by Fr. Brian Harrison, O.S.
It seems virtually certain that a new Instruction from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith will very shortly be released, "eliminating" Limbo as a possibility for infants, and teaching that all those who die unbaptized before attaining the use of reason will in any case reach Heaven the beatific vision.
I will be so bold as to offer a few theological and pastoral comments:
- This is going to be an Instruction of the CDF. (Archbishop William Levada will thus be making his 'debut' in his new position not by confirming existing Catholic tradition as Holy Office and CDF prefects normally do but by openly departing from it.) By definition, even if receiving Pope Benedict's most formal approval, this will still be a non-infallible (non-ex-cathedra) statement of the magisterium. So it will still leave us with our existing lack of complete certainty as to the destiny of such infants.
- Not only that, but this document of a Vatican Congregation will have LESS authority than the 1588 Constitution on abortion personally signed by Pope Sixtus V, which flatly contradicts what Abp. Levada is apparently going to tell us. Pope Sixtus declared though not in ex cathedra form that the victims of abortion, being deprived of baptism, are "excluded from the beatific vision" (one reason why he judges abortion to be a particularly monstrous crime). The magisterium undermines its own credibility when it contradicts itself, even in non-infallible teachings.
- Perhaps the most perilous feature of an Instruction "assuring" us that all infants who die unbaptized reach Heaven in any case is that it will inevitably lead many to become more indifferent about the need to baptise infants. Already many Catholic parents are tardy in having their chidren baptized, and a papal assurance that baptism is not in case necessary for their salvation, should they die prematurely and unexpectedly, will obviously accentuate this tendency. But since Rome will not in any case be giving us any CERTAINTY that such children are in Heaven remember, this will be a non-infallible teaching it will in effect be playing a kind of "Russian roulette" with the souls of millions of human beings. Is this responsible? I mean, even if it should seem 99% certain to Abp. Levada and the Holy Father that God would reward all unbaptized infants with the beatific vision, what of that 1% possibility that they are wrong, and that Pope Sixtus V and the whole of Catholic tradition for the last two thousand years has been right in teaching albeit non-infallbly the contrary? By in effect encouraging among Catholic parents even more laxity as regards having their children baptized quickly after birth, will these Vatican leaders not be gravely responsible before God for the failure to reach Heaven of millions of souls, if in fact their novel doctrine turns out to be not just fallible in principle, but wrong in fact? That is, if Limbo turns out to exist after all?
- What of the timing? One remembers how the 1986 papally convoked interreligious gathering at Assisi was a significant factor in provoking Archbishop Lebevre into carrying out his illicit 1988 episcopal consecrations. Now, at a time when that rupture has still not been healed, and when in fact radical traditionalism and sedevacantism appear to be growing, will this Instruction not just add more fuel to the flames? Will it not provoke further alienation and lack of confidence among those Catholic brethren who think the Vatican has been taken over by modernist heretics?
With all due respect for the See of Peter, it honestly seems to me that it would have been far more prudent for the magisterium to say nothing more on this topic, and thus "let sleeping dogs lie". The "Catechism of the Catholic Church" cautiously says that we are "entitled to hope" for the salvation of infants (and the mentally retarded) who die without baptism, but it also teaches that the only CERTAIN path for their salvation is through the Sacrament of Baptism. Since the imminent Vatican Instruction will not in any case be able to give us any further certainties in this area of doctrine, how will it be of any benefit to the Church?