the past week or two there have been a number of reports in the media that the
Catholic Church is changing its doctrine on Limbo, and on the fate of those who
die without Baptism. Such reports are in error, for the Church simply
cannot change the doctrinal or moral truths entrusted to Her, for these truths
are found in the unchanging mind of God, and therefore completely incapable of
revision. The Church can change Her disciplines—things like wearing hats
in church, or the severity of the Lenten fast—but She cannot change God’s
revealed truth at all.
media have been quick to comment on a document issued by the Vatican’s
International Theological Commission on April 20th. As the document itself
is not freely available—in the United, States one must be a subscriber to a
rather expensive publication of the Catholic News Service (CNS)—I have not
been able to read it myself, but it doesn’t seem like the major media have
read it either.
The Theological Commission is simple a consulting body, and does not speak with
the magisterial authority of the Church—but, with all the fuss, I believe it
is prudent that we review what the Church actually does teach.
I am going to split this sermon into two parts. The first will deal with
Baptism and how it came to be an integral part of God’s plan for our
salvation. The second will deal with those who are unable to receive this
essential Sacrament of God’s eternal life. (In its entirety, this sermon
will be posted on the Internet, and I hope to print it in the June Parish
Bulletin, just in case anyone misses a part.)
One: The Need for Baptism
begin with, everything that mankind has, must be seen as a free gift from God.
There are no entitlements—no grounds on which to claim that God should have
done more for us—no grounds on which to claim that one person is receiving
unfair treatment relative to others. While justice and mercy
will surely enter into the discussion, Creation is foremost, the operation of
is purely spirit—He has no material parts. Like Himself, He created the
angels, who are also pure spirits, with no material parts to wear out, and
therefore immortal. God also created the material things of the
earth—all of them composed of the complex structures we study in physics and
chemistry—structures which eventually break down.
of these material structures, God created living things. At least on this
earth, at the pinnacle of God’s creation, is creature we know as man—homo
sapiens, to use the technical term—a term which is rather instructive for
theological purposes. The adjective “sapiens” is Latin for
“tasting,” “discerning,” and “having wisdom.” What
distinguishes men and women from the rest of the animal kingdom is a fully
rational soul. While animals display some degree of reason, it is
comprehensive only in mankind. We human beings can look at our
surroundings, make sense of them, and even take actions to change them so they
are more hospitable to us than they might be in the state of nature. We taste,
and we discern. Man makes clothing and shelter, cultivates his
crops, and makes use of things like fire and tools to improve and extend his
life. He can discern what is necessary to get along with his fellow
men and women. Man can also look within himself (we call that
introspection); he can discern what is going on within his own
self, and ponder why it is that he has been placed upon the earth.
Finally, man can even discern the existence of his Creator, and acquire
the wisdom of the natural law. All of this we human beings, we homo
sapiens, have through God’s generosity.
God did not stop there. When He created Adam and Eve, in His generosity,
He raised them up above this pinnacle of natural creation. He gave
them what we call preternatural gifts which improved upon their natural
endowments. Natural health became freedom from disease, natural wisdom
became effortless knowledge, their physical needs were effortlessly met, they
suffered no pain in childbirth.
God went yet a step further. He gave them a gift that was truly
above their nature (and not just an enhancement of it)—He gave them the
ability to see Him and converse with Him face to face. This was far above
the ability of natural reason to know God and to appreciate His handiwork in the
things of creation. With this supernatural gift, man could actually
experience a relationship with God—a supreme act of generosity toward
His creatures, by the infinite Creator.
know from the book of Genesis that Adam rejected his relationship with God.
At the prompting of the devil, he disobeyed God. Indeed, he sought to set
himself up as a sort of rival to God, for Eve had been told that if they
ate of the forbidden fruit their “eyes would be opened and they would be like
Now, this sin of pride cost Adam and his descendents dearly, on two levels.
As a race, all of mankind was associated with Adam and Eve in their rebellion
against God. As individuals, Adam and Eve lost all of those generous gifts
that God had added to their natural existence. “They would now bring
forth their children in pain, and they would now eat their bread only through
the sweat of the brow.”
Perhaps even worse, they would know God only dimly, in the rather dull
light of natural reason—no longer in personal friendship. Finite
man had offended an infinite Creator, and had no way of repairing the damage;
no way of making up for the offense. Adam was like a rich man who had
gambled away all of his immense fortune, and could leave nothing to his
children and grandchildren.
even in the face of this, God continued to be generous. He
immediately hinted that He would do something to remedy the more important
damage done by Adam, Eve, and the devil. A woman, a descendent of Eve,
would bring forth a Son, “whose heel would crush the head of the devil.”
