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God's Mercy Is Great
By Father Pat McCloskey, O.F.M.

Q U I C K S C A N

Is Limbo In or Out?
Purgatory Revisited
What Did Jesus Mean?
Puzzling Passage in a September Reading


Q: The teaching about limbo has me perplexed because it casts into doubt whether babies who die before being baptized can be saved. Are they sent to limbo? Are aborted babies doubly punished?

About 40 years ago during a novena at our parish, a missionary preached that God is a loving and forgiving God. The priest urged us to ask God to love and forgive us. Why then should so many souls be sent to limbo?

A: On April 20, 2007, the 30-member International Theological Commission (ITC) published, with Pope Benedict XVI’s permission, a 41-page document entitled The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized. This is the result of a study begun in 2004 by the ITC, whose members are appointed by the pope and work with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). This ITC text is available at the CDF section of www.vatican.va.

This document says that the traditional concept of limbo as a place where unbaptized infants spend eternity but without communion with God seems to reflect “an unduly restrictive view of salvation.

“Our conclusion is that the many factors that we have considered...give serious theological and liturgical grounds for hope that unbaptized infants who die will be saved and enjoy the beatific vision.” The text adds, “We emphasize that these are reasons for prayerful hope, rather than grounds for sure knowledge.”

This is not as authoritative a teaching as a papal document, but the Catechism of the Catholic Church never mentions limbo. It teaches: “As regards children who have died without Baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God, as she does in her funeral rites for them” (#1261).

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI but then prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, stated in 1984: “Limbo was never a defined truth of faith. Personally—and here I am speaking more as a theologian and not as prefect of the Congregation—I would abandon it since it was only a theological hypothesis. It formed part of a secondary thesis in support of a truth which is absolutely of first significance for faith, namely, the importance of Baptism” (The Ratzinger Report, p. 147).

In the 11th century, St. Anselm of Canterbury described theology as “faith seeking understanding.” The ITC’s document described above is an example of such faith.

Many Catholics long ago came to the same conclusion about limbo as the ITC. Apparently, the mission preacher whom you remember did. Over the years, Father Norman Perry, O.F.M., the previous author of the “Ask” column, and I have reflected this view in our “Ask” replies.

Some people have thought that limbo was necessary for unbaptized infants because of Jesus’ teaching, “Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” (John 3:3).

The concept of limbo arose in regard to children who die without being baptized, but the same reasoning was applied to adults who lived after Jesus but who died without Baptism. If that were the case, the best that the majority of adults who have ever lived could hope for would be limbo.

In section four of the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, the bishops at Vatican II taught, “Together with the prophets and that same apostle [Paul], the Church awaits the day, known to God alone, when all peoples will call on God with one voice and ‘serve him shoulder to shoulder’ (Zephaniah 3:9; see also Isaiah 66:23; Psalms 65:4 and Romans 11:11-32).”

The sacrament of Baptism remains very important, but having received it does not guarantee that someone will necessarily be saved. Likewise, not having received it does not mean that a person cannot be saved. That is up to God alone.

Purgatory Revisited

Q: In your January 2007 answer to a question about purgatory, you wrote: “Every sin has a life of its own, even after it has been confessed and forgiven. A lie that I tell on Tuesday and confess on Saturday does not vanish. Its evil effects continue until people are no longer interested in repeating it. Believing otherwise is naïve.”

Well, I guess that I must be naïve or stupid. Are you saying that a sin is still a sin after it is confessed? Just what happens in Confession and what does it accomplish? Why would I have to go to purgatory for sins already confessed?

A: Yes, people need to confess their sins and have them forgiven. Such a sin, however, can continue to do damage. Part of our repentance is trying to minimize that damage. If I am truly sorry for a lie that I told, I should later tell the truth to at least one person to whom I told the lie. That person may or may not pass on this new information because lies are often more spicy than the truth.

In the case of theft, a person must be willing to return what was stolen to its rightful owner before that sin can be forgiven. A person cannot be truly sorry for a sin whose evil effects he or she will not try to mitigate.

Perhaps an example outside Confession can help here. Three Duke University lacrosse players were accused in March 2006 of raping a woman at a party. It later turned out that the accusation was false. On June 15, 2007, District Attorney Michael Nifong admitted that he had withheld evidence from the players’ defense attorneys, had lied to the court and state bar investigators, and had made inflammatory comments about the players. Three days later he was disbarred in North Carolina.

Nifong tried to repair the damage that his action caused. Did he repair it fully? No, because it was impossible to do so. Everyone who heard the false allegation will not necessarily hear the truth—or believe it. That’s one example that “Every sin has a life of its own.”

In one sense, humanity’s “original sin” is believing that our actions have only the consequences that we want them to have. Adam and Eve mistakenly believed that. They expected to become like God by disobeying one rule.

What does sacramental Confession accomplish? It offers forgiveness and helps us for the future. In Confession, Jesus urges us to live more consistently as people made in God’s image. Absolution also gives us strength to repair the damage our sins have caused.

Your question is neither naïve nor stupid. You simply seek understanding. Please keep asking whatever questions your growing faith may require.

Q: On the September 29th feast of Archangels Michael, Gabriel and Raphael, the Gospel is John 1:47-51. Jesus says there that Nathanael is without guile. When the future apostle confesses Jesus as the Son of God, Jesus answers, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than this.” I don’t understand what “than this” means here.

A: In the New Jerome Biblical Commentary, Pheme Perkins writes about verses 48 and 49, “A satisfactory parallel for the reaction produced by Jesus’ saying about ‘sitting under a fig tree’ has not been found. The best suggestion is that it may be related to a later tradition that the rabbis studied the law ‘under a fig tree’ (Midrash Rabbah Ecclesiastes 5:11).”

Regarding the “greater things than this” verse, she continues, “Some think that the ‘greater things’ point forward to the signs that show the disciples Jesus’ glory (e.g., 2:11).” The water turned into wine at the wedding feast of Cana is the first of Jesus’ seven “signs” (miracles) in the Gospel of John.

Q: In the Gospel for Monday of the 25th week in Ordinary Time (Luke 8:16-18), Jesus describes a light on a lampstand and then goes on to talk about secret things coming to light. I don’t see the connection between those verses and the next one: “Take care, then, how you hear. To anyone who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he seems to have will be taken away.”

A: In the New Jerome Biblical Commentary, Father Robert Karris, O.F.M., explains verse 18 this way: “Hearing without understanding the word, especially the understanding that originates in the effort to communicate the word to others, leads to total loss of hearing.” Just as light is meant to be shared, so the word of God is intended to be spread to others—by word and example.

If you have a question for Father Pat, please submit it here. Include your street address for personal replies enclosing a stamped, self-addressed envelope, please. Some answer material must be mailed since it is not available in digital form. You can still send questions to: Ask a Franciscan, 28 W. Liberty Street, Cincinnati, OH 45202.


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