It is possible to speak endlessly about how Catholics do theology in theory, but (notwithstanding some legitimate criticisms here and here in the First Things blog) I have found the International Theological Commission’s document “THE HOPE OF SALVATION FOR INFANTS WHO DIE WITHOUT BEING BAPTISED” to be an excellent example of the way in which Catholics do theology in practice.
It is to be noted that this is a statement by theologians, and theologians do not (unless they are bishops) participate in the charism of infallibility given to the magisterium of the Church. They do, however, serve the Church’s magisterium through their scholarship. The statement was released with the approval of Pope Benedict, but that does not mean it is authorative or that it is a statement of the Church’s position. It is only what it claims to be: a reflection on a unclear matter by theologians.
For all that, it is striking the way in which this document handles Scripture, the Canons of the Councils, pronouncements of Popes, the writings of the Fathers, the opinions of the Scholastics and modern theologians as it discusses the question of the fate of infants who die without baptism. There has, throughout history, clearly been a “hands off” approach to the matter on the part of the Popes and the wider Magisterium–and for one good reason (as the document points out): the answer has not been revealed to us. Some things have been revealed to us (such as the doctrine of Original Sin and the Necessity of Baptism), and the document is quite clear that it regards these doctrines of the faith as rock solid and non-negotiable.
But what most fascinates me is the way in which these theologians handle two authorities–Scripture and the Sensus Fidelium–on the matter. Scripture is definitely used (in the final conclusion) to critique the doctrine of Limbo. But also, the whole motivation for the document is a pastoral one: the Faithful have shown that they are not completely satisfied with what the Church has said (or not said) on this matter up to this point. The Augustinian option (that all who are not baptised are damned to everlasting torment in Hell even if their only stain is original sin) is sensed by the Faithful as all together beyond what they know of God’s nature revealed to them in Christ. And so, while the Sensus Fidelium is a difficult beast to put one’s finger on (it doesn’t, for instance, manifest itself in democratic lay synods), nevertheless we see it at work here. It appears that the role which the Sensus Fidelium plays in the development of doctrine is not so much to give the answer as to ask the question.
Regarding the Development of Doctrine, the document has this to say in its introduction:
The treatment of this theme must be placed within the historical development of the faith. According to Dei Verbum 8, the factors that contribute to this development are the reflection and the study of the faithful, the experience of spiritual things, and the teaching of the Magisterium. When the question of infants who die without baptism was first taken up in the history of Christian thought, it is possible that the doctrinal nature of the question or its implications were not fully understood. Only when seen in light of the historical development of theology over the course of time until Vatican II does this specific question find its proper context within Catholic doctrine. Only in this way – and observing the principle of the hierarchy of truths mentioned in the Decree of the Second Vatican Council Unitatis redintegratio (#11) – the topic can be reconsidered explicitly under the global horizon of the faith of the Church. This Document, from the point of view of speculative theology as well as from the practical and pastoral perspective, constitutes for a useful and timely mean for deepening our understanding this problem, which is not only a matter of doctrine, but also of pastoral priority in the modern era.
Anyway, I commend the document for your reading. I especially commend it because, I agree with Robert T. Miller’s assessment:
It is in many ways unlovely, being excessively long and repetitious and full of sometimes unintentionally humorous irrelevancies;… For all its faults, however, the document gets right the essential point: “Our conclusion is that [there are]…grounds for hope that unbaptized infants will be saved and enjoy the beatific vision” (no. 102), but “the church does not have sure knowledge about the salvation of unbaptized infants” because “the destiny of…infants who die without baptism has not been revealed to us, and the church teaches and judges only with regard to what has been revealed” (no. 79) [My emphasis].