We do not deny that some of the early fathers or later theologians may have spoken about this matter in terms of exaggeration, or held opinions that to us seem harsh and unreasonable, especially when they were excited by the denials of heretics, with whom controversy was often violent and bitter, and led, not seldom, to overstatements on both sides. Notwithstanding the reverence due to these earlier champions of the faith, and the authority and prestige rightly attaching to their names and teachings, it must be borne always in mind that no father and no doctor is infallible ; and where the Church has spoken, or even shown the bent of her mind, it is not only our right but our duty to throw over even an Athanasius or an Augustine, if his teaching is not wholly at one with hers.
On this present question the Church has had occasion to make clear certain points of her faith, sometimes when issuing conciliar decrees, sometimes when publishing condemnations of erroneous doctrines. In the Council of Florence, A.D. 1439, which effected a short-lived reunion between the Church and the schismatical Easterns, she included as an article of her creed the affirmation that " the souls of those who depart from this life, either in actual mortal sin or in original sin only, go down at once into hell, there however to suffer disparate penalties." In 1567 Pope St Pius V condemned a number of propositions taken from the writings of Michael du Bay of Louvain ; among them is one asserting that the unbaptised child, attaining the use of his reason after death, will actually hate and blaspheme God and set himself against God's law. In 1794 Pius VI condemned a great many of the errors propounded by the Erastian synod recently held at Pistoia in Tuscany, among them being the " doctrine that rejects as a Pelagian fable that part of the lower regions (generally known as the limbo of infants) in which the souls of those dying in original sin alone are punished with the pain of loss (i.e., the beatific vision) without the pain of fire. . . ."
From these pronouncements we draw the following conclusions : unbaptised children are deprived of the beatific vision of God, which is man's true final end; this is a part of the defined Catholic faith. It is certain that they neither hate nor blaspheme God nor rebel against his law, and it is, at least, most improbable that they suffer from the fire of hell or any sort of positive, sensible pain ; while, on the contrary, it is most likely that their state is one of true peace and natural happiness. The dogma of faith is clearly contained in Christ's words to Nicodemus : " Unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God," John iii 5. and is, also, the direct theological consequence of all that has been said about the nature of original sin. This consists primarily in the privation of sanctifying grace, which is the principle of divine sonship, and, hence, the necessary condition for entry into God's eternal kingdom. The beatific vision is the full flowering of grace ; when the soul in grace is freed from the bonds of flesh and cleansed from its lesser impurities and from the debts it owes to God's justice, it passes naturally into glory. Where, however, the bud has not formed no flower can bloom.
On the other hand, there is no ecclesiastical authority for the opinion, now almost universally rejected, that the child who dies unbaptised suffers any pain of sense, that is, any positive punishment such as is inflicted upon those who die with unforgiven, actual, mortal sins upon their souls. On this point Catholic doctors and theologians have not always been in full agreement among themselves. St Augustine, for example, held that such children would suffer some sort of positive pain, though he admitted that he did not know how or what, and was, as a rule, careful to add that it would be of a kind very light and easy to bear. He was followed by many in the West, whereas the Greek fathers, generally, were inclined to the view that these children suffer nothing except the pain of loss or deprivation of the beatific vision. The theological reason for this opinion, which is now held by all,, is clearly explained by St Thomas : " The punishment," he writes, " bears a proportion to the sin. Now in actual sin there is, first, the turning away from God, the corresponding punishment being the loss of the beatific vision ; and secondly, the inordinate cleaving to some created good, and the punishment corresponding with this is the pain of sense. But in original sin there is no inordinate cleaving to created good, . . . and therefore it is not punished by the pain of sense." 2 Quaest. Disp., De Malo, v, a. 2
From this follows our third conclusion, to wit, that it is most probable that the state of unbaptised children in the next world is one of peace and natural happiness. Since they do not suffer any pain of sense, and since they do not hate God or set themselves against his law, the only thing that could trouble their peace or spoil their happiness would be a sorrow or anguish resulting from the knowledge of the supernatural happiness for which they were intended, but which is for ever lost to them. Some eminent theologians, as St Robert Bellarmine, have held that they do suffer in this way. Apart from the authority of some of the fathers, their main reason for thinking thus is that the child will see and understand his loss and therefore grieve over it. St Thomas, however, denies this and his reasoning seems conclusive.1 Quaest. Disp., De Malo, v, a. 3. It is based on the truth, fundamental in Catholic theology, that grace and, therefore, the possession of the beatific vision, which is the final culmination of grace, are absolutely and in the strictest sense of the word supernatural. They not only exceed man's natural powers of attainment, but also and equally his natural powers of knowing. It is impossible for a man to know, by natural reason alone, without the help of revelation and the gift of faith, that his final happiness consists in the immediate sight and possession of God. Consequently unbaptised children, not having received the sacrament of faith, have not the supernatural knowledge, without which they cannot know what they have lost. Hence their loss causes them no anguish of soul.
Although these considerations may bring some little consolation to the Catholic mother grieving over the fate of her child who has died unbaptised, they will not relieve the weight upon her conscience, should hers have been the fault, or free parents from the obligation to have their children baptised as soon as possible, since there is no measure or proportion between the natural happiness that will be their lot in limbo, and the inconceivable felicity of heaven, of which man's carelessness may so easily deprive them. Moreover, it must be clearly understood that the child dying without baptism is definitely lost. He is not in some midway state between salvation and damnation. He was made for one end only, a supernatural end ; and failure to reach that, whether the fault be his own or another's, is complete failure, is eternal loss, even though unaccompanied by the positive tortures of a soul that has wilfully damned itself.
To conclude this short study of the fall and original sin, we may call attention to the fact that the whole of it is based upon the truth and the reality and the supernatural character of sanctifying grace, Without this the fall becomes a myth and original sin an absurdity Consequently, since the most fundamental error of Protestantisir is its denial of the reality or its grievous misunderstanding of the nature of grace, Protestant theology is always hopelessly at sea anc at loggerheads with itself when dealing with original sin.
Again, the dependence of the dogma of the fall and original sin upon the reality of grace at once puts this dogma into its place amonj those that are essentially mysterious. It is beyond the power our reason fully to understand it, or even to prove its existence This we know only by revelation. But once it is accepted it makei nearly everything else clear. The fall explains the life and deatl of Jesus Christ, and the whole sacramental system. Without original sin the Church, which is the permanent means established by God to make good the damage done by Adam's sin, would be a useless encumbrance, and without the Church religion, in the full meaning of the word, would soon flounder and disappear. And even the history of the world, especially that of the chosen people, can only be properly understood in the light of this dogma. Mysterious, then, as it is, it is lit up and made easy of belief by all around us, by everything that touches us most nearly ; unpalatable as it may be to our natural taste, it is sweetened by its necessary connection with all those things that are our greatest joy in this world and our only hope for the next.
By B. V. MILLER
From The Teaching of the Catholic Church edited by Canon George Smith