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The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized

The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized

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Adoremus, Society for the Renewal of the Sacred Liturgy

The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized

Report by the  International Theological Commission  – January 19, 2007 

The International Theological Commission has studied the question of the fate of unbaptized infants, bearing in mind the principle of the “hierarchy of truths” and the other theological principles of the universal salvific will of God, the unicity and insuperability of the mediation of Christ, the sacramentality of the Church in the order of salvation and the reality of original sin.

In the contemporary context of cultural relativism and religious pluralism the number of nonbaptized infants has grown considerably, and therefore the reflection on the possibility of salvation for these infants has become urgent. The Church is conscious that this salvation is attainable only in Christ through the Spirit. But the Church, as mother and teacher, cannot fail to reflect upon the fate of all men, created in the image of God, and in a more particular way on the fate of the weakest members of the human family and those who are not yet able to use their reason and freedom.

It is clear that the traditional teaching on this topic has concentrated on the theory of Limbo, understood as a state which includes the souls of infants who die subject to original sin and without baptism and who therefore neither merit the beatific vision nor yet are subjected to any punishment because they are not guilty of any personal sin. This theory, elaborated by theologians beginning in the Middle Ages, never entered into the dogmatic definitions of the Magisterium even if that same Magisterium did at times mention the theory in its ordinary teaching up until the Second Vatican Council. It remains therefore a possible theological hypothesis.

However, in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992), the theory of Limbo is not mentioned. Rather, the Catechism teaches that infants who die without baptism are entrusted by the Church to the mercy of God, as shown in the specific funeral rite for such children.

The principle that God desires the salvation of all people gives rise to the hope that there is a path to salvation for infants who die without baptism (cf. Catechism, 1261) and therefore also to the theological desire to find a coherent and logical connection between the diverse affirmations of the Catholic faith: the universal salvific will of God; the unicity of the mediation of Christ; the necessity of baptism for salvation; the universal action of grace in relation to the sacraments; the link between original sin and the deprivation of the beatific vision; the creation of man “in Christ”.

The conclusion of this study is that there are theological and liturgical reasons to hope that infants who die without baptism may be saved and brought into eternal happiness even if there is not an explicit teaching on this question found in revelation. However, none of the considerations proposed in this text to motivate a new approach to the question may be used to negate the necessity of baptism nor to delay the conferral of the sacrament. Rather, there are reasons to hope that God will save these infants precisely because it was not possible to do for them what would have been most desirable — to baptize them in the faith of the Church and incorporate them visibly into the Body of Christ.

Finally, an observation on the methodology of the text is necessary. The treatment of this theme must be placed within the historical development of the faith. According to Dei Verbum, No. 8, the factors that contribute to this development are the reflection and the study of the faithful, the experience of spiritual things and the teaching of the Magisterium. When the question of infants who die without baptism was first taken up in the history of Christian thought, it is possible that the doctrinal nature of the question or its implications were not fully understood. Only when seen in light of the historical development of theology over the course of time until Vatican II does this specific question find its proper context within Catholic doctrine. Only in this way — and observing the principle of the hierarchy of truths mentioned in the decree of the Second Vatican Council Unitatis Redintegratio (No. 11) — the topic can be reconsidered explicitly under the global horizon of the faith of the Church.

This document, from the point of view of speculative theology as well as from the practical and pastoral perspective, constitutes a useful and timely means for deepening our understanding of this problem, which is not only a matter of doctrine but also of pastoral priority in the modern era.

Introduction

1. Saint Peter encourages Christians to be always ready to give an account of the hope that is in them (cf. 1 Pt 3:15-16).1 This document deals with the hope that Christians can have for the salvation of unbaptized infants who die. It indicates how such a hope has developed in recent decades and what its grounds are so as to enable an account of that hope to be given.

Though at first sight this topic may seem to be peripheral to theological concerns, questions of great depth and complexity are involved in its proper explication, and such an explication is called for today by pressing pastoral needs.

2. In these times the number of infants who die unbaptized is growing greatly. This is partly because of parents influenced by cultural relativism and religious pluralism who are nonpracticing, but it is also partly a consequence of in vitro fertilization and abortion. Given these developments, the question of the destiny of such infants is raised with new urgency.

In such a situation the ways by which salvation may be achieved appear ever more complex and problematic. The Church, faithful guardian of the way of salvation, knows that salvation can be achieved only in Christ, by the Holy Spirit. Yet as mother and teacher, she cannot fail to reflect on the destiny of all human beings, created in the image of God,2 and especially of the weakest.

Being endowed with reason, conscience and freedom, adults are responsible for their own destiny insofar as they accept or reject God’s grace. Infants, however, who do not yet have the use of reason, conscience and freedom, cannot decide for themselves.

Parents experience great grief and feelings of guilt when they do not have the moral assurance of the salvation of their children, and people find it increasingly difficult to accept that God is just and merciful if he excludes infants, who have no personal sins, from eternal happiness, whether they are Christian or non-Christian.

From a theological point of view, the development of a theology of hope and an ecclesiology of communion, together with a recognition of the greatness of divine mercy, challenge an unduly restrictive view of salvation. In fact, the universal salvific will of God and the correspondingly universal mediation of Christ mean that all theological notions that ultimately call into question the very omnipotence of God, and his mercy in particular, are inadequate.

