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Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Limbo Returns

The argument about Limbo is a particular instance of a more general argument about salvation outside the Church. It is not for that reason any less important. Just as the argument over the title 'Mother of God' is a crucial test case for a more general argument about the nature of the incarnation; and the argument about indulgences is a crucial test case for a more general argument about the nature of salvation; and the argument about contraception is a crucial test case for a more general argument about the nature of the moral act; so the argument about Limbo is a test case for a more general argument about the possibility of salvation outside the Church. In each of these cases it is possible for the various contending parties (or some of them) to reach agreement, though for different reasons, on the other key issues; but in the instance of the test case all the crucial theoretical differences between them are brought into play and the true merits of the case must be decided, one position adopted, and the others excluded for ever. Such is the nature of the dispute over Limbo.

The dispute begins in an apparent difficulty in reconciling two scriptural authorities. On the one hand there are the many passages throughout the New Testament in which God or His Apostles assert that unless certain conditions obtain, the salvation of a given individual will be impossible. "Those who believe and are baptised will be saved, those who do not believe will be condemned"; "unless you are born again of water and the Holy Spirit you will not enter the kingdom of heaven"; "there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we may be saved". There are many more of these passages. On the other hand, there is a single line in St Paul where he asserts "God wishes all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth". Now as St Paul also points out, "all scripture is inspired by God and profitable". So the fact that the New Testament asserts many more times that there are conditions which unless they are satisfied the individual will not be saved, than it asserts that God wishes all men to be saved, though not without significance, does not allow us to ignore the fact that God wishes all men to be saved.

The problem arises from the fact that all men will not be saved. We know this with divine faith because it is directly asserted by the New Testament. The unrighteous "will go into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels"; the inhabitants of Sodom "are suffering the everlasting fire"; "the door is narrow and the way hard which leads to everlasting life and those who enter by it are few". Thus it is clear that God does not wish the salvation of all men in such a way that all or even most men will actually be saved. How then does he wish the salvation of men? In the first place he wishes it in the sense that he has made all men for union with himself in beatitude. "Come you blessed of my Father and inherit the kingdom which was prepared for you from the foundation of the world," Our Lord will say to the elect; while to the damned he will say "Go with your curse upon you unto that fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels". Heaven was made for man and hell was not. But if God wishes the salvation of all men He must have provided for it. In the first place He did this by creating man in original innocence with sanctifying grace and preternatural gifts which could be transmitted by inheritance to all his descendants and which provided him with the theoretical and moral capacity to avoid all sin and at the end of his natural life enter into beatitude. However, St Paul asserts God's will that all be saved in the context of the present order of providence in which man has fallen and lost original innocence, so God must have provided for the salvation of all men in this condition also. First and foremost he has done this through the atonement for man's first and all subsequent sins offered by Christ on the Cross. But this atonement is not such that man is restored to his preternatural gifts or restored automatically to sanctifying grace. Sanctifying grace is available, but under the conditions so often mentioned through out the New Testament. The most important and most often mentioned of these conditions is Faith. But faith is received ex auditu and a certain maturity is necessary for someone to receive it. Accordingly God has instituted baptism which is necessary to salvation as a precept and a moral means to adults, but as a necessary means for children too young to receive the faith by hearing. For by baptism the virtue of supernatural faith is infused into the souls of infants without the necessity for the act thereof. Finally, if Cajetan is right, then the desire for baptism for their child on the part of its parent or parents frustrated by the child's death before or after birth and through no fault of their own also suffices to guarantee the infusion of sanctifying grace. In this way God has provided for the salvation of all men even after the fall.

A problem arises in the fact that, though these means of salvation exist and suffice to save anyone, they are not actually available to all men. As such this is not a problem. We may say God wishes all fish to swim in water and has provided water in which they may swim without thereby asserting that all fish are actually now in water swimming. The fact that many men do not come across or do not avail themselves of the means of salvation does not change the fact that God has provided adequate means for all, or that He wishes all men to be saved. If God wished all men to actually be saved, all men would actually be saved and we know this is not the case.

