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In Catholic theology, Limbo (Latin limbus, edge or boundary, referring to the "edge" of Hell) is a speculative idea about the afterlife condition of those who die in original sin without being assigned to the Hell of the damned. Limbo is not an official doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church or any other. Medieval theologians described the underworld ("hell", "hades", "infernum") as divided into four distinct parts: hell of the damned (which some call gehenna), purgatory, limbo of the fathers, and limbo of infants.

  • The Limbo of the Patriarchs or Limbo of the Fathers (Latin limbus patrum) is seen as the temporary state of those who, in spite of the personal sins they may have committed, died in the friendship of God, but could not enter Heaven until redemption by Jesus Christ made it possible. The term "Limbo of the Fathers" was a medieval name for the part of the underworld (Hades) where the patriarchs of the Old Testament were believed to be kept until Christ's soul descended into it by his death[1] through crucifixion and freed them (see Harrowing of hell). The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes Christ's descent into "hell" as meaning primarily that "the crucified one sojourned in the realm of the dead prior to his resurrection. This was the first meaning given in the apostolic preaching to Christ's descent into hell: that Jesus, like all men, experienced death and in his soul joined the others in the realm of the dead." It adds: "But he descended there as Saviour, proclaiming the Good News to the spirits imprisoned there." It does not use the word "Limbo".[2]
  • The Limbo of Infants (Latin limbus infantium or limbus puerorum) is a hypothesis about the permanent status of the unbaptized who die in infancy, too young to have committed personal sins, but not having been freed from original sin. Since at least the time of Augustine, theologians, considering baptism to be necessary for the salvation of those to whom it can be administered, have debated the fate of unbaptized innocents, and the theory of the Limbo of Infants is one of the hypotheses that have been formulated as a proposed solution. Some who hold this theory regard the Limbo of Infants as a state of maximum natural happiness, others as one of "mildest punishment" consisting at least of privation of the beatific vision and of any hope of obtaining it. This theory, in any of its forms, has never been dogmatically defined by the Church, but it is permissible to hold it. Recent Catholic theological speculation tends to stress the hope that these infants may attain heaven instead of the supposed state of Limbo; however, the directly opposed theological opinion also exists, namely that there is no afterlife state intermediate between salvation and damnation, and that all the unbaptized are damned.[3]

Contents

Limbo of the Patriarchs

"Jesus in Limbo" by Domenico Beccafumi.

The Limbo of the Fathers (limbus patrum) was the abode of people who, before Jesus' Resurrection, had died in the friendship of God, but had to wait for Christ to open heaven's gates. This concept of Limbo affirms that one can get into heaven only through Jesus Christ but does not portray Moses, etc., as being punished eternally in Hell.

Like other religious terms such as "Trinity", the term "Limbo" does not appear in the Bible. And like other religious concepts, that of the Limbo of the Patriarchs is not spelt out in Scripture, but is seen by some as implicit in various references.

Luke 16:22 speaks of the "bosom of Abraham", which both the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church, following early Christian writers, understand as a temporary state of souls awaiting entrance into Heaven. The end of that state is set either at the resurrection of the dead, the most common interpretation in the East, or at the Harrowing of Hell, the most common interpretation in the West, but adopted also by some in the East.[4]

Jesus told the Good Thief that the two of them would be together "this day" in "Paradise" (Luke 23:43; see also Matthew 27:38); but between his Resurrection and Ascension, Jesus told his followers that he had "not yet ascended to the Father" (John 20:17). A possible resolution of this apparent contradiction lies in the view that Jesus' statement to the thief can be understood in two ways, depending on where you place a comma (which was not present in the original manuscripts): either "Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise" or "Truly I say to you today, you shall be with Me in Paradise" (Luke 23:43, NASB). The latter interpretation would be consistent with Jesus' subsequent statement to his followers. By this reading, the good thief waited in Limbo until the Resurrection made it possible for him to enter heaven.

Eastern depiction of Christ in his resurrection raising also Adam and Eve.

Jesus is also described as preaching to "the spirits in prison" (1 Pet 3:19). Medieval drama sometimes portrayed Christ leading a dramatic assault—The Harrowing of Hell—during the three days between the Crucifixion and the resurrection. In this assault, Jesus freed the souls of the just and escorted them triumphantly into heaven. This imagery is still used in the Eastern Orthodox Church's Holy Saturday liturgy (between Good Friday and Pascha) and in Eastern Orthodox icons of the Resurrection of Jesus.

