Sensible Hope

More details on the status of limbo at Catholic News Service. The way that story tells it:
To hope that babies who die without being baptized will go to heaven makes more sense than the idea that they go to limbo, says a group of papally appointed theologians.
So, it makes more sense to hope that babies who die without being baptized go to heaven. That still leaves open the question of where they actually go. Personally, I hope that everyone goes to heaven, including Osama Bin Laden, Adolph Hitler, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett. For all I know, that's where they will all go--who am I to say? We condemn acts, not agents, and only God knows the state of any particular soul.

The difficulty with this sort of annoucement from the Vatican commision is that it confuses empirical evidence about who deserves what kind of justice in a system of justice like ours with the spiritual conditions requisite for communion with God. An innocent little baby appears to us more likely to go to heaven than either Adolph Hitler or Osama Bin Laden because the baby has done nothing deserving of exclusion from heaven, while those other fellows, well, they are often taken these days as the paradigm cases of Bad Guys. To see things in this way, however, is to make heaven a place of reward and hell a place of punishment in a strictly utilitarian sense--but that is not what they are. They wind up functioning as something like reward and punishment in our limited view of things, but what they actually are, according to our more nuanced theology, are manifestations of closeness to God. Those who respond to God's call and do his will just are those who will, in the end, enjoy the Beatific Vision, while those who willfully turn away from God--well, it's hard to see how they can enjoy the Beatific Vision when they aren't even looking at it, indeed, are willfully looking in the other direction.

The speculative doctrine of limbo is really nothing more than a coming to grips with this situation. St. Thomas says of limbo that it is not a place of punishment, but is rather a place where there is no suffering at all, because suffering is a figure for our sinfulness, but little babies (and certain others, apparently), are free from the sort of sin that is signified by suffering.
God's endless mercy, his love poured out in Jesus Christ and his desire to save all people gives a solid basis for hoping those children will be saved despite not having been baptized.
It is easy to agree with this sentiment, but it is difficult to reconcile with certain positive doctrines, for example, the doctrine that one must have certain beliefs in order to enjoy the Beatific Vision--a necessary condition that appears to arise from the desire to connect salvation with a free act of the human will. Babies are not capable of making the free act of the will that we believe to be necessary to salvation in its fullest sense, but neither can we stomach the idea of little baby souls bloating around in limbo for all eternity, so we cling to the hope that they will all be with us in heaven. I'm not out to say that I don't share this hope, but I do think that this kind of thinking is hopelessly anthropomorphic. I think it's a mistake to think of heaven as a place where individual souls are milling about in roughly the same form as their incarnate versions walked the earth. Our souls survive physical death not in material bodies, but in glorified, spiritual bodies, and I think it's fair to say that nobody has any idea what that will be like, any more than we can have any idea of what it would be like to be a bat. The hope is sensible, but beyond that it is difficult to tell how sensible the rejection of limbo really is.


Mike L said…

In addition to the post of mine linked in my comment on your previous post, I have a bit to say here.

It might help to think of this issue in conjunction with that of extra ecclesiam nulla salus (EENS). The Church says that she "knows of no way other than baptism" for salvation, which has caused many to think that only card-carrying members of the Church can be saved. Yet that is not how the Church interprets EENS, and with good reason. For from the fact that she knows no other way, it doesn't follow that she knows there isn't any other way. Thus some can be saved by explicit desire but without baptism; some can be saved by martyrdom; and Vatican II professed that some can be saved if they just follow their best lights about God and morality.

The same goes, mutatis mutandis, for limbo. Just because we know that infants have no relevant desires in this life, it doesn't follow that we know they can't develop them in the next. For all we know, they could be saved then by analogy with how non-Catholics in this life can be saved. They might spend some time in limbo but graduate to heaven with the aid of others' prayers.

beepbeepitsme said…
Let me qualify my comments by saying I am not a god believer.

But I do feel terribly sorry for the grief and sadness the concept of limbo has caused catholic women for hundreds of years. Believing that their little loved one would NEVER be able to get to heaven must have been a psychological torment.

And now for the catholic church to say that the concept of limbo has served its purpose and they are going to abolish it, smacks of a policy of deliberate psychological and emotional abuse.

It is no comfort to those thousands or perhaps millions of women who are now dead, whose babies died before they were baptised. They spent their lives in agony believing their babies were lost to god. What a terrible thing to do to believers.

I also want to say that when I was a believer, I found it almost impossible to believe in the existence of "a hell".

The idea that a supreme being could punish someone for all of eternity, seemed the actions of a monstrous dictator, not something/one I could worship.

