Thursday, June 21, 2007

Limbo and The Problem of Salvation

The First Things blog "On the Square" has two very interesting posts today on the Catholic Church's International Theological Commission’s (ITC) Report on Limbo, “The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized.” The two posts are worth reading even by non-Catholics.

What is quite interesting is that the ITC was faced with the nearly impossible task of reconciling a pastoral problem (what to tell the parents of unbaptised infants who die about the eternal life of their children) with clear Church teaching and tradition about the importance of baptism to salvation. The solution, not uncommon in any discussion of salvation, is this: “Our conclusion is that [there are] . . . grounds for hope that unbaptized infants will be saved and enjoy the beatific vision” , 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.”

Father Edward T. Oakes, S.J., who teaches theology at the University of St. Mary of the Lake, offers a history lesson about the development of the doctrine of limbo. He points out that the doctrine developed out of the classic dispute about original sin between Augistine and Pelagius:

To the best of my knowledge, the term limbo to describe the painless, soteriologically neutral place where unbaptized infants go was first coined by Albert the Great in his commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard. Unfortunately for the orthodox, the fifth-century heretic Pelagius proposed something very similar.

Pelagius’ denial of original sin always had one great weakness: the universal practice of infant baptism, which was too embedded in church life for him to overthrow. But why baptize babies if original sin didn’t exist? Citing the very verse that the orthodox used to insist on the necessity of baptism (“No one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit,” John 3:5), Pelagius granted the point but then made a distinction between the kingdom of God (for access to which baptism is required) and what he called eternal life, which, he claimed, unbaptized infants enjoy by virtue of their having immortal souls.

Now if by eternal life Pelagius meant supernatural eternal life, then his exegesis of the Gospel of John was obviously specious. But maybe he meant something like a purely “natural” eternal life? If one assumes with Pelagius that original sin does not exist, the latter option would seem not to run into the same exegetical difficulties. But of course for Augustine original sin does exist, which automatically precludes Pelagius’ hypothesis of “eternal life” under any guise. But then comes the kicker in his logic: if unbaptized infants don’t enjoy eternal life, then eternal death must be their fate.

Read it all.

Robert T. Miller,an assistant professor at the Villanova University School of Law, offers a more critical reflection on the ITC report:

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.

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 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.

Read it all.

Of course, this debate also occurs in the larger debate about salvation. I think my approach to this particular issue would be stronger even than the ITC: God can certainly choose to offer salvation outside the sacraments, and it is hard to imagine that the loving God that I know from the Gospels through the person of Jesus would deny salvation to unbaptised infants.


Ormonde Plater said...

Another argument against limbo is that it makes the church the butt of jokes.

Mary Clara said...

And rightly so.