Friday, February 16, 2007

What about Limbo?

According to Fr. John Hardon, S.J.,

WHAT IS THE FATE OF UNBAPTIZED INFANTS? The fate of the unbaptized infants is left to the mercy of God. It is generally taught that the souls of those who depart this life with original sin on their souls, but without actual sin, go to limbo.

WHAT IS LIMBO? According to St. Thomas, limbo is a place of perfect natural happiness but without the supernatural vision of God to which we have no natural right.

[Fr. John Hardon, The Question and Answer Catechism]

The words, "generally taught," means that this teaching is among the "common teaching" (sententia communis) of Catholics, which according to Dr. Ludwig Ott's Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, pertains still to the field of "free opinion," and is accepted by theologians generally. In other words, it has not been formally proposed as doctrine (sententia certa) of the Catholic Church.

Pope Benedict XVI, while still a cardinal and speaking as a theologian, 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." (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, The Ratzinger Report (1985), pp. 147-148)

"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." (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, God and the World (2002), pp. 401-402)

John Paul II in Evangelium Vitae stated, to women who have had an abortion:

I would now like to say a special word to women who have had an abortion. The Church is aware of the many factors which may have influenced your decision, and she does not doubt that in many cases it was a painful and even shattering decision. The wound in your heart may not yet have healed. Certainly what happened was and remains terribly wrong. But do not give in to discouragement and do not lose hope. Try rather to understand what happened and face it honestly. If you have not already done so, give yourselves over with humility and trust to repentance. The Father of mercies is ready to give you his forgiveness and his peace in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. To the same Father and his mercy you can with sure hope entrust your child. (no. 99)

In another English version of Evangelium Vitae, from the Vatican web page, the same paragraph states:

I would now like to say a special word to women who have had an abortion. . . . The Father of mercies is ready to give you his forgiveness and his peace in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. 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. (no. 99)

The latter version does not reflect the Latin edition which was officially published in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church promulgated by John Paul II affirms:

1258 ... desire for Baptism, brings about the fruits of Baptism without being a sacrament.

1261 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.

The "decisive turn" and "change" which Cardinal Ratzinger refers to above pertains to the shift that the above papal teachings have taken in comparison to the non-immutable teachings of earlier popes. For example…

Pius XII, Address to Italian Midwives (1951):

If what We have said up to now concerns the protection and care of natural life, much more so must it concern the supernatural life, which the newly born receives with Baptism. In the present economy there is no other way to communicate that life to the child who has not attained the use of reason. Above all, the state of grace is absolutely necessary at the moment of death. Without it salvation and supernatural happiness—the beatific vision of God—are impossible. An act of love is sufficient for the adult to obtain sanctifying grace and to supply the lack of baptism; to the still unborn or newly born this way is not open. . . . so it is easy to understand the great importance of providing for the baptism of the child deprived of complete reason who finds himself in grave danger or at death's threshold.

The Roman Catechism, promulgated by Pius V explained the urgent need to baptize infants:

"The faithful are earnestly to be exhorted to take care that their children be brought to the church, as soon as it can be done with safety, to receive solemn Baptism. Since infant children have no other means of salvation except Baptism, we may easily understand how grievously those persons sin who permit them to remain without the grace of the Sacrament longer than necessity may require, particularly at an age so tender as to be exposed to numberless dangers of death."

The pre-Augustinian view is expressed by St. Gregory of Nazianzus:

It will happen, I believe . . . that those last mentioned [infants dying without baptism] will neither be admitted by the just judge to the glory of Heaven nor condemned to suffer punishment, since, though unsealed [by baptism], they are not wicked. . . . For from the fact that one does not merit punishment it does not follow that one is worthy of being honored, any more than it follows that one who is not worthy of a certain honor deserves on that account to be punished. [Orat., xl, 23]

Although not explicitly called “limbo” the pre-Augustinian teaching above is such that those who die in original sin only will suffer from what is called poena damni (excluded from the Beatific Vision of God), and not suffer what is called poena sensus (torment).

St. Augustine’s early teaching tends to agree with the above. Prior to the Pelagian heresy, St. Augustine wrote in De libero arbitrio III, discussing the fate of unbaptized infants after death:

"It is superfluous to inquire about the merits of one who has not any merits. For one need not hesitate to hold that life may be neutral as between good conduct and sin, and that as between reward and punishment there may be a neutral sentence of the judge."

Yet St. Augustine later appears to change his view. He influenced the Synod of Carthage IV (AD 418) to condemn the proposition that “an intermediate place, or of any place anywhere at all (ullus alicubi locus), in which children who pass out of this life unbaptized live in happiness" (Denzinger 102).

There is some evidence that suggests Pope St. Zosimus confirmed the above condemnation from Carthage, although other manuscripts contain a different canon 3:

Can. 3 It has been decided likewise that if anyone says that for this reason the Lord said: "In my Father's house there are many mansions" [Jn 14:2]: that it might be understood that in the kingdom of heaven there will be some middle place or some place anywhere where the blessed 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" [Jn 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." [Denzinger 103, footnote 2]

Thus, without using the word “limbus” St. Augustine contends against the common teaching that limbo is a place of happiness for those who die in original sin only, yet excludes from the Beatific Vision of God. He instead asserted that the fate of infants who die without sacramental baptism includes both poena damni and poena sensus, yet the poena sensus which infants suffer is the “mildest condemnation of all” (De peccat. meritis I, xxi). This view seems to be the one held for centuries in the west, to include St. Anselm (d. 1109).

Peter Abelard (d. 1142) rejected the notion of material torment (poena sensus) and retained only the pain of loss (poena damni) as the eternal punishment of original sin (cf. Comm. in Rom.). While other teachings of Abelard were condemned, this particular view was not, and it became accepted by Catholic theologians. Peter Lombard (d. about 1160-64) popularized this view ( Sent. II, xxxiii, 5). It was accepted by Pope Innocent III, who asserted that those dying with only original sin on their souls will suffer "no other pain, whether from material fire or from the worm of conscience, except the pain of being deprived forever of the vision of God” (Corp. Juris, Decret. l. III, tit. xlii, c. iii -- Majores). Many theologians held that this poena still implied some “spiritual torment.”

St. Thomas Aquinas
appear to have been the first to hold the view that limbo was a place of natural bliss. He denied that they suffer from any "interior affliction." In other words, he denies they experience any pain of loss (nihil omnino dolebunt de carentia visionis divinae -- "In Sent.", II, 33, q. ii, a.2). He furthermore denied that these souls have any knowledge of the supernatural destiny they have missed. In St. Thomas' view "limbo" is not a mere negative state of immunity from suffering and sorrow, but a state of positive happiness in which the soul is united to God by a knowledge and love of him proportionate to nature's capacity.

The only magisterial text which I could find that even mentions "limbo of the children" is the condemnation of the Jansenist errors from Pope Pius VI, Auctorem Fidei, Aug. 28, 1794, "Baptism" section 3:

26. The [Jansenist] doctrine which rejects as a Pelagian fable, that place of the lower regions (which the faithful generally designate by the name of the limbo of the children) in which the souls of those departing with the sole guilt of original sin are punished with the punishment of the condemned, exclusive of the punishment of fire, just as if, by this very fact, that these who remove the punishment of fire introduced that middle place and state free of guilt and of punishment between the kingdom of God and eternal damnation, such as that about which the Pelagians idly talk,--false rash injurious to Catholic schools." [Denzinger 1526]

The nature of the punishment of those who do indeed die in original sin only is still debatable within Catholic teaching. What is not debatable, I think, is that if one does indeed die without being either sacramentally baptized or extra-sacramentally baptized by desire, then they will never enjoy the Beatific Vision of God (the eternal lack of the Beatific Vision is called "hell"). In other words, the teaching that those who die in original sin only descend immediately to hell, but to undergo a punishment different than that of the wicked, is taught universally in several magisterial texts to include Ecumenical Councils.

Innocent III, Ex parte tua, Jan 12, 1206:

"The punishment of original sin is deprivation of the vision of God, but the punishment of actual sin is the torments of everlasting hell" (Denzinger 410)

Council of Lyons II, 1274:

"The souls of those who die in mortal sin or with original sin only, however, immediately descend to hell, yet to be punished with different punishments." (Denzinger 464)

John XXII, Nequaquam sine dolere, Nov 21, 1321:

"...the souls...of those who die in mortal sin, or with only original sin descend immediately into hell; however, to be punished with different penalties and in different places." (Denzinger 493a)

Council of Florence, 1438-1445:

"the souls of those who depart in actual mortal sin or in original sin only, descend immediately into hell but to undergo punishments of different kinds" (Denzinger 694)

Council of Trent declared that justification from original sin is not possible...

"...without the washing unto regeneration or the desire for the same." [Paul III, Council of Trent, Session VI, January 1547, chapter V].

Catholic doctrine (sententia certa or "certain teaching") does not affirm as certain teaching that aborted/miscarried infants absolutely go to heaven. Yet Catholic dogma (de fide dogma or "truth of the faith") does affirm that IF anyone dies without being in a state of grace (infants included), then they descend immediately and eternally to hell “to undergo punishment of different kinds.”

Citing the above magisterial texts, Dr. Ludwig Ott's Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma (1960), describes the following teaching as de fide (immutable truths of faith):

"Souls who depart this life in the state of original sin are excluded from the Beatific Vision of God." [de fide]." (p. 113)

Consequently, in all that has been discussed about limbo, there are two open disputes:

  1. What is the nature of the punishment for those who die in a state of original sin only? Theologians from Augustine to present have disagreed on the matter.
  2. Can infants be sanctified extra-sacramentally, even within the womb, by “desire?” Many theologians, such as St. Thomas Aquinas claim they cannot. Others, such as St. Bernard of Clairveaux (d. 1153) and Cardinal Tommaso de Vio Gaitani Cajetan (d. 1534) have asserted that they can.

The above two questions have never been definitively resolved by the Roman Pontiff, and as such, the various theories still remain free opinion in accord with Catholic dogmatic theology.

As for the first question, Pope Benedict XVI seems to have expressed the opinion that the it is academic, and the various theological opinions about limbo ought to be abandoned.

As for the second question, the most rescent magisterial texts promulgated by John Paul II seem to show a shift from St. Thomas' and Pius XII's view toward that of St. Bernard, Cardinal Cajetan, and others who have long asserted that an extra-sacramental means of sancitification is not only open to adults "by desire," but is also possible for infants.

If God chooses, extra-sacramental sanctification can even include an infant in the womb (eg. St. Mary, St. John the Baptist). According to Jer. 1:5: "Before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee." According to Luke 1:15: "He shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother's womb."

I personally believe that for those not sacramentally baptized, they can indeed be extra-sacramentally sanctified by God, and as such, attain the Beatific Vision of God in heaven if God so chooses. I refrain from claiming that this is automatic, as if God owed all mankind the supernatural gift of heaven. I disagree that God is obliged to give heaven to anyone, as this “obligation” would be contrary to the nature of “gift.” Instead I leave such judgment to the mercy of God.

I also believe, and it is Catholic dogma that one must be supernaturally born from above to enter heaven, even if an infant. Baptism or its desire is absolutely necessary to be born from above, according to the Council of Trent. Thus, any who dies in original sin only, by definition, have never been born from above, and as such are eternally excluded from the Beatific Vision of God. Yet, I don’t believe that infants who die without sacramental baptism necessarily die in a state of original sin.

From Dr. Ludwig Ott's Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, under heading "25. Souls who depart this life in the state of original sin are excluded from the Beatific Vision of God. (De Fide)", Book II, Section 1:

"The spiritual re-birth of young infants can be achieved in an extra-sacramental manner through baptism by blood (cf. the baptism by blood 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 (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. Cf. D 712." [emphasis added]

(Dr. Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, Edited in English by James Canon Bastible, D.D., Translated from the German by Patrick Lynch, Ph.D., Tan Books, Rockford IL, Fourth Edition, 1960, first published in English in 1955, pg. 114)

The Sacrament of Baptism confers baptismal grace ex opere operato [1]. Our desire, expressed through our prayers for infants (born or unborn) who die without having received sacramental baptism confers grace ex opere operantis [2]. I believe we should not discount the power of such a prayer.

Pope Benedict XVI commissioned a theological study of the question of limbo. The October 2006 commission is continuing to work on their statement. The document could be released sometime in 2007.

See also: What does the Church teach about limbo?

God bless,




[1] Ex opere operato - The Catholic teaching that the grace of a sacrament is always conferred by the sacrament itself. Ex opere operato literally means “from the work performed.”

Provided that the Catholic receiving the sacrament freely chooses to receive its graces [i.e., proper disposition], the grace conferred by the sacrament will be efficacious (effective).

It is not that the sacrament is a mere sign that the grace has already been given, or that the virtue of the priest or recipient determines the grace. Rather, Christ works through the sacrament itself.

Compare with Ex opere operantis, which refers to pious actions in general.

[2] Ex opere operantis - The good disposition with which we perform a pious action.

Our good disposition determines the amount of grace we obtain through some act of piety such as the Friday abstinence, or through the use of sacramentals such as rosaries or scapulars, or in the seeking of indulgences.

For example, praying a Rosary will give little or no grace if we make no effort to focus on the mysteries or if we simply pay no attention to what is going on. The same for other acts of piety; if we make no interior effort but only go through the motions we will receive little or no grace.

If we make a sincere effort to concentrate on the pious action but are distracted by involuntary thoughts then we are well disposed and will receive grace in proportion to our efforts.

Compare with Ex opere operato , which refers to sacraments.