So, is Limbo in limbo?
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?