Centuries would pass as God rebuilt His relationship with mankind.
Occasionally, God “lifted the veil” and spoke to fallen mankind through men
of His choosing—Noe, Abraham, and Moses would receive God’s covenant—and
men like Elias, Isaias, and Ezechiel would communicate God’s word to His
people in trying times.
as Saint Paul tells us, only “in the fullness of the time did God send his
Son, made of a woman, made under the law: That he might redeem us ... that
we might receive the adoption of sons, that once again the Spirit of God might
be in our hearts, and call out to God, crying: Abba, Father.”
In His great generosity, God lowered Himself to the level of His
rebellious creatures. Jesus Christ took on human nature, becoming true God
and true man. As such, He was the perfect Priest, for by definition, a
priest is an intermediary between God and man, and there could be no better
intermediary than one who was both human and divine. He was also the
perfect Victim, the perfect Gift—humanity, with nothing significant of its
own, acquired the only thing totally acceptable to God in reparation for the
rebellion of Adam—the obedience of God’s Son, Jesus Christ. As the Baltimore
Catechism tells us: “Jesus Christ, as the Redeemer of the whole
human race, offered His sufferings and death to God, as a fitting sacrifice in
satisfaction for the sins of men, and regained for them the right to be children
even this is only half of what God did for us in His generosity—Jesus not only
“regained for us the right to be children of God,” but He also gave
us the means of becoming the children of God. In Baptism, each
individual can seal his belief in what God has revealed, and receive in his soul
“the new life of sanctifying grace, by which we become children of God and
heirs of heaven.”
In Baptism we become “temples of the Holy Ghost,” thereby reestablishing
that supernatural relationship in which we personally experience God—the
spiritual life which begins with Baptism and culminates in the direct vision of
God in Heaven.
important did Jesus Christ consider Baptism, that He went Himself to the River
Jordan, where He sanctified the waters of the Earth by immersing His sacred body
in them, and “behold, a voice from the heavens said, ‘This is My beloved
Son, in Whom I am well pleased.”
So important did Jesus Christ consider Baptism, that He told Nicodemus:
“Unless a man be born again of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the
kingdom of heaven.”
So important did Jesus Christ consider Baptism, that He ordered His followers to
“make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and
of the Son and of the Holy Ghost....”
So important did Jesus Christ consider Baptism, that He ordered His followers to
“Go into the whole world and preach the Gospel to every creature. He who
believes and is baptized shall be saved, but he who does not believe shall be
Again, Baptism is the seal of our belief in what God has told us and commanded
us through His Apostles.
know that our Lord established six other Sacraments in addition to Baptism, but
for today, it must be sufficient to say that those Sacraments serve to maintain
the souls of the Baptized in the state of sanctifying grace, until the day in
which each sees God for himself, directly, in heaven. All of the
Sacraments work together, the God prescribed means of gaining eternal life as
His sons and daughters—knowing, loving, and serving Him in this world, and
being happy with Him in the next. Once again, the word which characterizes
all of this is God’s generosity. All of this is a free
gift, with which we can choose to cooperate or not; none of it is owed to
Two: The Unbaptized
"Every good gift and every perfect gif comes down from
the Father of Lights,
with Whom there is no change nor shadow of alteration."[11a]
have seen that Baptism is God’s prescribed way of restoring individual men and
women to the life of grace which culminates in the direct personal vision of God
Himself—a generous and free gift given to Adam and Eve, rejected by them, and
restored by the voluntary sacrifice of our Lord on the Cross. One might
ask, as did the early Fathers of the Church, “What becomes of those who die
know that, following His crucifixion, Christ “descended into Hell” before
“rising from the dead on the third day.”
In this phrase, “Hell” is universally understood to be “the Limbo of the
Fathers,” the place where the souls of the just—those God-fearing people who
died without Baptism before the time of Christ—remained until that time.
They were taken (the “Good Thief” of Saint Luke’s Gospel amongst them) to
Heaven at that time, to enjoy the Beatific Vision of God.
His resurrection, our Lord impressed upon His disciples the need for the whole
world to learn His truths and His commands. “Those who believe and are
baptized will be saved, those who do not believe will be condemned.”
