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Limbo And Eastern Orthodoxy

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By JAMES LIKOUDIS

The centuries-old theological debate concerning the existence of Limbo for unbaptized babies (the limbo puerorum as a state of natural happiness) led to the 2007 publication of the document The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized by the International Theological Commission (ITC). The commission concluded there are “serious theological and liturgical grounds for hope that unbaptized infants who die will be saved and enjoy the beatific vision.”
There immediately followed misleading and erroneous press reports that the Catholic Church had “abandoned” or “abolished” the notion of Limbo. Such statements which disturbed many Catholics were belied by statements in the document which admitted: “The Church does not have sure knowledge about the salvation of unbaptized infants who die” (n. 79) and that “the idea of Limbo…has long been used in traditional theological teaching” (n. 3). It was not only “regarded as the common doctrine of the Church” (n. 3) but “was the common Catholic teaching until the mid-20th century” (n. 26). Though never defined as a doctrine of faith, it “remains a possible theological opinion” (n. 41).
As one of the theologians of the International Theological Commission noted, “Anyone who wants to defend it is free to do so” (Sr. Sarah Butler, MSBT, in Inside the Vatican, May 2007)
One can leave to theologians to weigh and dispute the arguments brought to bear in the document to justify its “hope for a redemptive grace given to unbaptized infants who die which opens for them the way to Heaven” (n. 95). Suffice it here to recall that the ITC document is not magisterial teaching. As a theory held by great theologians for centuries, Limbo (for unbaptized children) remains a valid theological conclusion and can be said to retain a greater probability than other more modern solutions based on questionable assumptions.
Limbo cannot be easily eliminated from the theological landscape. In the Latin text of the Catechism of the Catholic Church can be found the word limbus with the link to n. 1261 which “allows us to hope [N.B., it does not require us] that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without Baptism.” The ITC document may speak of a “way of salvation,” but does not identify that “way” nor does it provide certainty as to whether such a “way” in fact exists.
The ITC document, moreover, is deficient in its treatment of the Greek Fathers of the Church. The quotes given from St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Gregory of Nazianzus note that unbaptized children do not suffer the pains of Hell. However, both these Greek Fathers of the Church held that unbaptized babies are certainly excluded from the Beatific Vision. Though these Eastern saints refrain from naming the place where unbaptized infants go, their teaching approximates that of Limbo as understood in the Western Church. As an Eastern Orthodox writer (Nathaniel McCallum) has observed: “Limbo was taught by Greek Fathers before it was taught by Latin ones.”
It is also false for the ITC document to claim that “the idea of an inheritance of sin…common in Western tradition-was foreign to this [Eastern] perspective.” Actually, by the seventh century the core of St. Augustine’s doctrine declaring original sin an inherited sin to be remitted by Baptism was accepted in the orthodox East. This occurred when the Council in Trullo (692) in Constantinople under the Emperor Justinian II incorporated the decisions of the Council of Carthage (418-419) confirming St. Augustine’s teaching on original sin. The Council of Trullo thereby made St. Augustine’s doctrine of inherited sin the official teaching of the Orthodox East.
Today, many Eastern Orthodox theologians and writers simply reject the concept of the Limbo of children, holding categorically that unbaptized babies go to Heaven and that babies who die without Baptism attain salvation. Here again, we find such Orthodox departing from their own Byzantine Greek tradition as manifested in the teaching of the Greek Fathers who clearly exclude unbaptized infants from Heaven.
They also are seen to abandon their own liturgical tradition. For, the doctrine of Limbo finds explicit liturgical mention in the Synaxarion on the Saturday before Meatfare (this mention is strangely missing in the English translation produced by the well-known Orthodox Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia).
Similarly, in the Lenten Triodion (both in the Greek and Slavonic) one can read: “We should also know that when baptized infants die, they enjoy the Paradise of delight, whereas those not illumined by Baptism and those born of pagans go neither to Paradise nor to Gehenna. When the soul departs from the body, it has no concern for the things of this world, but only for the things of the Heavenly realm.”
In addition, a Synod of Constantinople in 1722 declared: “Not all souls in Hades are in Gehenna, i.e., the place of the damned where there is no relief”; the souls of unbaptized children rather reside in a part of Hades. This part of Hades certainly appears to be the equivalent of Limbo. Then, too, despite the negations of Orthodox theologians, it should be recalled that there are Orthodox who accept Limbo as a theologoumenon, that is, a legitimate theological opinion.
In conclusion, the strength of Catholic theological teaching manifested in both Eastern and Western traditions of a limbus puerorum for unbaptized infants cannot be easily discarded by those who appear to know more than the Church in pronouncing with eagerness that no unbaptized infant goes to Limbo.

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(James Likoudis is the author of many articles and four books dealing with Catholic-Orthodox doctrinal issues. His website is JamesLikoudisPage.com and his email address is jameslikoudis1@gmail.com.)

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