The doctrine expressed by the term "Limbo of the Fathers" was taught, for instance, by Clement of Alexandria, who maintained: "It is not right that these should be condemned without trial, and that those alone who lived after the coming (of Christ) should have the advantage of the divine righteousness."[5]

Limbo of Infants

While the Roman Catholic Church has a defined doctrine on original sin, it has none on the eternal fate of unbaptized infants, leaving theologians free to propose different theories, which Catholics are free to accept or reject.[6]

The fundamental importance, in Roman Catholic theology, of the sacrament of water baptism gives rise to the argument that, because original sin excludes from the beatific vision enjoyed by the souls in heaven, those who have not been freed from it either by the sacrament or by baptism of desire or baptism of blood are not eligible for entry into heaven.

Latin Fathers

Saint Augustine of Hippo held that because of original sin, "such infants as quit the body without being baptized will be involved in the mildest condemnation of all. That person, therefore, greatly deceives both himself and others, who teaches that they will not be involved in condemnation; whereas the apostle says: 'Judgment from one offence to condemnation' (Romans 5:16), and again a little after: 'By the offence of one upon all persons to condemnation' (Romans 5:18)."[7]

The Council of North African bishops, which included Augustine of Hippo, held at Carthage in 418 did not explicitly endorse all aspects of Augustine's stern view about the destiny of infants who die without baptism, but the Latin Fathers of the fifth and sixth centuries did adopt his position, and it became a point of reference for Latin theologians in the Middle Ages.[8]

Medieval theologians

In the later medieval period, some theologians continued to hold Augustine's view. In the 1100s, Peter Abelard (1079–1142) said that these infants suffered no material torment or positive punishment, just the pain of loss at being denied the beatific vision. Others held that unbaptized infants suffered no pain at all: unaware of being deprived of the beatific vision, they enjoyed a state of natural, not supernatural happiness. This theory was associated with but independent of the term "Limbo of Infants", which was forged about the year 1300.[9]

If heaven is a state of supernatural happiness and union with God, and hell is understood as a state of torture and separation from God then, in this view, the Limbo of Infants, although technically part of hell (the outermost part, "limbo" meaning "outer edge" or "hem") is seen as a sort of intermediate state.

Saint Thomas Aquinas described the Limbo of Infants as an eternal state of natural joy, untempered by any sense of loss at how much greater their joy might have been had they been baptized. He argued that this was a reward of natural happiness for natural virtue; a reward of supernatural happiness for merely natural virtue would be inappropriate since, due to original sin, unbaptized children lack the necessary supernatural grace. In regards to baptism of desire, St Thomas Aquinas stated that only adults were capable of this,[10] and this view seemed to be accepted by the Council of Florence, which quotes St Thomas Aquinas in its Eleventh Session concerning baptism of infants.

Modern era

The teaching of the Roman Catholic Church expressed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church is that "Baptism is necessary for salvation for those to whom the Gospel has been proclaimed and who have had the possibility of asking for this sacrament" and that, since "God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments," "Baptism of blood" (as in the case of the martyrs, who are understood to include the Holy Innocents) and, for catechumens at least, the explicit desire for Baptism, "together with repentance for their sins, and charity," ("Baptism of Desire") ensure salvation for those unable to receive Baptism by water.[11]

The Ecumenical Council of Florence (1442) spoke of baptism as necessary even for children and required that they be baptised soon after birth.[12] This had earlier been affirmed at the local Council of Carthage in 417. The Council of Florence also stated that those who die in original sin alone go to hell.[13] John Wycliffe's attack on the necessity of infant baptism was condemned by another general council, the Council of Constance.[14] The Council of Trent in 1547 explicitly stated that baptism (or desire for baptism) was the means by which one is transferred "from that state wherein man is born a child of the first Adam, to the state of grace, and of the adoption of the sons of God, through the second Adam, Jesus Christ, our Saviour.[15]

If adults could effectively be baptised through a desire for the sacrament when prevented from actually receiving it, some speculated that perhaps sacramentally unbaptised infants too might be saved by some waterless equivalent of ordinary baptism when prevented. Cajetan, a major 16th-century theologian, suggested that infants dying in the womb before birth, and so before ordinary sacramental baptism could be administered, might be saved through their mother's wish for their baptism. Thus, there was no clear consensus that the Council of Florence had excluded salvation of infants by such extra-sacramental equivalents of baptism.

Through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries individual theologians (Bianchi in 1768, H. Klee in 1835, Caron in 1855, H. Schell in 1893) continued to formulate theories of how children who died unbaptised might still be saved. By 1952 a theologian such as Ludwig Ott could, in a widely used and well-regarded manual, openly teach the possibility that children who die unbaptised might be saved for heaven[16] — though he still represented their going to limbo as the commonly taught opinion. 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."[17] And in 1984, when Joseph Ratzinger, then Cardinal Prefect of that Congregation, stated that, as a private theologian, he rejected the claim that children who die unbaptised cannot attain salvation, he was speaking for many academic theologians of his background and training.

