Responding to articles on issue of salvation for unbaptized infants by Pugh and Hildebrand
Editor: Two articles in your November 2011 issue involve the eternal destiny of infants dying without baptism: “The generational healing of miscarriages,” by Anna Pugh, and “An argument for hope: on the salvation of children who die without baptism,” by Stephen Hildebrand. Unfortunately, both articles fail to raise the question of whether the optimism they share can be reconciled with traditional Catholic doctrine. (It is disappointing to see that this kind of decidedly, non-traditional theology is apparently considered just fine at Steubenville’s Franciscan University, where both authors studied.)
Ms. Pugh’s concern that grieving parents find inner healing is certainly commendable. Nevertheless, her article is the more troubling of the two, since it is quite clearly at odds not only with the Church’s traditional magisterium, but with the contemporary magisterium, as well. Not content with the Catechism’s permission for Catholics to hope for the salvation of unbaptized infants, Ms. Pugh claims that their salvation becomes assured when “the dead child is loved, grieved for, and committed to God (especially through a Mass of the Resurrection).” For when this happens, she asserts, “the miscarried child is freed, made holy, and finally worthy to repose eternally with the Lord”.
Since this assertion presupposes that the child has died in original sin (why else would he/she need to be “freed” and “made holy” after death?), it contradicts the infallibly defined teaching of the Council of Florence that those who die in original sin only, no less than those who die in mortal sin, “descend promptly into Hell” (cf. DS 1302, 1306). (“Hell” is used here in a broad sense that would include Limbo.) In support of her heterodox assertion, Ms. Pugh appeals to no “authority” other than the excommunicated and ex-priest, Francis MacNutt, writing in 1999, years after he had left both the Dominican order, and the Catholic Church! Furthermore, celebrating a “Mass of the Resurrection” for an unbaptized infant would itself violate liturgical law, which allows only a Mass with texts specifically composed for infants who have died without baptism. These texts abstain from affirming any hope of Heaven, and pray rather for the consolation of the grieving family members. They are fully compatible with the traditional and more modest hope that such souls will enjoy eternal happiness at the natural, not supernatural, level.
Dr. Hildebrand’s article shows more respect for the Catholic Catechism’s teaching on unbaptized infants. Nevertheless, he feels entitled to argue that the “cautious hope” for their salvation expressed therein (cf. #1261) is “perhaps understated”; and, by the same token, I think others are entitled to argue that it is overstated. After all, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, in his little book, Introduction to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, pointed out that the CCC is intended as a compendium of already-existing, Catholic doctrine, and so should not be understood as handing down new magisterial judgments requiring our assent. He said, “The individual doctrines which the Catechism presents receive no other weight than that which they already possess” (p. 26).
On that basis, the optimistic doctrinal thesis of #1261 should have no “weight” at all; for it “already possessed” none whatsoever prior to its appearance in the Catechism. Indeed, it is opposed to the teaching of the Church’s previous universal Catechism, by which millions of Catholics had been formed for four centuries. Confirming a virtually unanimous tradition dating back to the early Fathers, the Catechism of the Council of Trent teaches that while repentance from sin and the “intention and determination” to receive baptism can be sufficient to save adults, “no other means for attaining salvation remains for infant children except baptism” (II, II, 33 and 35). The Church did not, pace Dr. Hildebrand, present the exclusion of unbaptized infants from Heaven as a mere “theory,” but as a certainly true doctrine of the ordinary magisterium.
In a letter to the editor, there is insufficient space to demonstrate this by further citations of relevant Church documents (at least five of which—astonishingly—are ignored altogether in the International Theological Commission’s optimistic 2007 document on this subject). Interested readers can find such citations in my revision of the entry for “Limbo” in the 2010 supplementary volume of the New Catholic Encyclopedia. I would also recommend a recent essay by Norbertine theologian Fr. Hugh Barbour, who claims that those in Limbo will indeed be eternally associated with the Paschal Mystery of Christ—something which Vatican II says is offered to all human beings (cf. GS 22). But in their case, argues Barbour, this association will not consist in attaining the beatific vision, but in sharing in the final bodily resurrection which Christ won for all of us. The essay is in Aidan Nichols, O.P. (ed.), Abortion and Martyrdom (Gracewing, 2002), pp. 79-102.
Fr. Brian W. Harrison, O.S.
St. Louis, Missouri