Unbaptized Infants
Demonstrate knowledge of the broad history of Christian thought concerning either infants by summarizing the arguments presented in the class reading
The author traces the history of Catholic doctrine about the fate of
infants who die unbaptized: (1) from Augustine’s teaching that they
are condemned to hell where they suffer “the least of its pains”; (2) to
the medieval doctrine of Limbo as the state in which those Infants,
although excluded from the vision of God, enjoy a natural happiness;
(3) to the consoling words that John Paul II, in Evangelium vitae,
addressed to a woman who had caused her child to be aborted, that
when she had repented and was reconciled to God, she could ask
forgiveness from her child who was now “living in the Lord.”
THE CATHOLIC CHURCH HAS CONTINUED TO AGREE with Augustine that
infants, although they seem to be the most innocent of God’s creatures,
are born alienated from God by a guilt they inherit from our first parents;
infants can be freed from this guilt only through the redeeming grace of
Christ, which they would receive in the sacrament of baptism. However,
the Church has not continued to hold with Augustine that infants who
die unbaptized are condemned to hell where they must suffer what he
described as “the mildest punishment.”^
During the twelfth century an important development took place in
Catholic thought regarding the kind of punishment God inflicts on those
who come before his judgment innocent of any personal sin but still bearing
the guilt of original sin. Early in that century Anselm of Canterbury^ and
Hugh of St. Victor^ still held with Augustine that infants who died
unbaptized would suffer in hell. But later in the same century Peter
FRANCIS A. SULLIVAN, S.J., is professor emeritus of the Gregorian University,
from which he earned his S.T.D. His areas of special competence are ecclesiology
and ecumenism. His recent publications include: “Infallibility,” in The Cambridge
Companion to John Henry Newman, ed. Ian Ker and Terrence Merrigan (2009);
and “‘Ecclesial Communities’ and their ‘Defectos Sacramenti Ordinis”‘ Ecumenical
Trends 39.3 (2010). Forthcoming are two articles: “Catholic Tradition and Traditions”;
and “The Development of Doctrine on the Salvation of the Adherents of
Other Rehgions, in Vatican II and the Postconciliar Magisterium.”
‘ Augustine, Enchiridion ad Laurentium c. 93 (PL 40, 275).
^ Anselm of Canterbury, De conceptu virginali et de originali peccato c. 28, in
Opera omnia, 6 vols., ed. F. S. Schmitt (Edinburgh: T. Nelson, 1946-1961) 2:170-71.
^ Hugh of St. Victor, Summa sententiarum, tract. 5, cap. 6 (PL 176,132).
THEOLOGICAL STUDIES
Abelard proposed that while the alienation from God caused by the guilt of
original sin would exclude infants who died unbaptized from the beatific
vision of God, it would deserve no other penalty than that.” The fact that
Peter Lombard introduced this opinion into his Sentences^ guaranteed its
wide adoption among theologians in the 13th century, at the beginning of
which it was confirmed by Pope Innocent III who declared in 1201 that the
penalty for original sin is deprivation of the vision of God, while the torments
of hell are suffered by those guilty of actual sin.^ This declaration led
to the conclusion that it was not appropriate to speak of those who did not
suffer such torments as being in hell, and the term “limbo” (from the Latin
limbus, meaning “fringe”) was adopted as the name of the state for infants
who died unbaptized. Thomas Aquinas proposed reasons for believing that
infants in limbo would enjoy a state of natural happiness, and would not be
saddened by their exclusion from the beatific vision.^
From the 13th century on. Catholic theologians commonly taught that
limbo is the eternal state of infants who die unbaptized, on the grounds of a
twofold argument: (1) since infants are not capable of the desire for baptism
that could supply for the lack of the sacrament, the actual reception of
baptism is the only way they could have been freed from the guilt of original
sin before their death; and (2) while such guilt would exclude them from the
beatific vision, it merited no other penalty. While this was the common
belief of the faithful, it never became the official teaching of the Catholic
Church, even though Pope Pius VI defended this teaching as free of Pelagianism
when the Jansenist Synod of Pistoia in 1786 charged it with heresy.^
At Vatican I a draft of a dogmatic constitution. De doctrina catholica,
included the statement: “Those who die with original sin alone will forever
lack the blessed vision of God.”‘ This did not become definitive Catholic
doctrine, since that draft was never voted on by the council. However, it did
show that some in the drafting commission had wanted the council to rule
out speculation by Catholic theologians about ways that infants who died
unbaptized might be freed from the guilt of original sin and enjoy the vision
of God. As it turned out, such speculation did become quite vigorous 50
years later, during the first half of the 20th century. In 1954, William Van
“• Peter Abelard, Commentaria in Epistolam Pauli ad Romanos, liber II {Corpus
Christianorum, Continuatio Mediavaelis 11) 169-70.