Thus in 1992, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, while affirming that "the Church does not know of any means other than Baptism that assures entry into eternal beatitude", but also stating that "God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments",[18] stated: "As regards children who have died without Baptism, the Church can 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,'[19] allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without Baptism. All the more urgent is the Church's call not to prevent little children coming to Christ through the gift of holy Baptism."[20]

On April 22, 2007, the advisory body known as the International Theological Commission released a document, originally commissioned by Pope John Paul II, entitled "The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die without Being Baptized."[21]

After tracing the history of the various opinions that have been and are held on the eternal fate of unbaptized infants, including that connected with the theory of the Limbo of Infants, and after examining the theological arguments, the document stated its conclusion as follows:

Our conclusion is that the many factors that we have considered above give serious theological and liturgical grounds for hope that unbaptized infants who die will be saved and enjoy the beatific vision. We emphasize that these are reasons for prayerful hope, rather than grounds for sure knowledge. There is much that simply has not been revealed to us.[22] We live by faith and hope in the God of mercy and love who has been revealed to us in Christ, and the Spirit moves us to pray in constant thankfulness and joy.[23]
What has been revealed to us is that the ordinary way of salvation is by the sacrament of baptism. None of the above considerations should be taken as qualifying the necessity of baptism or justifying delay in administering the sacrament. Rather, as we want to reaffirm in conclusion, they provide strong grounds for hope that God will save infants when we have not been able to do for them what we would have wished to do, namely, to baptize them into the faith and life of the Church.

Pope Benedict XVI authorized publication of this document, indicating that it is considered consonant with the Church's teaching, though it is not an official expression of that teaching.[24] Media reports that by the document "the Pope closed Limbo"[25] are thus without foundation. In fact, the document explicitly states that "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" (second preliminary paragraph); and in paragraph 41 it repeats that the theory of Limbo "remains a possible theological opinion". The document thus allows the hypothesis of a limbo of infants to be held as one of the existing theories about the fate of children who die without being baptised, a question on which there is "no explicit answer" from Scripture or tradition.[24] These theories are not official teaching of the Catholic Church, but are only opinions that the Church does not condemn, permitting them to be held by its members.

Limbo in other denominations and religions

The Old Testament righteous follow Christ from Hades to Heaven (Russian icon)

Neither the Eastern Orthodox Church nor Protestantism accepts the concept of a limbo of infants;[26] but, while not using the expression "Limbo of the Patriarchs", the Eastern Orthodox Church lays much stress on the resurrected Christ's action of liberating Adam and Eve and other righteous figures of the Old Testament, such as Abraham and David, from Hades (see Harrowing of Hell).

Mormons teach that "all who have died without a knowledge of [the] gospel, who would have received it if they had been permitted to tarry, shall be heirs of the celestial kingdom of God."[27] Jehovah's Witnesses, Christadelphians, and others have taught that the dead are unconscious (or even nonexistent), awaiting their destiny on Judgment Day.

The Zoroastrian concept of hamistagan is similar to limbo. Hamistagan is a neutral state in which a soul that was neither good nor evil awaits Judgment Day.

In Islam, which denies the existence of Original Sin in totality, the concept of Limbo exists as Barzakh, the state which exists after death prior to the day of resurrection. During this period sinners are punished and the faithful rest in comfort. The concept of underage children is that they go exempt of sin and that they are classed as Muslims and after death they go to heaven where they are cared for by[citation needed] Abraham.

Limbo in literature

In the Divine Comedy, Dante depicts Limbo as the first circle of Hell, located beyond the river Acheron but before the judgment seat of Minos. The virtuous pagans of classical history and mythology inhabit a brightly lit and beautiful—but somber—castle which is seemingly a medieval version of Elysium. They include Hector, Julius Caesar, and Virgil. In the same work, a semi-infernal region, above Limbo on the other side of Acheron, but inside the Gate of Hell, also exists—it is the "vestibule" of Hell and houses so-called "neutralists" or "opportunists," who devoted their lives neither to good nor to evil, they are being pursued by hornets; its residents include those angels who did not fight at all in the war that resulted in the expulsion of Lucifer from Heaven, and also either Pope Celestine V or Pontius Pilate, the text is ambiguous.

One of Nobel Prize winning poet Seamus Heaney's best known works is titled Limbo. Rich with allusions to Christian teaching, the poem describes a mother drowning her illegitimate infant and its being netted by fishermen.

Limbo as a colloquialism

Differing slightly from the original meaning, in colloquial speech, "limbo" is any status where a person or project is held up, and nothing can be done until another action happens. For example, a construction project might be described as "in limbo" if political considerations delay its permit.

A "legal limbo" may occur when varying laws or court rulings leave a person without recourse. For example, a person may earn "too much" to receive public assistance from the government, but not enough to actually pay for basic necessities. Likewise, various parties in a dispute may be pointing blame at each other, rather than fixing the problem, and leaving the person or group suffering from the problem to continue to suffer in limbo.