3. The idea of Limbo, which the Church has used for many centuries to designate the destiny of infants who die without baptism, has no clear foundation in revelation even though it has long been used in traditional theological teaching. Moreover, the notion that infants who die without baptism are deprived of the beatific vision, which has for so long been regarded as the common doctrine of the Church, gives rise to numerous pastoral problems, so much so that many pastors of souls have asked for a deeper reflection on the ways of salvation.

The necessary reconsideration of the theological issues cannot ignore the tragic consequences of original sin. Original sin implies a state of separation from Christ, and that excludes the possibility of the vision of God for those who die in that state.

4. Reflecting on the question of the destiny of infants who die without baptism, the ecclesial community must keep in mind the fact that God is more properly the subject than the object of theology. The first task of theology is therefore to listen to the word of God. Theology listens to the word of God expressed in the Scriptures in order to communicate it lovingly to all people.

However, with regard to the salvation of those who die without baptism, the word of God says little or nothing. It is therefore necessary to interpret the reticence of Scripture on this issue in the light of texts concerning the universal plan of salvation and the ways of salvation. In short, the problem both for theology and for pastoral care is how to safeguard and reconcile two sets of biblical affirmations: those concerning God’s universal salvific will (cf. 1 Tm 2:4) and those regarding the necessity of baptism as the way of being freed from sin and conformed to Christ (cf. Mk 16:16; Mt 28:18-19).

5. Second, taking account of the principle lex orandi, lex credendi, the Christian community notes that there is no mention of Limbo in the Liturgy. In fact, the Liturgy contains a feast of the Holy Innocents, who are venerated as martyrs even though they were not baptized, because they were killed “on account of Christ.”3

There has even been an important liturgical development through the introduction of funerals for infants who died without baptism. We do not pray for those who are damned. The Roman Missal of 1970 introduced a funeral Mass for unbaptized infants whose parents intended to present them for baptism. The Church entrusts to God’s mercy those infants who die unbaptized.

In its 1980 instruction on children’s baptism the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith reaffirmed that "with regard to children who die without having received baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God, as indeed she does in the funeral rite established for them."4

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992) adds that "the great mercy of God, who desires that all men should be saved [1 Tm 2:4], and Jesus’ tenderness toward children, which caused him to say, ‘Let the children come to me, do not hinder them’ (Mk 10:14), allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without baptism."5

6. Third, the Church cannot fail to encourage the hope of salvation for infants who die without baptism by the very fact that she "prays that no one should be lost"6 and prays in hope for "all to be saved."7 On the basis of an anthropology of solidarity,8 strengthened by an ecclesial understanding of corporate personality, the Church knows the help that can be given by the faith of believers. The Gospel of Mark actually describes an occasion when the faith of some was effective for the salvation of another (cf. Mk 2:5).

So, while knowing that the normal way to achieve salvation in Christ is by baptism in re, the Church hopes that there may be other ways to achieve the same end. Because by his incarnation the Son of God "in a certain way united himself" with every human being and because Christ died for all and all are in fact "called to one and the same destiny, which is divine," the Church believes that "the Holy Spirit offers to all the possibility of being made partners, in a way known to God, in the paschal mystery" (Gaudium et Spes, 22).9

7. Finally, when reflecting theologically on the salvation of infants who die without baptism, the Church respects the hierarchy of truths and therefore begins by clearly reaffirming the primacy of Christ and his grace, which has priority over Adam and sin. Jesus Christ, in his existence for us and in the redemptive power of his sacrifice, died and rose again for all. By his whole life and teaching, he revealed the fatherhood of God and his universal love.

While the necessity of baptism is de fide, the tradition and the documents of the magisterium which have reaffirmed this necessity need to be interpreted. While it is true that the universal salvific will of God is not opposed to the necessity of baptism, it is also true that infants, for their part, do not place any personal obstacle in the way of redemptive grace.

On the other hand, baptism is administered to infants, who are free from personal sins, not only in order to free them from original sin but also to insert them into the communion of salvation which is the Church, by means of communion in the death and resurrection of Christ (cf. Rom 6:1-7). Grace is totally free, because it is always a pure gift of God.

Damnation, however, is deserved, because it is the consequence of free human choice.10 The infant who dies with baptism is saved by the grace of Christ and through the intercession of the Church even without his or her cooperation. It can be asked whether the infant who dies without baptism but for whom the Church in its prayer expresses the desire for salvation can be deprived of the vision of God even without his or her cooperation.

1. Historia Quaestionis — History and Hermeneutics of Catholic Teaching

 1.1. Biblical Foundations

8. A sound theological inquiry should start with a study of the biblical foundations of any ecclesial doctrine or practice. Hence, as regards the issue under discussion, the question should be asked whether the Holy Scriptures deal in one way or another with the question of the destiny of unbaptized children.

Even a quick look through the New Testament, however, makes it clear that the early Christian communities were not yet confronted with the question whether infants or children who had died without baptism would receive God’s salvation. When the New Testament mentions the practice of baptism, it generally points to the baptism of adults.

But the New Testament evidence does not preclude the possibility of infants being baptized. In households (oikos) where baptism is mentioned in the Book of Acts 16:15 and 33 (cf. 18:8) and First Corinthians 1:16, children may have been baptized along with adults. The absence of positive evidence may be explained by the fact that the New Testament writings are concerned mainly with the initial spread of Christianity in the world.

