More on Limbo

So, is Limbo in limbo?

Amy has some links on the subject, in particular, to a couple of articles by the pseudonymous Zadok Romanus (here and here).

In the past few centuries, various theologians have come up with various theories as to how Christ’s grace might reach these unbaptised souls. If the Catholic News Service report is accurate, then it does not endorse any of these ideas – but does recognise that these ideas give us reason to be in a state of ‘prayerful hope’ about the fate of these children. We are allowed to think that there might be a way for these babies to share in God’s own life. It should be noted that this could only be possible if, somehow, Christ works to save them in some extraordinary manner which makes good the lack of baptism. Any hope we have for these babies’ salvation cannot compromise the utter and total reliance of man on Christ for his salvation.

For theologians, the key point that the document makes is that we simply don’t know what the fate of these babies is. The document seems to take the very sensible approach of steering away from giving an answer where none is to be given. (Indeed, I suspect that many theologians are probably convinced that unbaptised children are saved, and it may well be that this document will remind them that, in fact, the question is still open, and seemingly always will be open.) What God has told us in Scripture and Tradition does not answer the question, and therefore the Church cannot pronounce one way or the other. Parents are still under the strictest of obligations to have their babies baptised – that is the one sure way to the life of grace, and the denial of baptism through negligence is a grave thing indeed. However, should a child die without baptism, our attitude will be of prayerful hope that the God of mercy will take care of this little one according to the wisdom of his design.

Bottom line seems to be, we don’t know and can’t know and it probably isn’t all that important to know.

Contrast this sudden silence with the former dogmatism that was once attached to this subjects. Countless Catholics were taught that limbo was an article of faith, and a necessary corollary to Catholic teaching on original sin.

The two citations in the English translation of Denzinger don’t seem to leave any doubt:

493a. [John XXII, 1316-1334] It (The Roman Church) teaches … that 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.

1526. [Pius VI, 1775-1799] 26. The 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 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. [For background on this, see Fr. Brian Harrison]

The Catholic Encyclopedia (1913) said this:

Now it may confidently be said that, as the result of centuries of speculation on the subject, we ought to believe that these souls enjoy and will eternally enjoy a state of perfect natural happiness; and this is what Catholics usually mean when they speak of the limbus infantium, the “children’s limbo.”

And it goes on to quote from lots of authoritative theologians to support this position. I think all must admit that even if limbo was never definitively taught by a council or decreed ex cathedra by a pope, it was clearly a part of Tradition. Its existence was assumed and defended on the basis of human reason, if not Scripture.

Fr. Brian Harrison, already referenced, underscores this point.

It should be clear from the above survey of relevant Catholic magisterial statements that those who now talk about Limbo as only ever having been a mere “hypothesis”, rather than a doctrine, are giving a very misleading impression of the state of the question. They are implying by this that the pre-Vatican II Church traditionally held, or at least implicitly admitted, that an alternate ‘hypothesis’ for unbaptized infants was their attainment of eternal salvation — Heaven. Nothing could be further from the truth. Limbo for unbaptized infants was indeed a theological “hypothesis”; but the only approved alternate hypothesis was not Heaven, but very mild hellfire as well as exclusion from the beatific vision! In short, while Limbo as distinct from very mild hellfire was a ‘hypothetical’ destiny for unbaptized infants, their eternal exclusion from Heaven (with or without any ‘pain of sense’) — at least after the proclamation of the Gospel, and apart from the ‘baptism of blood’ of infants slaughtered out of hatred for Christ — this was traditional Catholic doctrine, not a mere hypothesis. No, it was never dogmatically defined. But the only question is whether the doctrine was infallible by virtue of the universal and ordinary magisterium, or merely “authentic”.

Recommended reading: Fr. Le Blanc’s articles, “Childrens’ Limbo: Theory or Doctrine?”, American Ecclesiastical Review, September 1947, and “Salut des enfants morts sans baptéme”, Ami du Clergé, January 15, 1948, pp. 33-43. (At that time, the liberal theologians criticized by Fr. Le Blanc were beginning for the first time in Church history to raise the possibility of Heaven for all unbaptized infants — a totally novel hypothesis which was soon censured by the Holy Office under Pope Pius XII as unsound and “without foundation”.)

See also Robert Miller in First Things.

This discussion raises a question that we must put bluntly–is Tradition authoritative for Catholics or not? When certain Catholic apologists want to argue with Protestants they defend Tradition; when they can’t support a teaching by citing Scripture, they fall back on Tradition. They can never quite define what this “Tradition” is, or where to find it, however. Used in this way, it is a deus ex machina that is dropped to defend any Catholic teaching that is either not proven from Scripture or that seems to contradict Scripture.

Regardless of how you might define “Tradition,” it seems plain that Limbo was taught consistently for centuries by that Tradition. Now by a wave of the hand it becomes merely a “hypothesis.”