The Amstrad PCW's bundled word processing software, LocoScript, used the term "in limbo" to refer to files which had been deleted but which could still be restored, a concept similar to that later implemented by the Trash in the Apple Macintosh and the Recycle Bin in Microsoft Windows 95. On the PCW, the files "in limbo" were marked as belonging to CP/M Plus users 8 to 15. These files were deleted automatically when the space they occupied was needed. It could therefore be dangerous to access a disk containing files created with CP/M Plus using LocoScript, since LocoScript could decide to delete anything in users 8 to 15.

In the licensing of houses in multiple occupation (HMOs), properties registered under a previous scheme, but would not be licensable under mandatory arrangements, would go into a state of limbo when they expire, until the status of any potential additional licensing scheme is fully resolved.

See also

Notes

  1. ^ "Christ's soul descended only into that part of hell wherein the just were detained." Thomas Aquinas, [1]
  2. ^ Catechism of the Catholic Church, 633
  3. ^ Unbaptized Infants Suffer Fire and Limbo is a Heretical Pelagian Fable
  4. ^ See Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev: Christ the Conqueror of Hell
  5. ^ Stromata, book VI, chapter VI
  6. ^ Study by International Theological Commission, 19 January 2007, 32-40; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1261
  7. ^ On Merit and the Forgiveness of Sins, and the Baptism of Infants, ; cf. Study by International Theological Commission, 19 January 2007, 15-18
  8. ^ Study by International Theological Commission, 19 January 2007, 19-21
  9. ^ Study by International Theological Commission, 19 January 2007, 22-25
  10. ^ Summa Theologica Question 68, Article 3 "I answer that, In this matter we must make a distinction and see whether those who are to be baptized are children or adults. For if they be children, Baptism should not be deferred. First, because in them we do not look for better instruction or fuller conversion. Secondly, because of the danger of death, for no other remedy is available for them besides the sacrament of Baptism. On the other hand, adults have a remedy in the mere desire for Baptism, as stated above (A[2])."
  11. ^ Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1257-1261
  12. ^ Council of Florence Session 11 (Bull Cantate Domino): "With regard to children, since the danger of death is often present and the only remedy available to them is the sacrament of baptism by which they are snatched away from the dominion of the devil and adopted as children of God, it admonishes that sacred baptism is not to be deferred for forty or eighty days or any other period of time..."
  13. ^ Council of Florence Session 6 "..the souls of those who depart this life in actual mortal sin, or in original sin alone, go down straightaway to hell to be punished, but with unequal pains."
  14. ^ Session 15, 6 July 1415
  15. ^ Council of Trent, Session 6
  16. ^ "Other emergency means of baptism for children dying without sacramental baptism, such as prayer and the desire of the parents or the Church (vicarious baptism of desire—Cajetan), or the attainment of the use of reason in the moment of death, so that the dying child can decide for or against God (baptism of desire—H. Klee), or suffering and death of the child as quasi-Sacrament (baptism of suffering—H. Schell), are indeed possible, but their actuality cannot be proved from Revelation. Cf. Denzinger 712." Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, Book 2, Section 2, § 25 (p. 114 of the 1963 edition)
  17. ^ Pastoralis Actio, 13
  18. ^ Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1257
  19. ^ Mark 10:14; cf. 1 Tim 2:4
  20. ^ Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1261
  21. ^ The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die without Being Baptized, ITC, April 22, 2007.
  22. ^ cf. John 16:12
  23. ^ cf. 1 Thes 5:18
  24. ^ a b Catholic News Service (April 20, 2007). "Vatican commission: Limbo reflects 'restrictive view of salvation'". Retrieved 2007-04-20.
  25. ^ New York Times (April 21, 2007) "Vatican City: Pope Closes Limbo"
  26. ^ Limbo: Recent statements by the Catholic church, and Protestant views at Religioustolerance.org
  27. ^ D&C 137:7 See Baptism for the Dead

External links


Source material

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From Wikisource

Limbo
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Limbo may refer to:


Wiktionary

Up to date as of January 15, 2010

Definition from Wiktionary, a free dictionary

See also limbo

Dutch

Proper noun

Limbo n. (plural Limbo’s, diminutive Limbootje)

  1. (informal, pejorative) Abbreviation of Limburger, an inhabitant of Limburg, a part of the Low Countries.

Bible wiki

Up to date as of January 23, 2010

From BibleWiki

(Late Lat. limbus) a word of Teutonic derivation, meaning literally "hem" or "border," as of a garment, or anything joined on (cf. Italian lembo or English limb).

