And the Son of man indeed goeth, as it is written of him: but woe to that man by whom the Son of man shall be betrayed. It were better for him, if that man had not been born.  Mark 14:21

Real theologians and people who don’t like to comment on issues they don’t understand may now laugh at me.  But a conversation among friends at dinner yesterday led me to try this post, and to address some speculation on the eternal fate of Judas, by considering the state of those in the Limbo of children (Limbus Infantium).

My interest in the Limbo portion stems not only from the natural interest that most Catholics have in the subject, but also from the point of view of a father who has two children who now actually know the answer to the question.

The starting point of the discussion yesterday occurred when a friend challenged my casual assertion that we can know that Judas is in hell, based upon the words of Christ quoted in the passage of Mark’s Gospel printed above.  For if Judas ever was allowed into heaven, even after spending all time before the Last Judgement in purgatory in the greatest torment, he would have been better off to have been born.  Even if he were to spend eternity in a state of natural happiness without the Beatific Vision, he would have been better off to have been born.  Only if he were in the hell of suffering for eternity would it have been better for him never to have been born.

Of course, as the Fathers and theologians who have written about Limbo throughout history would agree, such a one as Judas would not be sent to Limbo.  He apparently committed actual mortal sin, and if he did not repent he would suffer eternal punishment.  His mortal sin in this regard can be compared to Peter’s mortal sin in denying Christ; both received the grace of guilt, but only one apparently repented.

The reason that the conversation led to Limbo was my reference to the “eternal state of purely natural happiness”, which I attributed to those souls in Limbo.  After some back-and-forth, the challenge was this:  Would it be better to have been born or not if one’s eternal destination is Limbo?

The first place I looked was the Catholic Encyclopedia entry on Limbo.  That entry breaks down Catholic thought into pre-Augustinian tradition, the teaching of St. Augustine, and post-Augustinian teaching.  What follows is my distillation of that article.

Before St. Augustine, St. Gregory Nazianzen and the Greek Fathers took the position that those infants who died with original sin but without actual sin were deprived of the Beatific Vision but were not subjected to punishment, because “though unsealed they are not wicked”.  The Western Fathers agreed, considering original sin an inclination to evil rather than guilt in the strict sense, and that mere original sin was not a cause for fear on the day of judgement.  The fathers agreed on the positing of an intermediate state without punishment and yet without the Beatific Vision.

After the Pelagian controversy arose, St. Augustine departed from this lenient view and condemned the opinion that affirmed the existence of “an intermediate place, or of any place anywhere at all (ullus alicubi locus), in which children who pass out of this life unbaptized live in happiness.”  He then maintained that unbaptized infants share in the common misery of the damned, though they are inflicted with the mildest punishment of all.  Interestingly, though he maintains they are punished, their punishment is so mild that “one may not say that for them non-existence would be preferable to existence in such a state.”  So much for the destination of Judas question.  If even St. Augustine considers positive punishment of a small amount to be preferable to non-existence, then a fortiori, a state of eternal natural happiness is preferable to non-existence.

The Augustinian view held sway for several centuries, but eventually post-Augustinian teaching returned to the pre-Augustinian position.  It was first challenged by St. Anselm, then by Innocent III and later definitively rejected by St. Thomas Aquinas.  St. Thomas, “relying on the principle, derived through the Pseudo-Dionysius from the Greek Fathers, that human nature as such with all its powers and rights was unaffected by the Fall (quod naturalia manent integra), maintained, at least virtually, what the great majority of later Catholic theologians have expressly taught, that the limbus infantium is a place or state of perfect natural happiness. 

St. Thomas’ point was that there was no argument could justify a lack of actual punishment for unbaptized infants if they were denied the Beatific Vision, since the loss of that vision is the most severe punishment possible. He therefore expressly denied they suffer any interior affliction from a sense of loss of the Beatific Vision.  From the Catholic Encyclopedia: 

St. Thomas held this absence of subjective suffering to be compatible with a consciousness of objective loss or privation, the resignation of such souls to the ways of God’s providence being so perfect that a knowledge of what they had lost through no fault of their own does not interfere with the full enjoyment of the natural goods they possess. Afterwards, however, he adopted the much simpler psychological explanation which denies that these souls have any knowledge of the supernatural destiny they have missed, this knowledge being itself supernatural, and as such not included in what is naturally due to the separated soul (De Malo loc. cit.). It should be added that in St. Thomas’ view the limbus infantium is not a mere negative state of immunity from suffering and sorrow, but a state of positive happiness in which the soul is united to God by a knowledge and love of him proportionate to nature’s capacity.

Since Aquinas’ time, “What has been chiefly in dispute is whether this happiness is as perfect and complete as it would have been in the hypothetical state of pure nature, and this is what the majority of Catholic theologians have affirmed.” 

And with that I take it that we can posit that Judas is in hell based upon Our Lord’s words, though I don’t know if it rises to the level of absolute certainty.  Further, as an aside, I take it that babies who die without baptism likely enjoy perfect natural happiness for eternity but do not enjoy the Beatific Vision of heaven.

Regarding the Limbo question today, I suppose that some may recall the non-magisterial document concocted by the International Theological Commission which, citing Karl Rahner among others, opined that there are “serious reasons” to hope unbaptized babies may be saved.  Great.  I will give that the following additional attention it deserves:   

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UPDATE:  A good priest referred me to an article written by theologian Fr. Brian Harrison, OS, about Limbo in the theological journal Divinitas.  I have been unable to find that online, but as I continue to look here is a brief article Fr. Harrison wrote for the late, great Seattle Catholic in 2005.  This is a very good article to show that Limbo is indeed a teaching of the mercy–not the severity– of God.

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