|The Child Jesus prepares his Precursor|
The Nativity of St. John the Baptist
It is well known that most feast days commemorate the day that the given saint died. Occasionally, the feast will be on the day of the movement of the saints relics (as in the case of Sts. Thomas Aquinas and St. Benedict, according to the new calendar) or, for a pope, it will occasionally happen that the feast will fall on the day of the saints ascendance to the papacy (as in the case of Bl. John Paul II). However, it is almost entirely unheard of that a saint’s feast should commemorate his day of birth.
The principle reason why the feast day of a saint is (almost) never on his birthday is that a saint is not born holy, but grows to spiritual perfection through his life. There are, however, three important exceptions to this rule: The Nativity of Jesus (i.e. Christmas), the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and today’s feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. These three – Jesus, Mary, and John the Baptist – are recognized by the Church’s liturgy as having been born holy and filled with the Spirit of God.
Obviously, the three births are different: For Christ was free of original sin without having needed to be redeemed, Mary was freed from original sin by a unique redemptive grace of preservation, and John the Baptist was forgiven original sin when still in the womb. Still, the grace of being forgiven of original sin and filled with the Holy Spirit while yet in the womb seems to be quite exceptional and extraordinary – how blessed St. John was to receive this gift!
In a previous post, we considered the special graces given to St. John and questioned what this might mean for the supposition of a limbo of the children. In our current article, we will discuss what limbo would be (if it did exist) and point out just how bold a claim it is when theologians speculate that non-baptized infants may go to heaven.
That St. John and Jeremiah were cleansed of original sin – The witness of Scripture
In Summa Theologica III, q.27, a.6, St. Thomas considers whether Jeremiah and St. 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 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.
Ought we to suppose that others are given this exceptional grace?
St. Thomas makes an interesting statement regarding the sanctification of Jeremiah and St. 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)
Clearly, the grace of being sanctified in the womb is an exceptional and extraordinary gift. When it comes to graces so unusual, we would be quite bold to posit that the grace is common to many (especially if there is no direct support in Scripture or in Tradition).
Indeed, I believe that most people would admit that St. John the Baptist and Jeremiah received an exceptionally rare grace when they were chosen by God from the womb, forgiven of original sin, and filled with the Holy Spirit. We can reasonably conclude that this exceptional grace is probably not shared by millions or even billions of individuals, but is a special blessing given to only a few.
No child who dies with original sin can possibly go to heaven
The Catholic Church has taught, as certain and unshakable doctrine, that no one (not even a child) who dies in the state of original sin can possibly go to heaven. “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).
In the state of original sin, man is deprived of sanctifying grace and all that this implies – specifically, man is conceived without possessing supernatural, or even natural, charity. Therefore, as supernatural charity alone can bring a man to eternal life, it is clear that any who die in the state of original sin cannot be saved.
However, we have already pointed out that the specific grace, by which St. John the Baptist was forgiven of original sin while yet in the womb, was an exceptional and extraordinary grace – one which does not seem to be shared with a great number. Therefore, it is probable (as it seems to us) that children who die before baptism do not receive this grace. But, if they do not receive the grace given St. John (or the baptism of blood which was given to the Holy Innocents), then they will not have been forgiven of original sin. And, if they are not forgiven of original sin, then they cannot be saved. Thus, I would maintain that it is probable that any children who die without baptism are not saved and do not enter into heaven.
In support of this, I offer the teaching of the Council of Florence (from the Bull Cantate Domino of Eugene IV): “Regarding children, indeed, because of danger of death, which can often take place, since no help can be brought to them by another remedy than through the sacrament of baptism, through which they are snatched from the domination of the devil and adopted among the sons of God, [the sacrosanct Roman Church] advises that holy baptism ought not to be deferred for forty or eighty days, ... but it should be conferred as soon as it can be done conveniently.” (Denz 712, DS 1349) While admitting of the possibility of “baptism of blood”, it is hard to understand how any sense of “baptism of desire” could be invoked without claiming for these children that exceptional and extraordinary grace which was given St. John the Baptist.
What do we mean by the limbo of the children?
The limbo of the children cannot be a third place somewhere between heaven and hell – rather, it must be part of hell itself. However, when theologians invoke the possibility of limbo for the children who die before baptism, they postulate a place within hell where the punishments are very light and, perhaps, consist solely in the lack of the beatific vision (which is the essence of hell).
However, it is supposed that the children in limbo would enjoy a natural happiness and would even know and love God according to natural charity (though they lack supernatural charity). These children would have no participation in the life of grace, but would most certainly not be entirely separated from God – indeed, none in hell are entirely separated from God, since they at least receive existence from him.
That there is a distinction between the essential punishment of hell which is the deprivation of the beatific vision (poena damni) and the additional punishments of hell which are the sensible torments (poena sensus) is affirmed by Pope Innocent III: “The punishment of original sin is the loss of the vision of God, the punishment of actual sin is the torment of the perpetual Gehenna.” (Denz 410, DS 780) Therefore, in the supposition of the existence of a limbo of the children (which would necessarily be part of hell), the children who died without baptism would suffer only the loss of the beatific vision and not the sensible torments.
St. Thomas Aquinas, Bl. Duns Scotus, and the other great doctors of the Scholastic period maintained that the children in limbo would not even know that they were missing out on heaven (nor that they were condemned to hell), but would be perfectly happy on a natural level; though, of course, without any shred of supernatural happiness. These children would know and love God with a natural knowledge and a natural love. The children would be entirely ignorant of the mysteries of salvation and, unlike the souls condemned to hell for actual mortal sin, these would suffer no existential pains from the lack of the beatific vision (for they would not know that they were missing this supernatural happiness, and would instead be very happy and perfectly fulfilled on the level of nature).
How bold it is to suppose that non-baptized infants may go to heaven
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 St. 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 their original sin in an extra-sacramental way. We need to recognize just how extraordinary this would be.
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.
I do not intend, in this article, to argue definitively for the existence of limbo (though I think it quite probable). Rather, I have only attempted to present what the theologians mean when they postulate its existence. Moreover, I believe it is important for us all to consider just how extraordinary it would be for any child to attain to eternal life without having received the sacrament of baptism – it would be a grace equal to that of St. John the Baptist or, on the other hand, of the Holy Innocents.