Traditional Catholic Limbo # 3

LIMBO cont.  he-descendedJesus descends into hell, (limbo).

It is clear that St. Bellarmine found the situation embarrassing, being unwilling, as he was, to admit that St. Thomas and the Schoolmen generally were in conflict with what St. Augustine and other Fathers considered to be de fide, and what the Council of Florence seemed to have taught definitively. Hence he names Catharinus and some others as revivers of the Pelagian error, as though their teaching differed in substance from the general teaching of the School, and tries in a milder way to refute what he concedes to be the view of St. Thomas (op. cit., vi-vii). He himself adopts a view which is substantially that of Abelard mentioned above; but he is obliged to do violence to the text of St. Augustine and other Fathers in his attempt to explain them in conformity with this view, and to contradict the principle he elsewhere insists upon that “original sin does not destroy the natural but only the supernatural order.” (op. cit., iv). Petavius, on the other hand, did not try to explain away the obvious meaning of St. Augustine and his followers, but, in conformity with that teaching, condemned unbaptized children to the sensible pains of Hell, maintaining also that this was a doctrine of the Council of Florence. Neither of these theologians, however, succeeded in winning a large following or in turning the current of Catholic opinion from the channel into which St. Thomas had directed it. Besides Natalis Alexander (De peccat. et virtut, I, i, 12), and Estius (In Sent., II, xxxv, 7), Bellarmine’s chief supporter was Bossuet, who vainly tried to induce Innocent XII to condemn certain propositions which he extracted from a posthumous work of Cardinal Sfrondati and in which the lenient scholastic view is affirmed. Only professed Augustinians like Noris and Berti, or out-and-out Jansenists like the Bishop of Pistoia, whose famous diocesan synod furnished eighty-five propositions for condemnation by Pius VI (1794), supported the harsh teaching of Petavius. The twenty-sixth of these propositions repudiated “as a Pelagian fable the existence of the place (usually called the children’s limbo) in which the souls of those dying in original sin are punished by the pain of loss without any pain of fire”; and this, taken to mean that by denying the pain of fire one thereby necessarily postulates a middle place or state, involving neither guilt nor penalty, between the Kingdom of God and eternal damnation, is condemned by the pope as being “false and rash and as slander of the Catholic schools” (Denz. 526). This condemnation was practically the death-knell of extreme Augustinianism, while the mitigate Augustinianism of Bellarmine and Bossuet had already been rejected by the bulk of Catholic theologians. Suarez, for example, ignoring Bellarmine’s protest, continued to teach what Catharinus had taught — that unbaptized children will not only enjoy perfect natural happiness, but that they will rise with immortal bodies at the last day and have the renovated earth for their happy abode (De vit. et penat., ix, sect. vi, n. 4); and, without insisting on such details, the great majority of Catholic theologians have continued to maintain the general doctrine that the children’s limbo is a state of perfect natural happiness, just the same as it would have been if God had not established the present supernatural order. It is true, on the other hand, that some Catholic theologians have stood out for some kind of compromise with Augustinianism, on the ground that nature itself was wounded and weakened, or, at least that certain natural rights (including the right to perfect felicity) were lost in consequence of the Fall. But these have granted for the most part that the children’s limbo implies exemption, not only from the pain of sense, but from any positive spiritual anguish for the loss of the beatific vision; and not a few have been willing to admit a certain degree of natural happiness in limbo. What has been chiefly in dispute is whether this happiness is as perfect and complete as it would have been in the hypothetical state of pure nature, and this is what the majority of Catholic theologians have affirmed.

descentAs to the difficulties against this view which possessed such weight in the eyes of the eminent theologians we have mentioned, it is to be observed:

  • we must not confound St. Augustine’s private authority with the infallible authority of the Catholic Church; and
  • if allowance be made for the confusion introduced into the Pelagian controversy by the want of a clear and explicit conception of the distinction between the natural and the supernatural order one can easily understand why St. Augustine and the Council of Carthage were practically bound to condemn the locus medius of the Pelagians. St. Augustine himself was inclined to deny this distinction altogether, although the Greek Fathers had already developed it pretty fully, and although some of the Pelagians had a glimmering of it (see Coelestius in August., De Peccat. Orig., v), they based their claim to natural happiness for unbaptized children on a denial of the Fall and original sin, and identified this state of happiness with the “life eternal” of the New Testament.
  • Moreover, even if one were to admit for the sake of argument that this canon of the Council of Carthage (the authenticity of which cannot be reasonably doubted) acquired the force of an ecumenical definition, one ought to interpret it in the light of what was understood to be at issue by both sides in the controversy, and therefore add to the simple locus medius the qualification which is added by Pius VI when, in the Constitution “Auctoreum Fidei,” he speaks of “locum illium et statum medium expertem culpae et poenae.”
  • Finally, in regard to the teaching of the Council of Florence, it is incredible that the Fathers there assembled had any intention of defining a question so remote from the issue on which reunion with the Greeks depended, and one which was recognized at the time as being open to free discussion and continued to be so regarded by theologians for several centuries afterwards. What the council evidently intended to deny in the passage alleged was the postponement of final awards until the day of judgement. Those dying in original sin are said to descend into Hell, but this does not necessarily mean anything more than that they are excluded eternally from the vision of God. In this sense they are damned; they have failed to reach their supernatural destiny, and this viewed objectively is a true penalty. Thus the Council of Florence, however literally interpreted, does not deny the possibility of perfect subjective happiness for those dying in original sin, and this is all that is needed from the dogmatic viewpoint to justify the prevailing Catholic notion of the children’s limbo, while form the standpoint of reason, as St. Gregory of Nazianzus pointed out long ago, no harsher view can be reconciled with a worthy concept of God’s justice and other attributes.  1914 Catholic Encyclopedia