In theological usage the name is applied to (a) the temporary place or state of the souls of the just who, although purified from sin, were excluded from the beatific vision until Christ's triumphant ascension into Heaven (the "limbus patrum"); or (b) to the permanent place or state of those unbaptized children and others who, dying without grievous personal sin, are excluded from the beatific vision on account of original sin alone (the "limbus infantium" or "puerorum").

In literary usage the name is sometimes applied in a wider and more general sense to any place or state of restraint, confinement, or exclusion, and is practically equivalent to "prison" (see, e.g., Milton, "Paradise Lost," III, 495; Butler, "Hudibras," part II, canto i, and other English classics). The not unnatural transition from the theological to the literary usage is exemplified in Shakespeare, "Henry VIII," act v, sc. 3. In this article we shall deal only with the theological meaning and connotation of the word.

Contents

I. LIMBUS PATRUM

Though it can hardly be claimed, on the evidence of extant literature, that a definite and consistent belief in the limbus patrum of Christian tradition was universal among the Jews, it cannot on the other hand be denied that, more especially in the extra-canonical writings of the second or first centuries B.C., some such belief finds repeated expression; and New Testament references to the subject remove all doubt as to the current Jewish belief in the time of Christ. Whatever name may be used in apocryphal Jewish literature to designate the abode of the departed just, the implication generally is

  • that their condition is one of happiness,
  • that it is temporary, and
  • that it is to be replaced by a condition of final and permanent bliss when the Messianic Kingdom is established.

In the New Testament, Christ refers by various names and figures to the place or state which Catholic tradition has agreed to call the limbus patrum. In Matt. 8:11, it is spoken of under the figure of a banquet "with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of Heaven" (cf. Luke 8:29; 14:15), and in Matt. 25:10 under the figure of a marriage feast to which the prudent virgins are admitted, while in the parable of Lazarus and Dives it is called "Abraham's bosom" (Luke 16:22) and in Christ's words to the penitent thief on Calvary the name paradise is used (Luke 23:43). St. Paul teaches (Eph. 4:9) that before ascending into Heaven Christ "also descended first into the lower parts of the earth," and St. Peter still more explicitly teaches that "being put to death indeed, in the flesh, but enlivened in the spirit," Christ went and "preached to those souls that were in prison, which had been some time incredulous, when they waited for the patience of God in the days of Noah" (I Pet 3:18-20).

It is principally on the strength of these Scriptural texts, harmonized with the general doctrine of the Fall and Redemption of mankind, that Catholic tradition has defended the existence of the limbus patrum as a temporary state or place of happiness distinct from Purgatory. As a result of the Fall, Heaven was closed against men. Actual possession of the beatific vision was postponed, even for those already purified from sin, until the Redemption should have been historically completed by Christ's visible ascendancy into Heaven. Consequently, the just who had lived under the Old Dispensation, and who, either at death or after a course of purgatorial discipline, had attained the perfect holiness required for entrance into glory, were obliged to await the coming of the Incarnate Son of God and the full accomplishment of His visible earthly mission. Meanwhile they were "in prison," as St. Peter says; but, as Christ's own words to the penitent thief and in the parable of Lazarus clearly imply, their condition was one of happiness, notwithstanding the postponement of the higher bliss to which they looked forward. And this, substantially, is all that Catholic tradition teaches regarding the limbus patrum.

II. LIMBUS INFANTIUM

The New Testament contains no definite statement of a positive kind regarding the lot of those who die in original sin without being burdened with grievous personal guilt. But, by insisting on the absolute necessity of being "born again of water and the Holy Ghost" (John 3:5) for entry into the kingdom of Heaven (see "Baptism," subtitle Necessity of Baptism), Christ clearly enough implies that men are born into this world in a state of sin, and St. Paul's teaching to the same effect is quite explicit (Rom. 5:12 sqq). On the other hand, it is clear form Scripture and Catholic tradition that the means of regeneration provided for this life do not remain available after death, so that those dying unregenerate are eternally excluded from the supernatural happiness of the beatific vision (John 9:4, Luke 12:40, 16:19 sqq, II Cor. 5:10; see also "Apocatastasis"). The question therefore arises as to what, in the absence of a clear positive revelation on the subject, we ought in conformity with Catholic principles to believe regarding the eternal lot of such persons. Now it may confidently be said that, as the result of centuries of speculation on the subject, we ought to believe that these souls enjoy and will eternally enjoy a state of perfect natural happiness; and this is what Catholics usually mean when they speak of the limbus infantium, the "children's limbo."

The best way of justifying the above statement is to give a brief sketch of the history of Catholic opinion on the subject. We shall try to do so by selecting the particular and pertinent facts from the general history of Catholic speculation regarding the Fall and original sin, but it is only right to observe that a fairly full knowledge of this general history is required for a proper appreciation of these facts.

