July 30, 2009


Another of the friars and I were talking about limbo, the idea that there is some kind of eschatological destiny that corresponds to perfect natural happiness for the human person. This is opposed, of course, to the idea of heaven, which is perfect supernatural happiness.

At certain points in the history of Christian theological reflection, limbo served as a solution to two theological problems. First, where did the patriarchs, prophets, and righteous people of God of the old covenants await the resurrection they would receive in Christ? This is the so-called limbo of the fathers. Second, what becomes of infants who do not receive baptism through no fault of their own? Certainly God would not deny them a happy destiny! So perhaps there is a state on the "border" or limbus of hell, that corresponds to natural fulfillment, short of the supernatural fulfillment of heaven. This seems to have been the view of St. Thomas, though we have to say that Thomas was not always real good on eschatology; after all he didn't really want to accept the Immaculate Conception. And oh yes, the Immaculate Conception is a doctrine about eschatology and ultimate destiny.

Now folks will point out, quite correctly, that we don't talk about limbo anymore. Indeed, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, when it faces the question of unbaptized infants doesn't mention it all but holds out a well-founded and confident hope for their highest salvation.

But this doesn't mean that there is no such thing as limbo; doctrine is accurate to Truth, but it does not exhaust Truth. This is especially true when we are talking about something as difficult as the Last Things. Limbo remains a theological possibility. There are other things like this, theological possibilities that we don't talk about or teach because they are too unsure. For another example, I think it's entirely theologically possible that two or three presbyters (i.e. priests who aren't bishops) could ordain a layman a deacon, or ordain a deacon a priest. But we can't be so sure about this, so we don't put the validity of sacramental ministry in danger by doing such a thing.

For me, I don't have a problem accepting the idea of limbo. To me it sounds pretty good: a state of eternal, perfect happiness on the natural level for those who were denied baptism of water, desire, or blood through no fault of their own. It's not the perfect supernatural happiness of heaven which we begin to live in baptism, but it doesn't sound so bad.


ben in denver said...

I must say that I think that the average person's concept of Heaven is probably more like natural hapines than supernatural happiness. Certainly I think we can say that the doctrinal concept of heaven in some faiths is more like the catholic concept of limbo tht heaven.

I'd put both Islam and Mormonism in this category.

Your second question is far more interesting. I would agree with you. But the conclusion is far less obvious today than it would have been many years ago when we used to speak of consecrating bishops instead of ordaining them as we do now. I believe that the understanding of the episcopacy used to be more abour jurisdiction than it is now.

Anonymous said...

Limbo is not for catholics.. it is for those who are restricted in their entry to eternal life. That is by catholic teachiong the Jew who firmly believes in his faith and follows the natural law. Every one else including aborted foetuses go to purgatory. The aborted child is marred only by origianl sin which though not grave needs some kind of purification. Even the Church teaches the tepid go to Purgatory. God does not hold us resposnib le for others grave sins unless we are having reached the age of reason are in some way complicit in one or all of the nine ways the catechism teaches us

Brother Charles said...

Ben: I agree that my other example is interesting; it really fascinates me. As one of my teachers liked to say, the Sacrament of Order effects deacons and priests. Of priests we have two kinds, presbyters and bishops. But what's the difference between a presbyter and a bishop, since both, in some way, exercise the role of elder and overseer, "episcopos." Our current lex orandi makes it seem to be a difference in kind, but at other times it seemed more like a practical distinction, in jurisdiction as you say. Very interesting.

Anonymous: The Catechism of the Catholic Church is a little more optimistic in tone than you seem to be. Check out paragraphs 1257-1261, especially the first and last. Not that going to purgatory is a bad thing; I'll be overjoyed if I find myself there one day; because purgatory has only one exit: heaven.

Brother Charles said...

Just another clarification on what I mean by "optimism." True, the Church knows no other means than Baptism for entering into eternal life through our configuration to the sacrifice and passing over of the humanity of Christ.

But as the Catechism points out, God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments. Just as the Church has always preached the danger of hell as a logical possibility, she has never claimed that anybody went there apart from the devil and his angels. It is possible that hell is empty of human souls. In the same way, even though Baptism has been revealed to us as a necessity, it might be that the final destiny of the world includes the ultimate joy of heaven for all creation. To just convince oneself of this and stop worrying about it is surely presumption, but just short of this hope is the optimism I read in the Catechism and what little the CDF has said about eschatology in recent times.

pennyante said...

Fr. Charles said: "But as the Catechism points out, God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments."

God is not bound by His sacraments... it seems to me much more hopeful than presumptuous... We simply cannot know God's mercy and justice and for that reason, it leaves open the possibility that after a period of purification, we may all end up in the arms of our God...

Of course, it also leaves open the possibility of the familiar notion of heaven, purgatory and hell.

Paul A. Zalonski said...

Perhaps the notion put forward by Cardinal Ives Congar is fitting for our discussion here: The Church does not know the fate of the unbaptized.

Has anyone read the ITC report on limbo?

DN said...

