For 800 years the Roman Catholic Church has taught that the souls of babies who die unbaptised are consigned to limbo – an intermediate state pending final judgement. Now this ‘unofficial’ teaching has been declared erroneous by the Vatican’s own Theological Commission.
In January Pope Benedict XVI authorised a 41-page report from the Commission declaring limbus infantum to be an ‘unduly restrictive view of salvation’. However, the report stresses that baptism remains the only way to remove the stain of original sin; Catholics must still have their infant children baptised.
The report continues: ‘There is greater theological awareness today that God is merciful and wants all human beings to be saved. Grace has priority over sin, and the exclusion of innocent babies from heaven does not seem to reflect Christ’s special love for the little ones.
‘Our conclusion is that the many factors that we have considered … give serious theological and liturgical grounds for hope that unbaptised infants who die will be saved and enjoy the beatific vision. We emphasise that these are reasons for prayerful hope, rather than grounds for sure knowledge’ (Daily Telegraph, 23 April 2007).
Now, the final destiny of infants is certainly a difficult and emotive subject, and one on which Scripture largely maintains a compassionate silence. It is surely enough to know that the Judge of all the earth will do right (Genesis 18:25) and the salvation of anyone, however young or old, depends not on human merit but on the electing purposes of a loving God.
So why should we take note of this rather obscure Catholic pronouncement?
No biblical warrant
Firstly, we might be excused for wondering why we have had to wait 800 years for Christ’s supposed Vicar (i.e. representative) on earth to correct the mistake! But it isn’t really surprising.
The title ‘Vicar of Christ’ does not belong to popes, but to the Holy Spirit – of whom Jesus said, ‘If I depart, I will send him to you’ (John 15:7). And the Spirit has said all he wants to say in the Bible – on this and every other subject.
This alerts us to the second issue. ‘Limbo’ was conceived of in the context of unbiblical theologising. The word derives from the Latin for ‘edge’ or ‘boundary’ (by implication, of hell). And although the pope has discarded one limbo he has not jettisoned another! Limbus patrum (limbo of the fathers) remains ‘official’ Catholic dogma.
This particular limbo (for which again there is no biblical warrant) is believed to have been populated by Old Testament saints until Christ’s death and burial. In Renaissance art it was depicted as a prison cell.
Limbo as a religious tradition meshes powerfully with the equally unbiblical idea of purgatory – a concept that, if accepted, rather pulls the rug from under the claim that ‘grace has priority over sin’.
Washing away sins
Unwarranted also is the teaching that infants (or adults) can be washed from their sins by baptismal water. Sins are only washed away through the blood of Jesus Christ (1 John 1:7). All ecclesiastical traditions, however ancient or venerable, that clash with Scripture’s teaching must be discarded.
Thirdly, the statement that ‘There is greater theological awareness today that God is merciful and wants all human beings to be saved’, while seeming to resonate with biblical truth (1 Timothy 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9), must be viewed with suspicion.
Vatican II was highly ambiguous in its statements about the spiritual prospects of people who never hear the gospel. A universalistic, even multi-faith, process has gradually been working its way into Catholic tradition – and utterances like this are part of this process.
We need to ponder afresh the words of Jude – ‘contend earnestly for the faith once for all delivered to the saints’ (v.3). And what a glorious faith it is that keeps us in the love of God and patience of Jesus Christ in even the darkest days (2 Thessalonians 3:5).