A self-styled Traditionalist and I were exchanging e-mail messages about catechisms. It started when I mentioned my discomfort at the attitude taken by a Catholic speaker who refers disparagingly to the new Catechism of the Catholic Church and who cites approvingly only the Roman Catechism, which grew out of the Council of Trent.
My e-mail acquaintance said the other fellow was right to do so, since the new catechism contains “novel teachings.” “What might those be?” I asked. As one example, he said the new catechism does not mention limbo.
Under the older understanding, he noted unbaptized infants who die, whether through miscarriage or abortion, enjoy complete natural happiness but do not see God face to face. They are not in heaven or hell but in a third state, limbo. Under the “novel teaching” of the new catechism, limbo is not mentioned, but it is said we can hope that God has made some provision through which such infants might get to heaven.
In the Middle Ages theologians came up with the theological construct of limbo, which never has been a defined doctrine. Limbo does get around two sticking points: the absence of sanctifying grace, which implies no possibility of heaven, and the absence of personal guilt, which implies no hell. Unbaptized infants die with neither, so it might seem that they are destined neither for heaven nor hell.
The new catechism implies that the infants might be able to achieve sanctifying grace before their particular judgment, though how this might happen we cannot say with any certitude. Some theologians speculate that the infants are given an opportunity not unlike that once granted the angels, before their fall, to accept or reject God. But we just do not know—and perhaps we never will know, down here.
My e-mail correspondent said, “Well, I think I’ll stick with the solution suggested by the older catechism and will reject the ‘novel’ solution of the new catechism.” Why do that? I asked. Because the old solution is older, he said.
G. K. Chesterton noted that truth is not chronologically determined. The century of a teaching’s promulgation is not an argument for or against it. An old teaching is not necessarily truer for being old, and a new teaching is not necessarily truer for being new. Copernicus happened to be right, and Ptolemy wrong, about the motions of the planets, even though the former’s teaching was considered “novel.” Of course, it is as easy to point to older beliefs that are truer than their modern substitutes.
Catechisms are not infallible documents. The Roman Catechism may have erred on the fate of unbaptized infants, and it may be that the new catechism, which offers no particular solution but just a generalized hope, is nevertheless closer to the right answer. It might be better to go with the “novel” teaching, which is more vague, and set aside the “traditional” teaching, which, some say, suggests a deficiency in God’s mercy.
Where does that leave us? In limbo, so to speak. A Catholic may accept limbo, or he may reject it. He is not a better or worse Catholic for doing one or the other. But he does need to think through the problem—where do unbaptized infants go, and how does his solution, whatever it may be, square with God’s justice and mercy (both together, not just one taken separately)?