The Father William Most Collection
Unbaptized Infants and Feeney
[Published electronically for use in classes taught by Fr. Most and for private theological study.]
The words of the Council of Lyons speaks of those who die in original sin as going to hell. The Latin word used is infernum, which means the realm of the dead, and need not mean the hell of the damned. As to the word poena, often translated as punishment, in Latin it need not mean the positive infliction of suffering, but could stand for only the loss or deprivation of some good. If unbaptized infants are deprived of the vision of God, that is a poena, but would not have to involve any suffering. We are certain of this from the teaching of Pope Pius IX, in Quanto conficiamur moerore, August 10, 1863: "God... in His supreme goodness and clemency, by no means allows anyone to be punished with eternal punishments who does not have the guilt of voluntary fault." Of course, the infants do not have any voluntary fault. Hence they cannot be in the hell of the damned.
Tragically, Leonard Feeney cited this text of Pius IX, and, in effect, ridiculed it and charged Pius IX with the heresy of Pelagianism, saying (in Thomas M. Sennott, They Fought the Good Fight, Catholic Treasures, Monrovia CA. 1987, pp. 305-06): "To say that God would never permit anyone to be punished eternally unless he had incurred the guilt of voluntary sin is nothing short of Pelagianism... . If God cannot punish eternally a human being who has not incurred the guilt of voluntary sin, how then, for example can He punish eternally babies who die unhaptized?." The teaching of Pius IX agrees with the teaching of St. Thomas in De malo q.5 a.3 ad 4: "The infants are separated from God perpetually, in regard to the loss of glory, which they do not know, but not in regard to participation in natural goods, which they do know... . That which they have through nature, they possess without pain." So when the Synod of Pistoia taught that the idea of St. Thomas was "a Pelagian fable", Pius IX, in 1794, condemned that teaching of Pistoia: DS 2626.
Vatican II, in the Decree on Ecumenism §7 taught: "... if anything... even in the way of expressing doctrine - which is to be carefully distinguished from the deposit of faith - has been expressed less accurately, at an opportune time it should be rightly and duly restored." Paul VI agreed, and in Mysterium fidei Sept 3, 1965, 23-24, AAS 57, 758, said we must still not say the old language was false, only that it could be improved. Surely that is the case with the language of such texts as the Council of Lyons.
The new Catechism of the Catholic Church, in #1261, after carefully explaining that those who without fault do not find the Church, can still be saved, quoted the words of Christ (Mk 10:14) "Let the little children come to me, and do not prevent them," added: "[this] permits us to have hope that there is a way to salvation for infants who die without Baptism."
Many theological attempts have been made in our time to find such a way. Let us offer something a bit new here: First, as St. Thomas said (III. 68.2. c): "His [God's] hands are not tied by [or: to] the Sacraments".
Theologians commonly hold that God provided for the salvation of those who died before Christ in some way. Girls of course were not circumcised (cf. III. 70. 4. c: "By circumcision there was given to boys the power to come to glory.") It was enough to belong to the people of God.
In a similar way, St. Paul says (1 Cor 7:14) that the unbelieving mate in a marriage of a Christian and a pagan is consecrated or made holy through union with the Christian who does come under the Covenant: "Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy" So they are holy precisely by belonging to a family with even one party Christian. Paul does not at this point mention Baptism as the reason for their status - he speaks of the mere fact that they belong to a family with one Christian parent. (The word holy seems to reflect Hebrew qadosh which does not mean high moral perfection, but coming under the covenant). Similarly the Jews believed that merely belonging to the People of God insured their salvation, unless they positively ruled themselves out by the gravest sins: cf. Genesis Rabbah 48.7: "In the world to come, Abraham will sit on the doormat of Gehinnom and will not allow a circumcised Jew to enter." and Sanhedrin 10.1: "All Israel has a share in the age to come." The latter text adds that there are three groups who do not have a share: those who deny the resurrection, those who deny the Law is from heaven, and Epicureans (Cf. E. P. Sanders Paul and Palestinian Judaism pp. 147-82).
St. Paul insists in Romans 3:28-20 that if God had not provided for those who did not know the Law, He would not be their God. So He must have provided, and He did it through the means of faith. Could we argue that if God makes no provision for unbaptized infants, He would not act as their God? It seems yes.
Further, St. Paul insists many times over (Romans 5:15-17) that the redemption is superabundant, more so than the fall. But since God did provide for infants before Christ, if He did not do so after Christ, the redemption would not be superabundant, it would be a hellish liability for infants and millions of others. Really, Feeney and those of his followers who insist that God sends unbaptized babies to hell - along with countless millions of others who never had a chance to hear of the Church - they make God incredibly harsh, even a monster. God is not a monster, a God of that description could not exist as a God at all. So logically Feenyism calls for atheism. And in the parable of the talents (Lk 19:22) when the one servant told his master he hid the talent since he knew the master was harsh, the Master replied that he would judge the servant according to his own evidence. Since he thought the master was harsh, He would be harsh.
Also, God shows great concern for the objective moral order (cf. the appendix on sedaqah in Wm. Most, The Thought of St. Paul). There is some reason to think He has also great concern for the objective physical order. Thus in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, Abraham explains (Lk 16:24): "Remember that you in your lifetime received good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish." There was no mention of sins on the part of the rich man or virtue in the poor man, just the reversal of the objective physical order. Similarly in the series of four woes in the Great Discourse (Luke 6:24-16), there is a reversal for those who were rich, for those who were full, for those who could laugh, for those who were well spoken of. There is, again, no mention of moral virtue, just of reversal of the objective physical order. Also, in the account of the Last Judgement (Mt 25:31-46) the excuse of those on the left that they did not know they did not help the Judge is not accepted.
So could it be then that God decides: These infants according to my plan should have had many goods things in life. They were deprived of all - and in the case of abortion, were cut to pieces savagely - so now there should be a reversal.