Limbo, Infants and the Afterlife
Forty-some years ago, at the baptism of our fourth infant son, I murmured a half-serious doubt to a fellow graduate student, Should the church really be baptizing babies without their awareness? One month later this question came back with a vengeance, when on my 28th birthday I discovered our baby dead in his crib, a victim of what is now called sudden infant death syndrome. In this crisis of pain and shock, I found great consolation in the church’s communal faith and practice of infant baptism. I could imagine placing Thomas in Christ’s loving arms. Had not Jesus commanded his disciples to let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs (Matt 19:13)? And how lovingly Jesus responded to distraught parents as he healed their ill children.
I dwelt on the scriptural promises that in God’s coming kingdom there will be no more dying of infants, and every tear will be wiped away. In this not yet time before the risen life, I could take courage from the witness of other devout women who had lost their children but kept their faith in the God who loves us like a mother.
I identified with Mary at the foot of the cross and even more with the two saints whose memorial (appropriately) was celebrated on my dread birthday, Saints Felicity and Perpetua. These two young mothers were separated from their children and martyred for their faith in a North African Roman amphitheater. Perpetua and Felicity, her servant, went steadfastly to the arena to be torn apart by wild animals. Perpetua had received a vision of the future life, and she and Felicity were confident of meeting their Lord. Felicity had given birth while in prison and went to meet her death still streaming milk, a heroic model for me as a bereft nursing mother flooded in milk and tears.
In our family’s crisis we were also helped by an outpouring of practical support from friends, relatives, neighbors and the priests of the parish. Slowly we were able to go forward, as we had to do, with three little boys under 6 to take care of. I could identify with King David, who wept, fasted and lay prostrate all night praying for the life of his infant son; but when his courtiers finally dared to tell him that the child was dead, David rose up. He ate, washed, dressed, went to worship in the temple and explained why to those who attended him: He will not return to me, but I shall go to him (2 Sam 12:23).
In the onward journey of our family, sadness was assuaged by the birth and baptism in the next four years of two more sons and a daughter. Life must triumph over death and loss. We moved from Cambridge, Mass., to New York and became incredibly busy raising five sons and a daughter, completing professional degrees, writing books and pursuing demanding careers. Still, the theological question of suffering and the problematic challenge of infant death never receded from my thoughts.
Good News, but the Question Remains
Now word has come that theologians in Rome are beginning to reconsider the destiny of infants who die without baptism. This is good news, if for no other reason than that it demonstrates that the church since the Second Vatican Council understands that it is an ever-reforming, ever-learning church, continuing its pilgrimage toward an ever fuller understanding of God’s infinite graciousness. Christians can progress toward God as truth, in response to the authority of Scripture, church tradition, reason and human experienceincluding feminine experience.
For me, gratitude for the solace brought by the church’s sacramental practice of infant baptism does not solve the question of the future of the unbaptized babies who die; nor even more crucially, does it address the more urgent problem of the destiny of all the human beings who die unbaptized by the institutional church. It seems important to propose that the discussion of baby limbo be but the beginning of a wider theological reconsideration of Christian hopes for the afterlife.
At this point it seems clear that there is growing agreement that unbaptized babies could not be denied the presence of God. It is too hard to accept a vision of the risen Christ reversing his loving reception of children or ever deciding to deny babies the presence of God’s light. Could we imagine, for example, that if we had not had Thomas baptized in the first weeks of his life, he would have been eternally separated from God, from his baptized siblings and from all of his family? Surely this would contradict the merciful words of Christ, who said, Look, I have opened a door before you which no one can close (Rev 3:8).
Even now the church has moved far away from the harsh and pessimistic stance of St. Augustine, who thought that most of mankind would be damned, including some baptized babies who died before the age of reason. To uphold such a view, one must exaggerate the severity of the corrupting effects of original sin and see human nature not as wounded but as completely depraved. This older view of baptism also runs the risk of turning the sacrament of baptism into an isolated act of magic.
Yes, baptism can be affirmed as the great sacrament of birth that incorporates new members into Christ’s body. But the birthing takes place through the power of the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit blows where it listeth. To insist that all the unbaptized will be denied God’s presence limits the reach of God’s mercy and love and seems to be a wrongheaded act of premature foreclosure, if not sinful presumption.
Newer views of baptism can be seen in the present pastoral practice of baptizing infants only if there will be a Christian family to bring up the child in the Christian community. Few now think that agnostic parents who do not approve of their infants being baptized are committing mortal sin or dooming their children. My own agreement with the new, nonmagical approach to baptism has withstood the grandmother test. While I deeply regret that I have unbaptized grandchildren, I have never secretly baptized a grandchild in the bathtub (with the counsel of my holy pastor, I might add).