The statement is a little bit asymmetrical, possibly suggesting that sacramental
Baptism is not always an absolute necessity. We can speak of Baptism as
the “Sacrament of Faith,” which is to say the “Sacrament of Belief in what
God has revealed to be true.” An adult coming to Baptism does so only
after God’s graces have motivated him to consider the teachings of Jesus
Christ, and he has taken them to be true. Some amount of time must
be spent in learning, considering, and accepting at least the basics of the
Faith, before one’s personal faith is sealed in Baptism.
the early Church (and perhaps even today) persecution sometimes intervened while
the convert awaited Baptism: He came to believe yesterday, was scheduled
to be baptized tomorrow, but was fed to the lions today! The word
“martyr” comes from the Greek “to witness,” and certainly to die a cruel
death instead of renouncing Jesus Christ, was the greatest possible witness
anyone could give to his faith. The faith of the martyr was sealed in the
witness of his death. Metaphorically, the martyr might be said to be
“baptized in his own blood,” but clearly he is saved through his belief in
Jesus Christ and what He has taught.
is also the possibility that the person preparing for Baptism might have his
life cut short by some other means; perhaps an accident, or violence not
related to the Faith. It has been the general teaching of the Church that
such a person, dying in the ardor of faith and with the desire for Baptism will
also be taken to Heaven. Metaphorically, we call this “baptism of
desire,” but again, as with the martyr, such a person is saved through his
belief in Jesus Christ and what He has taught.
person who survives the lions or the automobile accident on the day before
Baptism, will, of course, go on to be baptized, for that is the normal means of
sanctification prescribed by our Lord. It is the first in a long line of
Sacramental steps that will lead a person to Heaven after a normal life, and
cannot be ignored.
what of the person who has not been convinced of the truth of the
Faith—perhaps because of apathy, or faulty preaching, or bad example on the
part of Catholics? Or the one who has never even heard of Jesus Christ?
(“Aborigine” and “Hottentot” are the favored theological terms.)
no one is saved because of stubborn resistance to the Faith; no one is
saved through apathy or ignorance; no one is saved by taking the bad
messenger into account, instead of the good message. But what of that
man—probably rare—who has come to the knowledge of God and God’s natural
law by using his natural reason? Let us throw in the idea that this
man—probably rare—has spent a life-time trying to honor God, Whom he knows
through natural reason, and trying to keep the commandments of the natural law.
Is such a man saved? Does he enjoy the Beatific Vision of God in eternity?
is some speculation on this. This unbaptized person does not have
the supernatural gift of sanctifying grace, for it was not passed on to him from
Father Adam, and he has not received it through the Sacrament; indeed, he
has not received any of the Sacramental aids we Catholics enjoy to keep us on
the path to Heaven. God is in no way obligated to confer special graces
upon this person. God established creation in a well ordered way,
predictably following the moral and physical rules He has
established—occasionally, He works miracles, but we recognize them as miracles
precisely because they are rare variations in the normal scheme of things.
God, of course, can do whatever He pleases! We can only speculate
about the possibility (let alone the probability) that God will deal with this
good person in an exceptional manner. Perhaps, in addition to God’s generosity,
He will be moved by motives of mercy, and at least relative justice.
After all, our hypothetical good person persevered under very difficult
circumstances—perhaps more difficult than those of the baptized—and yet,
though he could have sinned, he did not. It seems unreasonable to punish
a life of natural virtue with the punishments justly accorded to Satan
and to hardened sinners! One can speculate that the Limbo of the Fathers
might still be open to such souls. Some, including the saintly Pope Pius
IX have even speculated that such a good life is evidence of implicit desire
for Baptism and the Beatific Vision of God. Again, this is legitimately open to speculation.
remains the question of the unbaptized infant. Utterly without actual sin,
such a child still lacks sanctifying grace or any title to it, and has not
demonstrated even a natural belief in God or conformity to the moral law.
