Friday, November 25, 2011
Second Thoughts on Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized
I wrote on this subject on November 5; see my original post here.
At the New Theological Movement blog, an excellent post by Fr. Ryan Erlenbush has caused me to think some more about this delicate topic, and re-think some of my own conclusions. Fr. Erlenbush asks, “Ought we to pray for young children who have died?” He has some important comments to make on the subject, and he makes his points very well. Please read his entire post.
Fr. Erlenbush makes the following points:
· If the child is baptized, he has no need of our prayers (as he is already in Heaven)
· No children can possibly be in purgatory (because young children are incapable of actual sin, and purgatory is for the temporal punishment of our actual sins)
· If the child is non-baptized, our prayers are of no use (because the child cannot be admitted into Heaven)
He has very good reasons for making these points (again, see his article for a well-reasoned and articulate explanation of each); and while the first two points are probably pretty easy for most of us to accept, the third one is the sticking point. It’s the point where we want to protest, “But how could God NOT admit even a non-baptized child into His presences?!” Recognizing this, Fr. Erlenbush includes this compassionate statement:
To ease the heart, I will say…that young children who have died (even without baptism) are most certainly in a state of perfect happiness and they know and love God while knowing that he loves them infinitely - but whether this is a natural or supernatural happiness, I do not know.
He explains a little later:
However, because it is not heaven and because the children do not enjoy the beatific vision, it is technically a part of hell – the very “edge” (limbus) of hell. But, if there is a limbo, the children there are very happy; and they love God and know that God loves them, but they do not know that God is the Trinity.
The children in limbo, if there is a limbo, will never be admitted into heaven – limbo is eternal. Thus, there would be no reason to pray for these children, and neither could they pray for us. But we should be comforted by the fact that they will exist forever, and will eternally be perfectly happy (according to human nature). Perfect natural happiness and joy, it is not such a bad place! [Emphasis added]
From a theological viewpoint, I am convinced by Fr. Erlenbush’s presentation, and I agree with him that we cannot really pray for the souls of these unbaptized babies in the same way that we pray for the holy souls in purgatory. But from a “pastoral” viewpoint, it is still a difficult, delicate issue (and it is clear that Fr. Erlenbush recognizes this).
Frankly, I cannot imagine the depths of the anguish that must be caused by the death of one’s own child. What excruciating grief, beyond the loss of their baby, must be caused to parents who are told that their child cannot be in Heaven! Virtually all parents want what is best for their children – and Heaven is, of course, infinitely better than even an eternal existence in perfect natural happiness and joy (as Fr.Erlenbush notes). Those of us who have not lost a child of our own can still feel something of the pain associated with the thought of the death of unbaptized babies, and I am sure this is what prompts us to pray for those little souls.
But, if we follow Fr. Erlenbush’s thinking (which reflects sound theology, as far as I can tell, and he’s the expert here), then it doesn’t really make sense to pray for the souls of unbaptized infants (born or unborn) who have died.
Being Catholic isn’t easy. There is Truth here, and there are times when the Church asks us to believe by faith, even if the Truth makes us uncomfortable, or even angry. For example, many people are uncomfortable with the Church’s teaching on artificial contraception, and they claim the right to act counter to that teaching based on the fact that “I’ve prayed about it”. This doesn’t change Church teaching; properly understood, Church teaching isn’t something that simply reflects someone’s opinion, or a popular vote.
I believe Fr. Erlenbush has accurately described Church teaching in this area, and he has drawn reasonable and logical conclusions. It is possible to disagree with some of his statements and still be within the teaching of the Church, but he offers convincing evidence for his conclusions. Those who want to say, “Well, I choose to believe otherwise,” would be well-advised to examine their motives and their own evidence for saying so. It’s not really enough to say, “I just feel that way.”
That said, I don’t think that the Church says it is necessarily wrong for parents, for instance, to pray for the soul of their stillborn baby. Even if their prayers for their baby to be in Heaven cannot be granted, as they cry out to God in their grief, He surely will understand their need, and will comfort them in some way. As I think of parents praying out of this need, the saying from Scripture, “the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away” (Matthew 11:12) comes to mind. To be perfectly honest, I have always wondered what this passage really means, but it is often used in situations like this. Can we “force” God to change His mind?! Well, Jacob did wrestle with God, and Abraham argued with God to prevent the destruction of Sodom. And most of us have probably pleaded with God and tried to bargain with Him at one time or another.
Still, Fr. Erlenbush points out that it may not be correct to pray in this way. He says:
But can we pray that they might not be in limbo, but instead be in heaven? If we have some “hope” that they have gone to heaven, can we pray for this intention?
The simple answer is, “no”. We cannot pray that God have created the universe in one way or another – he has already created it as he willed, and our prayers ought not to seek to change that structure. If he created limbo, then it exists and holds these children. If God did not create limbo, then the children are in heaven. But our prayers would have no power to change the structure of God’s creation.
Perhaps a caring and prayerful pastor may be able to guide grieving parents, over time, toward the understanding outlined by Fr. Erlenbush.
I think it is important to keep in mind that the notion that unbaptized infants who die may not be in Heaven is not something that should cause us to lose hope. For one thing, no prayers are “wasted”. The grace gained by prayer will be applied somewhere, even if not in the place intended by the one praying. So if we pray for the salvation of a soul that is already in heaven or already in hell, the grace gained by those prayers, while not useful for that particular intention, will be used elsewhere.
In addition, we maintain our hope by remembering that God always wills what is best for us – even if that means some babies do not obtain the Beatific Vision. We must trust Him.
And finally, our hope is founded on the knowledge that God’s mercy is infinite! He will do what He wants, and despite our best theological conjectures, He might just have all those babies with Him in Heaven right now! We simply cannot know for sure.
Again, from a theological viewpoint, at least, it would appear that the worst case scenario for those babies is perfect happiness and joy. (I think it is good to repeat this point over and over. We need to realize that these unbaptized infants are not being punished.)
The “hard sayings” of the Church can lead us to a more mature understanding of God and our relationship to him; the harder the teaching is to understand, the more we are forced to rely on God to give us the grace to accept it. And while the Church does not say that there is a limbo, the possibility of its existence does follow logically when we consider what the Church does teach.
So, if we are horrified by the idea that there might be a limbo for deceased unbaptized babies, it is better to ask what we should do if that is true, rather than to deny the possibility out of our own emotional reaction. We should perhaps consider changing the focus of our prayers. At the risk of being accused of offering a simplistic panacea, I offer the following suggestions:
1. If we want to make sure no aborted babies end up in limbo (just in case there is a limbo), then we must pray and work to end abortion. We can certainly be assured that prayers for the safety of unborn babies will be heard by God!
2. Similarly, if we want to make sure no miscarried babies end up in limbo, then we must increase our prayers for the successful outcome of every pregnancy. We must pray that every baby is carried to term (and then baptized), even if the baby is only barely alive at birth. It seems inevitable that there will be miscarriages, but in that case, I think Fr. Erlenbush’s assessment of the state of the baby’s soul is comforting: that soul will experience God’s love, and will know perfect (natural) happiness and joy. We must pray for pastors to be able to reflect God’s love and mercy as they help bereaved parents through these heart-wrenching times.
3. Parents must be encouraged to have their babies baptized as soon as possible after birth. I think that too many parents – especially those who are lukewarm Catholics, or cafeteria Catholics – do not believe that baptism is necessary for salvation. If the reality of Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory were preached more often, perhaps some necessary catechesis could occur.
The best prayer to pray, in my humble opinion, is “God’s will be done.”