The Immaculate Birth of Mary
As pointed out in yesterday’s post on the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Church had universally accepted the immaculate birth of Mary – that she was sanctified in the womb and born without sin – long before the dogma of the Immaculate Conception was being thought about. Much as the feast of Christmas came before the feast of the Annunciation and maintained greater prominence; so too, the feast of the Nativity of Mary was prior and was more prominent in the life of the Church, until the most recent times.
The Church celebrates the feast of the Nativity of Mary because she was holy in her birth – she was born free of original sin. St. Thomas appeals to this point explicitly in a sed contra (of ST III, q.27, a.1) to defend the doctrine of her sanctification in the womb. Precisely because Mary was freed from sin while in the womb (or, as we now know, from the first moment of her conception), we celebrate her birthday as a solemn feast.
It is well known that most feast days of saints are held on the day of their deaths. There are, of course, three exceptions to this: Christmas, the Nativity of Mary, and the Nativity of John the Baptist. In the Church today, the feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist is kept with even greater solemnity than the feast of Mary’s Birth – John the Baptist’s Nativity is celebrated with a Vigil and a Mass of the Day. Most likely, the relative subtlety of Mary’s feast is due to the great devotion to her Immaculate Conception and the special solemnity kept on that day. Mentioning the feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist does, however, raise the question of whether any other than Christ and Mary were born without original sin through being sanctified in the womb.
The nativities of Jeremiah and John the Baptist
In Summa Theologiae III, q.27, a.6, St. Thomas considers whether Jeremiah and John the Baptist were sanctified in the womb and cleansed of original sin before their birth. At first it might seem like this is a grace reserved specifically to the Blessed Virgin Mary, but St. Thomas affirms that, based on the witness of Sacred Scripture and the Tradition of the Church, we ought to maintain that these prophets were likewise freed from original sin before their birth.
The Scripture passages cited are: Jeremiah 1:5, “Before you came forth out of the womb, I sanctified you” (for Jeremiah) and Luke 1:15, “He shall be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb” (for John the Baptist). St. Augustine is cited as a patristic authority who occasionally interpreted these verses as speaking of the pre-natal sanctification of Jeremiah and St. John.
It is important to note, however, that Mary’s sanctification is different than that of the two prophets insofar as they were not entirely freed of the inclination toward sin nor were they preserved from all actual sin (though they were probably preserved from ever committing a mortal sin). Obviously, neither John nor Jeremiah was conceived without sin, thus the Virgin stands alone among the saints.
The death of unborn babies (and infants)
St. Thomas makes an interesting statement regarding the sanctification of Jeremiah and John the Baptist: “Nor are we to believe that any others, not mentioned by Scripture, were sanctified in the womb. For such privileges of grace, which are bestowed on some, outside the common law, are ordered for the salvation of others, according to 1 Corinthians 12:7, ‘The manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man unto profit,’ which would not result from the sanctification of anyone unless it were made known to the Church.” (ST III, q.27, a.6)
St. Thomas is very obviously opposed to including anyone else in the same category as these three saints: Mary, Jeremiah, and John the Baptist. According to the Angelic Doctor, these three alone were sanctified before their birth in a most miraculous and extraordinary way – no one else has ever or will ever be purified of original sin while still in the womb.
Disclaimer: What follows includes some theological speculation on a rather controversial topic. I offer it with a pastor’s heart (I am a priest) for the edification of readers and with the hopes of providing an opportunity for careful and articulate discussion as well personal reflection. I base my writing on the common doctrine of the church.
We know that “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 with different punishments” (Council of Lyons II). We are certain of this: all those who die with original sin (even if they die without having ever committed an actual sin) are not saved, but are excluded from heaven. The difficulty of thinking that an infant (born or unborn) who died without baptism would be punished in hell gave rise to speculation about limbo as a place in hell which was free from all punishment (excepting that it is not heaven). We need to be very clear about this point: Limbo, if it exists at all, is a part of hell. It is entirely separate from purgatory or heaven; there is no punishment there, excepting that the souls of the children will never see God face to face – they will, however, be perfectly fulfilled on a natural level, knowing and loving God as the first Cause and Creator of all things. Subjectively, limbo is not a bad place to be. Objectively, it is a part of hell.
While limbo is a point of speculation, this truth is a part of Catholic Dogma: If a baby dies with original sin on its soul, that baby goes directly to hell (possibly to limbo). The real question, then, is whether babies (born and unborn) who have died without baptism have had any way of being purified of original sin. We do know that at least some children were forgiven original sin without the grace of baptism – the Holy Innocents. Making a comparison with these martyrs, some today want to claim that the children killed through abortion are “martyrs for the Gospel of life,” that they received a “baptism of blood” and were thus cleansed from original sin and rewarded with the gift of heaven. This is certainly a very speculative and somewhat extreme idea – we might be left wondering, “What about the children who die from a miscarriage?” Indeed, still born babies and those who die through a natural miscarriage cannot be grouped under the concept of “martyrdom.”
Many want to argue – and there are certainly some good reasons to make the argument – that God, in a mysterious way, forgives the original sin of all or most children who die before the age of reason without having received the sacrament of baptism. The International Theological Commission has stated that there is some reason to hope for their salvation – though they have in no way ruled out the idea of limbo (cf. The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized). The idea is that God might sanctify these children while still in the womb or just after their birth and purify them from original sin.
Here he must point out the central issue which some modern theologians are focusing on in this new proposition: the gratuity of God’s grace and his special love for children (which is solidly rooted in the Bible). St. Thomas and the common doctrine of the Church Fathers, Doctors, and Magisterium (which has always favored the idea of limbo or something close to it) emphasizes the necessity of baptism and the reality of original sin (which are also rooted in Sacred Scripture). Ultimately, the answer to this difficult question is beyond our comprehension and something which will remain a mystery to us until the Last Day. However, I would like to consider how the question of limbo relates to the doctrine of Mary’s Immaculate Birth (and also the sanctification of Jeremiah and John the Baptist).
If we are to hold that non-baptized children are saved, we must be claiming that they are sanctified (either in the womb or after birth but before reaching the age of reason) in a miraculous way, which would seem comparable to that of Jeremiah and John the Baptist. Certainly, no child with original sin can go to heaven – but those who want to argue against limbo and in favor of the salvation of non-baptized children must be arguing that God forgives original sin in an extra-sacramental way. We need to recognize just how extraordinary this would be.
These children, sanctified without baptism, would be given graces which far exceed those which we know God ordinarily gives to people. These sanctified children would be chosen by God in a way which far exceeds the graces given to the saints, patriarchs, and prophets. They would be more blessed than Moses, Abraham and David; more blessed even than Sts. Joseph, Peter, Paul, and John the Beloved.
Now we cannot know for certain what God’s design is for these poor children, but we do know that the graces given to St. John the Baptist and Jeremiah are extraordinary and extremely special (and that they were given specifically for the edification of God’s people in crucial moments of salvation history). Without a specific, public, divine revelation that non-baptized babies are given a share in these exceedingly marvelous graces, it will be impossible for the Church to state that such children will be saved.On the other hand, this does not entirely rule out hope – but it will be good for us to realize just how extraordinary these hoped for graces would be.