Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Limbo in Limbo?

Dante in the Limbo of the Poets
source: wikipedia.org
It is one of those "was it really a teaching" items that has fallen by the wayside, that cannot be proven from ancient writings, but which gained a substantial following because of its intellectual consistency and approached the status of doctrine in the minds of some. I am, of course, speaking of Limbo.

What is it? There are usually two answers. One is that it is an alternative to heaven and hell for the invincibly and inculpably ignorant children who died before reaching the age of reason. Another is a variation, that it is a painless part of hell for those same dead, who will live in a "state of perfect natural happiness" in the eternal abyss. It is distinct from the "Limbo of the Fathers," or the Greek "Hades," where the righteous of the Old Covenant dwelt after death until Christ freed them on Holy Saturday.

Some will gerrymander patristic quotations from the likes of St. Gregory the Theologian, who believed that those who innocently died without Baptism did not merit punishment, to support Limbo (cf. Orat. XL). The general patristic consensus in the Greek Church reflects Gregory's misgivings and agnosticism on the subject.

St. Augustine informed the older Western view, that the un-baptized, regardless of who they are, go to hell and suffer. Rereading Augustine's Confessions barrels the reader in amazement at his own guilt for crying and waling as a child, and in turn believing that other babies sinned by selfishly crying and waling (cf. ch. 2). 

Proto-Scholastics, St. Anslem and his descendants, applied logic to the disparity between the guilt of infants and their fallen state, concluding that they must earn some sort of separation from God that does not involve suffering, although one would think any separation from God is a pain. Aquinas would write about Limbo, but Limbo itself would not grasp the Catholic imagination outside of the academies for quite some time. In his Inferno, Dante imagines the first ring to encapsulate Virgil and other virtuous pagans who, without illumination from faith, must suffer separation from God, but who themselves did not deserve punishment.

Eventually, Limbo caught on until Benedict XVI "closed" it in 2007 with this document, which suggests all un-baptized infants might be saved. While the conclusion is not out of the realm of possibility, given the patristic Greek agnosticism on the subject, it boldly disregards the Latin tradition on the subject. Moreover, there a curious application of lex orandi lex credendi: the old rite did not have a funeral rite for un-baptized infants, but the new rite does, so we can assume....

There is nothing wrong necessarily with holding a funeral for an un-baptized infant who would have been washed in the cleansing waters. The Church makes that very accommodation for prematurely deceased catechumens. I just which we would stop trying to find as answer to everything. Who gets to go to heaven or hell is inevitably up to God, the Only One qualified for His position, not theologians. This is not a criminal mystery to be solved by detectives, it is a mystery of faith to be left alone by the faithful. We do not know and may not until eternity. Why is this so difficult?

21 comments:

  1. Ten years ago in the pages of the now-defunct Seattle Catholic, Fr. Brian Harrison, OS, put on his Sherlock Holmes hat and solved the mystery! Ultramontanism at its finest: http://seattlecatholic.com/a051207.html

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  2. Well there are those two pronouncements from two ecumenical Councils that those who die in the original sin go to Hell but suffer different punishments. And there is the pronouncement that there is no other medicine for the little ones to be snatched out of dominion of the devil apart from waters of baptism, and that they contract original sin which needs to be washed away by the same laver of regeneration. I mean 2+2=4 as far as i can see it.

    And the funeral rites for the unbaptized infants are actually praying for the consolation of the parents. And even though one of the collects prays that the parents might feel that they are in the mercy of God - well we can interpret that in the way that they're not suffering any sensual punishment and thus the mercy of God is shewn. Better Limbo than Hell eh?

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  3. "In my Father's house there are many mansions" - John 14:2

    I'd say an unbaptized infant has much more chance than many of us, myself included.