9. The lack of any positive teaching within the New Testament with respect to the destiny of unbaptized children does not mean that the theological discussion of this question is not informed by a number of fundamental biblical doctrines. These include:

(i) God wills to save all people (cf. Gn 3:15; 22:18; 1 Tm 2:3-6), through Jesus Christ’s victory over sin and death (cf. Eph 1:20-22; Phil 2:7-11; Rom 14:9; 1 Cor 15:20-28).

(ii) The universal sinfulness of human beings (cf. Gn 6:5-6; 8:21; 1 Kgs 8:46; Ps 130:3), and their being born in sin (cf. Ps 51:7; Sir 25:24) since Adam, and therefore their being destined to death (cf. Rom 5:12; 1 Cor 15:22).

(iii) The necessity for salvation of the faith of the believer (cf. Rom 1:16) on the one hand and of baptism (cf. Mk 16:16; Mt 28:19; Acts 2:40-41; 16:30-33) and the Eucharist (cf. Jn 6:53) administered by the Church on the other hand.

(iv) Christian hope goes utterly beyond human hope (cf. Rom 4:18-21); Christian hope is that the living God, the Savior of all humanity (cf. 1 Tm 4:10), will share his glory with all people and that all will live with Christ (cf. 1 Thes 5:9-11; Rom 8:2-5,23-25), and Christians must be ready to give an account of the hope they have (cf. 1 Pt 3:15).

(v) The Church must make "supplications, prayers and intercessions… for all" (1 Tm 2:1-8), based on faith that for God’s creative power "nothing is impossible" (Jb 42:2; Mk 10:27; 12:24,27; Lk 1:37) and on the hope that the whole creation will finally share in the glory of God (cf. Rom 8:22-27).

10. There seems to be a tension between two of the biblical doctrines just mentioned: the universal salvific will of God on the one side and the necessity of sacramental baptism on the other. The latter seems to limit the extension of God’s universal salvific will. Hence a hermeneutical reflection is needed about how the witnesses of tradition (Church fathers, the magisterium, theologians) read and used biblical texts and doctrines with respect to the problem being dealt with. More specifically, one has to clarify what kind of "necessity" is claimed with respect to the sacrament of baptism in order to avoid a mistaken understanding.

The necessity of sacramental baptism is a necessity of the second order compared to the absolute necessity of God’s saving act through Jesus Christ for the final salvation of every human being. Sacramental baptism is necessary because it is the ordinary means through which a person shares the beneficial effects of Jesus’ death and resurrection. In what follows, we will be attentive to the way scriptural witnesses have been used in the tradition. Moreover, in dealing with theological principles (Chapter 2) and with our reasons for hope (Chapter 3), we will discuss in greater detail the biblical doctrines and texts involved.

1.2. The Greek Fathers

11. Very few Greek fathers dealt with the destiny of infants who die without baptism because there was no controversy about this issue in the East. Furthermore, they had a different view of the present condition of humanity. 

For the Greek fathers, as the consequence of Adam’s sin, human beings inherited corruption, passibility and mortality, from which they could be restored by a process of deification made possible through the redemptive work of Christ. The idea of an inheritance of sin or guilt — common in Western tradition — was foreign to this perspective since in their view sin could only be a free, personal act.11 Hence, not many Greek fathers explicitly deal with the problem of the salvation of unbaptized children.

They do, however, discuss the status or situation — but not the place — of these infants after their death. In this regard the main problem they face is the tension between God’s universal salvific will and the teaching of the Gospel about the necessity of baptism. Pseudo-Athanasius says clearly that an unbaptized person cannot enter the kingdom of God. He also asserts that unbaptized children will not enter the kingdom but neither will they be lost, for they have not sinned.12

Anastasius of Sinai expresses this even more clearly: For him, unbaptized children do not go to Gehenna. But he is not able to say more; he does not express an opinion about where they do go, but leaves their destiny to God’s judgment.13

12. Alone among the Greek fathers, Gregory of Nyssa wrote a work specifically on the destiny of infants who die, De infantibus praemature abreptis libellum.14 The anguish of the Church appears in the questions he puts to himself: The destiny of these infants is a mystery, "something much greater than the human mind can grasp."15 He expresses his opinion in relation to virtue and its reward; in his view there is no reason for God to grant what is hoped for as a reward. Virtue is not worth anything if those who depart this life prematurely without having practiced virtue are immediately welcomed into blessedness.

