I have posted over the past few days mostly on purely spiritual topics, therefore I would like to make an attempt to create a short discussion on an issue that has never been defined by the Church.
One must first of all, make a distinction between Limbus Patrum (Limbo of the Fathers) and the topic that I will try to outline.
Before Christ had completed His redeeming work and had entered Heaven, those who had died as friends of God under the Old Dispensation descended to the Bosom of Abraham (Lk. 15:22), (or were purified first if stain was present at the moment of passing) where they awaited in this 'prison' to be set free. As sin had created a chasm between God and sinful man, no one could enter Heaven and experience the beatific vision of the Living One. However, once Christ our Lord had died He visited the souls there (Eph. 4:9) in order to preach the Good News and release them (1 Pet. 3:18-20). This, basically, is what the Church teaches on this matter. This is the Limbus Patrum.
Now onto the Limbus Infantium (of the children). As a piece of trivia, the word 'limbo' comes from the Late Latin of Germanic derivation word for a 'hem', or a 'border', something that goes around the outside.
Limbo is an attempt, mere theological speculation which aims to solve a difficulty that arises as a result of a few Catholic teachings. Although it is the subject of theological speculation, it does not mean that it is a matter of irrelevance to the rest of us non-theologians. In fact, it is a pressing matter considering how many poor children do not see the light of day, as they are ruthlessly murdered by their own mothers, under the guise of a ‘fundamental human right’.
The New Testament itself does not outline the fate of those who die without undergoing the laver of regeneration, even though they have committed no mortal sin of their own. Yet, as the Church upholds the teaching that baptism (or the desire of it) is necessary for salvation (Jn 3:5) propounded by our Lord Christ, and she also maintains the truth that men are born into this world with original sin, we are left with a dilemma. Young children, who are especially dear to our Master, while dying un-baptised, are guilty of no actual sin, therefore it would be unjust for God to condemn them to the everlasting punishment prepared for the. Therefore can they enter into Heaven? Saint Gregory Nazianzen writes, ‘since he who deserves not honour and glory is not for that reason worthy of punishment , and on the other hand he who is not deserving of punishment is not for that reason worthy of glory and honour’ (On Holy Baptism). One must remember that the Good Lord is under no obligation to grant a soul the beatific vision, such an experience is a great privilege and a grace. One cannot accuse Him who created us freely out of nothing for His glory of being unjustified in refusing entry to those who have died in the state of original sin.
These very brief considerations set out, it would be worthwhile to explore the history of this theory and see what it truly offers and the divergent thoughts on Limbus Infantium.
There is no concrete evidence that any Father before the Great Saint Augustine believed that original sin brought about any greater punishment than that of exclusion from the beatific vision. Saint Gregory Nazienzen’s (as quoted above) position is that of a neutral state, without sensible punishment yet without the delight that the immediate and direct vision of God’s essence brings about, which is indicative of the Greek Fathers’ position.
For the West, Saint Ambrose believed that original sin carried no guilt but is rather a disposition to sin, and the un-baptised (through no fault of their own) have nothing to fear when they come before the Judgement Sear. On a theological side note, concerning original sin, like actual sin, there is some aspect of aversion and conversion. The lack of original justice, the pure state of Adam is the privation, whereas the conversion is the proclivity to sin, otherwise known technically as concupiscence. This concupiscence lies behind each post-Fall sin, which is deserving of condemnation as the sin is committed voluntarily. On the other hand, original sin does not admit of deliberate intent. Saint Thomas states, ‘of all sins original sin is the least, because it is the least voluntary; for it is voluntary not by the will of the person, but only by the will of the origin of our nature’, therefore as any right thinking person would agree, ‘a lighter punishment is due to original than to venial sin (ST Appendix 1. Q1. A1). What is this ‘lighter punishment’ of which he speaks?
Let us now move onto the position of the Doctor of Grace, my Patron, the blessed Augustine.
Initially he wrote, ‘it is superfluous to inquire about the merits of one who has not any merits. For one need not hesitate to hold that life may be neutral as between good conduct and sin, and that as between reward and punishment there may be a neutral sentence of the judge’ (De libero arbitrio III). Yet, not long after (during the Pelagian heresy) the Bishop discarded the previously held belief (which was more lenient?) and managed to persuade his fellow Africans in the episcopate to adopt the view that the un-baptised share in some kind of misery, although he grants that their condemnation (if it may be called that) will be the mildest of all (Enchir. XXIII). Saint Thomas commenting states, ‘but this would not be so, if they were tormented with sensible punishment, because the pain of hell fire is most grevious. Therefore they will not suffer sensible punishment’. If not sensible punishment, will they merely experience ‘loss’, or will they remain in a state of purely natural happiness? Both positions have their defects...
(The next part will be posted in a few days, where the later history will be outlined and the theological difficulties will be exposed.)