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    1. Council of Carthage 418/419
      "Also it seemed good, that if anyone should say that the saying of the Lord, In my Father's house are many mansions is to be understood as meaning that in the kingdom of heaven there will be a certain middle place, or some place somewhere, in which infants live in happiness who have gone forth from this life without baptism, without which they cannot enter the kingdom of heaven, which is eternal life, let him be anathema. For after our Lord has said: Unless a man be born again of water and of the Holy Spirit he shall not enter the kingdom of heaven, what Catholic can doubt that he who has not merited to be coheir with Christ shall become a sharer with the devil: for he who fails of the right hand without doubt shall receive the left hand portion."

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    2. Exactly. No middle place. No eternal limbo of "natural happiness".

      I, personally, am of the opinion that the infant gets a choice at some point and/or our prayers can affect the outcome.

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    3. @Marko If memory serves me right, we once had an argument about this when we were both angrier people with more extreme views (I think we've both become far more reasonable since then ;) ). If you would like to see my views in full, I would direct you here:

      https://ecclesialvigilante.wordpress.com/2015/09/02/dante-aligheri-and-unbaptized-infants/

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  4. The Limbus Patrum is incontrovertible doctrine, the Limbus Infantium pious speculation, the Limbus Paganorum an invention of Dante's.

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  5. To me, what we have is really two millennia of the Church and its theological minds trying to take the implications of John 3:5 seriously - a rather stark statement by Christ. Limbo was a theological speculation that was, let us not forget, an attempt at a more hopeful and merciful alternative to the more obvious, traditional reading of John 3:5 and what it implied for the unbaptized.

    We don't know the destination of these unbaptized souls with certainty, but there is a reason why the Church took seriously (at least until recent years) the urgency of baptism.

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  6. As the article that alienus dilectus linked to said, limbo is a theological speculation, an alternative; not to Heaven, but to Hell where there is real torment of senses. Which is reasonable because it stems from dogmatic pronouncements about the destiny of those who die in original sin, which is Hell although with a different punishment.

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    1. I mean, can we simply ignore 2 Ecumenical Councils that said the identical thing?

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    2. I don't think anyone is proposing to ignore Carthage or Eugene IV (I'm not). My difficulty with Limbo, even as a part of Hell, is that Hell itself is essentially a place of punishment for the inherited stain of sin. Yes, a person who dies unbaptized (in infancy or otherwise) could potentially have no actual sins on their record, but would still go to Hell, Limbo or generally. Limbo has always been explained as a "place of perfect natural happiness" where the unbaptized person may or may not be aware of what he's missing. So do they go to the happy part of the eternal abyss and avoid the pains due to original sin? Do we side with St Augustine, who believed that even infants sin?—although the Church's concept of an "age of reason" seems to discard that idea immediately.

      What do we make of St John's prologue, which calls Christ the light which "illuminates every man who comes into the world"? Do they get to see *something* of the truth before they die, at which point they make their decision for or against Christ?

      I believe in the Councils of the Church, and also acknowledge that the Church can only speak objectively about salvation, that her only subjective judgments are canonizations in this regard. While the truths of Carthage and Florence are objectively true, how they play out is invisible to us and up to God alone. I am not advocating we ignore those councils, just that we stop trying to create particular explanations for certain things we cannot understand.

      To expound on what an above commentator said, 500 years ago Limbo was a comfort to parents whose children died before Baptism. Now Limbo is an offence because we think everyone but Hitler is entitled to a purgation-less salvation.

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    3. First, punishment and torment are not the same. While all torment can be considered to be punishment, not all punishment can be reduced to torment. The dogmatic pronouncement has the content of punishment not of torment whereby torment is not excluded nor necessarily included.

      Limbo is actually a name for that state/place which those who have only original sin go through/go to. There is firstly the description and then nomenclature. Just as is the case with purgatory.

      Both opinions, Augustinian and Abelard's are dogmatically permissible.