Those who want to defend older views about the necessity of the institutional liturgical act of baptism for salvation will persist in defending the idea of limbo as essential. They will have to look backward to find supportive statements of long-dead popes and out-of-print, pre-Vatican II moral manuals. I saw such an approach displayed in an extremely conservative newspaper that arrived in the mail. The lead article deplored all efforts to let limbo lapse. These fervent folks (few in number, I hope) embrace the teachings of Pius X. They go on to attack the statements of then-Cardinal Ratzinger, who thinks that the concept of limbo seems unenlightened and can be dropped, since it has always been only a theological hypothesis.
In this newspaper’s theological perspective, Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, is a dangerous progressivist and part of the liberal conspiracy that is ruining the church. This pope, along with Pope John Paul II, is castigated for being influenced by that popular modernist, Hans Urs von Balthasar. Balthasar is seen as a danger because he has dared to hope that all might be saved.
If such narrow supporters of past norms were to win the theological arguments over limbo, then the church would have to be seen not only as regressing but also missing out on an important chance to initiate a spiritual dialogue with modern culture on the nature and destiny of human life. A clear sign of the times can be found in the increasing concern and interest in the United States about what happens after death.
A flood of new novels, plays, television series and nonfiction books are focusing on the existence and characteristics of the afterlife. I can hardly count the number of recent novels I have read that feature narrators who are dead. Many more millions of books are sold that purport to describe the five people you will meet in heaven or give dramatic accounts of near-death experiences and what they mean for the life to come. Much of this material offers thin gruel and slim pickings for those seeking spiritual nourishment.
Yet another development evident in the present cultural mix is the spread of Eastern and indigenous religious influence. Beliefs in karma and reincarnation are entering mainstream consciousness. Or perhaps they have never left. It is fascinating to note that in the medieval town of Montaillou, the Inquisition found heretics preaching reincarnation and the transmigration of souls. Such beliefs served, among other things, to console grieving mothers of dead infants; they were assured that the souls of their dead children would be reincarnated in their subsequent pregnancies.
Modern revivals of beliefs in reincarnation should not be dismissed in new theological reflections. Rather they can be taken as the signal for Christians to take seriously the insight that spiritual growth takes time and experience that may not be available in one brief life.
Growth After Death
Christianity, with its teaching on purgatory, has always accepted the belief that a chance for spiritual growth can exist after death. At the very least, purgatory is defined as a process of purification and positive transformation. While limbo for babies should be dropped as an inadequate theological hypothesis, a reconsideration of purgatory could be spiritually important. The idea that more opportunity for positive growth beyond the end of this life implies the possibility of some form of ongoing dynamic process in God’s fullness of time. What we know of the evolutionary story of creation seems to validate the possible existence of continuing spiritual development that transcends this life.
For that matter, it has taken billions of years for our human species to evolve. It is easy for those who believe in some form of universal future purgatory to conclude that for most of humanity one brief lifetime may hardly be enough to become what God desires us to be. Moreover, millions of the human family have died in infancy, or miscarried or been aborted; they have not had a chance to obtain consciousness or self-awareness.
Countless others of those who have been born and survived have had lives that were stunted and afflicted by the ravages of disease, injuries, natural disasters and sinful acts of evil. These lives have had little chance to develop or to hear and understand God’s good news. Are these deformed lives never to have a chance to grow and flourish? I have faith that a maternal and loving God never fails in the desire or the creative means to draw beloved creatures Godward. God never suffers from empathy fatigue.
Moreover, we can be certain that no spiritual journey is ever taken alone in a world with created co-creators. New thinking on the afterlife will have to make salient the communal cooperative reality of Christianity. St. Paul asserts that the life and death of each of us has its influence on others; how could this not be true in the afterlife? To pray for the dead and invoke the help of the saints is an ancient Christian practice of great wisdom.
Scientific discoveries of the embedded and entangled nature of matter confirm the interactive ecology of spiritual reality. But the recent Catechism of the Catholic Church gives little attention to purgatory and not much more to heaven. (Limbo rates no entry at all.) Instead there is the brief assertion that the mystery of blessed communion with God and all who are in Christ is beyond all understanding and description (No. 1026). This must surely be true, but historians of the faith have also pointed out that attention to the all could be ignored in the exclusively theocentric heaven propagated by 17th-century Protestant divines.
More attention now can be paid to the assurances of the catechism that the blessed continue joyfully to fulfill God’s will in relation to other men and to all creation (No. 1029).
Surely, this is where St. Théresè of Lisieux’s intention to spend eternity doing good works on earth comes into play. Those roses she sends include a message: Of course the friends of God continue to take joy in healing and renewing creation. If we meditate enough on the mercy and love of a God who proclaims I am making all things new (Rev 21:5), then we can envision an afterlife where human friendship and love can be healing those in need of transformation.
Perhaps the new concern for infants is the beginning of a deeper understanding of God’s mercy. The church may be taking to heart the greatest promise of love, a bruised reed I will not break or a flickering wick extinguish.