What about other Traditional teachings? Can they disappear at the wave of the hand and become mere “hypotheses”? Why or why not? Is it merely papal authority that makes or breaks doctrine, that creates it or knocks it down, includes it or excludes it from Tradition? Is papal authority thus a form of legal positivism?

12 thoughts on “More on Limbo

  1. It ought to be noted that the media, as usual, got this one wrong. This theological commission has no magisterial authority and the Pope simply accepted a report. He did not endorse its teachings and has not taught that there is no such thing as Limbo. No Church teaching changed, even though the media, as usual, jumps at any opportunity to make it look as if the Church is changing. It is absolutely reprehensible coverage and proves that one should wait for documents to be taught by bishops, and NOT by secular media, who wouldn’t know anything about Limbo or Catholic doctrine if it jumped up and bit them. The media clearly has a secular and “progressive” agenda, which would love to see Church changes in other areas, such as women in the priesthood, etc. Those things won’t change either.

    For further information, check out the blog, Zadok the Roman.

  2. Yes, I just linked to him. Reread what I said.

    But you are wrong. This isn’t just a report of a commission that has just been “received.”

    There is something strange about the way it was released, only through Origins. Regardless of the level of authority of the document, it should have been released on-line so that anyone could read it and judge it for himself. I haven’t yet seen the latest Origins, and will comment further when I do.

  3. Al Kimel sees this as “development of doctrine” in action. But this doesn’t fit Newman’s definition of “development.” This is going against 1000 years worth of Catholic Tradition.

    And that’s the other card that too many apologists trot out when the Tradition is abandoned–“development.” This is the deus ex machina to explain any reversal in Catholic teaching.

  4. +J.M.J+

    I was always taught that Sacred Tradition is found in the writings of the Fathers (first eight centuries A.D.) whenever they unanimously agree on a teaching and say that it was handed down from the Apostles. Since the Fathers did not unanimously teach the existence of Limbo nor say that the Apostles taught it, the children’s Limbo is not part of Catholic Tradition (big “T”) and therefore is not indispensable.

    Yes, it has traditionally (little “t”) been taught for many centuries, but was never declared infallibly. The two Denzinger citations do not amount to official Church teaching. The first says that souls with original sin alone are “punished” in hell, but Limbo is supposed to be a state of natural happiness. The second simply condemns the Jansenists for claiming that Limbo is a “Pelagian fantasy.” That doesn’t amount to an infallible declaration that Limbo exists, it just forbids Catholics to accuse believers in Limbo of Pelagianism. Let’s not go beyond what the Pope intended there!

    Finally, this report has not definitively denied the existence of the children’s Limbo. Maybe the place really does exist, but there is still hope that our children can avoid going there (by perhaps a “vicarious baptism of desire” on the part of their parents?). It doesn’t have to be “either Limbo/or universal salvation for unbaptized infants.” It could be “both Limbo and a possibility that some may escape it.” From what I have heard about this report, I don’t think that’s incompatable with their conclusions, since it does say: “We emphasize that these are reasons for prayerful hope, rather than grounds for sure knowledge.”

    Just my two cents….

    In Jesu et Maria,

  5. There are two logical conclusions to this, as I see it:

    1. All those who die unbaptised, as infants or Muslims or Jews or Mormons or the young children of Baptists or Adventists or any church that holds to believers baptism, go to hell or limbo. Which also means that hell and limbo contain (together) more people than heaven ever will, as the 50% of pregnancies end in miscarriage and most of the rest were/are not baptised.

    2. The RCC can change its doctrines, or if it can’t, the pope and modern leaders are, by the standards set by RC tradition, moving into error.

    Do you agree with these conclusions, and if you don’t believe the pope is starting to teach error, how do you explain what is happening? If he is teaching error, would you become Adventist again? What would you do if the pope taught something you disagree with?

  6. Interesting questions.

    As to the first, the disproportionate number of the lost would not be a problem, as Jesus said the way to destruction was wide and the way to salvation narrow, and few there be that find it.

    As to the second, if I thought the pope were moving into error by denying limbo, and I believed limbo to be a doctrine of the faith, it wouldn’t make sense to become an Adventist (or anything else) for that reason, as no other church teaches limbo.

  7. Rosemarie,

    You say you were taught “that Sacred Tradition is found in the writings of the Fathers (first eight centuries A.D.)”

    Well, first of all, the period of the fathers is just the first six centuries, ending with Gregory the Great (d. 604).

    And this kind of argument is more often heard among Anglicans, especially Anglo-Catholics, as in the Oxford Movement.

    The Catechism of the Catholic Church sees Tradition as apostolic faith passed on orally, it does put a priority on the fathers as witnesses to this, it does distinguish Tradition from traditions, but it doesn’t really give us a sense of how to really define what is and what isn’t Tradition.

