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Change we can believe in: The fate of unbaptised infants

A visit to a cemetery during a recent family holiday on Achill Island brought to mind for me some critical issues concerning the development of Church doctrine. We went to see the famous deserted village on the boggy slopes of Slievemore, looking out towards the beach at Keel and the sea cliffs of Minaun beyond it. It’s a beautiful but melancholy place. An ancient track, sodden, uneven and dissected by deep stream gullies, runs past the rocky shells of some one hundred houses. The earliest signs of settlement here date from medieval times, and right up to the middle of the 20th century some at least of the houses remained inhabitable. Inhabitable, yes, but utterly spartan. How could people spend their lives here? What expectations could they have had of life if they called such a place home? How did births and deaths affect them? What was their experience of faith? What shape did their hope take? Visit this village now and you will see with concrete clarity the strangeness, the inaccessible otherness, of the past.

There is another indication of that strangeness in the cemetery just below the village. Close to the gates there is a small memorial space – a circle with a cross, a plaque and a short bench. The inscription on the plaque reads: “We remember here the little ones in our cillíní and all those laid to rest outside this consecrated ground”.

“The little ones in our cillíní”: the unbaptised infants that had to be buried outside the consecrated grounds of the church. That is the way it was for centuries. If a child died in childbirth it would usually be taken from the mother and brought, often at night, to a local cillín, a patch of ground, most often at some borderland, some boundary, close to a cliff edge for example, and buried there. A slab of stone might mark the place, but the names of the – nameless – infants would not be recorded.

What must this have been like for the mother of the infant? It wasn’t enough that she should suffer the indescribable loss of her child, she must also do without the comforts of the Church. She would never be with her child, and her child would never be with God. The governing theology was clear: one could be saved only through baptism, either in re (the actual imposition of the sacrament) or in voto (by an act of the will, by desire). As infants who died before they had received baptism in re were incapable of baptism in voto, there was no means by which they could be admitted to heaven. There were two options – two and two only: the unbaptised infant went either to hell or to some third eschatological state, a borderland, just like the cillíní in which they were buried, a limbus infantium, a children’s limbo. Heaven was out of the question.

Most Catholics know now, of course, that the Church no longer speaks routinely of limbo. It remains a “possible theological hypothesis”, but it doesn’t have many advocates. The Roman Missal in 1970 introduced a Mass for unbaptised infants – and, as the International Theological Commission notes, “We do not pray for those who are damned”. Then in 1980 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith averred that the Church can only entrust these infants to the mercy of God. And in 1992 the Catechism of the Catholic Church repeated this judgement and made no mention of limbo. So in recent decades – for the first time in the 2,000 year-old history of the Church – Catholics have been encouraged to hope for the eternal beatitude of their unbaptised children.

I have rarely seen this shift in perspective cited as an important instance of doctrinal progress – not to say ‘change’. To me, however, it seems hugely significant and brilliantly illustrative of the complexities of tradition. Of course the existence of limbo was never a doctrine of the Church. Some Catholics – especially those for whom ‘change’ is a dirty word – are quick to point this out. Limbo can come, they say, limbo can go; it doesn’t alter the fact that Church doctrine is unchanging. This, however, is to miss the point. The core issue is not limbo. It is the doctrine concerning the necessity of baptism which underlies it. Here is where we can most clearly see the possibilities and the limits of doctrinal change.

Consider the history. At the beginning of the Christian dispensation Christ (in John 3:5) left no room for doubt about the need for sacramental baptism: “No one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit”. It was this mainly which led St Augustine to insist, against the Pelagians indeed but also against many of the early Greek Fathers, that infants, just like everyone else, had an absolute need for baptism. Newborn babies are sinners. They bear the inherited sin of Adam, so they too stand unredeemed, and without baptism they must be condemned to hell. There is heaven and there is hell. There is no third eschatological state. So hell it must be. And hell with punishment too, even if it is relatively mild.

This Augustinian take on the fate of unbaptised infants held sway until the 13th century. That’s 800 years! For 800 years at least, Christians understood the sacraments, the sufficiency of grace, the salvific death of Christ, and the mercy of God in such a way that they could still believe that unbaptised infants would go straight from the womb to the eternal pains of hell. A woman might pray for a child, be overjoyed to find herself pregnant, and offer thanksgiving for God’s goodness and mercy; but then the child might die in utero, and the mother would have to take it on faith that her infant’s eternal punishment was infinitely just, infinitely merciful, and for the greater glory of God. A ‘hard saying’ to be sure, but one that churchmen were content with for many centuries.

