Letters from our readers

January 2012

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

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  1. I want to commend Fr. Harrison for his repeated insistance on the importance of orthodoxy and previously defined doctrine, even when such doctrine goes against the speculations of nearly all contemporary theologians.

  2. The influential organisation Rachel’s Vineyard Australia on the front page of its website under “What does the Pope Say?” has this to sa:y” You will come to understand that nothing is definitively lost and you will be able to ask forgiveness from your child, who is now living in the Lord.” B
    John Paul II Evangelium Vitae, 1995, #99

    I first came across this translation of a sentence from EV #99 in January 2010 and found that the Vatican website had two translations of this sentence, the one above B and “To the same Father and his mercy you can with sure hope entrust your child.”A

    To find which was the official translation of the sentence I looked at the Latin and found:
    C Infantem autem vestrum potestis Eidem Patri Eiusque misericordiae cum spe committere. January 2010
    In January 2010 A would agree with C.

    Today in January 2012 when I looked at the Latin translation on the Vatican Website, with the same link
    http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_25031995_evangelium-vitae_lt.html I found this as the Latin of the sentence in EV 99.
    Infantem autem vestrum potestis Eidem Patri. 2012 Five words have been removed from the Latin version of Evangelium Vitae 99. Does this mean that the Vatican now holds that children who die without being baptised are indeed now living in the Lord ?

    I can understand that the Church wishes to be pastoral and to help post abortive mothers forgive themselves for aborting their children and to tell these mothers that the child they aborted is now in heaven enjoying the beatific vision would be very consoling but, as far as I understand it, this is not Church teaching . The late Cardinal Trujillio also used the B translation in a speech. In an email conversation with a person from Rachel’s Vineyard Australia on this matter I was told that a number of Australian bishops had told this person that the B translation is the correct one. If this teaching of the Church can be quietly dispensed with with the aim of being pastoral why can’t the prohibition against condoms in the case of AIDS or the prohibition against practising same sex attracted people receiving Holy Communion also be dispensed with with the aim of being pastoral?

  3. The official Latin text of Evangelium vitae no. 99, as found in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis (also available on the Vatican’s website), still reads: “Infantem autem vestrum potestis Eidem Patri Eiusque misericordiae cum spe committere.”

    When I read Miss Pugh’s article in the print edition I was much perplexed why this article was published or rather how this article made it past editorial evaluation. Having that article appear in the very LAST print edition of HPR was very unwise. It will be one of the last articles faithful readers of HPR will ever see!