Pre-Augustinian Tradition

There is no evidence to prove that any Greek or Latin Father before St. Augustine ever taught that original sin of itself involved any severer penalty after death than exclusion from the beatific vision, and this, by the Greek Fathers at least, was always regarded as being strictly supernatural. Explicit references to the subject are rare, but for the Greek Fathers generally the statement of St. Gregory of Nazianzus may be taken as representative:
It will happen, I believe . . . that those last mentioned [infants dying without baptism] will neither be admitted by the just judge to the glory of Heaven nor condemned to suffer punishment, since, though unsealed [by baptism], they are not wicked. . . . For from the fact that one does not merit punishment it does not follow that one is worthy of being honored, any more than it follows that one who is not worthy of a certain honor deserves on that account to be punished. [Orat., xl, 23]
Thus, according to Gregory, for children dying without baptism, and excluded for want of the "seal" from the "honor" or gratuitous favor of seeing God face to face, an intermediate or neutral state is admissible, which, unlike that of the personally wicked, is free from positive punishment. And, for the West, Tertullian opposes infant baptism on the ground that infants are innocent, while St. Ambrose explains that original sin is rather an inclination to evil than guilt in the strict sense, and that it need occasion no fear at the day of judgement; and the Ambrosiater teaches that the "second death," which means condemnation to the hell of torment of the damned, is not incurred by Adam's sin, but by our own. This was undoubtedly the general tradition before St. Augustine's time.

Teaching of St. Augustine

In his earlier writings St. Augustine himself agrees with the common tradition. Thus in De libero arbitrio III, written several years before the Pelagian controversy, discussing the fate of unbaptized infants after death, he writes: "It is superfluous to inquire about the merits of one who has not any merits. For one need not hesitate to hold that life may be neutral as between good conduct and sin, and that as between reward and punishment there may be a neutral sentence of the judge." But even before the outbreak of the Pelagian controversy St. Augustine had already abandoned the lenient traditional view, and in the course of the controversy he himself condemned, and persuaded the Council of Carthage (418) to condemn, the substantially identical Pelagian teaching affirming the existence of "an intermediate place, or of any place anywhere at all (ullus alicubi locus), in which children who pass out of this life unbaptized live in happiness" (Denzinger 102). This means that St. Augustine and the African Fathers believed that unbaptized infants share in the common positive misery of the damned, and the very most that St. Augustine concedes is that their punishment is the mildest of all, so mild indeed that one may not say that for them non-existence would be preferable to existence in such a state (De peccat. meritis I, xxi; Contra Jul. V, 44; etc.). But this Augustinian teaching was an innovation in its day, and the history of subsequent Catholic speculation on this subject is taken up chiefly with the reaction which has ended in a return to the pre-Augustinian tradition.

Post-Augustinian Teaching

After enjoying several centuries of undisputed supremacy, St. Augustine's teaching on original sin was first successfully challenged by St. Anselm (d. 1109), who maintained that it was not concupiscence, but the privation of original justice, that constituted the essence of the inherited sin (De conceptu virginali). On the special question, however, of the punishment of original sin after death, St. Anselm was at one with St. Augustine in holding that unbaptized children share in the positive sufferings of the damned; and Abelard was the first to rebel against the severity of the Augustinian tradition on this point. According to him there was no guilt (culpa), but only punishment (poena), in the proper notion of original sin; and although this doctrine was rightly condemned by the Council of Soissons in 1140, his teaching, which rejected material torment (poena sensus) and retained only the pain of loss (poena damni) as the eternal punishment of original sin (Comm. in Rom.), was not only not condemned but was generally accepted and improved upon by the Scholastics. Peter Lombard, the Master of the Sentences, popularized it (Sent. II, xxxiii, 5), and it acquired a certain degree of official authority from the letter of Innocent III to the Archbishop of Arles, which soon found its way into the "Corpus Juris." Pope Innocent's teaching is to the effect that those dying with only original sin on their souls will suffer "no other pain, whether from material fire or from the worm of conscience, except the pain of being deprived forever of the vision of God" (Corp. Juris, Decret. l. III, tit. xlii, c. iii -- Majores). It should be noted, however, that this poena damni incurred for original sin implied, with Abelard and most of the early Scholastics, a certain degree of spiritual torment, and that St. Thomas was the first great teacher who broke away completely from the Augustinian tradition on this subject, and relying on the principle, derived through the Pseudo-Dionysius from the Greek Fathers, that human nature as such with all its powers and rights was unaffected by the Fall (quod naturalia manent integra), maintained, at least virtually, what the great majority of later Catholic theologians have expressly taught, that the limbus infantium is a place or state of perfect natural happiness.