Continuing along this line, Gregory asks, "What will happen to the one who finishes his life at a tender age, who has done nothing, bad or good? Is he worthy of a reward?"16 He answers, "The hoped for blessedness belongs to human beings by nature, and it is called a reward only in a certain sense."17

Enjoyment of true life (zoe and not bios) corresponds to human nature and is possessed in the degree that virtue is practiced. Since the innocent infant does not need purification from personal sins, he shares in this life corresponding to his nature in a sort of regular progress, according to his capacity. Gregory of Nyssa distinguishes between the destiny of infants and that of adults who lived a virtuous life. "The premature death of newborn infants does not provide a basis for the presupposition that they will suffer torments or that they will be in the same state as those who have been purified in this life by all the virtues."18

Finally, he offers this perspective for the reflection of the Church: "Apostolic contemplation fortifies our inquiry, for the One who has done everything well, with wisdom (Ps 104:24), is able to bring good out of evil."19

13. Gregory of Nazianzus does not write about the place and status after death of infants who die without sacramental baptism, but he enlarges the subject with another consideration. He writes, namely, that these children receive neither praise nor punishment from the just judge because they have suffered injury rather than provoked it. "The one who does not deserve punishment is not thereby worthy of praise, and the one who does not deserve praise is not thereby deserving of punishment."20

The profound teaching of the Greek fathers can be summarized in the opinion of Anastasius of Sinai: "It would not be fitting to probe God’s judgments with one’s hands."21

14. On the one hand, these Greek fathers teach that children who die without baptism do not suffer eternal damnation, though they do not attain the same state as those who have been baptized. On the other hand, they do not explain what their state is like or where they go. In this matter the Greek fathers display their characteristic apophatic sensitivity.

1.3. The Latin Fathers

15. The fate of unbaptized infants first became the subject of sustained theological reflection in the West during the anti-Pelagian controversies of the early fifth century. St. Augustine addressed the question because Pelagius was teaching that infants could be saved without baptism.

Pelagius questioned whether St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans really taught that all human beings sinned "in Adam" (Rom 5:12) and that concupiscence, suffering and death were a consequence of the Fall.22 Since he denied that Adam’s sin was transmitted to his descendants, he regarded newborn infants as innocent. Pelagius promised infants who died unbaptized entry into "eternal life" (not, however, into the "kingdom of God" [Jn 3:5]), reasoning that God would not condemn to hell those who were not personally guilty of sin.23

16. In countering Pelagius, Augustine was led to state that infants who die without baptism are consigned to hell.24 He appealed to the Lord’s precept, John 3:5, and to the Church’s liturgical practice.

Why are little children brought to the baptismal font, especially infants in danger of death, if not to assure them entrance into the kingdom of God? Why are they subjected to exorcisms and exsufflations if they do not have to be delivered from the devil?25 Why are they born again if they do not need to be made new?

Liturgical practice confirms the Church’s belief that all inherit Adam’s sin and must be transferred from the power of darkness into the kingdom of light (Col 1:13).26 There is only one baptism, the same for infants and adults, and it is for the forgiveness of sins.27 If little children are baptized, then, it is because they are sinners. Although they clearly are not guilty of personal sin, according to Romans 5:12 (in the Latin translation available to Augustine), they have sinned "in Adam."28 "Why did Christ die for them if they are not guilty?"29 All need Christ as their savior.

17. In Augustine’s judgment, Pelagius undermined belief in Jesus Christ, the one mediator (1 Tin 2:5), and in the need for the saving grace he won for us on the cross. Christ came to save sinners. He is the "Great Physician" who offers even infants the medicine of baptism to save them from the inherited sin of Adam.30

The sole remedy for the sin of Adam, passed on to everyone through human generation, is baptism. Those who are not baptized cannot enter the kingdom of God. At the judgment, those who do not enter the kingdom (Mt 25:34) will be condemned to hell (Mt 25:41). There is no "middle ground" between heaven and hell. "There is no middle place left, where you can put babies."31 Anyone "who is not with Christ must be with the devil."32

18. God is just. If he condemns baptized children to Hell, it is because they are sinners. Although these infants are punished in Hell, they will suffer only the "mildest condemnation" (mitissima poena),33 "the lightest punishment of all,"34 for there are diverse punishments in proportion to the guilt of the sinner.35 These infants were unable to help themselves, but there is no injustice in their condemnation because all belong to "the same mass," the mass destined for perdition. God does no injustice to those who are not elected, for all deserve Hell.36

Why is it that some are vessels of wrath and others vessels of mercy? Augustine admits that he "cannot find a satisfactory and worthy explanation." He can only exclaim with St. Paul, "How inscrutable [God’s] judgments and untraceable his ways!"37 Rather than condemn divine authority, he gives a restrictive interpretation of God’s universal salvific will.38 The Church believes that if anyone is redeemed, it is only by God’s unmerited mercy; but if anyone is condemned, it is by his well-merited judgment. We shall discover the justice of God’s will in the next world.39

19. The Council of Carthage of 418 rejected the teaching of Pelagius. It condemned the opinion that infants "do not contract from Adam any trace of original sin, which must be expiated by the bath of regeneration that leads to eternal life." Positively, this Council taught that "even children who of themselves cannot have yet committed any sin are truly baptized for the remission of sins, so that by regeneration they may be cleansed from what they contracted through generation."40

It was also added that there is no "intermediate or other happy dwelling place for children who have left this life without baptism, without which they cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven, that is, eternal life."41 This Council did not, however, explicitly endorse all aspects of Augustine’s stern view about the destiny of infants who die without baptism.

