For your doctoral dissertation you chose the study of the fate of unbaptized children. What were the motives for this choice? Is the subject still relevant today?
My interest in this question was prompted by a series of conversations I had with a friend and colleague back in 2004, when John Paul II. asked the International Theological Commission (ITC) to study themes related to the question of unbaptized children. I guess, this move of the pontiff answers the question of whether the subject is still relevant today. It does however not explain the reason why there is still debate on such a sensitive issue touching the lives of so many families and parents, that have prematurely lost a child. The difficulty in the question lies in the relation of fundamental truths of the faith such as the reality of original sin with the necessity of baptism on the one hand and the universal will of salvation on the other. These two truths meet here, as G. Dyer put it in one of is writings, with ‘clinical precision.’
For me there was also a personal, emotional side to the whole question that came with my long involvement in the Austrian Pro-Life Movement (Youth for Life) and the pastoral duties that I have accepted since starting my doctorate. For these reasons the study was never a mere and abstract academic exercise, but occasionally a theological struggle that had to be fought kneeling. The result, or so I hope, is a contribution to the fruitful discussion of the subject that in our time sometimes suffers from excessive sentiments and lack of historical understanding of the question.
You have mentioned the proceedings of the International Theological Commission. In the last months this very work of the ITC has been accompanied with media headlines such as „Vatican is set to abolish limbo.“ Is the concept of limbo outdated? Which answers and alternatives have been proposed?
The history of theology knows different solutions to the problem of unbaptized children. Apart from the fact of infant baptism and its implied reasons the first Christian centuries yield little. Only with the pelagian controversy certain concepts such as original sin were refined in response to the attacks. This also gave the teaching of the fate of unbaptized children more definite contours. St. Augustine thought these children to be excluded from heaven and citizens of hell. In the West this answer would echo through many centuries, but Augustine himself was in doubt as to the exact punishment these children would undergo - he spoke of ‘slightest pain’ (poena mitissima).
More insights into the nature of original sin as deprivation of sanctifying made the scholastic developments of the question possible. Around 1200 the term “limbo” (border) appears in the context of unbaptized children explaining, that while they are not permitted to enter heaven, they do not suffer from the pain of sense and may even enjoy a certain degree of (natural) happiness. Except for the time of the revival of Augustinian theology around the time of the reformation and the Jansenist crisis, this answer became the common opinion of almost all theologians right up to the 20th century, when the number of critics got more numerous.
To cite the criticisms, that structure mainly around the universal will of salvation, the perfection of the redemptive order or the solidarity of Christ, would go to far in this interview. I would however like to point out two rarely noted problems I have encountered with these arguments. The first is, that the concept of limbo is not as homogeneous as modern discussion often assumes. Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure, Suarez and modern limbo theologians describe limbo quite differently. For this reason some critiques of limbo apply only to a certain variation of the limbo theory, leaving the others untouched.
The second problem in many modern works is the theological discussion of church documents. It might be true that there are no definitory statements on the questions, but there is a firm tradition in the ordinary magisterium, that can not 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 opinion a detailed study is yet to be done of some church documents with a focus on the question, but in particular of the third canon of the Council of Carthage. It seems to decide the question in favour of non-salvation, but is missing in different collections of canons. In my study, I found, that the answer usually given, namely that Rome did not accept it because of its content, needs to be reviewed, as there are statements of popes before and after the ratification of that council to the same effect as the disputed canon.
But so much to the question whether the theory of limbo is to be considered outdated. I do not think so, but there are other solutions proposed, that I would briefly like to mention. Most modern attempts try to stay within the frame of the classical substitutes of baptism – baptism of blood and baptism of desire – for in this way the doctrine of the necessity of baptism can be upheld.
In the line of baptism of blood some explain death to be a quasi-sacrament because it would conform one to Christ who died for us. Others explain death to be a channel of grace rendering a decision for or against God possible – thus already pointing to a baptism of desire. In recent years some attempts have been made to claim baptism of blood at least for aborted children.
Other solutions favour a variation of baptism of desire. There is a handful of illumination theories, that vary according to the cause, effect and point of time assigned to the illumination with the possibility to decide the final destination not unlike the angels. Some would make the illumination miraculous, others attribute it to natural causes when body and soul separate. Some assume an illumination prior to death, others in the moment of death, again others at some point after death. Apart from these illumination theories, there exist theories claiming a vicarious desire on the part of the parents or on part of the Church. Again others see some form of unconscious desire on part of the child as a relic of the order of creation or as an addition in the order of redemption. In my book I offer a synthesis and critique of these models and their arguments, that naturally would go beyond the limits of this interview.
