By Deacon Tony Amato
Canto 7 begins with Virgil letting Sordello know just who it is that he has encountered:
“I am Virgil, and for no other failing
did I lose Heaven but my lack of Faith.” [lines 7-8]
Sordello does not believe that he has before him the “glory of the Latins…through whom our language showed what it could do.” Virgil informs him that it was the power of Heaven that brought him through hell and into purgatory, and then he describes his place in the afterlife and the reasons for it [lines 25-36].
Here we encounter the concept of Limbo as discussed at the beginning of the Inferno. Among other sorts of souls inhabiting Limbo, we are given a clear image of the souls of unbaptized infants. The idea that we can hope for the eternal salvation of infants who die without baptism is common today, but novel in the history of the Church. Before this novel teaching became popular, unbaptized infants who died were commonly thought of as destined for “the limbo of the infants”.
What are the theological underpinnings behind this idea? Here, to gain understanding, we should look to the Church’s constant teaching on Original Sin and Baptism. Original Sin is a deprivation of grace. It is found in the soul of every new born human being. Baptism washes away the guilt of Original Sin [cf. line 33], and by infusing grace into the soul, enables it to obtain Heaven, the essence of which is the Beatific Vision. Furthermore, along with grace, Baptism imparts the three Theological Virtues: Faith, Hope, and Charity. This is why Virgil says, as seen above in line 8, that the souls in Limbo lack Faith. They were not baptized, and therefore, unlike the souls in Purgatory, the souls in Limbo do not possess the Theological Virtues.
Of course, once the baptized infant reaches the age of reason, through mortal sin, he can lose the grace of baptism along with the virtue of Charity. He can also lose the virtue of Faith and Hope if he sins mortally against such virtues through unbelief or despair. Thank God we have the sacrament of reconciliation which is the normal route back to God’s grace and the three virtues!
Speaking of Limbo, Virgil says in lines 34-35: “There I abide with those who were not clothed / in the three holy virtues, yet, blameless…” The “three holy virtues” are the ones just mentioned and they are necessary for salvation. Limbo is a place “not sad with torments / but only darkness, where lamentations sound, / not loud as wailing but soft as sighs” [lines 28-30]. This description of Limbo might at first seem to paint a dark picture. The natural reaction would be to ask how there can be any suffering for someone like an infant who never committed any sin. St. Augustine referred to this kind of suffering as the mitissima poena (“the mildest suffering”). For him, in this state of Limbo the souls would certainly not suffer the fires of hell, but they would nevertheless know, to an extent, what they are missing by not being in Heaven. So the suffering of Limbo, for St. Augustine at least, would consist of this knowledge. Nonetheless, the souls in Limbo would at the same time be consoled by the realization that their state was not caused by any fault or sin of their own.
St. Thomas Aquinas develops the concept of Limbo thoroughly in chapter five of his De malo. There, he makes a distinction between natural knowledge and supernatural knowledge. Natural knowledge is all of the things that a person can know by the unaided power of his reason. A soul separated from the body would be able to know all truths that are naturally knowable, even certain truths about God—his existence, omnipotence, omniscience, etc.—and they can also love God above all things. However, this is not the sort of love that has God as the supernatural end of man. This is a natural sort of love. It is not the Beatific Vision. Knowledge of who God is in his very substance can only come through Faith being infused into the soul. A soul in Limbo would have full natural knowledge and full natural love of God, but would not be able to see God immediately and intuitively since it would not even know who God truly is as the Holy Trinity. The soul rests content in the knowledge that it has, however, knowing that anything more was not owed to it anyways, since God does not owe anyone the grace of the Beatific Vision. The Beatific Vision is pure gift.
In contrast, when a soul is given sanctifying grace and the “three holy virtues”, it has Faith and so it has in mind God as the supernatural end of man. Knowing that the vision of God is attainable through God’s grace, the virtue of Hope allows the will to strive towards such a goal. Finally, the virtue of Charity unites the soul to God.
Those Catholic thinkers today who hold out hope of the Beatific Vision for infants who die without baptism, do not do so because they believe that God owes the infant the grace of salvation. Neither do they believe that God would be unjust to deprive an unbaptized infant of the Beatific Vision. They consent to the perennial Catholic understanding that the Beatific Vision is pure gift and is owed to no one. No natural being has any claim on such an exalted supernatural gift. They simply believe that they are allowed to hope that God, out of the sheer super-abundance of His mercy would directly infuse grace into the soul of an unbaptized infant the moment before it died. But whether this novel idea is espoused or whether the traditional idea of Limbo is affirmed, on all hands, it is agreed that children should be baptized as soon as possible after birth. This way, we do not just hope but we know for sure that the child has received grace and “the three holy virtues”. No doubt, God’s mercy and the mystery of his predilection are evident in the case of those infants whom He allows to be baptized before death. And again, all would agree about this. Baptism is a great gift of God’s mercy.
Deacon Tony Amato is a seminarian and transitional deacon with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester, NY. He is in formation at Theological College at the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC.