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My family and I were on the train recently when we met a priest of a schismatic group called the Palmarian Catholic Church which follows its own pope in Spain and broke away because of Vatican II and the belief that John Paul II was too liberal. In our conversation, the priest told me that the recent pronouncement from Rome on limbo was the latest example of how the Roman Catholic Church had lost its way. I had not read the pronouncement nor had he.
The question of limbo or more specifically of the fate of infants who die without being baptized is not for me an abstract issue. I often refer to Christian and Rose, two of the three children of Elaine and me, as “our babies in heaven.” Both infants died through miscarriage. I have relatives who were aborted, to the deep regret of the women who made that decision. Through my job in the public policy office for the Catholic Church in Massachusetts, I am familiar with government initiatives promoting research that will lead to the industrial creation and destruction of human embryos.
I finally had the chance to read “The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized,” a document released in April by the International Theological Commission, which I will refer to as the ITC. This is a body of theologians appointed to advise the pope and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on various questions in theology. Pope Benedict XVI approved the document for publication in an audience with members of the commission and Archbishop William Levada, the head of the Doctrine of the Faith, last January.
Contrary to reports in the secular media, Rome did not declare as an anathema the belief in the existence of limbo. The new document describes limbo as “a state which includes the souls of infants who die subject to original sin and without baptism and who therefore neither merit the beatific vision [in my words, seeing God face to face] nor yet are subjected to any punishment because they are not guilty of any personal sin.” According to the ITC, limbo “remains therefore a possible theological hypothesis.”
However, the document argues that a belief in the existence of limbo is not a fundamental teaching that commands acceptance. Nor is it the only theological theory that plausibly can address both the fact that embryonic children have not rejected God through personal sin and the fact that nonetheless they are subject to the burden of original sin.
“The Hope of Salvation” surveys the history of Catholic teaching on the destiny of unbaptized infants. The document concludes that we really don’t know nor can we know with any certainty based on Scripture what happens to these children, because revelation does not directly address the topic. Nonetheless, there is a valid basis for the hope that unbaptized children will see God face to face and experience divine love directly.
The ITC recounts the theological developments concerning the role of sacramental baptism in the economy of salvation, whereby it is understood as the “ordinary” but not exclusive means by which God removes original sin. Baptism of blood and of desire are accepted as two other means, though they are not directly analogous to the circumstances involving infants who have yet to develop the capacity to reason. The practice of infant baptism, though too not directly analogous, since baptism is administered, offers yet another avenue for reflection.
The document refers to what the commission describes as the fundamental Christian beliefs that God wills all to be saved, that all humans are related to Christ and His salvific power in some mysterious way, and that God is not limited by the sacraments in the ways that He opens salvation to all. This leads to the observation by the ITC that “[a] major weakness of the traditional view of limbo is that it is unclear whether the souls there have any relationship to Christ.”
In addition, “[w]e wish to stress that humanity’s solidarity with Christ (or, more properly, Christ’s solidarity with all of humanity) must have priority over the solidarity of human beings with Adam and that the question of the destiny of unbaptized infants who die must be addressed in that light.”
This does not mean that the Church and its sacraments are unnecessary. They are, and the ITC offers a careful explanation of how that is. The document then asserts that a theological preference for a theory of infant destiny different from that positing the existence of limbo “should not be taken as qualifying the necessity of baptism or justifying delay in administering the sacrament.”
Though the ITC does not explain in depth the basis of this continued obligation to “go and baptize,” it makes sense to me that besides its effectiveness in removing original sin, the baptismal sacrament, as an action by and on behalf of the Church, is of critical value to those participating in and witnessing it. The Church urges its celebration not just for the infant’s sake, but for ours.
Reading “The Hope of Salvation” strengthened my own hope that my two deceased children are babies in paradise. The document clarified a troubling issue in a way that will help many others to renew their hope in God’s mercy. It is well worth reading.
Daniel Avila is the Associate Director for Policy & Research of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference.