Much has recently appeared in the newspapers which speaks of the Pope wishing to do away with the Church’s teaching on Limbo. A theological commission with this purpose in view had already been instituted by the late Pope John Paul II. Although neither the commission nor the Pope has given their final verdict, we may be well alarmed at such a proposal. First, as Cardinal, Pope Benedict XVI had already voiced his opinion on the dissolution of Limbo. He presided over the commission’s first sessions and said that Limbo has no place in modern Catholicism. In the book-length interview, “The Ratzinger Report,” he told Vittorio Messori that Limbo had “never been a definitive truth of the faith … Personally, I would let it drop, since it has always been only a theological hypothesis.” (Ignatius Press 1985 pg.147)
In the past, the Church indeed had a practice of calling together some eminent theologians to study more carefully this or that point of doctrine. Yet when it concerned a point of doctrine that had been in tradition for a thousand years or a teaching that was a true theological conclusion, she would study the question so as to clarify it more. Never did she undertake such a study in order to do away with it. What should we think about this?
Is it true that the teaching of Limbo was never taught by the fathers? Could the Pope deny such a teaching? What consequences will follow?
In a short article as this, I do not presume to give an exhaustive answer. The historical background is complex and cannot be understood outside the context of time and circumstance. If the reader finds this article defective due to its brevity, then the article in the Catholic encyclopaedia, under the title “Limbo” should fill the gap.
It is true to say that the existence of Limbo was, for the first thousand years of the Church much disputed. However, what was never put into question was that an infant dying without baptism, that is with Original sin on the soul, was deprived of the beatific vision. The heart of the dispute was whether or not such a soul went to hell or to some “third” place. Never in the tradition of the Church was it claimed that such a soul went to heaven, as the theological commission, with Pope Benedict XVI, wishes to teach. For a long time it was thought that an infant without baptism would go to hell, but would suffer a mitigated pain. This was basically the teaching of St. Augustine. (De peccat. meritis I, xxi; Contra Jul. V, 44; etc.)
Nevertheless we cannot say that this teaching was unanimously accepted. Let us take, for example, the teaching of St. Gregory Nazianzus, a close contemporary of St. Augustine:
“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 honoured, any more than it follows that one who is not worthy of a certain honour deserves on that account to be punished.” [Orat., XI, 23]
St. Gregory does not draw any conclusions from this statement. Nevertheless, it seems clear that he is saying that there is a “third” place. Otherwise, where would these souls go?
God would allow the Church to wait for the Angelic Doctor, St. Thomas Aquinas, to put clarity upon this controversy.
“It is not correct to say that no reason can be given for exempting unbaptized children from the material torments of Hell (pain of the senses), even more so, for exempting them also from internal spiritual suffering (pain of the damned), since the latter in reality is the more grievous penalty, and is more opposed to the mitigated pain (mitissima poena) which St. Augustine was willing to admit.” (De Malo, V, art. iii).
In simple terms, the pains of hell are reserved for those who merited it by personal or actual sin. Original sin which is not a personal sin but rather a sin or fault of nature, cannot merit any pains of hell. However, neither can such a soul enter into the presence of God. The beatific vision, after all, is a free gift of God and not something due to nature.
St. Thomas denies that these souls have any knowledge of the supernatural destiny they have missed since this knowledge is itself supernatural, and as such not included in what is naturally due to the separated soul. (De Malo loc. cit.) It should be added that in St. Thomas’ view the limbo of the unbaptized infants 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, not in the beatific vision but by a knowledge and love of him proportionate to nature’s capacity.
A letter of Pope Innocent III to the Archbishop of Arles also teaches 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).
In conclusion, allow me to draw the reader’s attention to two considerations. The theological commission, together with Pope Benedict XVI, seems to want the conclusion that limbo does not exist and that the souls of the unbaptized infants go to heaven. Never has there been such a teaching in tradition. It is also a theological absurdity that would seek to undermine the whole doctrine of Original Sin, Sanctifying grace and the very words of Our Lord Himself: “Amen, amen I say to thee, unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God”. (St. John 3; 4)
The second consideration is practical: for centuries theology has taught the necessity of Baptism. Moral theologians have written books on how to administer baptism to infants in danger of death. Does not the Church even teach that in the case of danger of death, anyone can baptize? Does the Church not tell us thereby that without baptism the infant will never see God? Why has the Church for centuries denied a solemn burial for the unbaptized infant, while she has always wanted the funeral of a baptized infant to be celebrated in white? In the history of the Church did missionaries not go to the ends of the earth to baptize? If the Pope declares Limbo null and void, the consequences in the order of baptism will be fatal. In that case, why the hurry to baptize? Why baptize at all before the child is of the age of reason? St. Alphonsus taught that parents who neglect to baptism their child for more than a month commit mortal sin. Why then should there be mortal sin since the child stands in no danger of never seeing God? The cooling down of fervour among Catholics is sure to become terrible beyond words.