^ Peter Lombard, Sententiae, Lib. II, dist. 33, cap. 2.
Innocent III, Maiores ecclesiae causas, letter to Humbert, ArehbishoD of Aries
(DS 780).
^ Thomas Aquinas, In II Sent., d. 33, q. 2, a. 2; De malo q.5, a. 3 4
° Pius VI, bull Auctorem fidei (1794) (DS 2626).
Vatican I, Schema reformatum constitutionis dogmaticae de doctrina catholica,
cap. 5, no. 6, in Acta et decreta sacrorum conciliorum recentiorum: Collectio lacensis
1 vols. (Freiburg: Herder, 1870-1890) 7:565.
INFANTS WHO DIE UNBAPTIZED 5
Roo, a colleague of mine for many years in the Faculty of Theology of the
Gregorian University, published an article entitled “Infants Dying without
Baptism: A Survey of Recent Literature and Determination of the State of
the Question.”^” His study of what had been written by Catholic theologians
during the previous 30 years in favor of the opinion that those who
died as infants could be freed of the guilt of original sin without having
received the sacrament of baptism, showed that the solutions offered were
based on the classic doctrine that the lack of baptism in re could be supplied
by baptism in voto, or by death for Christ, as was recognized in the case of
the Holy Innocents. Thus, it was proposed that infants might receive an
illumination at the moment of death that would enable them to desire
baptism, or that the desire of their parents or of the Church that they be
baptized, would provide the needed votum baptismi. The painful and even
violent death that many infants suffer was also proposed as supplying for
baptism. Van Roo concluded his survey of this literature thus:
As the question stands today, we are in the presence of a common theological
teaching and a conviction which runs through a number of documents of the Church
contrary to the new positions. This evidence of a common teaching of theologians
and of a sensus Ecclesiae blocks the way to the various solutions seeking salvation
for the infants dying without baptism. Nor does the recent wave of literature change
the situation.^’
The various positions generally have been advanced by their authors with sufficient
prudence and caution, avoiding any affirmations, looking to the Church for a sign of
encouragement. No such sign has been given. . . . Given the present state of the
question, then, I would say that one is not free to affirm that all infants are saved, or
that infants dying without baptism are given a means of salvation other than baptism
in reP’
Clearly, in Van Roo’s opinion the arguments proposed in favor of the
salvation of infants who die without baptism were not convincing enough
to outweigh the common teaching that they would be consigned to limbo.
On the other hand, he certainly did not share the opinion of another
colleague at the Gregorian, Sebastian Tromp, who, as secretary of the
Theological Commission in the preparatory phase of Vatican II, drafted
a chapter about infants who die unbaptized that was to be included in
the proposed Schema de deposito fidei pure custodiendo. In his draft
he rebuked as “rash and dangerous”‘^ the recent theories proposed by
^° William A. Van Roo, S.J., “Infants Dying without Baptism: A Survey of
Recent Literature and Determination of the State of the Question,” Gregorianum 35
(1954) 406-73.
‘1 Ibid. 472. ‘^ Ibid. 473.
” See Giuseppe Alberigo and Joseph A. Komonchak, eds.. History of Vatican II,
5 vols. (MaryknoU, N.Y.: Orbis, 1995-2006) 1:245.