So, I reconciled my belief according to my own emotional and psychological needs. In other words, I cherry-picked my faith.

To me, any supposed perfect god whose morality appeared to be worse than my own (as an imperfect human), could not have created a hell of agonising torment.

Now, as an unbeliever, I don't believe in the existence of either heaven or hell. This is different from an emphatic statement that I deny the existence of heaven and hell, as I cannot disprove their existence.

But frankly, I would be hard pressed to worship anything, man, beast, alien or god, who would be prepared to allow eternal torment to exist.
Scott Carson said…
I don't know whether or not this will be of any comfort to you, but it may perhaps help you to learn that your conception of what heaven and hell are for the Catholic is completely mistaken to begin with. You appear to think of them in the terms that I rejected in my post, the utilitarian interpretation that makes them out to be places of reward and punishment. That is not what they are--it is important not to confuse metaphor with reality, and most of the language of "torment" and "punishment" that one finds in the bible is metaphorical.

I think you've also misunderstood the history of the doctrine of limbo. There is no evidence that the laity gave the doctrine much thought at all, let alone that there were "millions" of women who were in torment over the thought that their unbatpized babies were suffering in some place of eternal--what? Torment again? One thing that has been clear all along to everybody is that limbo is not a place of torment but of bliss, the sort of bliss that only an infant can have. The worry is not that it is a bad place, but that the infants do not enjoy the Beatific Vision there. But nobody ever said that they are not happy to the extent that an infant can be happy.

Consider that St. Augustine was not baptized at all when he was a child because people did not think it a good idea to get baptized until one was much older and ready to make a serious and mature commitment to the faith. This was a widespread practice from the beginning of the Church through late antiquity and it is hardly the practice of a culture in which people are terrified of what will happen to the unbaptized. St. Paul actually mentions the fact that people can be baptized on behalf of the dead, and he points out that this would be a silly thing to do if there were no resurrection. In short, that is, the belief was that even if someone died unbaptized, salvation of some sort was still available to them.
Scott Carson said…

Thanks for the helpful post. Somebody else mentioned to me--maybe it was you in some earlier combox--the possibility that infants in limbo could "graduate", as it were, to heaven through the intercessions of others.

I agree that we cannot know for certain that infants do not develop the relevant sorts of desires in the next life--my intention was more to try to make sense out of limbo than to defend it in a serious way, and perhaps the only way to make sense of it is as a kind of waystation. But that leaves in place the worry that our analysis proceeds rather in terms of our own wishful thinking than in terms of what our faith compels. But perhaps our faith compels us to hope, so....

I like the connection you make with EENS.
EricG said…
"There is no evidence that the laity gave the doctrine much thought at all, let alone that there were 'millions' of women who were in torment"

With all due respect, you're very naieve. Talk to virtually any practicing Catholic who lived before 1970, especially those who miscarried children or gave birth to children wh odied before baptism. Women took dead babiues to the church in desperation to get them baptized, telling the priests they were just sleeping. Women who miscarried would force their wracked bodies to the kitchen sink to get some water in their hand so they could baptize the blood-clots coming out of their vaginas, and long after mourning and grieving over a child they never knew, and whose baptismal status was always a mystery.

The pre-Vatican II generation was KEENLY aware of Limbo; and were afraid of it.

Obviously, there's always exceptions . . .
Scott Carson said…

Thanks for your comment!

I'm not really sure what you mean by "naive"--I suppose there have always been some people who have worried about such things (as beepbeepitsme's comment makes clear enough), but it sounds like you're refering to a rather limited sample from a rather recent generation, whereas I was talking about the historical record going back to the origins of the theologoumenon itself. In that record there is very little evidence that this was a very major worry for the laity at large.

Having said that, I would dispute your contention that it is been a major concern even recently. While I am sure that there have, indeed, been a few persons who were worried about it, your claims about women taking dead babies to church are purely anecodotal. That kind of thing surely went on, and it may have been fairly common in some neighborhoods, but to claim that it was a major worry for the laity generally is simply not supported by any genuine empirical evidence. I would say that these would be the "exceptions", not the folks who were less worried.

Furthermore, it's not at all clear to me that, even among those who did the sorts of things that you talk about, the fear was really a fear of limbo per se, or a concern with the teaching. It's rather a superstitious fear of death that you're seeing evidence of there--fear and a kind of magical thinking. It's the same kind of magical thinking you find in folks who worry about the difference in the Canon between "for all" and "for many", as if God is some kind of automaton bound by the words we say rather than the author of the sentiments that we express.

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