Weighing in on Limbo

It was a surprise to many that the Holy Father made no statement for or against Limbo last Friday. What had been promised by the secular press, citing members of the International Theological Commission (ITC), was that the pope would declare that unbaptized infants go to heaven.

Back in early January, I articulated my thoughts on this issue, which received a similar flurry of press coverage then. As these comments are not archived on our site, they bear repeating:

It looks as if the ITC, an advisory commission set up by Pope Paul VI in 1969, is in fact going to try to put such [unbaptized] babies in heaven. […] What gives us cause for concern is not that the Church is going to “change her teaching.” No, infallibility is not being either invoked or compromised here. What is happening is what happens frequently in this ecclesiastical crisis we find ourselves in: a low-level body, without any protection of infallibility from the Holy Ghost, but enjoying an official status within the Curia, will appear to pronounce authoritatively on Catholic dogma.

In other words, more confusion is likely to result.

As an advisory commission to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), the ITC has no protection of infallibility. Its sitting theologians meet to discuss issues and present their views in a paper. This is supposed to help the CDF to do its job. The head of the CDF — presently Archbishop [now Cardinal] William Levada — is always the head of the ITC. It’s up to him and the Holy Father to do something with the findings of the ITC.

A wholesome uneasiness about the affair is in order. Having been graced by the likes of arch-modernist Karl Rahner, who sat on the commission from 1969-74, the ITC isn’t exactly well known for its orthodoxy. And though it is not an infallible organ of the Magisterium, you can bet that all but the most informed Catholics are going to think that whatever they conclude is now “Gospel truth” for Catholics — whatever that means nowadays.

The prediction that “more confusion is likely to result” proved accurate, thanks, in large part, to the journalistic irresponsibility of the London Times and the various “conservative” Catholic apologists who have tried to clarify the issue.

Instead of a debunking of Limbo, what we got on Friday was a sermon of His Holiness to the members of the ITC. (Both Zenit and Catholic World News covered this.) Reading between the lines, one could justly conclude that the pope was gently saying “silentium!” to the loudmouths on the ITC who were liberally sharing their thoughts with the press. Here are some excerpts:

  • “To speak to meet with applause, to speak oriented to what men want to hear, to speak obeying the dictatorship of common opinions, is considered a sort of prostitution of the word and of the soul…”
  • Citing the example of the saint of the day, St. Bruno (founder of the Carthusians), the Holy Father urged the ITC members to “silence and contemplation,” which would give their spoken words more efficacy for good. “This is [the theologian’s] mission: in the talkativeness of our time and of other times, in the inflation of words, to make the essential words present. In words make the Word present, the Word that proceeds from God, the Word that is God.”
  • “And I believe this is the fundamental virtue of the theologian, this discipline, even hard, of obedience to the truth, which makes us collaborators of the truth, a mouth of truth, so that we will not speak in this river of words of today, but that we are really purified and chaste through obedience to the truth, so that truth may speak in us.”

Hopefully, the Holy Father will gag these modernists more overtly (or fire them). Hopefully, he will clarify Catholic doctrine on the matter. What could assist him in doing so are the following statements, among others which touch upon the issue:

In 385, Pope St. Siricius sent a letter to a Bishop Himerius, telling the bishop that both of their souls are in danger if they defer the baptism of infants or adults: “. . . lest our own souls be in danger if, as a result of our having denied the saving font to those who stand in need of it, each one of them, on leaving the world, should lose the kingdom as well as his life” (Denzinger-Schoenmetzer 184).

Pope St. Innocent I, in 417, wrote to the Synod of Milevis, that: “The idea that infants can be granted the rewards of eternal life even without the grace of baptism is utterly foolish” (DS 219).

The Council of Florence (the Bull Cantate Domino of February 4, 1442): “Regarding children, indeed, because of danger of death, which can often take place, since no help can be brought to them by another remedy than through the sacrament of baptism, through which they are snatched from the domination of the devil and adopted among the sons of God, [the sacrosanct Roman Church] advises that holy baptism ought not to be deferred for forty or eighty days, . . . but it should be conferred as soon as it can be done conveniently” (DS 1349).

The teachings of the Council of Trent on justification, the Roman Catechism’s teaching on baptism, and Pope Pius XII’s Allocution to a Congress of the Italian Catholic Association of Midwives (October 29, 1951) all confirm the traditional teaching that unbaptized infants cannot be saved.

Johannes M. Schwarz, PhD, is a scholar who has recently surveyed the various theories of unbaptized infant salvation. Recently interviewed by kath.net, he made some insightful remarks in favor of the traditional teaching. Here are two excerpts from that interview:

“It might be true that there are no definitory statements on the questions, but there is a firm tradition in the ordinary magisterium, that cannot simply be discarded. It is insufficient to state that limbo was never defined, and therefore unbaptized children might equally be thought to be in heaven. Historically the doctrinal alternative to limbo never was infant salvation, but a stricter Augustinian interpretation assigning also pain of sense to the state of the children. That limbo was never defined had much to do with leaving room for the Augustinian theory as a study of the Jansenist controversy helps to see. The non-salvation of children was not disputed, except for very limited exceptions (Cajetan and some others).”

“In my study I found that limbo is not only valid as an explanation, it also has a greater probability than most other theories and, as a model of non-salvation, a longstanding tradition with authority. I do not rejoice over the fact, that such a state could be the state of unbaptized children. But then, there are many things in this world, I find hard and difficult. I often fail to understand why God permits this or that, but I do not believe in God because he conforms to my image, but simply because God is. I trust, that how he ordains things is right, just and merciful.”

We seem here to have a theologian who has the theological “chastity” and the “discipline, even hard, of obedience to the truth” spoken of by the Holy Father.