      Now, Augustine doesn't count with age of reason, but actually says that ever original sin merits torment of senses, while Abelard says that it merits only the exclusion from the beatific vision. So, age of reason has no say here. Abelard is not originator of non-tormentual limbo. Here's what st. Gregory the Theologian says: "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 honored, any more than it follows that one who is not worthy of a certain honor deserves on that account to be punished." [Oration 40, no. 23]

      St. John's prologue says that those who believe in Christ are granted to become children of God. Only in Christ are we sons of God. He is the last Adam, and in Him, in the laver of regeneration, we're made anew and clothed in Him, so we become like Him, alter-Christus, like new Adams. And since the First Adam could, before he sinned, enter heaven, on the account of his Christ-likeness (Tertullian says that the Father looked upon Christ Incarnate when He was creating Adam), we can enter heaven too since that same Christ-likeness has been restored to us by regeneration. But without that regeneration, no one can see the Father. (John 3,5)

      Let's focus only on Florence and Trent. Florence teaches that there is no other medicine for infants to be snatched from the dominion of the devil except from baptism. It also teaches that those who die in mortal or in original sin only, upon death depart to Hell, but suffer different punishments. Trent teaches that infants contract original sin which must be washed away by baptism.

      Original sin is connected to our nature. Nay, our nature is corrupted by original sin and divine life is taken from us by it. So when we contract our nature in conception and animation, which are simultaneous, it is not that we contract something called original sin. We are in that state in which our nature is corrupted and we're not adopted sons of God, we have no divine life in us.

      Baptism makes the Triune God present in us. Spirit makes us Christ-like, Christ's brothers, and thus we are

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    4. and thus we are Father's sons in Son.

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  7. As far as I can see, nobody has brought up Pius VI (at least not explicitly although he's in Fr. Harrison's article): He said rejecting limbo was "false and rash and as slander of the Catholic schools" (Denz. 526).

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    1. Meh... John XXII didn't believe the Theotokos enjoyed the Beatific Vision. I take unilateral pronouncements of popes with a huge grain of salt.

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    2. @EV, he thinks of auctorem fidei. that's from 1794. i'd say that's from pretty developed times.

      @Konstantin. you see, there's a fear on this blog. a fear of ultramontanism, so that's why.

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    3. Marko,

      Not quite! I heard of the bull's condemnation of limbo some time last year, but had earnestly forgotten about it when writing this little piece. I had in my mind that Limbo was a pious idea and probably never made it into a papal letter.

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  8. But if there's baptism of desire, then why not something similar for infants? Neither catechumens nor unbaptized babies are baptized, but the former gets baptism of desire. How does that work?

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    1. Actually, Ott lists various theological possible ways an unborn could make it to Heaven without actual sacramental baptism, such as a "baptism of suffering". Nonetheless, he states that those are mere possibilities held by more recent ( I think19th and 20th century) theologians.

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    2. I'll summarize:

      The anti-rationalist and orthodox 19th century theologian Heinrich Klee floated the idea that the infant could be enlightened by God enough to make a choice at the moment of its death, which is certainly possible. There is also the possibility that they are held in a temporary “Limbo” and will decide at the final judgement. There is the ever-present truth that our some of our prayers could be redirected by God to help the infants (like in the story of St. Perpetua and her own brother who died unbaptized). Finally, it is my sincere belief that a miscarried child from Catholic parents will likely be saved if the parents intended to baptize him/her. After all, it is they who speak for the child when he/she is baptized with water!

      In other words, I think most look at this the wrong way. I don't think all unbaptized infants share the same fate and that there is another means unknown to us whereby they are outright saved or damned. No limbo needed!

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  9. "Most look at this in the wrong way."
    That may well be, but the same could be said of Baptism and the role of the godparents (and ultimately the Church herself). The infant, simply put, does not resist--decide against--the Sacrament or its grace. The godparents (or parents) merely give a kind of pledge that the child will be brought up in the Faith, to provide the minister with a reasonable certainty that the Sacrament won't be given in vain.

    Anyone may have an intercessory role, of course, when it comes to the departed, but in the case of unbaptized infants, they are not the *faithful* departed. And of course there may be some way that God wills this defect of consent (and thus of grace) to be remedied, but usually those kinds of things (i.e., those which are not susceptible to theological investigation) can only be known (to some extent, anyhow) by the teachings of the Saints, or the tradition of the Church.

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