It was St Thomas Aquinas who provided the escape route from the pessimism of Augustine. By distinguishing between inherited sin and personal, or voluntary, sin, he surmised that unbaptised infants are excluded from the beatific vision but, quite literally, they don’t know what they’re missing. They enjoy a state of perfect natural happiness. It’s not hell, but it’s not heaven either. There is, after all, a third eschatalogical state for unbaptised infants. It’s a marginal state – limbo. This is an easier prospect for a mother to bear, but it’s cold comfort all the same when they come to take your dead child from you in the darkness and bury it away from the consecrated cemetery, out on the cliff’s edge.

The fortunes of the limbo solution since the 13th century are complex, but some summary points deserve attention. Firstly, when the fate of unbaptized infants became a live issue again 300 years after Aquinas, some prominent Catholics (including two great Jesuits, St Robert Bellarmine and Denis Pétau) opposed the Thomist and defended the Augustinian position. Why? Because it was the traditional teaching of the Church that all the unbaptized, whether they were guilty of actual sin or not, were destined for hell. It was the dominant opinion of the western Fathers, it was disputed mainly by the Pelagians, it had clearly been articulated by Augustine as a settled and certain proposition, and it had been stated unambiguously by one of the synods of Carthage and by the Council of Florence. To posit a state of natural happiness for the unbaptized was to deny the normative force of tradition.

Which takes us to a deeply important observation, though one that needs much more attention than I can afford it here. It is this: The way in which the conservative Catholic critics of Pope Francis understand tradition is, ironically, something of a novelty. It is not how the Church has always understood it. It emerged gradually in the course of the post-Reformation polemics of the 16th and 17th century. Increasingly the Church at this time reframed much of its theology in propositional and juridical terms, as it had to draw ever sharper distinctions between its own understanding of, say, grace, justification, sacrament, or Church authority, and that of the Reformed churches, and it had to defend itself from Protestant charges that it had departed from revelation and abandoned tradition. In earlier centuries, however, that same sensibility did not hold. The Church at the end of the 13th century did not reject Thomas’s correction of St Augustine. It didn’t appeal to the quite defensible idea that Augustine’s position had been the settled teaching of the Church, endorsed by magisterial statements, for the greater part of a millennium. It might well have done so had the correction been issued three centuries later, at the time of Bellarmine and Pétau. And if it were only issued in our own day, it seems certain that traditionalist and conservative Catholics would declare it heretical on those same grounds.

Whatever about a state of natural happiness for unbaptised infants, on one matter Augustine and Aquinas were in agreement: Church teaching allowed no doubt that these infants were excluded from heaven. The Council of Trent made that clear, and it was also the clear teaching of popes, theologians, catechisms, and manuals for most of the Church’s history from that time right up to the mid-20th century. Pope Pius XII, at the end of this period, was unequivocal on the subject in his famous allocution to Italian midwives in 1951:

[T]he state of grace is absolutely necessary at the moment of death. Without it salvation and supernatural happiness — the beatific vision of God — are impossible. An act of love is sufficient for the adult to obtain sanctifying grace and to supply the lack of baptism; to the still unborn or newly born this way is not open.

Three years later, in 1954, an American Jesuit, William Van Roo, wrote an exhaustive survey of the recent theological literature on the subject. He was by no means ill-disposed to theological efforts to find a way into heaven for these infants; he considered the arguments generously – ones that rested on the faith of the parents or on the faith of the Church, or ones which viewed death in infancy as a kind of baptism of blood, or others which proposed that these infants could harbour an unconscious desire for the sacrament. And so on. There were an impressive number of efforts to circumvent what was clearly the common teaching of the Church and the sensus Ecclesiae. Van Roo, however, in his careful and temperate way, judged that none of them succeeded in explaining how the salvation of unbaptised infants could make theological sense. “The nub of the whole question,” he wrote, “is the impossibility of baptism in voto.” Infants couldn’t desire baptism, so – if the common teaching of the Church on the necessity of baptism meant anything – either they actually received the sacrament or they didn’t enter the kingdom of heaven. There were theologians, of course, who suggested that there were hidden ways in which these infants actually did receive the sacrament, but Van Roo’s bottom line seemed clear and coherent to practically everyone.

It makes good sense, then, given the duration and the depth of the traditional understanding, that it would be seen as an irreformable teaching of the Church. In the lead-up to the Second Vatican Council it was taken to be a clear instance of the ‘ordinary universal magisterium’ at work. That is, by the constant and widespread consensus of the whole Church there was simply no way anyone could enter heaven without the regeneration of baptism, in re or in voto. And that meant infants too. One of the preparatory documents for Vatican II even proposed that the council would declare this definitively. If this doctrine couldn’t be placed beyond all doubt, what doctrine could?

