In my work in interreligious dialogue, I have often found cause to reflect on the question of the salvation of the unbaptised. Of course, Dominus Iesus is of great importance here, as is the declaration of Lumen Gentium 16 that:
Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience.
This has often been questioned as a “heresy” of the Second Vatican Council not only by traditionalist Catholics but also by evangelical protestants. However, I have been reading the statement from the International Theological Commission about the fate of unbaptised children (which the press has popularised as the Vatican’s “renunciation” of the doctrine of Limbo). This document makes for very interesting reading–especially as an example of the theological method of the Catholic Church (see especially the section headed “1.7 Issues of a Hermeneutical Nature”). I could say much about this document, but one thing that I found today which was especially interesting is this PRE-Vatican II statement by Pope Pius IX that those who
lead a virtuous and just life, can, with the aid of divine light and grace, attain eternal life; for God, who understands perfectly, scrutinizes and knows the minds, souls, thoughts and habits of all, in his very great goodness and patience, will not permit anyone who is not guilty of a voluntary fault to be punished with eternal torments. (Encyclical Letter “Quanto conficiamur”, 10.09.1863 (DS 2866)).
This appears to be very important background to the Lumen Gentium statement and indicates that the Council was not setting out on an entirely new direction with its statement.
The Internation Theological Commission statement also makes a distinction between “first, statements of faith and what pertains to the faith; second, common doctrine; and third, theological opinion” which is very interesting. Specifically, they state that
a) The Pelagian understanding of the access of unbaptised infants to “eternal life” must be considered as contrary to Catholic faith.
b) The affirmation that “the punishment for original sin is the loss of the beatific vision”, formulated by Innocent III, pertains to the faith: original sin is of itself an impediment to the beatific vision. Grace is necessary in order to be purified of original sin and to be raised to communion with God so as to be able to enter into eternal life and enjoy the vision of God.
c) In the documents of the magisterium in the Middle Ages, the mention of “different punishments” for those who die in actual mortal sin or with original sin only…must be interpreted according to the common teaching of the time. …These magisterial statements do not oblige us to think that these infants necessarily die with original sin, so that there would be no way of salvation for them.
d) The Bull “Auctorem fidei” of Pope Pius VI is not a dogmatic definition of the existence of Limbo: the papal Bull confines itself to rejecting the Jansenist charge that the “Limbo” taught by scholastic theologians is identical with the “eternal life” promised to unbaptised infants by the ancient Pelagians.
e) Pius XII’s “Allocution to Italian Midwives”, which states that apart from Baptism “there is no other means of communicating [supernatural] life to the child who has not yet the use of reason”, expressed the Church’s faith regarding the necessity of grace to attain the beatific vision and the necessity of Baptism as the means to receive such grace. The specification that little children (unlike adults) are unable to act on their own behalf, that is, are incapable of an act of reason and freedom that could “supply for Baptism”, did not constitute a pronouncement on the content of current theological theories and did not prohibit the theological search for other ways of salvation.
In summary: the affirmation that infants who die without Baptism suffer the privation of the beatific vision has long been the common doctrine of the Church, which must be distinguished from the faith of the Church. As for the theory that the privation of the beatific vision is their sole punishment, to the exclusion of any other pain, this is a theological opinion, despite its long acceptance in the West. The particular theological thesis concerning a “natural happiness” sometimes ascribed to these infants likewise constitutes a theological opinion.
And then there is this statement which should assure even the most hardened evangelical or traditionalist:
42. No human being can ultimately save him/herself. Salvation comes only from God the Father through Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit.
The method adopted by the Commission therefore is as follows (and I am still reading this bit):
This fundamental truth (of the “absolute necessity” of God’s saving act towards human beings) is unfolded in history through the mediation of the Church and its sacramental ministry. The ordo tractandi we will adopt here follows the ordo salutis, with one exception: we have put the anthropological dimension between the trinitarian and the ecclesiological-sacramental dimensions.
It all makes for very interesting reading, and also very deep reflection on the grace of salvation in Jesus Christ.