6 THEOLOGICAL STUDIES
Catholic theologians to explain how such infants could be saved without
baptism, and he insisted that the doctrine excluding such infants from
salvation was taught definitively by the ordinary universal magisterium.^’*
Tromp’s chapter on this question was dropped from the schema de deposito
fidei because it was approved by only a minority of the Central Preparatory
Commission.^^ The question about the salvation of infants who die
unbaptized is not mentioned in any of the documents of Vatican II. On
the other hand, the theologians involved in the work of the council were
surely aware of the ongoing and lively discussion regarding ways that
infants dying without baptism could be freed of original sin and be saved;
many of the bishops must also have been aware of this. The council’s
silence on the question, as well as the Central Preparatory Commission’s
rejection of Tromp’s effort to have the council condemn such speculation,
suggests that the mind of the council was to let the discussion continue
without hindrance.
Given this fact, one can ask whether Vatican II made any contribution
to the discussion of this question. In my opinion, it did make an important
contribution by insisting so strongly on the universality of the salvific will
of God. The basic difficulty with the traditional doctrine about limbo is
that Christian salvation is eternal life in the enjoyment of the beatific
vision of God, from which infants in limbo are excluded through no fault
of their own. This raises the question about the sense in which it can be
said that God wills their salvation. While Vatican II did not address this
problem, it did insist, more strongly than any previous council had done,
that the salvific will of God is truly universal. In Lumen gentium no.l3 the
council gave emphatic expression to this universality by describing those
called to salvation as “omnes universaliter homines.” In Gaudium et spes
no. 22 there is the powerful statement: “Since Christ died for everyone,
and since the ultimate calling of each of us comes from God and is
therefore a universal one, we are obliged to hold that the holy Spirit offers
to everyone the possibility of sharing in this paschal mystery in a manner
known to God.”^^
I have seen no commentary on this text that applied it to the salvation of
infants who die unbaptized. However, in his commentary on chapter 1 of
Gaudium et spes, Joseph Ratzinger stressed a point in this text that can
throw light on that question. I refer to the point that, in his view, justified
his contention that article 22 of Gaudium et spes
” Ibid. 310. 1
1* The English translation of the Vatican II documents that I use throughout is from
Norman P. Tcinner, ed.. Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, 2 vols. (Washington:
Georgetown University, 1990).
INFANTS WHO DIE UNBAPTIZED 7
represents an advance over Lumen Gentium. The latter lays too much stress on
man’s activity… . Here on the contrary it is decisively acknowledged that the way
of salvation is God’s affair and cannot be defined by us. . . . It is God or his Holy
Spirit who offers his salvation to man and associates him with it…. Salvation is not
a “work” of man. Wherever it occurs, it must ultimately be a sharing in the Easter
mystery of cross and resurrection.”
I would apply Ratzinger’s thought to the question under consideration here
by saying: “The way of salvation for infants who die unbaptized is God’s
affair and cannot be deñned by us. It is God or his Holy Spirit who offers to
those infants a salvation that must be a sharing in the Easter mystery of
cross and resurrection.” Since what has been thought to exclude those
infants from salvation is their lack of baptism, either in re or in voto, one
can also invoke Aquinas’s doctrine that “God did not so bind His power to
the sacraments as to be unable to bestow the effect of a sacrament without
the sacrament.”^^ Applying this to the case of the infant who dies
unbaptized, we can say that God did not so bind his power to the sacrament
of baptism that he cannot free an infant from the inherited guilt of original
sin without the sacrament.
In the years following Vatican II, the council’s stress on the universality
of the salvific will of God strengthened the conviction among many Catholic
theologians that God’s will to save every human person must be efficacious
for infants who die without having been baptized. An article I find
particularly significant, both for its author and for the journal in which it
appeared, is Jean Galot’s “La salvezza dei bambini morti senza battesimo”
in La civiltà cattolica.^^ Galot argues that the development from
Augustine’s doctrine that infants who die unbaptized are condemned to
hell where they suffer “the least of its pains,” to Aquinas’s belief that they
enjoy a natural happiness in limbo, was motivated by the conviction that
for God to inflict even the least pains of hell on infants as punishment for
the inherited guilt of original sin was incompatible with God’s mercy.