20. So great was Augustine’s authority in the West, however, that the Latin fathers (e.g., Jerome, Fulgentius, Avitus of Vienne and Gregory the Great) did adopt his opinion. Gregory the Great asserts that God condemns even those with only original sin on their souls; even infants who have never sinned by their own will must go to "everlasting torments." He cites Job 14:4-5 (LXX), John 3:5 and Ephesians 2:3 on our condition at birth as "children of wrath."42

1.4. The Medieval Scholastics

21. Augustine was the point of reference for Latin theologians throughout the Middle Ages on this matter. Anselm of Canterbury is a good example: He believes that little children who die without baptism are damned on account of original sin and in keeping with God’s justice.43

The common doctrine was summarized by Hugh of St. Victor: Infants who die unbaptized cannot be saved because (1) they have not received the sacrament, and (2) they cannot make a personal act of faith that would supply for the sacrament.44

This doctrine implies that one needs to be justified during one’s earthly life in order to enter eternal life after death. Death puts an end to the possibility of choosing to accept or reject grace, that is, to adhere to God or turn away from him; after death, a person’s fundamental dispositions before God receive no further modification.

22. But most of the later medieval authors from Peter Abelard on underline the goodness of God and interpret Augustine’s "mildest punishment" as the privation of the beatific vision (carentia visionis Dei), without hope of obtaining it, but with no additional penalties.45 This teaching, which modified the strict opinion of St. Augustine, was disseminated by Peter Lombard: Little children suffer no penalty except the privation of the vision of God.46

This position led the theological reflection of the 13th century to assign unbaptized infants a destiny essentially different from that of the saints in heaven, but also partly different from that of the reprobate, with whom they are nonetheless associated. This did not prevent the medieval theologians from holding the existence of two (and not three) possible outcomes for human existence: the happiness of Heaven for the saints and the privation of this celestial happiness for the damned and for infants who died unbaptized.

In the developments of medieval doctrine, the loss of the beatific vision (poena damni) was understood to be the proper punishment for original sin, whereas the "torments of perpetual Hell" constituted the punishment for mortal sins actually committed.47 In the Middle Ages the ecclesiastical magisterium affirmed more than once that those "who die in mortal sin" and those who die "with original sin only" receive "different punishments."48

23. Because children below the age of reason did not commit actual sin, theologians came to the common view that these unbaptized children feel no pain at all or even that they enjoy a full natural happiness through their union with God in all natural goods (Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus).49

The contribution of this last theological thesis consists especially in its recognition of an authentic joy among children who die without sacramental baptism: They possess a true form of union with God proportionate to their condition. The thesis relies on a certain way of conceptualizing the relationship between the natural and the supernatural orders, and in particular the orientation to the supernatural; it must not be confused, however, with the later development of the idea of "pure nature."

Thomas Aquinas, for instance, insisted that faith alone allows us to know that the supernatural end of human life consists in the glory of the saints, that is, in participation in the life of the triune God through the beatific vision. Since this supernatural end transcends natural human knowledge and since unbaptized children lack the sacrament that would have given them the seed of such supernatural knowledge, Aquinas concluded that infants who die without baptism do not know what they are deprived of and hence do not suffer from the privation of the beatific vision.50

Even when they adopted such a view, theologians considered the privation of the beatific vision as an affliction ("punishment") within the divine economy. The theological doctrine of a "natural beatitude" (and the absence of any suffering) can be understood as an attempt to account for God’s justice and mercy regarding children who did not commit any actual fault, thus giving more weight to God’s mercy than in Augustine’s view. The theologians who held this thesis of a natural happiness for children who died without baptism manifest a very lively sense of the gratuity of salvation and of the mystery of God’s will that human thought cannot fully grasp.

24. The theologians who taught in one form or another that unbaptized children are deprived of the vision of God generally held at the same time a double affirmation: (a) God wills that everyone be saved, and (b) God, who wills that all be saved, wills equally the dispensations and the means that he himself has established for this salvation and that he has made known to us by his revelation. The second affirmation, of itself, does not exclude other dispositions of the divine economy (as is clear, for example, in the witness of the Holy Innocents).

As for the expression Limbo of infants, it was forged at the turn of the 12th-13th century to name the "resting place" of such infants (the "border" of the inferior region). Theologians could discuss this question, however, without using the word Limbo. Their doctrines should not be confused with the use of the word Limbo.

25. The main affirmation of these doctrines is that those who were not capable of a free act by which they could consent to grace and who died without having been regenerated by the sacrament of baptism are deprived of the vision of God because of original sin, which they inherit through human generation.

1.5. The Modern, Post-Tridentine Era

26. Augustine’s thought enjoyed a revival in the 16th century and with it his theory regarding the fate of unbaptized infants, as Robert Bellarmine, for example, bears witness.51 One consequence of this revival of Augustinianism was Jansenism. Together with Catholic theologians of the Augustinian school, the Jansenists vigorously opposed the theory of Limbo.

During this period the popes (Paul III, Benedict XIV, Clement XIII)52 defended the right of Catholics to teach Augustine’s stern view that infants dying with original sin alone are damned and punished with the perpetual torment of the fire of Hell, though with the "mildest pain" (Augustine) compared with what was suffered by adults who were punished for their mortal sins. On the other hand, when the Jansenist Synod of Pistoia (1786) denounced the medieval theory of Limbo, Pius VI defended the right of the Catholic schools to teach that those who died with the guilt of original sin alone are punished with the lack of the beatific vision ("punishment of loss"), but not sensible pains (the punishment of "fire").

