There’s an idea afloat in Christian circles regarding the souls of the unborn. Whether it is a false compassion or just bad theology on the part of the advocates I can’t say. The idea is expressed like this, “So, you’ve had an abortion; that’s a very serious sin. But God has forgiven you, and your baby is in Heaven. So, you need to accept God’s forgiveness, rejoice, and get on with your life.”
The supposition, of course, is unsupportable: we don’t know who is in Heaven. Yes, we know that God is there, and we have the Church’s assurance that the canonized saints are there. And while we might feel confident about the destination of certain holy people we know, the overall population of Heaven isn’t known with certainty; and to assume that anyone is there or is not there is to sweep human freedom under the rug. In a recent article, Kennedy Hall brought many of us to tears with his story of his child’s miscarriage, and he agonized a bit over the Church’s “doctrine” of limbo.
However, limbo is but a proposed doctrinal solution. When I read his article, I recalled that The International Theological Commission, by request of Pope St. John Paul II, had produced a document called “The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die without Being Baptized.” Limbo is a theological notion that has, through the years, certainly taken a lot of ground in Catholic theological circles, but it does not rise to the level of dogma. John Paul II wanted, no doubt, to see the dust settle a bit on the issue.
Settle, it did not. And yet, considerable theological context was added to the question:
We have carefully re-considered this complex question, with gratitude and respect for the responses that have been given through the history of the Church, but also with an awareness that it falls to us to give a coherent response for today. Reflecting within the one tradition of faith that unites the Church through the ages, and relying utterly on the guidance of the Holy Spirit whom Jesus promised would lead his followers “into all the truth” (John 16:13), we have sought to read the signs of the times and to interpret them in the light of the Gospel. Our conclusion is that the many factors that we have considered above give serious theological and liturgical grounds for hope that unbaptized infants who die will be saved and enjoy the Beatific Vision. We emphasize that these are reasons for prayerful hope, rather than grounds for sure knowledge.
In 1 Peter 3:19, we find, “Christ coming in spirit preached to those spirits that were in prison, which had some time been incredulous.” Concerning this, St. Athanasius says that “Christ’s body was laid in the sepulcher when He went to preach to those spirits who were in bondage, as Peter said.”
There are things that loom obvious to me. If Christ would preach to those dead, is that not a template for heavenly reality? The question comes down to “what is judgment?” And the answer is found in Christ’s preaching to the unbaptized souls of those in pre-Resurrection limbo. Judgment is a final facing of the true and the good; it is a final decision: can I accept forgiveness? (To not accept forgiveness is to “sin against the Holy Spirit.”) Would I be comfortable in the presence of Almighty God for eternity, or would that be the ultimate painful experience?
A soul’s answer to that question constitutes its final judgment. Human freedom cannot be swept under the rug; it makes or breaks us. Yes, there are a plethora of helps and hindrances, of graces and temptations, but in finality, the choice is ours, and as taught in 1 Peter, it is not a choice that Christ would, in mercy, expect us to make in total ignorance. Yes, baptism imparts a heavenly fortitude to seek the good, but who are we to decide what God can and cannot manifest in a soul?
St. Thomas Aquinas, in his Summa, tells us:
God, whose power is not tied to visible sacraments, sanctifies man inwardly. Hence Ambrose says of Valentinian, who died while yet a catechumen: “I lost him whom I was to regenerate: but he did not lose the grace he prayed for.”
This vision of judgment in no sense makes salvation easier to attain—it is simply a biblically and philosophically sound approach that places human freedom and the divine mercy in proper context. Who among us would force our children to make a choice with consequences of immense finality without first informing them of all pertinent truth in making said choice? We cannot expect less of Christ, who has already demonstrated His modus operandi.
The souls, the intellects, of unborn children enter eternity with, because of their nature, free will but no (or precious little) information on which to base a decision. Would they be denied that information? Would Christ not preach to them?
Preach, He would. Like all the rest of us, they will choose, and we cannot assume that they will choose wisely. Without the grace of baptism, from whence might such grace come? God, of course, is the author of such grace, and if the faithful storm the gates of Heaven, our hope is that the God who said, “Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake?” will be the Father who hands His child the grace to choose eternal life.
The book of Revelation speaks of the red dragon, who with “his tail swept away a third of the stars of heaven, and threw them to the earth.” While there is no definitive exegesis concerning this subject, it has seemed to me, and to others much more scholarly, that this is a reference to the angels; that is, that a third of them were seduced into Satan’s revolt. If that is the case for spirits created in innocence, why would there be no concern for the decisions of souls of the unborn?
A soul is a soul, no matter at what stage of bodily development. It is a spiritual entity designed to animate and direct a physical body. By its very nature, the human soul is immortal and has free will—a fact that cannot be overlooked or diluted. And any entity that possesses free will, by the kindness of a most prodigious Creator, will be given opportunity to exercise its most important attribute: that very thing that makes it human. If the unborn and unbaptized are spared judgment, they are denied their very humanity, and nothing less than human enters into the beatific vision.
Assuring someone that “your baby is in Heaven!” is proclaiming as knowledge the unknowable. It seems so pastoral, but does it not scream, “Abortion? No problem!”? Should we not, instead, never cease to pray for the souls of those who have gone before, born or unborn, so as to assist with the grace needed to accept salvation, to escape the lure of the liar, to choose eternal life; to exercise their primary attribute—free will—yet one last time? Is this not the most proper penance of the repentant abortive mother or father? To pray unceasingly for the soul cast aside? To pray for a holy outcome to that soul’s final choice between living in love forever or embracing a spiritual death of eternal fear and loathing?
It will be said that one’s personal judgment comes instantaneously in the moments after death, and if we did not pray then, our opportunity has been lost. However, eternity is outside of time, and as St. Augustine suggested, God may well apply graces across the span of time as He sees fit. No prayer is ever wasted. If you ask for a fish, God will not hand you a snake. “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”
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