Al Kimel, over at Pontifications, has posted an excellent article that supports the Vatican’s possible abandonment of the doctrine of Limbo, that is, a doctrine that consigns unbaptized babies to somewhere other than the Beatific Vision of Heaven (in some Catholic accounts, limbo was a place of natural bliss, in others a place of torment.) He references an article by Fr. John Breck which is an excellent Orthodox statement on the subject. Fr. John has been my confessor since my conversion to Orthodoxy – he and his wife Lynn are deeply committed to issues surrounding the death of children. His article comes from a heart and a mind that has engaged the subject on the deepest theological level.
For the Orthodox faith, the question of unbaptized children is not fraught with difficulty. The Western doctrine of Original Sin, in which we are born with the guilt of Adam and thus born deserving of Hell, is simply not part of the Orthodox faith. Orthodox theology speaks rather of Ancestral Sin – we inherit from Adam a fallen world that includes our mortality. Children are born mortal – but not liable to guilt and punishment.
The tragedy of the doctrine of Original Sin, when it is understood in a forensic (legal) manner, is that it inevitably presents God as merciless, or powerless, or worse. It creates stumbling blocks for unbelievers who reject a God who would consign an infant to Hell (or less than heaven).
The sacrament of Baptism, in which we are united with the death and resurrection of Christ, is in no way weakened by the mercies of a God who saves beyond the bounds of the sacraments. The sacraments are not limits – mere “instruments” of grace in the toolbox of the Church. The sacraments are concrete manifestations of the Life of God in the Church. As such, they cannot be limited to those acts that have been given to us for our salvation. The Life of God is the Life of God. He saves whom He wills, how He wills.
Our salvation is no mere legal transaction. Our salvation is our union, our incorporation in the Life of God. It is not foreign to us (death is foreign to us) but is the reason for our existence in the first place. The forensic metaphor tends to make punishment and hell our natural state instead of the failure that it is. Sin, hamartia, means “missing the mark.” It is the failure to become what we are created to be. Sin is not natural to us, but contrary to our nature, a contradiction of who we are as human beings. A God who did not spare His son for the sake of our salvation would not be so unkind as to neglect our salvation because something intervened in our Baptism. Again, I mean no belittling of the greatness of our Baptism. However, in the Orthodox blessing of Water in that service we sing: “Great art Thou, O Lord, and marvelous are Thy works, and there is no word which sufficeth to hymn Thy wonders.” Such a God knows no limits to His love, or the power of His love.
Whenever theology runs counter to the love of God – no matter how neat and tidy – how carefully reasoned – something has gone wrong. I commend Fr. Breck’s article to all of you, and hope that new directions in Roman Catholic theology will indeed come to pass.