Then there is the „open solution“ of the funeral rite of unbaptized children, the catechism (CCC 1261) and Evangelium Vitae (99) according to the (corrected) official version. These documents speak of a hope for a way of salvation, but neither specify that “way” nor do they give certainty as to whether such a way in fact exists. More could be said on the interpretative takes on these texts, but for brevity I again have to refer to by book for a more detailed discussion.
Among the solutions are there any really ‘creative’ ideas?
Indeed there are quite a few ranging from baptism by a guardian angel to the concept of a purgatorial temporary limbo. The most curious while at the same time highly problematic attempt to solve the problem is proposed by no other than Karl Rahner. In an essay on purgatory he speculates also on the fate of unbaptized children. He is convinced that these children will reach heaven, but if they do, they do so without a conscious human act. This would mean that a vast number of the inhabitants of heaven would have attained their end without a personal act and decision. He deems such a prospective “horrible.“ A solution would be furnished by the theories providing some form of baptism of desire for these children as Rahner notes, but he also speculates beyond these bounds. Considering the “vast extension” of the belief in reincarnation in “human religious tradition” there could be just a grain of truth in this belief. At least those, so Rahner, that have died before the exercise of their reason and will could in this way be given a second chance to attain heaven with their cooperation in a “human fashion.” The obvious problem of Rahners reasoning and its departure from the Christian faith does not have to be pointed out.
A truly ‚creative’ solution. Could you please tell us at what readership your publication is aimed at?
So far my work has been published in German. This already limits the prospective readers of this edition. As a dissertation it is an academic not a pastoral work, although the pastoral implications of the question are quite clear. Therefore it is directed at the scholarly community, at pastors and the theologically interested laity. It is not a pastoral guide for parents dealing with the unfortunate loss of a child, as it provides merely an insight into a chapter of the history of theology.
I would like to add one more personal remark. 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 it is right, just and merciful.
Permit me to point out that this conclusion seems to run counter to the signs from "Rome." Isn't your view to become theologically isolated very soon?
Indeed so it would seem. And media coverage has done much to confuse the question by expecting the pope to "abolish the concept of limbo" any time now. I would like to point out two things. The ITC, which is the body of renowned theologians studying the question right now, consists of experts in different theological fields. Its function is to give recommendations and counseling the CDF, rather than issue documents of authority. It will be up to the CDF to decide if a more forceful document on the subject is to be published, once the deliberations of the ITC have ended.
The second thing, that needs to be clarified refers to the "papal" statements. Twice the Holy Father when he was still Cardinal expressed his lack of sympathy for the limbo hypothesis as a private theologian. Unfortunatly the relevant passage in his "Ratzinger Report" is difficult to give weight and meaning to as the explanation of the limbo theory includes a statement that is historically incorrect. The error might be due to an oversimplification often necessary in an interview or it might be a redactionary mistake. At any rate, I think that Joseph Ratzinger carefully distinguishes his personal and private opinion from his task as a guardian of the deposit of faith. He did so as head of the CDF, or so it seems, when Evangelium Vitae was first published. For the relevant and overly optimistic passus (Nr. 99) was "corrected" and toned down for the official latin text in the AAS.
To conclude, I personally expect therefore nothing that goes significantly beyond the text of the catechism (CCC 1261) speaking of a hope for the salvation of unbaptized infants. Reviewing the exact task given by John Paul II to the commission, I think the outcome could be no other than strengthening that hope. No particular answer will be canonized or "abolished." That means, that few might be inclined to propose limbo in the future, but as a valid answer it will continue to be around. And if indeed a more optimistic view should prevail, we need to question many a pastoral practice, such as emergency baptisms currently prescribed by the Code of Canon Law and the current practice infant baptism in general.
Thank you for this Interview.
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Johannes Maria Schwarz
Zwischen Limbus und Gottesschau
Das Schicksal ungetauft sterbender Kinder in der theologischen Diskussion des zwanzigsten Jahrhunderts. Ein theologiegeschichtliches Panorama.
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