Welcome to the LESSON Ten in our CATECHESIS CORNER. We appreciate your reading of this corner.
LET US PRAY: Spirit of the Living God, enlighten our minds to know the Truth, strengthen our hearts to accept the Truth and cause us to live for the Truth. Through this Catechesis Corner, restore those who have fallen from the Truth, convince the doubting hearts, clarify the confused mind and lead us all to the fullness of Truth through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
A research on this study was carried out by the International Theological Commission. The research constitutes the primary source of this write-up.
In these times, the number of infants who die unbaptized is growing greatly. This is partly because of parents, influenced by cultural relativism and religious pluralism, who are non-practicing Catholics, but it is also partly a consequence of in vitro fertilization and abortion. Given these developments, the question of the destiny of such infants is raised with new urgency. In such a situation, the ways by which salvation may be achieved appear ever more complex and problematic. The Church, faithful guardian of the way of salvation, knows that salvation can be achieved only in Christ, by the Holy Spirit. Yet, as mother and teacher, she cannot fail to reflect on the destiny of all human beings, created in the image of God, and especially of the weakest.
Being endowed with reason, conscience and freedom, adults are responsible for their own destiny in so far as they accept or reject God’s grace. Infants, however, who do not yet have the use of reason, conscience and freedom, cannot decide for themselves.
There seems to be a tension between two of the biblical doctrines: the universal will of God that all men be saved (1Tim.2:4), and the necessity of sacramental Baptism for salvation (Mk.16:16; Mt.28:18-19). The latter seems to limit the extension of God’s universal salvific will. Hence a hermeneutical reflection is needed about how the witnesses of tradition (Church Fathers, the magisterium, theologians) read and used biblical texts and doctrines with respect to the problem being dealt with. More specifically, one has to clarify what kind of ‘necessity’ is claimed with respect to the sacrament of Baptism in order to avoid a mistaken understanding.
The necessity of sacramental Baptism is a necessity of the second order (suitability) compared to the absolute necessity of God’s saving act through Jesus Christ for the final salvation of every human being. Being a necessity of suitability means that Sacramental Baptism is necessary because it is the ordinary means through which a person shares the beneficial effects of Jesus’ death and resurrection. However, there are other avenues whereby the configuration with Christ can be realized such as baptism by blood and baptism by desire (which makes the necessity of Baptism not to be absolute. But this does not devalue the necessity of sacramental baptism or become a reason to delay the conferral of the sacrament. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that God has bound salvation to the sacraments but God himself is not bound by the sacraments.
It is clear that the traditional teaching on this topic has concentrated on the theory of limbo, understood as a state which includes the souls of infants who die subject to original sin and without baptism, and who, therefore, neither merit the beatific vision, nor yet are subjected to any punishment, because they are not guilty of any personal sin. This theory, elaborated by theologians beginning in the Middle Ages, never entered into the dogmatic definitions of the Magisterium, even if that same Magisterium did at times mention the theory in its ordinary teaching up until the Second Vatican Council. It remains therefore a possible theological hypothesis. However, in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992), the theory of limbo is not mentioned. Rather, the Catechism teaches that infants who die without baptism are entrusted by the Church to the mercy of God, as is shown in the specific funeral rite for such children. The principle that God desires the salvation of all people gives rise to the hope that there is a path to salvation for infants who die without baptism (cf. CCC, 1261).
The scripture gives no definitive stand about the hope of infants who die without baptism. However, the Church naturally recalls and ponders anew various New Testament texts expressing the preferential love of Jesus: “Let the children come to me…for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 19:14; cf. Lk 18:15-16, ‘infants’); “Whoever receives one such in my name receives me” (Mk 9:37); “unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 18:3); “Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 18:4); “whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea” (Mt 18:6); “See that you do not despise one of these little ones; for I tell you that in heaven their angels always behold the face of my Father who is in heaven” (Mt 18:10). So the Church renews her commitment to show Christ’s own love and care for children (cf. LG 11; GS 48, 50).
Christians are people of hope. They have set their hope “on the living God, who is the saviour of all, especially of those who believe” (1 Tim 4:10). They ardently desire that all human beings, unbaptised children included, may share in God’s glory and live with Christ (cf. 1 Thess 5:9-11; Rom 8:2-5; 23-35). This Christian hope is a “hope … against hope” (Rom 4:18), going far beyond any form of human hope. So Christians, even when they do not see how unbaptised children can be saved, nevertheless dare to hope that God will embrace them in his saving mercy.
It must be clearly acknowledged that the Church does not have sure knowledge about the salvation of unbaptised infants who die. She knows and celebrates the glory of the Holy Innocents, but the destiny of the generality of infants who die without Baptism has not been revealed to us, and the Church teaches and judges only with regard to what has been revealed. What we do positively know of God, Christ and the Church gives us grounds to hope for their salvation.
In conclusion, there are theological and liturgical reasons to hope that infants who die without baptism may be saved and brought into eternal happiness, even if there is not an explicit teaching on this question found in Revelation. This is precisely because it was not possible to do for them that which would have been most desirable— to baptize them in the faith of the Church and incorporate them visibly into the Body of Christ. These reasons are grounds for prayerful hope, rather than grounds for sure knowledge. There is much that simply has not been revealed to us (cf.Jn 16:12).
Thanks for reading through, see you in our next edition, endeavour to carry out the study guide below little by little daily before the next lesson or edition. Help to deepen the understanding of the faith by giving a copy of DSD to someone and invite him or her to read the catechesis corner.
FURTHER BIBLE READING: Matthew 19:14
CATECHESIS STUDY GUIDE: CCC No. 1250-1254
BOOK RECOMMENDATION: “The Scriptural Roots of Catholic Teaching” by Chantal Epie
TAKE HOME QUESTION: What is the hope of infants who die without baptism?