Thursday, September 9, 2010

Mary's Nativity and the children's limbo

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).
Concluding remarks
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.


Richard said...

This is very good reading. Your articles are great and thought provoking and very informative.

Thank you and blessings to you(all)

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Thanks for reading! We're all glad to hear that the articles on our blog are helpful to others. They are certainly a blessing to ourselves!

Peace in Christ!

Unknown said...

I do not see what is so odious about the common teaching of the Church (through the Saints and Doctors) about the limbus puerorum, aside from "modern man"'s almost total disconnect from reality and true rational thought. What we know for sure has been discussed by the Councils, the Fathers, Doctors, Saints, etc. at length for hundreds of years and it all points towards either a partially mitigated hellfire for unbaptized infants (Augustinianism) or the state of perfect natural happiness (the Thomist/Scholastic school). Only fairly recently has this innovation of the universal salvation of the unbaptized gained any currency. It is a complete shot in the dark, certainly without any real basis in what came before.

God is all merciful, but He is also all just. It seems that those who promote the idea that God has some mysterious salvation for the unbaptized conflates the natural and supernatural orders, even if only unintentionally. If heaven is man's natural end, then God would be unjust in frustrating anyone from that "natural" end, however, since this is not man's natural end God is not frustrating anyone's nature by allowing them to rest in limbo. This is both merciful and just.

Also, it would also seem that to propose that God grants the graces that would seem to be so special in the BVM and St. John the Baptist to potentially millions and millions would make that grace considerably less special.

Dominus dedit, Dominus abstulit; sicut Domino placuit, ita factum est. Sit nomen Domini benedictum.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Andrew (Sept 19, 1:29am),
I am inclined to agree with you on all points.

It would indeed be a very great assumption to think that the special graces given to John the Baptist, Jeremiah, and the Blessed Mother are shared with millions...
Jesus does have a very special love for children, though.

There are certainly many good reasons for maintaining the belief in limbo.


David said...

Baptism of desire and spirutual sponsorship of the unborn.

Can we not as catholics, through prayers and good works sponser the unbaptized to eternal salvation in heaven.

Good is ever merciful, the unborn can not speak for themselves, however we can speak for them.

Do we not, when we stand for the newly baptised baby, make their promise for them.

And what of the righteous of the old testement, did not Christ die to open the gates of Heaven to them? They were not baptised, does that mean the linger in limbo?

We do not know what awaits us after death save the judgement and God's Mercy. Pray for the unbaptised, the rest is God's

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

I don't think you are seeing the radical difference between hoping that some of those who died before Christ may have been saved and hoping that unbaptized babies might be saved.

Moses had a true (though implicit) faith, it was this faith which saved him -- St. Paul makes it very clear that Abraham was saved by faith.
This faith was a "baptism by desire".
Hence, there is no comparison between the Old Testament fathers and the unbaptized babies.

Babies are baptized by the will of there parents, the desire of the parents/Church stands in for the actual faith of the child -- this is in the actual sacrament of baptism.
There is no reason to suppose that the parents faith could supply for the sacrament of baptism itself!

Now I am not trying to say definitively one way or the other on the limbo question (though you can guess my own opinion) -- but I do think we at least need to recognize just how completely extraordinary a thing it would be for an unbaptized child to go to would seem to be more comparable to an "immaculate conception" than to a "baptism by desire".

Chatto said...


if Limbo, as a place of natural happiness and free from punishment, is true, how will it relate to the new reality after the general Resurrection?

For instance, will they be returned to their bodies, though probably not glorified, or remain as disembodied souls? If they are physical, and the righteous are able to see God face-to-face, will those in Limbo be able to see the righteous? Could this be one way in which they know God as First Cause and benevolent Creator - through the obvious blessedness of the saints?

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Limbo is (technically) part of hell, but there is no subjective punishment -- those in Limbo are in a state of natural happiness, subjectively this is a great state of joy and bliss.
So, they will receive their bodies in the Resurrection but they will not be glorified -- this is because they will not have the beatific vision.
They will know God as their First Cause and loving Creator, they will see God's work in creation, they will see each other (and those being punished in the lower regions of hell) ... but they will not see anything of heaven or of Christ or of the saints.

It is important to hold that they know nothing of heaven or Christ -- because they don't realize what they are missing (supernatural happiness), thus they are naturally happy and unaware of any loss.

They will suffer no pain, but neither will they enjoy supernatural beatitude; they will enjoy natural happiness of body and soul.

[all this is on the presumption that there is a Limbo, and I am pretty sure there is]

Hope that helps! Blessings!

hilaron said...

Dear father,

What is your take on the theological opinion that Saint Joseph was sanctified in the womb according to the manner of Saint John the Baptist? As I understand it, this has not received magisterial weight, but is nonetheless the opinion of such as Saint Bernardine and Gerson.

In Jesus, Mary and Joseph,

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

hilaron (David),
Personally, I do not think that the opinion of a pre-natal sanctification of St. Joseph is anything more than wild speculation.
Following St. Thomas, I do not think that we should posit anyone to be so sanctified unless it is contained either in Scripture (John the Baptist and Jeremiah) or in Tradition (the Blessed Virgin Mary).

However, I would at least say this about St. Joseph -- to me it certainly seems more likely that he was so sanctified than that the billions of miscarried babies were given this very special grace.

In other words: It would seem to me to be very bizarre if anyone held that these children went to heaven while also holding that St. Joseph was not sanctified in the womb (like John the Baptist) -- how could St. Joseph be deprived of a grace supposedly given to so many?

hilaron said...

Dear father,

I agree that it seems very improbable that such an extraordinary grace would be given to vast numbers of people -- I think children's limbo is a reality and I think we can safely say that this is the most probable and safe opinion to hold in such matters.

The reason I'm asking is that since we are to give Saint Joseph proto-dulia, the first among the saints after Mary, would it not seem appropriate then that he was in some sense sanctified more eminently than other great saints (ie. John the Baptist and Jeremiah)? Of course, that something is "appropriate" in this sense does not mean that it is factually true. I think you mentioned it in your post. But does not God give graces according to state, and what an exalted state Saint Joseph had! He was to be able to take charge of the Holy Family, notwithstanding that he was the least holy of the three, he was to humble himself to the point that in obedience to God he would command God the Son as his Foster-Father. Such extraordinary tasks are in my mind totally impossible without the most extraordinary graces. How do we account for such graces without the pre-natal sanctification of Saint Joseph?

I'm not quite sure where I stand on the issue, so I'm merely asking questions at this point. I haven't studied it in-depth from a theological stand-point, merely let it be the object of pious reflection at certain times, mainly because of a video I watched on with Dr. Mark Miravalle.

Appreciate everything you do here, father! I have learned very much and it is really comforting to know that you have place to go to when you need to bring up some discussion in a charitable and friendly tone. All too often people are so dismissive right off the bat and there seems to be a sort of enmity between the parties, especially on the Internet. No room for intellectual debate or honest inquiry. You provide a much needed oasis.

In Jesus, Mary and Joseph,

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

hilaron (david),
Your point about proto-dulia is well taken.

I guess I still would be hesitant to ascribe this grace to St. Joseph -- but I will also admit that, in recent years, there has been a great increase in our theological understanding of this great Saint. Thus, I am certainly open to the hypothesis.

[and, as I said before, since a vast majority of Catholics (and even many theologians) hold to the salvation of these infants, they ought also to maintain the sanctification of Joseph in the womb]

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