No reason can be given -- so argued the Angelic Doctor -- for exempting unbaptized children from the material torments of Hell (poena sensus) that does not hold good, even a fortiori, for exempting them also from internal spiritual suffering (poena damni in the subjective sense), since the latter in reality is the more grievous penalty, and is more opposed to the mitissima poena which St. Augustine was willing to admit (De Malo, V, art. iii). Hence he expressly denies that they suffer from any "interior affliction", in other words that they experience any pain of loss (nihil omnino dolebunt de carentia visionis divinae -- "In Sent.", II, 33, q. ii, a.2). At first ("In Sent.", loc. cit.), St. Thomas held this absence of subjective suffering to be compatible with a consciousness of objective loss or privation, the resignation of such souls to the ways of God's providence being so perfect that a knowledge of what they had lost through no fault of their own does not interfere with the full enjoyment of the natural goods they possess. Afterwards, however, he adopted the much simpler psychological explanation which denies that these souls have any knowledge of the supernatural destiny they have missed, this knowledge being itself supernatural, and as such not included in what is naturally due to the separated soul (De Malo loc. cit.). It should be added that in St. Thomas' view the limbus infantium is not a mere negative state of immunity from suffering and sorrow, but a state of positive happiness in which the soul is united to God by a knowledge and love of him proportionate to nature's capacity.

The teaching of St. Thomas was received in the schools, almost without opposition, down to the Reformation period. The very few theologians who, with Gregory of Rimini, stood out for the severe Augustinian view, were commonly designated by the opprobrious name of tortores infantium. Some writers, like Savonarola (De triumbpho crucis, III, 9) and Catharinus (De statu parvulorum sine bapt. decedentium), added certain details to the current teaching -- for example that the souls of unbaptized children will be united to glorious bodies at the Resurrection, and that the renovated earth of which St. Peter speaks (II Peter 3:13) will be their happy dwelling place for eternity. At the Reformation, Protestants generally, but more especially the Calvinists, in reviving Augustinian teaching, added to its original harshness, and the Jansenists followed on the same lines. This reacted in two ways on Catholic opinion, first by compelling attention to the true historical situation, which the Scholastics had understood very imperfectly, and second by stimulating an all-round opposition to Augustinian severity regarding the effects of original sin; and the immediate result was to set up two Catholic parties, one of whom either rejected St. Thomas to follow the authority of St. Augustine or vainly try to reconcile the two, while the other remained faithful to the Greek Fathers and St. Thomas. The latter party, after a fairly prolonged struggle, has certainly the balance of success on its side.

Besides the professed advocates of Augustinianism, the principal theologians who belonged to the first party were Bellarmine, Petavius, and Bossuet, and the chief ground of their opposition to the previously prevalent Scholastic view was that its acceptance seemed to compromise the very principle of the authority of tradition. As students of history, they felt bound to admit that, in excluding unbaptized children from any place or state even of natural happiness and condemning them to the fire of Hell, St. Augustine, the Council of Carthage, and later African Fathers, like Fulgentius (De fide ad Petrum, 27), intended to teach no mere private opinion, but a doctrine of Catholic Faith; nor could they be satisfied with what Scholastics, like St. Bonaventure and Duns Scotus, said in reply to this difficulty, namely that St. Augustine had simply been guilty of exaggeration ("respondit Bonaventura dicens quod Augustinus excessive loquitur de illis poenis, sicut frequenter faciunt sancti" -- Scots, In Sent., II, xxxiii, 2). Neither could they accept the explanation which even some modern theologians continue to repeat: that the Pelagian doctrine condemned by St. Augustine as a heresy (see e.g., De anima et ejus orig., II, 17) consisted in claiming supernatural, as opposed to natural, happiness for those dying in original sin (see Bellarmine, De amiss. gratiae, vi, 1; Petavius, De Deo, IX, xi; De Rubeis, De Peccat. Orig., xxx, lxxii). Moreover, there was the teaching of the Council of Florence, that "the souls of those dying in actual mortal sin or in original sin alone go down at once (mox) into Hell, to be punished, however, with widely different penalties."