In the bull Auctorem Fidei (1794), the pope condemned as "false, rash, injurious to the Catholic schools" the Jansenist teaching "which rejects as a Pelagian fable [fabula pelagiana] that place in the lower regions (which the faithful call the Limbo of children) in which the souls of those departing with the sole guilt of original sin are punished with the punishment of the condemned, without the punishment of fire, just as if whoever removes the punishment of fire thereby introduces that middle place and state free of guilt and of punishment between the kingdom of God and eternal damnation of which the Pelagians idly talk."53

Papal interventions during this period, then, protected the freedom of the Catholic schools to wrestle with this question. They did not endorse the theory of Limbo as a doctrine of faith. Limbo, however, was the common Catholic teaching until the mid-20th century.

1.6. From the Time of Vatican I to Vatican II

27. Prior to the First Vatican Council and again prior to the Second Vatican Council, there was a strong interest in some quarters in defining Catholic doctrine on this matter. This interest was evident in the revised schema of the dogmatic constitution De Doctrina Catholica, prepared for the First Vatican Council (but not voted upon by the Council), which presented the destiny of children who died without baptism as between that of the damned, on the one hand, and that of the souls in Purgatory and the blessed, on the other: "Etiam qui cum solo originali peccato mortem obeunt, beata Dei visione in perpetuum carebunt."54

In the 20th century, however, theologians sought the right to imagine new solutions, including the possibility that Christ’s full salvation reaches these infants.55

28. In the preparatory phase of Vatican II, there was a desire on the part of some that the Council affirm the common doctrine that unbaptized infants cannot attain the beatific vision and thereby close the question. The Central Preparatory Commission, which was aware of many arguments against the traditional doctrine and of the need to propose a solution in better accordance with the developing sensus fidelium, opposed this move.

Because it was thought that theological reflection on the issue was not mature enough, the question was not included in the Council’s agenda; it did not enter into the Council’s deliberations and was left open for further investigation.56

The question raised a number of problems whose outcome was debated among theologians, in particular: the status of the Church’s traditional teaching concerning children who die without baptism; the absence of an explicit indication in Holy Scripture on the subject; the connection between the natural order and the supernatural vocation of human beings; original sin and the universal saving will of God; and the "substitutions" for sacramental baptism that can be invoked for young children.

29. The Catholic Church’s belief that baptism is necessary for salvation was powerfully expressed in the Decree for the Jacobites at the Council of Florence in 1442: "There is no other way to come to the aid [of little children] than the sacrament of baptism by which they are snatched from the power of the devil and adopted as children of God."57 This teaching implies a very vivid perception of the divine favor displayed in the sacramental economy instituted by Christ; the Church does not know of any other means which would certainly give little children access to eternal life.

However, the Church has also traditionally recognized some substitutions for baptism of water (which is the sacramental incorporation into the mystery of Christ dead and risen), namely, baptism of blood (incorporation into Christ by witness of martyrdom for Christ) and baptism of desire (incorporation into Christ by the desire or longing for sacramental baptism).

During the 20th century, some theologians, developing certain more ancient theological theses, proposed to recognize for little children either some kind of baptism of blood (by taking into consideration the suffering and death of these infants) or some kind of baptism of desire (by invoking an "unconscious desire" for baptism in these infants oriented toward justification or the desire of the Church).58

The proposals invoking some kind of baptism of desire or baptism of blood, however, involved certain difficulties. On the one hand, the adult’s act of desire for baptism can hardly be attributed to children. The little child is scarcely capable of supplying the fully free and responsible personal act which would constitute a substitution for sacramental baptism; such a fully free and responsible act is rooted in a judgment of reason and cannot be properly achieved before the human person has reached a sufficient or appropriate use of reason (aetas discretionis: "age of discretion").

On the other hand, it is difficult to understand how the Church could properly "supply" for unbaptized infants. The case of sacramental baptism, instead, is quite different because sacramental baptism administered to infants obtains grace in virtue of that which is specifically proper to the sacrament as such, that is, the certain gift of regeneration by the power of Christ himself. That is why Pope Pius XII, recalling the importance of sacramental baptism, explained in the "Allocution to Italian Midwives" in 1958:

"The state of grace is absolutely necessary for salvation: Without it supernatural happiness, the beatific vision of God, cannot be attained. In an adult an act of love may suffice to obtain him sanctifying grace and so supply for the lack of baptism; to the child still unborn or newly born this way is not open."59

This gave rise among theologians to a renewed reflection on the dispositions of infants with respect to the reception of divine grace, on the possibility of an extrasacramental configuration to Christ and on the maternal mediation of the Church.

30. It is equally necessary to note among the debated questions with a bearing on this matter that of the gratuity of the supernatural order. Before the Second Vatican Council, in other circumstances and regarding other questions, Pius XII had vigorously brought this to the consciousness of the Church by explaining that one destroys the gratuity of the supernatural order if one asserts that God could not create intelligent beings without ordaining and calling them to the beatific vision.60

The goodness and justice of God do not imply that grace is necessarily or "automatically" given. Among theologians, then, reflection on the destiny of unbaptized infants involved from that time onward a renewed consideration of the absolute gratuity of grace and of the ordination of all human beings to Christ and to the redemption that he won for us.