However, Galot insists, this well-intentioned solution, motivated as it was
by the consideration of God’s infinite mercy, still left the infants to suffer
the eternal separation from God, which in fact is the essential pain of
damnation.^” Galot concludes that the exclusion of unbaptized infants from
” Herbert Vorgrimler, ed.. Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II
(New York: Herder & Herder, 1967-1969) 5:162.
^* Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae 3, q. 64, a. 7.
^’ Jean Galot, S.J., “La salvezza dei bambini morti senza battesimo,” La civiltà
cattolica 122 (1971) 228^0.
^° See Catechism of the Catholic Church (Washington: U.S. Catholic Conference,
1994) no. 1035: “The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in
whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and
for which he longs.”
ö THEOLOGICAL STUDIES
salvation is incompatible with God’s universal salvific will. He then invokes
the principle that Vatican II urged theologians to remember that “in Catholic
doctrine there exists an order or ‘hierarchy’ of truths, since they vary in
their connection with the foundation of the Christian faith. “^^ Galot does
not actually use the term “hierarchy of truths,” but his argument is based
on the same principle. The problem with the limbo solution was that it
based the exclusion of unbaptized infants from the presence of God—in
effect their eternal damnation—on the necessity of baptism, for whose lack
they could not supply by its votum. Galot offers the following solution.
For the solution to this problem . . . the necessity of baptism has to be put in
its place. It is secondary to the salvific will, which is the regulating principle
of the whole economy of salvation. In determining the fate of those infants,
one ought not to have begun with the consideration of the necessity of baptism.
Historically the question was put badly, because one sought exclusively to solve
the problem of this necessity. Rather, one ought to have begun with the
certitude that God has provided for the salvation of these infants, and then
have asked how the necessity of baptism is verified in their case. Failing to
follow this basic method, theologians proposed theories that sought first of all
to be in accord with the necessity of baptism, but that are not in accord with
the divine salvific will. They failed to recognize that the necessity of baptism is
only a means instituted by God for the realization of his plan of salvation, and
therefore it cannot conflict with his plan with regard to the salvation of those
if^^
Recall that Van Roo had remarked, toward the end of his survey, that
theologians had been looking to the Church for a sign of encouragement,
but no sign had been given. But within four years after the close of Vatican II
such a sign was given, not in the form of a doctrinal statement, but in the
form of a new Ordo exsequiarum (Order of Funerals), approved by Pope
Paul VI and promulgated on August 15,1969. This Order included funeral
rites for deceased children, not only for the baptized but also for the
unbaptized. Prior to this date it had been the custom to celebrate a Mass
of the Angels for the funeral of a baptized child, but no mass at all for an
unbaptized child, who would not be buried in consecrated ground. The fact
that the new Order contained funeral rites for an unbaptized child was not
only very consoling for the parents of such a child, but must also have been
encouraging for theologians who had been looking for such a sign. They
must have been even more heartened by the prayers the Order specified to
be said in the several parts of the funeral rites for the child who died
without ^^
^^ Vatican II, Decree on Ecumenism, Unitatis redintegratio no. 11.
^^ Galot, “Salvezza” 239-40, my translation.
^^ Order of Christian Funerals Approved for Use in the Dioceses of the United
States of America (New York: Catholic Book, 1989) nos. 278,282,289,293,322,325.
INFANTS WHO DIE UNBAPTIZED 9
FUNERAL MASS
Introductory rites
My brothers and sisters, the Lord is a faithful God who created us all after his own
image. All things are of his making, all creation awaits the day of salvation. We now
entrust the soul of N. to the abundant mercy of God, that our beloved child may
find a home in his kingdom.
Opening prayer
God of all consolation, searcher of mind and heart, the faith of these parents is
known to you. Comfort them with the knowledge that the child for whom they
grieve is entrusted now to your loving care.
Final commendation
Let us commend this child to the Lord’s merciful keeping; and let us pray with all
our hearts for N. and N. Even as they grieve at the loss of their child, they entrust
him/her to the loving embrace of God.
You are the author and sustainer of our lives, O God, you are our final home.
Trusting in your mercy and in your all-embracing love, we pray that you give him/
her happiness forever.
