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Rethinking Limbo: Reader Reactions

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | May 23, 2005

I’m leaving my column on Limbo on the home page for an extra week for two reasons: (1) Having been struck down by the common cold last week, I lacked the mental acuity to develop a new topic; and (2) The Limbo column has garnered more feedback than any other column to date. How often is human motivation a mixture such as this!

Of some 75 responses to the column, the overwhelming majority were favorable. It goes without saying that many, especially from those who had suffered miscarriages, were favorable for primarily emotional reasons. That is not a particularly good source of theology, but there is one significant theological point about it: God loves an unbaptized infant even more than its mother does.

Nor will it do to dismiss the mother’s desire as a mere natural love. Natural love might be at work in the woman who desperately wants to see her baptized baby live rather than die, but it is not the motive of the woman who hopes with all her strength that her unbaptized baby is in heaven. Where supernatural love is absent in such cases, hope is replaced at best by resignation, at worst by despair.

In contrast to this generosity of maternal (and, often, paternal) love, I received a very few responses from people whose attitude can best be summarized by saying, “Look, unbaptized infants cannot be saved. Get over it.” There are two serious problems here. First, such persons apparently believe that my column undermines the Faith by denying dogmatic certainties. I will relieve them of their unjustified anxiety in a moment, but first I want to question their sources. Some cited the Baltimore Catechism. Last time I checked, this was neither a magisterial nor even a Roman document.

Second, in one or two of these responses I detect that same ruthless self-satisfaction that is so often characteristic of those who cling to a Feenyite interpretation of the teaching that there is no salvation outside the Church. Again and again the Church has taught that formal juridical membership in the Church is not how we determine who is “outside”. “Outside the Church”, in this case, means “apart from the Church”, and it has two senses.

First, it is through the Church that Christ’s salvific grace is brought into the world down through the ages; second, one must be “joined” to the Church in some way in order to take advantage of these graces and so be saved. It was precisely in this context that Pope Pius XII expounded the theology of baptism by desire on the part of those who seek God; while not members, they are joined to the Church in some degree by a deep unconscious wish. Persons who fall prey to what can only be described as a temptation to spiritual insularity need to “get over” the fact that God desires all men to be saved. It follows inescapably that He does not damn without fault.

Two correspondents raised the opposite question by pointing out that John Paul II had written something in Evangelium vitae which might make the salvation of unbaptized infants certain. I confess that I had forgotten this passage, in which the Pope addresses words of sympathy and encouragement to those women who have had abortions: “The Father of mercies is ready to give you his forgiveness and his peace in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. You will come to understand that nothing is definitively lost and you will also be able to ask forgiveness from your child, who is now living in the Lord.” (#99)

I don’t believe this passage settles the question, but it should relieve the concern of those who fear my column undermined settled doctrine. First the negative: In my judgment, the phrase “living in the Lord” is too vague to be definitive. After all, we too live in the Lord even now insofar as we are in a state of grace. But we do not yet possess the Beatific Vision, which is what the discussion of salvation is all about. I would also point out that the Pope’s remarks on capital punishment in this same encyclical were the occasion of the revision of the final text of the Catechism on that subject, but no such revision was deemed necessary for the Catechism’s treatment of salvation for unbaptized infants.

Second, the positive: At the very least, the phrase “living in the Lord” must indicate the possession of some measure of grace (presumably sanctifying grace), and here we come to exciting new theological ground. For the case in favor of limbo very much depends on the idea that the soul in a state of original sin cannot receive this grace. Without baptism, it is argued, such a soul cannot share in the Divine life.

These are deep waters, and I will not presume to say more. But as my friend Tim Brown said in one of the messages which brought the text of Evangelium vitae to my attention, “Living in the Lord sounds much better than living in limbo.” As indeed it does.

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