    The Catholic Encylopedia equates Tradition with the Living Magisterium, and defines it as “the ever-living thought of the Church.” It makes this point which should interest Jenny:

    The designation of unwritten Divine traditions was not always given all the clearness desirable especially in early times; however Catholic controversialists soon proved to the Protestants that to be logical and consistent they must admit unwritten traditions as revealed. Otherwise by what right did they rest on Sunday and not on Saturday? How could they regard infant baptism as valid, or baptism by infusion? How could they permit the taking of an oath, since Christ had commanded that we swear not at all? The Quakers were more logical in refusing all oaths, the Anabaptists in re-baptizing adults, the Sabbatarians in resting on Saturday.

    The Catholic Enclopedia says further,

    With regard to official documents, the expression of the infallible magisterium of the Church embodied in the decision of councils, or the solemn judgments of the popes, the Church never gainsays what she has once decided.

    And yet it has. Consider the death penalty; it now acts as if it is always wrong (or only applicable in extreme cases), and yet Councils and popes once upheld it as an obligatory duty, and a fitting punishment for theological error. Indeed thousands of declared heretics were punished with it and with torture. The Church changed its teaching. It changed its teaching on religious liberty, which had once been rejected by popes and councils. So it seems the content of what is “Tradition” is ultimately decided by whoever is in charge now.

  8. >the Church never gainsays what she has once decided.

    Then explain why the Council of Florence in the Decree to the Armenians says the “handing over of the instruments” is necessary for the validity of the Sacrament of Orders & yet if you read Ott, later MORE DEFINITIVE teaching says the “handing over of the instriments” is not part of the valid matter of the sacrament & is not necessary for the validity of the sacrament?

    The Church has never reversed any Extra-ordinary Teaching of the Magesterium, nor can she. But it’s a fact you call look up that some low level teachings have in fact been abrogated.

    I doubt there is a Limbo & prefer to believe God saves unbaptised infants with extra-sacramental grace or at least he will give them such at the second coming. But OTOH I don’t completely discount Limbo since well…..God really doesn’t owe any of us Heaven. It after all is a free GIFT.

    As for the worry I see coming out of some circles if the pope officially & formally says there is no Limbo then there is no Limbo! If you’re gonna get all upset about it then obviously Jesus Christ was lying through His teeth when He said “The gates of hell will not prevail against you.” Remember how the Holy Spirit kept Pope Vigilius from teaching the Monophysite heresy even though he was in the employ of the Monophysite empress Theodora. The same Holy Spirit wouldn’t let Pope Benedict XVI make such a mistake especially since it would have such grievious consequences for children.


  9. +J.M.J+

    >>>Well, first of all, the period of the fathers is just the first six centuries, ending with Gregory the Great (d. 604).

    That’s the Western Fathers; St. John of Damascus (an Eastern Father) is considered a Church Father even though he lived long after Pope St. Gregory the Great.

    >>>And this kind of argument is more often heard among Anglicans, especially Anglo-Catholics, as in the Oxford Movement.

    I’ve heard it only from Catholic sources.

    If the Church’s teaching on the death penalty or religious liberty has changed, then they were never infallible teachings in the first place. However, some would contend that these teachings haven’t actually changed but circumstances have.

    For instance, we should understand the Church’s current opposition to capital punishment in the context of our post-Christian culture of death’s misuse of the death penalty. Modern Western society has decided that death is the answer to its problems: Have a crisis pregnancy? Kill the baby – problem solved. Have an elderly or sick person whom you can’t care for? Kill him – problem solved! Have overcrowded prisons or hardened criminals? Kill some prisoners – problem solved!

    Perhaps the Church is saying that, while the death penalty may be legitimate when applied prudently, a culture of death will tend to go too far and so should simply refrain from using it.

    Similarly re. religious liberty, the Church still teaches that error has no rights. The Second Vatican Councils simply decided that, though error inherently has no rights, erroneous people do. That is how we can have religious liberty without violating the earlier teaching. It’s not really a contradiction, it’s more along the lines of how the Church grants annulments even though divorce is not permitted.

    In Jesu et Maria,

  10. “As for the worry I see coming out of some circles if the pope officially & formally says there is no Limbo then there is no Limbo!”

    “If the Church’s teaching on the death penalty or religious liberty has changed, then they were never infallible teachings in the first place.”

    What sort of a foundation is this for men’s souls? Dependence upon what a man may say or not say, and if a teaching changes, then it wasn’t an infallible teaching in the first place (even though the popes and councils condemned and murdered people for opposing the former teachings).

    And what about that idea of councils and popes killing people and approving torture?

    If you’re gonna get all upset about it then obviously Jesus Christ was lying through His teeth when He said “The gates of hell will not prevail against you.”

    And if the gates of hell were to prevail against a particular institution that quoted this verse to support all that it did, could it perhaps then be inferred that maybe that institution misinterpreted him?

  11. One of the key difficulties conerning Roman Catholic teachings–as felt by both non-Catholic Christians and atheists/agnostics–Migh be posed in this way: If the infallibilityof the Pope in grave matters of doctrine and morality was defined by a Church Council (Vatican I), then who defined the infallibility of the teachings of a Church Council

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