Making sense of limbo

Last year, Sister Sara Butler was nice enough to walk me through limbo. So to speak.

Butler, who teaches at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, is a member of the Vatican’s International Theological Commission, which studies heavy duty questions at the request of the pope.

I talked to Butler because the commission was known to be looking at the thorny and age-old question of what happens to the souls of infants who die before baptism. Since the Middle Ages, the Catholic answer has been limbo — a happy place, but not heaven. And separate from God.

At the time, Butler told me:

“Generally speaking, people everywhere believe that God in his mercy will certainly find a way to bring these children to heaven But it’s not possible to simply say that. The pope can’t just announce the abolition of limbo. We have to study closely all the implications and then say clearly what this means.”

On April 20, the commission finally released its report: The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized.

I’ve been hoping to speak with Butler again, but simply haven’t found the time (hey, there’s a lot going on). But Inside the Vatican magazine has just published an “interview”: with her, so I’ll include some highlights here:

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: 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: 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.

Gary Stern

Gary Stern covered education in the Lower Hudson Valley for several years during the early 1990s. Now's he back on the beat. He believes that schools are one of the main reasons that people live around here and that educational issues -- from curriculum to financing -- are among the most challenging things that journalists can write about. He continues to be amazed by the complexity of educational jargon. Gary got his B.A. at SUNY Buffalo and his M.A. from the University of Missouri Journalism School (where his master's thesis was about the best ways to cover education). He lives in White Plains with his wife and two sons, who attend public schools.