Out on a Limbo
self-styled Traditionalist and I were exchanging e-mail messages
about catechisms. It started when I mentioned my discomfort at
the attitude taken by a Catholic speaker who refers
disparagingly to the new Catechism of the Catholic Church
and who cites approvingly only the Roman Catechism, which
grew out of the Council of Trent.
My e-mail acquaintance said the other fellow was right to do so,
since the new catechism contains “novel teachings.” “What might
those be?” I asked. As one example, he said the new catechism
does not mention limbo.
Under the older understanding, he noted unbaptized infants who
die, whether through miscarriage or abortion, enjoy complete
natural happiness but do not see God face to face. They are not
in heaven or hell but in a third state, limbo. Under the “novel
teaching” of the new catechism, limbo is not mentioned, but it
is said we can hope that God has made some provision through
which such infants might get to heaven.
In the Middle Ages theologians came up with the theological
construct of limbo, which never has been a defined doctrine.
Limbo does get around two sticking points: the absence of
sanctifying grace, which implies no possibility of heaven, and
the absence of personal guilt, which implies no hell. Unbaptized
infants die with neither, so it might seem that they are
destined neither for heaven nor hell.
The new catechism implies that the infants might be able to
achieve sanctifying grace before their particular judgment,
though how this might happen we cannot say with any certitude.
Some theologians speculate that the infants are given an
opportunity not unlike that once granted the angels, before
their fall, to accept or reject God. But we just do not know—and
perhaps we never will know, down here.
My e-mail correspondent said, “Well, I think I’ll stick with the
solution suggested by the older catechism and will reject the
‘novel’ solution of the new catechism.” Why do that? I asked.
Because the old solution is older, he said.
G. K. Chesterton noted that truth is not chronologically
determined. The century of a teaching’s promulgation is not an
argument for or against it. An old teaching is not necessarily
truer for being old, and a new teaching is not necessarily truer
for being new. Copernicus happened to be right, and Ptolemy
wrong, about the motions of the planets, even though the
former’s teaching was considered “novel.” Of course, it is as
easy to point to older beliefs that are truer than their modern
Catechisms are not infallible documents. The Roman Catechism
may have erred on the fate of unbaptized infants, and it may be
that the new catechism, which offers no particular solution but
just a generalized hope, is nevertheless closer to the right
answer. It might be better to go with the “novel” teaching,
which is more vague, and set aside the “traditional” teaching,
which, some say, suggests a deficiency in God’s mercy.
Where does that leave us? In limbo, so to speak. A Catholic may
accept limbo, or he may reject it. He is not a better or worse
Catholic for doing one or the other. But he does need to think
through the problem—where do unbaptized infants go, and how does
his solution, whatever it may be, square with God’s justice and
mercy (both together, not just one taken separately)?