31. Without responding directly to the question of the destiny of unbaptized infants, the Second Vatican Council marked out many paths to guide theological reflection. The council recalled many times the universality of God’s saving will which extends to all people (1 Tm 2:4).61 All "share a common destiny, namely God. His providence, evident goodness and saving designs extend to all humankind" (Nostra Aetate, 1, cf. Lumen Gentium, 16).

In a more particular vein, presenting a conception of human life founded on the dignity of the human being created in the image of God, the constitution Gaudium et Spes recalls that "[h]uman dignity rests above all on the fact that humanity is called to communion with God," specifying that " [t]he invitation to converse with God is addressed to men and women as soon as they are born" (No. 19).

This same Constitution proclaims with vigor that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of the human being take on light. Furthermore, there is the renowned statement of the Council, which asserted, "Since Christ died for all, and since all 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 partners, in a way known to God, in the paschal mystery" (No. 22). Although the Council did not expressly apply this teaching to children who die without baptism, these passages open a way to account for hope in their favor.62

1.7. Issues of a Hermeneutical Nature

32. The study of history shows an evolution and a development of Catholic teaching concerning the destiny of infants who die without baptism. This progress engages some foundational doctrinal principles which remain permanent and some secondary elements of unequal value. In effect, revelation does not communicate directly in an explicit fashion knowledge of God’s plan for unbaptized children, but it enlightens the Church regarding the principles of faith which must guide her thought and her practice.

A theological reading of the history of Catholic teaching up to Vatican II shows in particular that three main affirmations which belong to the faith of the Church appear at the core of the problem of the fate of unbaptized infants. (i) God wants all human beings to be saved. (ii) This salvation is given only through participation in Christ’s paschal mystery, that is, through baptism for the forgiveness of sins, either sacramental or in some other way. Human beings, including infants, cannot be saved apart from the grace of Christ poured out by the Holy Spirit. (iii) Infants will not enter the kingdom of God without being freed from original sin by redemptive grace.

33. The history of theology and of magisterial teaching show in particular a development concerning the manner of understanding the universal saving will of God. The theological tradition of the past (antiquity, the Middle Ages, the beginning of modern times), in particular the Augustinian tradition, often presents what by comparison with modern theological developments would seem to be a "restrictive" conception of the universality of God’s saving will.63

In theological research, the perception of the divine will to save as "quantitatively" universal is relatively recent. At the level of the magisterium this larger perception was progressively affirmed. Without trying to date it exactly, one can observe that it appeared very clearly in the 19th century, especially in the teaching of Pius IX on the possible salvation of those who, without fault on their part, were unaware of the Catholic faith: Those who "lead a virtuous and just life, can, with the aid of divine light and grace, attain eternal life; for God, who understands perfectly, scrutinizes and knows the minds, souls, thoughts and habits of all, in his very great goodness and patience, will not permit anyone who is not guilty of a voluntary fault to be punished with eternal torments."64 This integration and maturation in Catholic doctrine meanwhile gave rise to a renewed reflection on the possible ways of salvation for unbaptized infants.

34. In the Church’s tradition, the affirmation that children who died unbaptized are deprived of the beatific vision has for a long time been "common doctrine." This common doctrine followed upon a certain way of reconciling the received principles of revelation, but it did not possess the certitude of a statement of faith or the same certitude as other affirmations whose rejection would entail the denial of a divinely revealed dogma or of a teaching proclaimed by a definitive act of the magisterium. The study of the history of the Church’s reflection on this subject shows that it is necessary to make distinctions.

In this summary we distinguish first statements of faith and what pertains to the faith; second, common doctrine; and third, theological opinion.

35. a) The Pelagian understanding of the access of unbaptized infants to "eternal life" must be considered as contrary to Catholic faith.

36. b) The affirmation that "the punishment for original sin is the loss of the beatific vision," formulated by Innocent III,65 pertains to the faith: Original sin is of itself an impediment to the beatific vision. Grace is necessary in order to be purified of original sin and to be raised to communion with God so as to be able to enter into eternal life and enjoy the vision of God.

Historically, the common doctrine applied this affirmation to the fate of unbaptized infants and concluded that these infants lack the beatific vision. But Pope Innocent’s teaching, in its content of faith, does not necessarily imply that infants who die without sacramental baptism are deprived of grace and condemned to the loss of the beatific vision; it allows us to hope that God, who wants all to be saved, provides some merciful remedy for their purification from original sin and their access to the beatific vision.

37. c) In the documents of the magisterium in the Middle Ages the mention of "different punishments" for those who die in actual mortal sin or with original sin only (‘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, however, with different punishments")66 must be interpreted according to the common teaching of the time. Historically, these affirmations have certainly been applied to unbaptized infants, with the conclusion that these infants suffer punishment for original sin.

It must be observed however that in a general way the focus of these Church pronouncements was not on the lack of salvation for unbaptized infants but on the immediacy of the particular judgment after death and the assignment of souls to Heaven or Hell. These magisterial statements do not oblige us to think that these infants necessarily die with original sin, so that there would be no way of salvation for them.

38. d) The bull Auctorem Fidei of Pope Pius VI is not a dogmatic definition of the existence of Limbo: The Papal Bull confines itself to rejecting the Jansenist charge that the "Limbo" taught by scholastic theologians is identical with the "eternal life" promised to unbaptized infants by the ancient Pelagians. Pius VI did not condemn the Jansenists because they denied Limbo, but because they held that the defenders of Limbo were guilty of the heresy of Pelagius. By maintaining the freedom of the Catholic schools to propose different solutions to the problem of the fate of unbaptized infants, the Holy See defended the common teaching as an acceptable and legitimate option without endorsing it.

