Archives > Limbo: In or Out?
Limbo: In or Out?
An exclusive interview with a member of the Pontifical Theological Commission on the controversial topic of original sin, baptism, salvation, and the doctrine of limbo
By Andrew Rabel
On Friday, April 20, 2007, the International Theological Commission (ITC), an advisory body comprised of 30 theologians from around the world chosen by the Pope, released its long-awaited document, The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized -- the issue of original sin, baptism, salvation, and limbo.
Following the release of the document, commissioned under Pope John Paul II (1978-2005), there was considerable confusion in the press, with typical comments being that the Church had finally buried its teaching on Limbo after some 800 years.
In hopes of shedding some light on this controversial theological matter, Inside the Vatican’s Andrew Rabel, an Australian Catholic writer, in late April conducted an exclusive interview with an International Theological Commission member, the American nun Sr. Sara Butler, a Missionary Servant of the Most Blessed Trinity (MSBT). She is one of two women appointed to the International Theological Commission by John Paul II in 2004, and presently teaches dogmatic theology at St. Joseph's Seminary in Dunwoodie, New York.
Sr. Butler has been a Missionary Servant of the Most Blessed Trinity since 1956. She has served as instructor and professor at a variety of institutions, including 14 years at Mundelein Seminary in the Archdiocese of Chicago. She is a member of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission.
An early supporter of women's ordination, Sr. Butler says she came to the conclusion, after much theological research, that she could support the Church’s teaching. She recently published The Catholic Priesthood and Women: A Guide to the Teaching of the Church, (Hillenbrand Books, 2007), a strong defense of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, the document in which Pope John Paul II set forth the reasons for the Church’s teaching that only males may be priests. Here is the transcript of the interview.
Inside the Vatican: Sister Butler, your commission’s latest document about limbo has sparked a lot of controversy. In essence, what is the International Theological Commission trying to say in its document about the fate of unbaptized infants?
Sister Sara Butler: The commission is trying to say what the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 1260, 1261, 1283) has already said: that we have a right to hope that God will find a way to offer the grace of Christ to infants who have no opportunity for making a personal choice with regard to their salvation. It’s trying to provide a theological rationale for what has already been proposed in several magisterial documents since the Council.
ITV: The weekend after the document was issued, statements in the media indicated Pope Benedict had approved its publication, and agreed with its contents. Can you comment on this?
Sister Butler: The Pope was present for the initial discussion at the meeting of the International Theological Commission, as the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). He said this was a topic that had been brought by bishops to the CDF and therefore was being recommended for our consideration.
At that time, Cardinal Ratzinger did not impose any conclusion on us, and as far as I know it would be unprecedented that a Pope would comment publicly on a document prepared by the ITC.
The current Prefect of the CDF, Cardinal William Levada, has approved the document. According to our statutes, the conclusions are submitted to the Pope and are published only with his consent. It seems that this document is being handled in a different way than previous documents. I don’t remember that any previous ones received special notice from the Pope.
ITV: If this is not a document of the Magisterium, does this mean we can expect subsequent action from the Holy See, affirming any authentic theological developments here?
Sister Butler: The document is a theological explanation of why the Church now feels it is possible to hope that a way of salvation is open for infants who die without Baptism; in the past, it seemed that there was no hope for them.
I would not be able to speculate on whether there will be any subsequent action. I think the document is for the use of other theologians. Generally, the ITC documents offer a point of reference for bishops and theology professors in seminaries, for example, to offer an explanation for the development of doctrine. But I doubt whether this would lead to a further statement from the Magisterium, because it says no more than what has already been said in the CCC, in the funeral rites for infants who have died without baptism in the 1970 Roman Missal and, in Pastoralis Actio (the document from 1980 from the CDF on the baptism of infants). It says nothing new; it is simply trying to make explicit the theological grounding for this hope. Gaudium et Spes 22 and Lumen Gentium 14 & 16 at Vatican II, opened the way for this development. Actually, some wanted the teaching on Limbo formally defined at the Council, but the topic was excluded from the agenda.
ITV: In paragraph 37 of your document, a line from the Council of Lyons II is cited: that "as for the souls of those who die in mortal sin or with original sin only, they go down immediately to hell to be punished with different punishments." It says that these magisterial statements do not oblige us to think that these infants necessarily die with the stain of original sin, so that there would be no way of salvation for them. How so?
Sister Butler: That quotation is taken from a section entitled "Issues of a Hermeneutical Nature." The effort there is to give a theological interpretation of a magisterial statement from the past. First of all, you have to consider what was at issue at the time. The question was whether the soul is judged immediately after death or whether the judgment was deferred till later on. The focus was not on the destiny of unbaptized infants who die but on when the soul was judged. This was a question between the East and the West, and the formulation you quote was proposed to the Eastern Church in the hopes of restoring full communion.
So the "hermeneutical question" requires understanding the document in its context. The controversy was whether judgment took place at the moment of death, or at the end of time. No one was contesting whether different kinds of sin warranted different kinds of punishment.
ITV: In n. 40 it says in summary: the affirmation that infants who die without Baptism suffer the privation of the beatific vision has long been the common doctrine of the Church, which must be distinguished from the faith of the Church. It then says that the privation of the beatific vision, which is the traditional understanding of this punishment, is a theological opinion.
How does that square with statements in Denzinger numbers 858 and 1306 (according to the new version) which after all is a compilation of magisterial teaching, in this case taken from the Councils of Lyon II and Florence?
Sister Butler: I don’t have my Denzinger near at hand. In number 40 of the document we are trying to distinguish what belongs to the faith of the Church from the "common teaching." The faith of the Church is that these infants inherit original sin and therefore baptism is necessary for them as the ordinary means of salvation. That infants who die without being cleansed of original sin by baptism are deprived of the beatific vision is the common teaching.
That common doctrine that such infants suffer the loss of the beatific vision is not the same thing as the faith of the Church; it’s a conclusion theologians drew. The theories that they suffer only this loss, and not the torments of hell, or that they enjoy a "natural happiness," are theological opinions.
So we are distinguishing three things, (i) the faith of the Church, (ii) the common doctrine about the privation of the beatific vision, and (iii) certain theological opinions. There are different levels of teaching here.
We did a thorough review of the history of the doctrine, and what is in Denzinger has been taken into consideration in the document.
ITV: Reading sections 68-69, the document seems to take a line similar to the late Swiss theologian, Hans Urs Von Balthasar, who seemed to argue that we are allowed to hope that all men may be saved. Is the document trying to say all unbaptized infants are saved, on the basis of this theological concept?
Sister Butler: It doesn’t draw that conclusion; it just indicates that given our understanding of God’s mercy and the plan of salvation which includes Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit in the Church, we dare to hope that these infants will be saved by some extra-sacramental gift of Christ. We do not know what the destiny of these children is, but we have grounds for hope. We are very clear that the ordinary means of salvation is baptism, and that infants should be baptized; Catholic parents have a serious obligation.
The document makes no blanket declaration. It only attempts to justify, in view of what was previously the common teaching, that it is reasonable to hope that these infants may be the object of God’s special providence. We hope that God will embrace them in His saving mercy, just as it says in the Catechism, the funeral rites, and Pastoralis Actio.
ITV: In section 86 the document says, "Some of the infants who suffer and die do so as victims of violence. In their case, we may readily refer to the example of the Holy Innocents and discern an analogy in the case of these infants to the baptism of blood which brings salvation." This seems to square with what certain groups in the Church are pushing for, namely, the declaration of aborted unborn infants as martyrs of the Church, thus baptized in their own blood. Does the document lend support to such individuals?
Sister Butler: I’m sure we never considered suggesting that these infants be declared martyrs. We were, of course, aware that in many places Catholics remember the unborn babies who have been aborted on the feast of the Holy Innocents. We didn’t propose a solution; we just offered some indicators as to why we think God offers them a way of salvation. In this particular instance, death is the way these children might be united with Christ: through the violent circumstances of their deaths, they may be united to His Paschal Mystery.
ITV: In Ludwig Ott’s masterful treatise Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, he says, "Other emergency means of baptism for children dying without sacramental baptism, such as prayer and the desire of the parents or the Church (vicarious baptism of desire - Cajetan), or the attainment of the use of reason in the moment of death, so that the dying child can decide for or against God (baptism of desire - H. Klee), or suffering and death of the child as quasi-Sacrament (baptism of suffering - H. Schell), are indeed possible, but their actuality cannot be proved from Revelation."
Does the ITC document say anything much different from this when it says in paragraph 79, "It must be clearly acknowledged that the Church does not have sure knowledge about the salvation of unbaptized infants who die. She knows and celebrates the glory of the Holy Innocents, but the destiny of the generality of infants who die without Baptism has not been revealed to us, and the Church teaches and judges only with regard to what has been revealed. What we do positively know of God, Christ and the Church gives us grounds to hope for their salvation, as must now be explained."
Sister Butler: The ITC document agrees that nothing has been directly revealed about the destiny of these infants. It does not directly endorse any of the theories he mentions. Ott’s manual was published just before the Council, and summarized what was taught at that time. At this time -- especially in the 1950s -- there was a very lively discussion of the topic, with theologians proposing different ways in which God might bring about the salvation of these infants. You might say this discussion was interrupted by the Council, and now it has been taken up again, with the advantage that it can incorporate the conciliar teachings.
The Council explicitly taught that God provides a way of salvation for those who are invincibly ignorant of the Gospel and therefore have no access to sacramental baptism. The Council is optimistic about the possibility of salvation for those persons when it teaches in Gaudium et Spes 22 (cited in CCC 1260) that "since Christ died for all, and since all men are in fact called to one and the same destiny, which is divine, we must hold that the Holy Spirit offers to all the possibility of being made partakers, in a way known to God, of the Paschal Mystery."
The Catechism goes on to say, "Every man who is ignorant of the Gospel of Christ and of his Church, but seeks the truth and does the will of God in accordance with his understanding of it, can be saved." The ITC report extends the logic of this teaching to infants. We suggest that the Holy Spirit offers to them, in a way known to God, the possibility of being made partakers in the Paschal Mystery. Pope Pius XII said in an Allocution to Italian midwives that since infants are incapable of making a personal act of love that would bring about their salvation, it is imperative to see that they are baptized. Given the teaching of the Council that I have just mentioned, we are more confident that God will offer them salvation in some way. We are not obliged to conclude that they are in Limbo, without any further hope.
However, the theory of Limbo is not ruled out. According to no. 41 of the document: "...besides the theory of Limbo (which remains a possible theological option), there can be other ways to integrate and safeguard the principles of faith outlined in Scripture." The ITC wants to give more weight to God’s universal salvific will and to solidarity in Christ than to the necessity of baptism, which is not absolute but is qualified in certain ways.
ITV: The document says that Catholic belief in Limbo actually did not start to be challenged until the middle of the 20th century (ie no. 26). Do you envisage this doctrine surviving? The document still says that Limbo is a legitimate option to uphold in balancing the tension between the necessity of sacramental baptism and the infinite mercy of God...
Sister Butler: The report concludes that Limbo remains a "possible theological opinion." Anyone who wants to defend it is free to do so. This document, however, tries to give a theological rationale for hoping that unbaptized infants may be saved.
If somebody like Fr. Richard McBrien supposes that the ITC document rejects the doctrine of original sin, this is of course a mistake. The fact that one might jump to this conclusion, however, is precisely why a careful theological study was needed. There are several doctrines involved. We have set out the theological principles in a new order. From our review we conclude that the common teaching which has been in our possession does not belong to the faith of the Church. We take the doctrine of God’s universal saving will of God as a starting point. By contrast, St. Augustine took the necessity of Baptism as a starting point, and incorporated the doctrine of God’s universal saving will in a very qualified way.
ITV: Following the attacks made by McBrien et alia, does the Church say now that baptism is not necessary for salvation?
Sister Butler: Those who suppose this document denies the doctrine of original sin are wrong, but so are those who presume it teaches that all unbaptized infants who die are saved, as if this were a truth of revelation. It says there are good grounds for the hope that God offers them a way of salvation. This is an important distinction: we don’t know, for there has been no revelation about this. We are only trying to assess what we don’t know from what we do know. From what has been revealed, we judge it reasonable to hope that God will bring unbaptized infants to heaven.
As to your question regarding baptism, "Does the Church now say that baptism is not necessary for children?" the answer is "no." In the Catechism, paragraph no. 1257 says: "We do not know of any means other than baptism into eternal beatitude." But God is not bound to the sacraments, and therefore, just as we understand there are other possible ways for adults who are in invincible ignorance of the Gospel to achieve salvation, so we presume there are other ways, known to God, open to infants who unfortunately die without baptism.
Inside The Vatican (ISSN 1068-8579) is a Catholic news magazine, published monthly except July
and September, with occasional special supplements.