And yet here we are, fifty years after Vatican II and the Church no longer holds, as it had done for close on 2,000 years, that it must believe unbaptised infants cannot enter heaven. It is not saying that they are certainly with God, but for the first time, through its prayer, its liturgy and its theological conclusions (endorsed by more than one pope), it acknowledges the possibility and encourages the hope that they are. That hope alone marks a significant change in teaching. You cannot hope for something which cannot be. It was believed that the beatitude of unbaptised infants could not be, but that belief is now gone.

Many conclusions about the development of Church doctrine are either demonstrated or intimated by this narrative, and a good number of them call into question the presumptions of traditionalists and of many conservatives. According to their understanding, the Church has known its own mind, so to speak, from the beginning; it comprehends at least implicitly everything which has been revealed to it, and it is only when it is required to do so, especially in response to the emergence of heresy, that it expresses more explicitly what had previously been latent. Then, once it has pronounced on a subject, that judgement is locked into place in the growing ‘deposit’ of articulated doctrines and may no longer be questioned. The longer an interpretation of a doctrine is held, the more sure it is. And if there is any doubt about a later development, the earlier interpretation remains normative. In this way, while there may be development by way of explicitation, nothing can be changed and nothing can be added.

The story of unbaptised infants, however, doesn’t sit well with this. We see the Church, over and over, not knowing quite what to think, and we see it settling on formulations which later prove to be inadequate or insupportable. We also see the interpretation of doctrine undergo a transformation when it is set next to other doctrines. The Augustinian view did not survive the logic of St Thomas, to be sure, but St Thomas’s revision did not survive the Church’s evolving awareness that the fate of unbaptised infants cannot be understood against the doctrine of God’s desire that everyone be saved (the ‘universal salvific will’), or the doctrine that God provides sufficient grace for every soul’s salvation, or the firm theological conclusion that there is no doctrine concerning the sacraments, no matter how longstanding or fixed it may be, that is greater or more normative than the truth that God is not limited by the sacraments.

And beyond these doctrinal strictures, there is – decisively – the transformative power of history and of pastoral experience. The world changes; human experience grows; crucial events make new realities apparent; new responses are required; new knowledge, perceptions and critical tools are made available; and the Church, guided by the Spirit, takes measures in accordance with its total understanding of its mission and of Christ. In the 2007 document of the International Theological Commission on the hope of salvation for unbaptised infants, the authors say that “pressing pastoral needs” have made the matter urgent. They mention the drop-off in the number of children being baptised, as well as abortion and in vitro fertilisation. New scientific knowledge could have been added to this – the extraordinarily high percentage of all conceptuses that do not make it to term for natural reasons, for example. Also a new attentiveness to the voices of women who had undergone miscarriages, especially in circumstances like the ones in Achill’s past. “Parents experience great grief and feelings of guilt,” the ITC says, “when they do not have the moral assurance of the salvation of their children, and people find it increasingly difficult to accept that God is just and merciful if he excludes infants, who have no personal sins, from eternal happiness, whether they are Christian or non-Christian.”

The role of history shows too in respect to the Church’s ability to address the question. Again the ITC:

From a theological point of view, the development of a theology of hope and an ecclesiology of communion, together with a recognition of the greatness of divine mercy, challenge an unduly restrictive view of salvation. In fact, the universal salvific will of God and the correspondingly universal mediation of Christ mean that all theological notions that ultimately call into question the very omnipotence of God, and his mercy in particular, are inadequate.

Any serious attention to the history of the Church will disclose that the case of unbaptised infants is far from being aberrational or unique. In fact, it shows a pattern which holds in most changes of doctrine. The foundational principles remain intact, but a concrete articulation which is drawn from them gives rise to a certain perplexity when it is brought up alongside other principles or doctrines, and the Church is then called on to make a judgement. Sometimes it judges wisely, other times not so much. Incompatibilities remain. It takes time – sometimes plenty of it, and sometimes there will be multiple adjustments and corrections along the way – for a definitive reconciliation, so that the Church’s doctrines, taken together, would have the integrity of Christ himself, who is the one subject of revelation.

It was this historical sense of things, after all, which persuaded St John Henry Newman that the Church of Rome was the Church of the Apostles. He did not convert in spite of the many changes and innovations in the Church’s theological system, but because of them. A living organism should change over time. And if that organism has an intellective life – as the Church of Christ does – if it has a psychology, if it ponders in its heart and grows in wisdom, then its life of change will require repeated qualifications, clarifications, the rectification of distortions, the articulation of new doctrines, and so on – and all this without rupturing the fundamental ‘type’ that guides it. Newman compared this to the progress of a “popular leader”. He

may go through a variety of professions, he may court parties and break with them, he may contradict himself in words, and undo his own measures, yet there may be a steady fulfilment of certain objects, or adherence to certain plain doctrines, which gives a unity to his career, and impresses on beholders an image of directness and large consistency which shows a fidelity to his type from first to last.