The hypothesis of Limbo results from the certain fact that God is perfectly just and will not punish anyone for a sin they have not committed. Damnation is defined as the permanent deprivation of the beatific vision. In the case of those who have personally spurned occasions of grace and committed actual sins this deprivation involves positive torment. In the case of those who have not, because they never reached the age of reason, it does not. This is a consequence of God's justice. Because God wills man for his own sake it is also thought that he will not deprive any man of the necessary means to attain an end in which he may rest unless as a punishment for actual sins. For this reason it is thought that those who die subject to original but not actual sin will be provided with preternatural gifts allowing them to rest in a natural end. This must be possible on the principle that God will never create a species that of its nature cannot attain its end at least with assistance. If it were not possible for God to allow man to rest in a natural end at least through preternatural gifts then man would have a right to beatitude. As beatitude is a certain participation in the divine nature, this would mean man already by his nature alone participates in the divine nature. This would be form of pantheism and is as such unacceptable. The hypothesis of Limbo is constructed of these two parts: that those who die with original sin but not actual sin will suffer no positive torment, and that they will be given preternatural gift to allow them to rest in a natural end. The first half of the hypothesis is derived from two revealed premises, that he who does not believe will be condemned and that God is perfectly just and will not punish anyone for a sin they have not committed. It is thus in principle definable as of divine faith. The second part is derived from a revealed premise and a premise of natural reason: that God created man for his own sake and that He will not create any species that of its nature cannot attain its end at least with assistance. It is therefore definable as of ecclesiastical faith.

The objections raised to the hypothesis of Limbo are derived from one or more of three erroneous positions:

1. A false understanding of God's universal salvific will which would in fact entail that God wills the salvation of all men in such a way as to ensure that all are saved.

2. A denial that God could give man a natural end which, as we have seen, ultimately entails pantheism.

3. A false belief that God could not cause men of their own free acts to successfully preach the Gospel to all men so that He has to institute extraordinary invisible means of salvation for those to whom the Gospel has not been preached lest His universal salvific will be frustrated by men.

This last error implies an understanding of the creative power of God and the free will of man in which the two are mutually exclusive. This is the opposite error to pantheism, in that it supposes men to be little Gods whose wills are independent of and may frustrate the will of God.

A modified version of the first error is also at work: this is to say that God's salvific will requires that He actually present all men with the means necessary for salvation rather than simply make them available in principle. Were this the case then men could only be lost as a result of actual sin and never as a result of original sin alone. For the grace necessary for salvation to be made available to a child below the age of reason who will not reach the age of reason it must be infused as the infant is not competent to choose to accept or reject it. This would mean that Christ's death on the cross had abolished original sin already without the absolute requirement for the subjective appropriation of the merits of Christ in order to be cleansed of original sin. This would render infant baptism absurd.

To deny this modified version of the first error is not to deny that God will offer sufficient grace to anyone reaching the age of reason to avoid actual sin. This necessarily follows from the fact that it is morally impossible to avoid actual sin in the fallen state without grace, and that if it were actually impossible to avoid sin then sin would be inculpable: man would be preserved indefinitely in an infantile state and there would only be Limbo and Heaven but no positive torment in Hell. Such a conclusion is clearly contrary to revelation. For this reason all men who actually reach the age of reason are offered sufficient grace for eternal salvation not on account of God's universal salvific will but on account of His justice. In fact, it is not possible to receive sanctifying grace without faith, and faith cannot be accepted without a preacher. The fact that many places, such as the Americas, were not preached to for hundreds of years simply confirms the fact that in fact men do not cooperate with divine grace without the assistance of the Gospel and the sacraments, "for all have sinned and fallen short for the glory of God". God accordingly does not need in His justice to ensure that the Gospel is preached to all nations. It is possible to ask what God would do in the hypothetical case of the virtuous pagan. The virtuous pagan does not in fact exist. If he ever did God ensured that a preacher reached him in time to save him from his sins. The postulation of extraordinary invisible means of salvation is superfluous and emanates from the third of the three errors mentioned above.

In the order of Divine causation, that the Gospel is preached to all nations results not from God's justice but from his mercy, and God has mercy and does not have mercy on whom He wills. In the order of human causation, the fact that the Gospel was not preached to all nations until the twentieth century, and is still not preached to many individuals, results from our own negligence for which we will be held to account in due course. At this point God will not be impressed with our erroneous theological speculations concerning His possible use of invisible extraordinary means of salvation. Woe upon me if I do not preach the Gospel.