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A far green country: Does Limbo really exist?

White Cliffs of Kent

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The white cliffs of Kent, the frontier of England's green and pleasant land, where academics from around the world are gathering to discuss limbo, the 'border' where the innocent unbaptised are traditionally thought to dwell in natural happiness.

Diane Montagna - published on 06/19/17

Experts gather to ponder the Church’s teaching on the fate of unbaptized infants

ROME —  From June 30 to July 1, the Dialogos Institute is holding a colloquium in Ramsgate, England, the shrine of St. Augustine of Canterbury and the place where English-speaking Catholicism began.

The colloquium is on limbo, the controversial idea that people guilty of no sin other than original sin will be prevented from entering heaven forever.

Eminent speakers from around the world are gathering to express a variety of perspectives on this doctrine which has come under a lot of criticism in the 20th century.

Aleteia spoke to Dr. Alan Fimister, assistant professor of theology at St. John Vianney seminary in Denver and Director of the Dialogos Institute, on why he was digging up this controversial and unfashionable subject in Catholic Theology. We talked to him about doctrine, dogma, and oddly, the insights of J.R.R. Tolkien.

Dr. Fimister, why is the Dialogos Institute holding a colloquium on limbo?

Well, lots of people seem to have got it into their heads that limbo is an optional extra to Catholic doctrine or even a discarded experiment but this is not really the case.

Really?

Well the word ‘limbo’ is a bit late but the substance of the doctrine goes back to the fathers and was defined by the Council of Florence in the 15th century. So its not optional at all.

What does the word ‘limbo’ mean? What were the medievals referring to in using the word ‘limbo’?

It comes from the the Latin ‘limbus,’ meaning border. It refers to the least punishment possible in hell.

But that’s awful, isn’t it? Don’t unbaptized babies possibly go there?

Well ‘hell’ in theology has a broader sense than in popular speech. It just means the state of being dead and not having the Vision of God.

Is that where Christ would have descended after his crucifixion and death, rather than to ‘hell’ as we commonly understand it?

Yes. That’s right. That is what we mean when we use the phrase ‘descended into hell’ in the Apostles Creed. It means sheol or hades: a general word for the place of the dead outside heaven. The specific place of the just dead before Christ is called by scripture ‘the bosom of Abraham’ as opposed to Gehenna, the fiery place of punishment for the unjust dead (what most people nowadays mean by ‘hell’).

So, after Christ’s resurrection does limbo or hades still exist? Aren’t we left now with just heaven, hell and purgatory?

Hades is a general term for all the realm of the dead: limbo, purgatory and Gehenna. Limbo does still exist because there are still people guilty of no actual sin who don’t go to heaven and that is the group for whom limbo exists.

Many people might think that a bit unfair.

There is a wonderful sign they sell in Hobby Lobby that reads “Grace is when God gives us what we don’t deserve. Mercy is when God doesn’t give us what we do deserve.” Limbo safeguards that truth. God does not owe us heaven. He won it for us on the Cross and He has given us the means to obtain it but He does not guarantee we will make use of those means. He could, but He does not choose to do so. He shows forth His mercy by saving a few, and He shows forth His justice by allowing the rest to be lost. Nevertheless, He is just. Those who have done nothing to deserve personal punishment will be accorded natural happiness in the next life. This is limbo. Only children go there because at the moment each person reaches the age of reason they make a personal choice for or against God and from that moment they can only either go to the heaven of the Blessed or the torments of the damned.

How binding is this teaching?

The Council of Florence defined that “the souls of those who depart this life in actual mortal sin, or in original sin alone, go down straightaway to hell to be punished, but with unequal pains,” and also that “the only remedy [for original sin] available to children is the sacrament of baptism.” So all Catholics are bound to hold that no one who dies in original sin can enter heaven and that the only remedy for original sin in infants is the sacrament of baptism. There is discussion around the nature of the penalty suffered by those who die without actual sin but with original sin, but that such persons suffer the least possible punishment is not controversial and that they cannot enter heaven is dogmatically defined.

Why doesn’t the new Catechism talk about that?