Anonymous, I don't think your vision of Limbo is by any means universally accepted. It's a possibility, I guess, what you say about Purgatory, but I think that's to misunderstand Purgatory a bit. Purgatory isn't about erasing Original Sin. That's baptism's job. If God in his mercy decides to grant some version of initiation into the life of Christ to the unbaptized after death, purgation would seem to be a questionable model, suggesting salvation is a question of us doing time, and that baptism (or its parallel) is insufficient.

If we're talking about something more like a spiritual maturation process, which arguably goes on in Purgatory, then it's a possibility (but we'd have to ask/apply the same thing to souls that die before their own 'maturation'; and it seems needless to me, since they'd be infused with the supernatural virtues by baptism). In any case, not something we can say with that sort of surety, so far as I can see.

ben in denver said...

I read the ITC report on Limbo several years ago when it was produced.

I must say that it did not clarify anything for me. The first part of the report, which went through the history of Limbo in the thinking of the Church and the reasons why so many have beleived in its existence was convincing. The second part of the report which attempted an answer to this history was thoroughly unsatisfyiny. After I had read through the whole document Limbo was much more of a live option for me than not.

Paul A. Zalonski said...

Ben, Unsatisfying or not, the ITC report is more-or-less the thinking of the current Holy Father, Pope Benedict. While not a magisterial document it does set out to deal with theological matters the Pope wants work done on by the theologians.

I seem to think that the statement on limbo was a beginning document to think more broadly in some cases and particularly in others about our sotierology. We've got a lot of miss information and likely an equal amount of misinformation about matters pertaining to heaven, hell, purgatory as you noted. Consequently, I find the concept of limbo unhelpful. But I save for better opinion.

I think in the medieval period, perhaps before, the priest was high office and a man was consecrated for jurisdictional things. But at V2 the term was changed to ordination because it was thought that to convey a more of a sense of a fullness of priesthood. Hence we think of bishops being members of the high priesthood. With the change in the rites came a change in theology and ecclesiology. Sometimes we forget our own theology as is reposing the Eucharist to another place other the tabernacle when the bishop is present to celebrate the Mass and adding 7th the candle at the altar.

ben in denver said...

For anybody interested the ITC document is here:


The trouble for me is the historical survey the document takes offers a great testimony against unbaptized infants going to heaven including Augustine, Jerome, Avitus of Vienne, Gregory the Great, Anselm of Canterbury, Hugh of St. Victor, Peter Abelard, Peter Lombard, Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus, Robert Bellarmine, Pius VI and Pius XII. I count no fewer than 6 Doctors on this list. The document also cites the Council of Carthage and the Council of Florence.

Against this impressive testimony little of substance seems to be offered.

The one thing that really suggests a difference is the new funeral liturgy for those with die without baptism. Additionally, I have to wonder that there was no discussion made of the Good Friday prayers for the multitudes of the unbaptized in this document. It seems there may have been some hope in this liturgy between charting the diffucult course between salvation for the unbaptizd and Pelagius.

I think we need a better explanation of what a non-pelagian understanding of unbaptized infants going to heaven looks like.

We dealt with this situation personally last year after a miscarriage. While we were extremely grateful to have the opportunity to have the burial in consecrated ground, it was scandalous to find out that many on the staff of the Archdiocesan cemetery were functional pelagians.

DN said...

Ben, that is precisely my concern. I had a huge problem with the thought of limbo until a well-versed Dominican Thomist explained it to me, and then it made such sense, and was so attested to by the mind of the Church for centuries, that I now find the opposite baffling.

Should note I still have hope that God's plan for them will surprise us, but I don't want to set up an opposite model (idol?) built out of time-bound, human sensibility.

The late great Avery Dulles said he thought our recent (tending-toward-absolute) rejections of war and capital punishment would go through a re-appraisal down the line, and I get the same feeling with limbo. That we're opposing it based off of something other than revelation or the soundest reasoning.

Qualis Rex said...

Father Charles - I LOVE your discussions! You are not so arrogant to think you have it all figured out, as unfortunately many priests do. I was told flat out by one priest that "all babies go straight to heaven. Baptised or not--straight to heaven." While this may be true (and hopefully it is) he had no authority to say this, since the church itself does not know the answer to this timeless question. You are doing the right thing by citing the catechism. Even church fathers (don't get me started on St Augustine) are not infallible on their writings on the subject. The best any of us can do is formulate an educated hypothesis. And you are really provoking a lot of thinking here. Seriously, kudos to you.

And I absolutely love your citation "Catechism points out, God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments." While this does NOT presuppose God's mercy (a VERY serious sin; one that "cries to heaven for vengeance") it does state a truth. Why should we expect and accept the existence of miracles here on earth and not outside it? Just as God is the architect of nature, He is not bound by it. Not by any stretch. Nor is He bound by the sacraments which HE instituted for US...not Him.

Lastly, it's taken my the better part of my life to appreciate and accept the possibility of the "empty hell" theory. I know I'm not alone when I say many bad things have happened to me, my family and those close to us throughout the years. And at times the only thing that has kept many of us going is the knowledge that God will be our/their judge. Unfortunately I've found this also leads into a trap of self-righteousness and holding on to a veiled hate in the guise of justice. Meaning, "knowing" someone is going to hell for what they did to you makes it hard to forgive them.

So, I'm with you: if I end up in purgatory, I'll be a very happy deadman. hey! Maybe we can share a dorm! I call the top bunk...