Saint Gregory Nazianzen (325-389), one of the first Catholic theologians to
consider the matter, put it this way:
[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. [Orat., xl, 23]
Perhaps in over reaction to the heresy of
Pelagius, Saint Augustine, writing just a bit after Saint Gregory insisted that
unbaptized infants were subject to the pains of Hell, but in a so mild a degree
that their state was better than not having been born at all.
the middle ages arrived, the settled position of the Church returned to that
before Saint Augustine. That those who died unbaptized with no serious
actual sins were subject to no positive penalty, was the doctrine taught
by such theological notables as Peter Lombard (1100-1164), and Saint Thomas
Aquinas (1225-1274). A more official stamp of approval of the concept of
Limbo came with Pope Innocent III (r. 1198-1216) who wrote that the
souls of the innocent unbaptized suffered “no other pain, whether from
material fire or from the worm of conscience, except the pain of being deprived
forever of the vision of God.” Saint Thomas held that even that “pain
of deprivation” was nonexistent, for the innocents knew nothing of what they
Ecumenical Councils, Lyons II (1274) and Florence (1439), setting down
established Catholic belief together with the Greeks, agreed that “those who
die in mortal sin or with original sin only, immediately descend to Hell, yet to
be punished with different punishments.”
Pope Pius VI condemned the idea that Limbo was a “Pelagian fable,”
referring to it by the name of “the Limbo of children” and indicating that
it was without any of fiery punishment of Hell.
the merciful doctrine of Purgatory, the merciful doctrine of Limbo was rejected
by many Protestants, for whom salvation was “through faith alone, or who, like
Calvin, saw many souls predestined to Hell. And, of course, “there is no
Limbo (and no Purgatory) in the Bible.” Jansenism, often as grim as
Protestantism, generally followed suit, at least as far as Limbo was concerned.
the Church faces the scandal of theologians who maintain that no one goes to
Hell. and that Baptism isn’t all that necessary. From the
“feel-good” perspective, Limbo is no longer a sign of God’s mercy and
generosity, but rather, it is barbaric and unjust. For the liberal,
salvation is no longer a free gift of God, but rather it is a right. The
Catholic News Service writer seems to think that the dark ages ended around
1965, saying that: “there is greater theological awareness today that God is
merciful and “wants all human beings to be saved,’” as though this was
just discovered at Vatican II!
of course, “can do as He pleases.” But we do have His word on how He
wants things done, we have nearly two thousand years of Catholic tradition on
the matter, and the thoughts of the best Catholic minds of the centuries.
Optimism is a fine thing, but in matters such as these it would be seriously
sinful to let unwarranted and unproven optimism guide the actions of
individual Catholics or the entire Church. One can sin against Hope either
by despair or by presumption--but the particularly bad thing about presumption
is that it sets aside reasonable caution.
us look briefly at the results of this unwarranted optimism over the past
forty years: Thinking foolishly that “all men are saved,” far fewer
Catholics regularly make a Sacramental Confession. The foolish thought
that “all men are saved,” has corrupted the words of Consecration in the New
Mass. Thinking foolishly that “all men are saved,” missionary activity
has reached an all time low—it is even “politically incorrect” to
make converts! Thinking foolishly that “one may be saved without Jesus
Christ,” modernist Catholics no longer pray for the conversion of Jewish
people or Moslems—again, it would be “politically incorrect” to do
regard to unwarranted optimism over Limbo, if the unbaptized innocents
are all presumed to be in Heaven, a significant motive for prohibiting
infanticide just vanishes. This “universal salvation” might comfort a
few mothers who grieve for their children (although likely a false comfort).
But what of those who do not want their babies to be born, or find them not to
their liking once they have been born—false optimism could well act as an
incentive for such people to murder their children—foolishly thinking they can
turn a live nuisance into a saint in Heaven. A warped mind might even see
something holy in sending the innocents purposefully to Heaven.
doesn’t change. Even the Church cannot change His truth. No amount
of “dialogue” can change reality. God is merciful, just, and generous
in ways far beyond the revision of the proud who falsely claim the right to
decide for Him what He should do!
Let us resolve to keep the Faith!
A few folks did not like hearing about the reality of Limbo, and claimed that
their faith led them to believe that God was too merciful and just to allow such
a thing to happen to an infant. They were not interested in discussing
exactly how they came to know the truth of their belief, they "just believe
it." But the conversation "shifted gears" and we came to a
new problem that is likely to be caused by unwarranted optimism over
Limbo--in many parishes it is difficult enough to find a priest to attend to the
dying or to those about to undergo serious surgery--imagine how much more
difficult it will become to get a priest to rush to baptize a child whom he
thinks "will soon be a saint" without Baptism! It is a good
thing anyone can baptize-- a fact that expectant mothers now have an
additional incentive to discuss with their health care providers. .
The ITC document is now on line at: http://beta1.catholicculture.org/library/view.cfm?recnum=7529