RITE OF COMMITTAL
Lord God, ever caring and gentle, we commit to your love this little one, who
brought joy to our lives for so short a time. Enfold him/her in eternal life. We pray
for his/her parents who are saddened by the loss of their infant. Give them courage
and help them in their pain and grief. May they all meet one day in the joy and
peace of your kingdom.
Concluding prayer
God of mercy, in the mystery of your wisdom you have drawn this child to yourself.
In the midst of our pain and sorrow, we acknowledge you as Lord of the living and
the dead and we search for our peace in your will. In these final moments we stand
together in prayer, believing in your compassion and generous love. Deliver this
child out of death and grant him/her a place in your kingdom of peace.
These prayers clearly encourage the parents of the deceased infant to have
hope that their infant “may find a home in his kingdom,” that God will
“give him/her happiness forever,” that they and their child will “meet one
day in the joy and peace of God’s kingdom,” and that God will “grant him/
her a place in God’s kingdom of peace.” Clearly the Church no longer
holds that infants who die without baptism are in limbo and forever
excluded from God’s kingdom of peace.
It seems likely that Ratzinger, speaking as a theologian, would have
agreed with this statement, because, in his interview with Vittorio Messori,
published as The Ratzinger Report, he is quoted as having said: “Limbo was
never a deñned truth of faith. Personally—and here I am speaking more as
10 THEOLOGICAL STUDIES
a theologian and not as Prefect of the Congregation—I would abandon it,
since it was only a theological hypothesis.”^’*
The first doctrinal statement of the magisterium to recognize the new
status of the question regarding infants who die without baptism is found in
Pastoralis actio: Instruction on the Baptism of Infants issued by the Congregation
for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) on October 20,1980.^^ The
intention of this instruction was to explain why the Church continues to
insist that infants should be baptized within a few weeks of their birth, and
why parents should not be persuaded by the argument that baptism should
be deferred until the child is mature enough to make its own decision.
Against such an argument, the CDF declared: “By its doctrine and by its
practice, the Church has shown that it knows no other means than baptism
to assure to infants their entry into eternal beatitude. That is why it is
careful not to neglect the mission it has received from the Lord to cause to
be reborn of water and the Spirit all those who can be baptized.” It then
continued: “With regard to infants who have died without having received
baptism, the Church can only commit them to the mercy of God, as it does
in the funeral rites that it has created for them.”^^ In this statement the
CDF clearly recognized that while the Church cannot be sure that infants
who die without baptism are saved, neither is the Church sure, as it used to
be, that because they had neither received the sacrament nor had the desire
of receiving it, they must retain the guilt of original sin, which excludes
them from the vision of God. It is noteworthy that the CDF invokes the
new funeral rites for unbaptized infants as supporting its statement that one
can only commit them to the mercy of God.
The next official document that treats the question of infants who die
unbaptized is the Gatechism of the GathoUc Ghurch. This was first promulgated
in 1992 by Pope John Paul II, who also promulgated its revised and
definitive text in 1997. Both of these editions contain the following statement
about infants who die without baptism.
1261. As regards children who have died without Baptism, the Chureh ean only
entrust them to the mercy of God, as she does in her funeral rites for them. Indeed,
the great mercy of God who desires that all men should be saved, and Jesus’
tenderness toward children which caused him to say: “Let the children come to
me, do not hinder them,” allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for
children who have died without Baptism. All the more urgent is the Chureh’s eall
not to prevent little children eoming to Christ through the gift of holy Baptism.
^’^ Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger with Vittorio Messori, The Ratzinger Report:
An Exclusive Interview on the State of the Church, trans. Salvator Attanasio and
Graham Harrison (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1985) 147.
^^ CDF, Pastoralis actio. Acta Apostolicae Seals (hereafter AAS) 72 (1980)
1137-58.
^* Ibid. 1144.
INFANTS WHO DIE UNBAPTIZED 11
In the margin is a reference to no. 1257, which repeats the sentence
quoted above from the CDF instruction Pastoralis adío. Here, however, it
follows that quotation with the principle affirmed by Aquinas, giving it
emphasis with italics: “God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism,
but he himself is not bound by his sacraments. ” Here, I believe, the
Catechism suggests that when the Church entrusts unbaptized infants to the
mercy of God, as she does in her funeral rites for them, she has good reason
to trust that God will do for them what baptism would have done.