39. e) Pius XII’s "Allocution to Italian Midwives,"67 which states that apart from baptism "there is no other means of communicating [supernatural] life to the child who has not yet the use of reason," expressed the Church’s faith regarding the necessity of grace to attain the beatific vision and the necessity of baptism as the means to receive such grace.68 The specification that little children (unlike adults) are unable to act on their own behalf, that is, are incapable of an act of reason and freedom that could "supply for baptism," did not constitute a pronouncement on the content of current theological theories and did not prohibit the theological search for other ways of salvation. Pius XII rather recalled the limits within which the debate must take place and reasserted firmly the moral obligation to provide baptism to infants in danger of death.

40. 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. As for the theory that the privation of the beatific vision is their sole punishment to the exclusion of any other pain, this is a theological opinion despite its long acceptance in the West. The particular theological thesis concerning a "natural happiness" sometimes ascribed to these infants likewise constitutes a theological opinion.

41. Therefore, besides the theory of Limbo (which remains a possible theological opinion), there can be other ways to integrate and safeguard the principles of the faith grounded in Scripture: the creation of the human being in Christ and his vocation to communion with God; the universal salvific will of God; the transmission and the consequences of original sin; the necessity of grace in order to enter into the kingdom of God and attain the vision of God; the uniqueness and universality of the saving mediation of Christ Jesus; and the necessity of baptism for salvation.

These other ways are not achieved by modifying the principles of the faith or by elaborating hypothetical theories; rather, they seek an integration and coherent reconciliation of the principles of the faith under the guidance of the ecclesial magisterium by giving more weight to God’s universal salvific will and to solidarity in Christ (cf. Gaudium et Spes, 22) in order to account for the hope that infants dying without baptism could enjoy eternal life in the beatific vision.

In keeping with a methodological principle that what is less known must be investigated by way of what is better known, it appears that the point of departure for considering the destiny of these children should be the salvific will of God, the mediation of Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit, and a consideration of the condition of children who receive baptism and are saved through the action of the Church in the name of Christ. The destiny of unbaptized infants remains, however, a limit case as regards theological inquiry: Theologians should keep in mind the apophatic perspective of the Greek fathers.

2. Inquirere Was Domini: Seeking to Discern God’s Ways —Theological Principles

42. Since the theme under consideration concerns a topic for which no explicit answer is directly forthcoming from revelation as embodied in sacred Scripture and tradition, the Catholic believer must have recourse to certain underlying theological principles which the Church, and specifically the magisterium, the guardian of the deposit of the faith, has articulated with the assistance of the Holy Spirit. As Vatican II affirms: "In Catholic doctrine there exists an order or ‘hierarchy’ of truths since they vary in their relation to the foundation of the Christian faith" (Unitatis Redintegratio, 11).

 No human being can ultimately save him/herself. Salvation comes only from God the Father through Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit. This fundamental truth (of the "absolute necessity" of God’s saving act toward human beings) is unfolded in history through the mediation of the Church and its sacramental ministry. The ordo tractandi we will adopt here follows the ordo salutis, with one exception: We have put the anthropological dimension between the Trinitarian and the ecclesiological-sacramental dimensions.

2.1. The Universal Salvific Will of God as Realized Through the Unique Mediation of Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit

43. In the context of the discussion on the destiny of those infants who die without baptism, the mystery of the universal salvific will of God is a fundamental and central principle. The depth of this mystery is reflected in the paradox of divine love which is manifested as both universal and preferential.

44. In the Old Testament, God is called the savior of the nation of Israel (cf. Ex 6:6; Dt 7:8; 13:5; 32:15; 43:29; Is 41:14; 43:14; 44:24; Ps 78; 1 Mc 4:30). But his preferential love for Israel has a universal scope, which extends to individuals (cf. 2 Sm 22:18, 44, 49; Ps 25:5; 27:1) and all human beings: "Thou lovest all things that exist, and hast loathing for none of the things which thou hast made, for thou wouldst not have made anything if thou hast hated it" (Wis 11:24).

Through Israel the gentile nations will find salvation (cf. Is 2:1-4; 42:1; 60:1-14). "I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth" (Is 49:6).

45. This preferential and universal love of God is intertwined and realized in a unique and exemplary fashion in Jesus Christ, who is the unique Savior of all (cf. Acts 4:12), but particularly of whoever becomes low or humble (tapeinosei) like the "little ones." Indeed, as one who is gentle or humble in heart (cf. Mt 11:29), Jesus maintains a mysterious affinity and solidarity with them (cf. Mt 18:3-5; 10:40-42; 25:40, 45).

Jesus asserts that the care of these little ones is entrusted to the angels of God (cf. Mt 18:3-5). "So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish" (Mt 18:14). This mystery of his will, according to the good pleasure of the Father,69 is revealed through the Son70 and dispensed by the gift of the Holy Spirit.71

46. The universality of the saving will of God the Father as realized through the unique and universal mediation of his Son, Jesus Christ, is forcefully expressed in the First Letter to Timothy:

"This is g

The Editors