Apologize and Don't Be Sorry!

A site dedicated to thinking through the common objections to the Catholic Faith as well as questions of a general religious nature.

Location: Prague, Oklahoma, United States

Just your basic 21st century priest trying to bring the Gospel to everyone who will give it a fair hearing.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Limbo is not a Caribbean Dance

Limbo is a classic bugbear of apologetics. Usually, if you encounter a non-Catholic who makes the claim that the Church changes her teachings, limbo is one of the matters that comes up. The reason for this is simple. For most non-Catholics, there is a profound confusion about the relationship between an individual theologian opinion on a matter of the Faith and the definitive teaching of the Church which comes to us through the Magisterium. The Magisterium’s task is to protect and to clarify the Deposit of Faith in its content and expression. The Magisterium effects this protection and clarification either, extraordinarily, through ecumenical councils and ex cathedra teachings of the Popes or ordinarily, when they confirm that which has been taught previously in accord with the over all history of the Church. The theologian’s task rests upon drawing new conclusions or unpacking what is present in the Church’s official teaching.

Limbo falls into the category of a theological opinion. There is no evidence that limbo was ever taught officially by the Church, either through extraordinary or ordinary means. The idea of limbo comes from a convergence of two apparently contradictory notions. First, we believe that Original Sin separates us from God and that through the sacrament of Baptism, we are freed from this condition. Second, we know that, sometimes, infants and many others, who through no fault of their own, fail to receive Baptism and therefore die in the state of Original Sin. Therefore, it seems unmerciful to claim that the infant would go to Hell, even though that is the logical conclusion of the propositions of the Faith given. At the same time, it would violate justice if somehow this objective fault of the Fall were not dealt with. What are we to conclude?

The solution was to speculate that there was a place for those who die in Original Sin without baptism and without fault. Limbo was proposed, at least by St. Thomas Aquinas, as a state of natural happiness, excluded both from the punishment of Hell and the Beatific Vision of God in Heaven. If I remember correctly, limbo also makes an appearance in Dante’s Divine Comedy as the place where the "good pagans" from the time before Christ rest until the Resurrection of the Dead. Without being glib, I often say that limbo is a sophisticated way of saying "We aren’t exactly sure what happens to one who dies without receiving Baptism."

The Catechism of the Catholic Church treats the subject in this fashion: "As regards children who have died without Baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God.... Indeed, the great mercy of God who desires that all men should be saved, and Jesus’ tenderness toward children...allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without Baptism" (CCC #1261). In my personal opinion, this is a much better way of thinking this matter through, because it requires to return to the fundamentals of Faith and to practice one of the theological virtues, the virtue of Hope. This doesn’t mean that parents shouldn’t strive to tend to their children’s baptisms as soon as possible. It simply reminds that God is not bound to act only within the sacramental system He has given to His Church. In this month dedicated to the Faithful Departed, let us renew ourselves in praying for those who have gone before us, marked with the signs of Faith, held aloft on the mercy and justice of God.


Blogger Soshersas said...

When does a theological opinion or teaching take on the weight of Catholic doctrine?

Limbo was taught by CHURCH FATHERS (even if only in proximity to hell).

Limbo was taught by CHURCH COUNCILS.

Limbo was taught by POPES.


Limbo was even taught by SCRIPTURE, if only in a negative fashion, given the absolute mandate to go out and BAPTIZE.

Certainly limbo has patristic roots and the Councils of Lyons (1245) and Florence (1438-45) allude to it. The conciliar teaching is that those who die in original sin descend "in infernum". Pope Pius VI offered in AUCTOREUM FIDEI an interpretation of the pertinent phrase, explaining that it was "that part of the nether regions (inferorum) that the FAITHFUL EVERWHERE (see Sensus Fidelium) everywhere designate by the name 'children's limbo' (locum inferorum quem limbi puerorum nomine fideles passim designant). The Pope also goes on to speak of the "locum illium et statum medium expertem culpae et poenae."

The optimism of many in the Church today is expressed in the sentiment that unbaptized children are granted paradise. And yet, the Church condemned this very same view as one of the heresies of Pelagius. In response, St. Augustine went so far as to say that such children went to hell, although it would have to be qualified, since many believed that unbaptized infants who died endured the "gentlest possible (mitissima) pain of loss of God". St Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) made a similar distinction.

The Council of Carthage with its canons approved by Pope Zozimus (died 418), condemned those who said that children who died without baptism went to heaven. It affirmed the necessity of baptism for salvation (see the Gospel of John).

Some critics argue that the elimination of the teaching of limbo from the universal catechism is merely another attempt at Ecumenical appeasement toward Protestants steamed about Purgatory.

11:22 AM  
Blogger Matthew said...

Thank you Father. I found your post on limbo to be enlightening. In regards to the other comment, could you show proof of all of the claims you are making?

9:10 AM  
Blogger Soshersas said...

Just look up the authorities I cited. It was meant as a quick post, not a treatise. Note that nothing was said to refute the traditional view. That is because the only real alternative to limbo is the ancient Augustinian position that unbaptized infants who die go to hell.

No one deserves salvation apart from Christ. It is a gift. God's divine election is mysterious, but we should not allow sentimentalism to create an optimism that neither the Scriptures nor the legacy of the Church would allow.

Check the sources yourself, you will see that I am right. The post-Vatican II position is NEW and contrary to what was taught to previous generations. Pick up an old Baltimore Catechism, the book that formed your grandparents and maybe your parents in the faith-- depending on how old you are-- you will find plenty about limbo there, too.

Someone is not telling the truth-- who is it? The old Church or the new?

9:58 PM  
Blogger Tom McKenna said...

It is certainly true that Limbo is more than a mere "theological opinion" as if it could be cast off with no thought. It belongs to a category of doctrine that includes matters that are logical conclusions from defined or authoritative doctrine.

Therefore, if we posit that no one can be saved except through Baptism (of water, of blood, of desire) and further posit that no one is consigned to hell unless they consciously chose evil, the only logical conclusion is that unbaptized infants 1) cannot be admitted to heaven; and 2) cannot be consigned to hell.

God is the author of reason and logic, and does not act contrary to the order of reason He created. Therefore these guiltless dead are consigned to a place where they neither experience suffering nor enjoy the beatific vision. This is Limbo.

One cannot deny this teaching without being what used to be called "temerarious" (="rash, heedless") That is, it is reckless and arrogant to assume that this teaching cannot be so simply because our fallible human judgment cannot understand why God would not admit these little ones to heaven. No one has a right to heaven, not even innocent babies. God takes care of these by granting them perfect natural happiness.

Thus taught the Fathers (who actually placed these infants in "hell" though without physical pain) and the schoolmen of the middle ages, and the theologians up until the eve of Vatican II.

7:45 AM  
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