A further step in the development of doctrine about infants who die
unbaptized can be seen in the encyclical Evangelium vitae issued by John
Paul II in 1995, where he spoke of infants, while they are still in their
mothers’ wombs, as “the personal objects of God’s loving and fatherly
providence,” and declared that “Christian Tradition . . . is clear and unanimous,
from the beginning up to our own day, in describing abortion as a
particularly grave moral disorder. “^^ After having expressed a strong condemnation
of the crime of direct abortion, John Paul went on, toward the
end of his encyclical, to address pastoral words of exhortation and consolation
to women who have had an abortion. He said to them:
The Church is aware of the many factors which may have influenced your
decision. . . . The wound in your heart may not yet have healed. Certainly, what
happened was and remains terribly wrong. But do not give in to discouragement
and do not lose hope. Try rather to understand what happened and face it
honestly. If you have not already done so, give yourselves over with humility
and trust to repentance. The Father of mercies is ready to give you his forgiveness
and his peace in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. You will come to understand
that nothing is definitively lost and you will also be able to ask forgiveness
from your child, who is now living in the Lord.^^
One can well imagine the consolation that a woman, whose conscience
was burdened with the guilt of having chosen to abort her child, would find
in the words the Holy Father addressed to her. I suggest that one can also
find in these words an indication of the mind of John Paul II with regard to
the present state of her aborted child. The idea that the mother can ask
forgiveness from her aborted child would suggest that they share the
communion of saints. The affirmation that her child “is now living in the
Lord” would suggest that it is now living in the presence of God. One can
hardly say this about a child in limbo, who would be forever excluded from
the vision of God. Theologians who had been looking for signs of encouragement
from the Church for their efforts to justify belief in the salvation
of infants who die unbaptized have good reason to see in these words of
^^ John Paul II, The Gospel of Life no. 61 (Washington: U.S. Catholic Conference,
1995) 109.
2» Ibid. no. 99, pp. 177-78.
12 THEOLOGICAL STUDIES
John Paul II not only a confirmation of the progress made thus far but also
a step further toward the official acceptance of this belief.
It would seem, however, that John Paul’s further step must have struck
some influential member of the Roman Curia as “a step too far.” The
evidence for this surmise is that the definitive Latin text of Evangelium
vitae that was published in Acta Apostolicae Sedis simply does not have the
sentence that reads: “You will come to understand that nothing is definitively
lost, and you will also be able to ask forgiveness from your child, who
is now living in the Lord.” In its place, the definitive Latin text has
“Infantem autem vestrum potestis Eidem Patri Eiusque misericordiae cum
spe committere” (“You can commend your infant with hope to the same
Father and his mercy”).^^ No explanation is given for the substitution of
this sentence for the one that was in the encyclical as it was originally
published. Even more puzzling is the fact that on the Vatican website,
which gives the text of Evangelium vitae in eight languages, the translations
into seven modern languages (English, French, German, Italian, Spanish,
Portuguese, and Polish) all have the original sentence, while the Latin
has the sentence that was substituted for it in Acta Apostolicae Sedis.
Undoubtedly the Latin is the definitive text, but almost anyone who goes
to the Vatican website for the text of Evangelium vitae will choose one of
the modern languages, and will not know that a sentence that was in the
encyclical as originally published, and that would be consoling for a mother
whose infant died unbaptized, is not found in the Latin text.
I do not know of any explanation for this change except for a remark
made in a note to a document entitled “The Hope of Salvation for Infants
Who Die without Being Baptised,” which was issued by the International
Theological Commission in 2007.^° Endnote 98 of this document reads:
It is notable that the editio typica of the encyclical of Pope John Paul II, Evangelium
Vitae, has replaced paragraph 99 which read: “You will come to understand that
nothing is definitively lost and you will be able to ask forgiveness from your child,
who is now living in the Lord” (a phrasing which was susceptible to a faulty
interpretation), by this definitive text: “Infantem autem vestrum potestis Eidem
Patri Eiusque misericordiae cum spe committere” (cf. AAS 87 [1995], 515), which
may be translated as follows: “You can entrust your child to the same Father and to
his mercy with hope.”