So, yes, the Church has changed on the matter of unbaptised infants, as it has often changed before. The history of the development of trinitarian doctrines, purgatory, the canonical form of marriage, baptism, atonement, slavery, papal supremacy, and so on, all show aspects of this same pattern of change. Yet in all of these cases Newman’s “large consistency” shows throughout the narrative, even if it is not clear at the time. A development might appear to challenge the fixed teachings of the Church, but hindsight (and this is a point dear to Newman’s heart and mind) usually makes evident the reason for the alteration and the fittingness of it in a way that could not have been evident beforehand. This is what Newman understands by ‘logical sequence’ – not, as some of Pope Francis’s critics (including Cardinal Gerhard Muller ») have represented it, as a norm that prospectively guides and restrains magisterial judgements.

More should be made of this point. In the case of the fate of unbaptised infants, that gap between the development and the clarity of hindsight is critically significant for two related reasons. Firstly it shows that pastoral necessity can sometimes take point in moving the matter forward. It need not always wait for the ontology or the logic to be clear. Showing the mercy of God, easing the anxieties of the faithful, inspiring hope, releasing consciences from unnecessary burdens – all of these have, you could say, a logic of their own. They may provide reason enough to act. Which is why (and this is my second point) it is particularly noteworthy that the Church did not wait to resolve the intractable problem which William Van Roo addressed in 1954 – how it could be possible for unbaptised infants to enter heaven without baptism – before developing a liturgical, prayer and theological culture that insists on the legitimacy of hoping for the beatitude of these infants. Effectively the Church has said “We acknowledge that the necessity of baptism is a de fide doctrine of the Church. But it is also certain that God wants every soul to be saved, that God provides all the grace needed for this, that punishing infants who are not guilty of actual sin offends against justice, and that God is not limited by the sacraments. And even though we have no clear idea of how to reconcile these doctrines, we leave that to God and make our judgement anyway, guided by the priority of God’s mercy and by pastoral needs.”

So the prospective logic of the logician is upended. A different logic comes into play. Time must pass, as Newman always insisted, before the coherence and the aptness of the Church’s judgement is made apparent. Perhaps this is a kind of docta ignorantia, a learned ignorance, a recognition that the things of God may have to be understood by a form, or forms, of cognition which make little sense to the metaphysician. It’s a familiar concept in mystical theology as it relates to the progress of an individual soul – much more surprising, but very welcome, when it relates to the the doctrinal progress of the whole Church. It shows a ‘negative capability’, to use Keats’s term, which we are not used to in the Church, an ability to hold together seemingly incompatible ideas without feeling any great urgency to reconcile them.

If all of this leaves things less crisp and clear than some Catholics want them, well and good. That is a charge which is often levelled against Pope Francis: he welcomes confusion and ambiguity. Clarity, so this argument goes, is a virtue proper to doctrine, and it is the job of the magisterium to map clear doctrine onto pastoral situations. Without this, people lose their sense of direction. They are left with no unambiguous instructions for how to see the world and how to act in it. And that is just what has been happening, the Pope’s critics argue, in this pontificate. Francis has presided over, even welcomed, the erosion of the coherence and limpidity of doctrine.

To an extent Pope Francis is guilty as charged. In Amoris Laetitia he puts a heavy emphasis on what he calls “the logic of pastoral mercy”. He doesn’t disregard the “evangelical ideal”, of course, and he opposes relativism, but where he lays his stress is on “the weight of mitigating circumstances” and the need to make room for “the Lord’s mercy”. Of course this complicates things. Pope Francis acknowledges those who prefer “a more rigorous pastoral care which leaves no room for confusion”, but he doesn’t share their concern. Christ, he believes, does not want us to seek shelter from the “maelstrom of human misfortune”. Instead he wants us to “enter into the reality of other people’s lives”, and when we do so our own lives become “wonderfully complicated”. In effect the pope is saying that charity is more important than clarity. Charity is the greatest of the virtues; clarity, on the other hand, if it obscures the complexity of the truth, is no virtue at all. It is a false friend.

The Pope may welcome the lives of the faithful becoming “wonderfully complicated”. For his critics, though, it is a very different business for Church doctrines to become complicated, and they don’t see this as quite so wonderful. Maybe they should, though. It is the true, but less often told, story of their Church.