The Catechism expressly teaches that we have no knowledge of any other remedy for original sin than baptism. It merely expresses a hope that unbaptized infants can be saved in some way but it expressly teaches that the Church knows of no such way: “The Church does not know of any means other than Baptism that assures entry into eternal beatitude” (1257). The 16th-century theologian Cajetan thought that if the children of Christian parents who desired baptism for the child and did not delay it were to die unexpectedly they would receive vicarious baptism of desire. This opinion was removed from his writings by order of St. Pius V but not directly condemned. It is the most optimistic theory possible (but hard to reconcile with Florence). It would still mean that a vast number of human beings go to limbo as most of them die unbaptized before the age of reason without Christian parents (or with Christian parents who delay baptism). Which fits with the Catechism’s statement: “All the more urgent is the Church’s call not to prevent little children coming to Christ through the gift of holy Baptism.”

But what hope does that leave for Christian parents who have suffered a miscarriage?  

Of course this burden of suffering is the most important reason why people worry about the teaching of Florence but, properly understood, the concept of limbo can actually be very consoling.

How is that?

Well, it is worth remembering that most people when asked to describe heaven would regrettably not reply by saying “the unmediated vision of the divine essence” but would imagine something very much like limbo, a place of natural contentment free of all suffering and sin.

Of course it is only a private revelation but the visions of the repentant abortionist Stojan Adasevic who met the children he had aborted in ‘a beautiful field full of children and young people who were playing and laughing’ and conversed with St. Thomas Aquinas is very interesting in this regard. It gives more of the sense of what most writers mean by limbo but cannot describe in detail.

But don’t people say limbo is a form of punishment?    

If I had an ancestor who unbeknownst to me was a duke but had his title taken from him for disloyalty to the king, the fact that I am not a duke would be a punishment (due to the misbehavior of my ancestor) but if I never expected to be a duke I would not experience this as a punishment.

Saint Augustine says the fate of the innocent unbaptized is the least ‘punishment.’ We must remember that this life that we live now on earth is a place of punishment and suffering not at all ‘the least possible.’ The only punishment of those in limbo is the deprivation of the beatific vision, but the children in limbo do not experience this as a punishment because they never had any expectation of this vision. Limbo would seem like an earthly paradise in comparison to life in this world. Savonarola held that the souls in limbo when restored to their bodies at the end of time would dwell together with the blessed (and it is this reunion which most concerns bereaved parents).

So do St. Thomas and St. Augustine agree on this point?

Some people try to discern a difference between them but really this is a mirage created by the fact that St. Thomas is much more systematic and has a technical term to describe the fate of the innocent unbaptized. If there is any difference it might be said that St. Thomas sees limbo as an earthly paradise while St. Augustine thinks it is an earthly paradise interrupted by an itchy toe for a few minutes every five hundred years!

Do we find limbo in literature? Does any Catholic or Christian author portray it in a book?

Well, Fr. Andrew Pinsent, who is speaking at the conference, thinks that the concept of Faerie is actually a vague apprehension of the idea of limbo and Tolkien seems to agree with him when he says: “Supernatural is a dangerous and difficult word in any of its senses, looser or stricter. But to fairies it can hardly be applied, unless super is taken merely as a superlative prefix. For it is man who is, in contrast to fairies, supernatural (and often of diminutive stature); whereas they are natural, far more natural than he. Such is their doom.” (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Essay of Fairy Stories)

The elves in Tolkien are natural beings without a heavenly destiny, which is why they have no innate tendency to sin and left to themselves live forever. The elves envy man’s mortality, which they call ‘the gift of Illuvater’ [i.e. God] because they realize it is connected to man’s higher destiny. But the elves are happy and morally good. Much happier then men in this life.

[Editor’s note: The title of this article is taken from the description of the home of the elves in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings: “white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise.”]

So why is the doctrine of limbo important?

It reminds us that God’s gifts are free. That God is just but that He owes us nothing. We need to avoid a sense that we are entitled to heaven. It was this sense which created hell. Just ask the devil! [Note: This is a joke, do not attempt to communicate with the Devil!]

For more information on the Dialogos Institute Conference on limbo, click here. There are still places available at the colloquium. Full cost, including accommodation and meals from June 29 to July 2, is £150. Seminarians and other clerical students come for half price. Attendance at talks and discussions only is £15 per day. The last day to register is June 20th.

For the recent statement of the International Theological Commission on the question, click here.
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