Evidently someone had judged that the pope’s original sentence had
been “susceptible to a faulty interpretation,” and had convinced him that
it should not be retained in the definitive Latin text. It hardly seems possible
^’ John Paul II, Evangelium vitae no. 99, AAS 87 (1995) 515.
^° International Theological Commission, http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/
congregations/cfaith/cti_documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_20070419_un-baptised-infants_
en.html (accessed August 16, 2010). This document is also available in Spanish and
Italian.
INFANTS WHO DIE UNBAPTIZED 13
that the change could have been made without his approval. But we are not
told what the “faulty interpretation” was, of which his sentence was
thought to be susceptible. I surmise that his sentence could be taken to
mean that we can not only hope that infants who die without baptism are in
heaven; we can also be sure of it. I think that is a reasonable interpretation
of what the pope actually said, when he told the mother that her child “is
now living in the Lord.” And that is why I suspect that someone convinced
the pope that he had gone “a step too far.” The reason he might have given
is that the Catechism of the Catholic Church had not gone beyond saying
that we can hope that the infants are saved. I think it is also significant that
the title of the document on this question that was issued by the International
Theological Commission in 2007 was: “The Hope of Salvation for
Infants Who Die without Being Baptised.” In the course of this lengthy
document the ITC offered a very positive assessment of the theological and
liturgical reasons for hoping that those infants are saved. However, it did
not go beyond recommending hope. Rather, it twice insisted that we cannot
go beyond hope to sure knowledge. It first stressed this point in the paragraph
that concluded its section entitled: “Reasons for Hope.”
It must be clearly acknowledged that the Church does not have sure knowledge
about the salvation of unbaptised 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.^^
The ITC returned to this theme toward the end of its study, saying:
Our conclusion is that the many factors that we have considered above give serious
theological and liturgical grounds for hope that unbaptised infants who die. will be
saved and enjoy the Beatific Vision. We emphasise that these are reasons for
prayerful hope, rather than grounds for sure knowledge. There is much that has
not been revealed to us. We live by faith and hope in the God of mercy and love
who had been revealed to us in Christ, and the Spirit moves us to pray in constant
thankfulness and Joy (I Thess 5:18).^^
I conclude this study by asking, what does the Catholic Church now hold
and teach about the fate of infants who die without baptism? Someone
might prefer to put the question this way: What should a confessor or
spiritual advisor say to a woman who has had an abortion, if she asks him
about the present state of her child? My answer is that he should certainly
not tell her that her child is in limbo enjoying a natural happiness, but will
never be admitted to heaven. Rather, he should tell her that the Church
encourages her to hope and pray that her child is in heaven. But may he
go further than this, and tell her that in a letter addressed to the whole
^^ Ibid. no. 79. ^^ Ibid. no. 103.
14 THEOLOGICAL STUDIES
Catholic Church, Pope John Paul II told a woman who had an abortion that
her child was now living in the Lord? Could he then leave her consoled by
what the Holy Father had said? Or must he tell her that after his letter had
been published, the pope had taken back what he had said, because it could
mean we can be sure that children who die without baptism go to heaven,
and we cannot be sure of that, since it has not been revealed?
Here I would ask, is it certain that it has not been revealed that
unbaptized children go to heaven? My reply is that there are good reasons
to believe that it has been revealed, in somewhat the same way that the
Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary is revealed, that is, by
being implicitly contained in truths that have been explicitly revealed. As
revealed truths in which the salvation of unbaptized children has been
implicitly revealed, I would propose two: the sincere will of God for the
salvation of every human person, and the tender love of God for little
children, which was revealed by Jesus when he said to his disciples: “Let
the children come to me and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of
heaven belongs to such as these” (Mt 19:14). I think that anyone who
seriously meditated on these two truths and applied them to God’s providence
for infants who die unbaptized, could well become convinced that
God in his loving mercy does for those infants what the sacrament would
have done, so that nothing can hinder them from coming to him and living
with him forever.
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