It is clear that Bellarmine found the situation embarrassing, being unwilling, as he was, to admit that St. Thomas and the Schoolmen generally were in conflict with what St. Augustine and other Fathers considered to be de fide, and what the Council of Florence seemed to have taught definitively. Hence he names Catharinus and some others as revivers of the Pelagian error, as though their teaching differed in substance from the general teaching of the School, and tries in a milder way to refute what he concedes to be the view of St. Thomas (op. cit., vi-vii). He himself adopts a view which is substantially that of Abelard mentioned above; but he is obliged to do violence to the text of St. Augustine and other Fathers in his attempt to explain them in conformity with this view, and to contradict the principle he elsewhere insists upon that "original sin does not destroy the natural but only the supernatural order." (op. cit., iv). Petavius, on the other hand, did not try to explain away the obvious meaning of St. Augustine and his followers, but, in conformity with that teaching, condemned unbaptized children to the sensible pains of Hell, maintaining also that this was a doctrine of the Council of Florence. Neither of these theologians, however, succeeded in winning a large following or in turning the current of Catholic opinion from the channel into which St. Thomas had directed it. Besides Natalis Alexander (De peccat. et virtut, I, i, 12), and Estius (In Sent., II, xxxv, 7), Bellarmine's chief supporter was Bossuet, who vainly tried to induce Innocent XII to condemn certain propositions which he extracted from a posthumous work of Cardinal Sfrondati and in which the lenient scholastic view is affirmed. Only professed Augustinians like Noris and Berti, or out-and-out Jansenists like the Bishop of Pistoia, whose famous diocesan synod furnished eighty-five propositions for condemnation by Pius VI (1794), supported the harsh teaching of Petavius. The twenty-sixth of these propositions repudiated "as a Pelagian fable the existence of the place (usually called the children's limbo) in which the souls of those dying in original sin are punished by the pain of loss without any pain of fire"; and this, taken to mean that by denying the pain of fire one thereby necessarily postulates a middle place or state, involving neither guilt nor penalty, between the Kingdom of God and eternal damnation, is condemned by the pope as being "false and rash and as slander of the Catholic schools" (Denz. 526). This condemnation was practically the death-knell of extreme Augustinianism, while the mitigate Augustinianism of Bellarmine and Bossuet had already been rejected by the bulk of Catholic theologians. Suarez, for example, ignoring Bellarmine's protest, continued to teach what Catharinus had taught -- that unbaptized children will not only enjoy perfect natural happiness, but that they will rise with immortal bodies at the last day and have the renovated earth for their happy abode (De vit. et penat., ix, sect. vi, n. 4); and, without insisting on such details, the great majority of Catholic theologians have continued to maintain the general doctrine that the children's limbo is a state of perfect natural happiness, just the same as it would have been if God had not established the present supernatural order. It is true, on the other hand, that some Catholic theologians have stood out for some kind of compromise with Augustinianism, on the ground that nature itself was wounded and weakened, or, at least that certain natural rights (including the right to perfect felicity) were lost in consequence of the Fall. But these have granted for the most part that the children's limbo implies exemption, not only from the pain of sense, but from any positive spiritual anguish for the loss of the beatific vision; and not a few have been willing to admit a certain degree of natural happiness in limbo. What has been chiefly in dispute is whether this happiness is as perfect and complete as it would have been in the hypothetical state of pure nature, and this is what the majority of Catholic theologians have affirmed.

As to the difficulties against this view which possessed such weight in the eyes of the eminent theologians we have mentioned, it is to be observed:

  • we must not confound St. Augustine's private authority with the infallible authority of the Catholic Church; and
  • if allowance be made for the confusion introduced into the Pelagian controversy by the want of a clear and explicit conception of the distinction between the natural and the supernatural order one can easily understand why St. Augustine and the Council of Carthage were practically bound to condemn the locus medius of the Pelagians. St. Augustine himself was inclined to deny this distinction altogether, although the Greek Fathers had already developed it pretty fully, and although some of the Pelagians had a glimmering of it (see Coelestius in August., De Peccat. Orig., v), they based their claim to natural happiness for unbaptized children on a denial of the Fall and original sin, and identified this state of happiness with the "life eternal" of the New Testament.
  • Moreover, even if one were to admit for the sake of argument that this canon of the Council of Carthage (the authenticity of which cannot be reasonably doubted) acquired the force of an ecumenical definition, one ought to interpret it in the light of what was understood to be at issue by both sides in the controversy, and therefore add to the simple locus medius the qualification which is added by Pius VI when, in the Constitution "Auctoreum Fidei," he speaks of "locum illium et statum medium expertem culpae et poenae."
  • Finally, in regard to the teaching of the Council of Florence, it is incredible that the Fathers there assembled had any intention of defining a question so remote from the issue on which reunion with the Greeks depended, and one which was recognized at the time as being open to free discussion and continued to be so regarded by theologians for several centuries afterwards. What the council evidently intended to deny in the passage alleged was the postponement of final awards until the day of judgement. Those dying in original sin are said to descend into Hell, but this does not necessarily mean anything more than that they are excluded eternally from the vision of God. In this sense they are damned; they have failed to reach their supernatural destiny, and this viewed objectively is a true penalty. Thus the Council of Florence, however literally interpreted, does not deny the possibility of perfect subjective happiness for those dying in original sin, and this is all that is needed from the dogmatic viewpoint to justify the prevailing Catholic notion of the children's limbo, while form the standpoint of reason, as St. Gregory of Nazianzus pointed out long ago, no harsher view can be reconciled with a worthy concept of God's justice and other attributes.
Portions of this entry are taken from The Catholic Encyclopedia, 1907.
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