which no man has a right to, for in Adam we all have sinned and are deprived, justly, of God’s glory. Hence we have no right to it. And hence if Christ merits an opportunity of salvation for all men, without exception, then prior to our justification we all obtain a universal, positive, title or right to God’s Glory, which is a contradiction in terms. The Catholic Faith has never asserted such a novelty; rather it has only asserted that in Christ, that is in baptism, do we obtain such a title, and such a right only by sanctifying grace, which comes normally in the justification worked by baptism.

Apparently, God needs to have a lot of souls in limbo in order to be gracious. According to our good friar, salvation ceases to be a gift if it is graciously given to all. The merciful God needs a populated limbo that he might be clearly shown to be merciful. And since limbo is an outer precinct of hell, we must therefore say that God needs hell. Inferno must be populated. For Bugnolo, hell is not a hypothetical reality. He knows that hell exists, he knows that it must exist, and he knows that it is filled with many lost souls. God must damn the many so that the few may be gratuitously saved. If God were to actually save all, then salvation would become a duty for God to fulfill. Sinners would have a just claim upon God for their redemption, a title to the beatific vision. Br Alexis is thus led to the heretical denial of God’s universal salvific will: “In redeeming men after the Fall, God never really intended the salvation of all, even though he preferred it.”

But the graciousness of grace is not correlated to the number of the saved, be it few, many, or all. Grace is grace because the incarnation, passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ need not have been. The righteous and holy God might, in all justice, have abandoned man to sin and death. But he has not abandoned us. He has acted to save in a way unanticipated by pure justice. As the Apostle Paul exclaims:

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. (Rom 5:6-10)

This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time. (1 Timothy 2:3-6)

The God of the gospel does not need the damnation of many in order to be gracious; he does not need the damnation of a few; he does not need the damnation of one. God’s grace is proven by Jesus Christ, who has drunk to the dregs the cup of God’s wrath. The atonement of the eternal Son cannot be arbitrarily restricted to the few or even the many. Christ died and rose again for all sinners. “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself,” Jesus solemnly declared (John 12:32). The Church Catholic did not follow St Augustine and his Calvinist and Jansenist followers in their limitation of God’s merciful love to the elect. In 1653 Pope Innocent X condemned the Jansenist proposition “It is Semipelagian to say that Christ died, or shed his blood, for absolutely all men.” At the beginning of his pontificate, Pope John Paul II boldly proclaimed the universality of God’s love and the universality of the Church’s evangelistic mission:

When we penetrate by means of the continually and rapidly increasing experience of the human family into the mystery of Jesus Christ, we understand with greater clarity that there is at the basis of all these ways that the Church of our time must follow, in accordance with the wisdom of Pope Paul VI, one single way: it is the way that has stood the test of centuries and it is also the way of the future. Christ the Lord indicated this way especially, when, as the Council teaches, “by his Incarnation, he, the Son of God, in a certain way united himself with each man.” The Church therefore sees its fundamental task in enabling that union to be brought about and renewed continually. The Church wishes to serve this single end: that each person may be able to find Christ, in order that Christ may walk with each person the path of life, with the power of the truth about man and the world that is contained in the mystery of the Incarnation and the Redemption and with the power of the love that is radiated by that truth….

Accordingly, what is in question here is man in all his truth, in his full magnitude. We are not dealing with the “abstract” man, but the real, “concrete”, “historical” man. We are dealing with “each” man, for each one is included in the mystery of the Redemption and with each one Christ has united himself for ever through this mystery. Every man comes into the world through being conceived in his mother’s womb and being born of his mother, and precisely on account of the mystery of the Redemption is entrusted to the solicitude of the Church. Her solicitude is about the whole man and is focussed on him in an altogether special manner. The object of her care is man in his unique unrepeatable human reality, which keeps intact the image and likeness of God himself. The Council points out this very fact when, speaking of that likeness, it recalls that “man is the only creature on earth that God willed for itself.” Man as “willed” by God, as “chosen” by him from eternity and called, destined for grace and glory—this is “each” man, “the most concrete” man, “the most real”; this is man in all the fullness of the mystery in which he has become a sharer in Jesus Christ, the mystery in which each one of the four thousand million human beings living on our planet has become a sharer from the moment he is conceived beneath the heart of his mother. (§13)

Br Alexis sees the denial of limbo as an attack against the primacy of Christ. After reading his articles several times, I’m afraid I do not understand his objection. No doubt this is due to my unfamiliarity with scholasticism and with John Duns Scotus in particular. Consider the following passage

For in traditional Catholic theology, Christ is the Redeemer of All, both of those who lived before Him and of those who lived in His own age and of all those unto the end of time. But He is Redeemer inasmuch as He merited the forgiveness of all sins and obtained all graces that God intended ever to give men. The Modernist attack on Limbo contains the implicit denials that the grace first given to Adam, and all the subsequent graces that would have been given to all men prior to Christ on that basis, are under the headship of Christ, and therefore presupposes that Christ’s Redemption is lesser in scope than the graces given to Adam: which denial posits the necessity of asserting an absolute universality of Christ’s Redemption for all human persons, after the Redemption, even those who never by faith or reason come under the mediation of Christ, so as to establish an comparative universality of the Redemption to the graces lost by Adam.

In this sense the denial of Limbo’s existence is a false solution to the denial of the Absolute Primacy of Christ.

For following Bl. John Duns Scotus, Franciscan theologians avoid this problem, by affirming that Christ merited all grace, even those graces prior to the Redemption which if Adam had not sinned would have been given to men, because on the basis of what God intended from all eternity, namely that the Son of God would be the Incarnate King of Creation, all grace is predestined to be ordered to Christ, and hence is capable of merit by Christ as Redeemer. And thus there is no necessity that Christ merit other graces, such as would provide the opportunity of salvation for all without exception, because those have already been given in Adam, though he lost them. And after loosing them, there is only the necessity of saving the Elect, and hence no necessity of Christ meriting over and above those graces for those who are not of the Elect.

I do not see the problem and therefore do not see the solution purportedly provided by Scotus. I suspect that my confusion here lies in the talk about graces (plural) and merit, which tends to obscure the essential point. Ultimately, there is but one grace, and his name is Jesus Christ. Christ has assumed our Adamic nature and renewed and sanctified it by his Holy Spirit. Salvation simply is union with Christ in his sacred humanity and therefore, with and through him, union with the Holy Trinity. It is all grace. It is all Christ. At no point can anyone claim a right to justification and everlasting beatitude.

It is truly sad to see Catholics passionately arguing that a populated limbo, and hell, is a necessary correlate of the gospel. Br Alexis’s articles remind us that there are still Catholics, perhaps many Catholics, who have yet to hear the good news of Jesus Christ in all of its evangelical clarity and transforming fullness. The gospel does not have, nor does it need, a dark side. God has not spoken both yea and nay in his Son. “For all the promises of God in Him are yea, and in Him Amen, unto the glory of God by us” (2 Cor 1:20).

Only those who utter an eternal nay against God’s eternal yea in Jesus Christ will be eternally excluded from the rapturous vision of the Holy Trinity in his infinite majesty and glory.

28 October 2006

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