Thomas Aquinas on the Damnation of Unbaptized Infants

Just this past week the Vatican published a document expressing hope for the salvation of unbaptized infants. (Read about it here).  Now, I don’t have a dog in this race, but as a curious onlooker, I wonder whether this portends a shift in the catholic understanding of original sin, baptism and grace.

First let’s look at the traditional roman view on this, then we’ll explore the revised view.

The Pontificator has rightly noted that Augustine taught that infants were damned and I take this to be pretty much the majority view at least through the time of Thomas Aquinas. There may have been some wooly heretical sects in southern France who demurred, but the tradition looks pretty strong. Here’s how Thomas puts it.
Summa Theologiae, 3a, q. 68, a. 9: “Whether Children Should Be Baptized?”

I respond, As the Apostle says (Rom. 5:17), “if by one man’s offense death reigned through one,” namely Adam, “much more they who receive abundance of grace, and of the gift, and of justice, shall reign in life through one, Jesus Christ.” Now children contract original sin from the sin of Adam; which is made clear by the fact that they are under the ban of death, which “passed upon all” on account of the sin of the first man, as the Apostle says in the same passage (Rom. 5:12). Much more, therefore, can children receive grace through Christ, so as to reign in eternal life. But our Lord Himself said (Jn. 3:5): “Unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost,
he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” Consequently it became necessary to baptize children, that, as in birth they incurred damnation through Adam so in a second birth they might obtain salvation through Christ. Moreover it was fitting that children should receive Baptism, in order that being reared from childhood in things pertaining to the Christian mode of life, they may the more easily persevere therein; according to Prov. 22:5: “A young man according to his way, even when he is old, he will not depart from it.” This reason is also given by Dionysius (Eccl. Hier. iii).”

The Pontificator has spent a good deal of effort recently trying to show that the Roman position is that the “original sin” with which an infant is born is not a personal guilt, but is rather a lack of sanctifying grace. Looking at the catechism, that seems to be the current teaching, sure enough. But it sure isn’t what Thomas thinks. Thomas doesn’t seem to make the distinction between personal guilt and lack of sanctifying grace and thinks that original sin itself is sufficient cause for God to justly damn you.

Thomas’s view is a bit cold blooded, but it does seem consistent. The current teaching from the Vatican is “Maybe God’ll damn a baby, maybe he won’t, so let’s be hopeful and trust in his mercy.” Clearly this view reflects a very different understanding of original sin, baptism, and salvation. But, this provokes two questions.

(1) How does the position the Vatican is now endorsing avoid a quasi-universalism?

Let’s grant the distinction between lack of sanctifying grace and personal guilt and let’s grant that original sin does not convey any personal guilt. Now personal guilt is a necessary and sufficient cause of being damned. I commit a mortal sin, God sends me to hell because of it. I read the Pontificator as saying that lack of sanctifying grace is not a sufficient cause for being damned, precisely because only personal guilt is a sufficient cause for damnation. But if lack of sanctifying grace is not a sufficient cause for damnation then there is no question as to whether or not unbaptized babies who have no personal guilt will go to heaven–they must go to heaven or God would damn them unjustly. (There is only heaven and hell now, no Limbo.) So “maybe yes, maybe no” must really mean “definitely yes.”

Why would the Vatican want to waffle on the issue though? If they were advocating a universalism for all unbaptized children, why hedge?

(2) How does the position the Vatican is now endorsing avoid pelagianism?

If we say that original sin is a lack of sanctifying grace, but not a personal guilt and we admit that human beings have free wills, then we have opened the possibility that someone might not commit a mortal sin after attaining the age of responsibility and before his death. Let this person be a virtuous pagan to make the case even clearer. What would happen to him? If he goes to heaven, then it would seem like he earned his own salvation apart from Christ by living a good life. If he goes to hell, how is God just to condemn him? The old doctrine of Limbo seemed to work well for cases like this, but that’s not an option any more. One could attempt to deny the freedom of the will in order to guard against this possibility, i.e. one could claim that the concupiscence of original sin necessitates that one commit a mortal sin, but this would seem like a very unattractive option because it also raises lots of questions about God’s justice and so forth.

Thomas’s position seems quite consistent. If you die without having the guilt of your original sin washed away by baptism, off to hell you go, no ifs ands or buts.

It seems to me that the Vatican has some ‘splainin’ to do. If there is no ‘guilt’ attached to original sin, then how could God possibly be just to condemn an unbaptized infant or virtuous pagan?


5 Responses to Thomas Aquinas on the Damnation of Unbaptized Infants

  1. wtm1 says:

    Very nice, Shane! When I saw this come out in the news I wanted to write about it, but the pressures of the end of my last MDiv semester prevented me. I’m glad that you found the time to do such a nice job interacting with these matters.

    The big question that the Roman church is always trying to figure out is precisely what staying true to its theological tradition means. For instance, Augustine’s great ‘advance’ in soteriology was to develop the notion not only of inherited sinfulness but also of inherited personal guilt. Can Rome say Augustine is wrong? That is the big question, at least for me. The questions you raise concerning universalism and pelagianism are important as well, but only insofar as we take contemporary Roman teaching at face value without asking the more penetrating question about the tradition.

    Just my two cents, however.

  2. wtm1 says:

    I want to clarify one point: It is not just the question “Can Rome say that Augustine is wrong?” but also the question “On what basis can Rome say that Augustine is wrong?”

  3. Pontificator says:

    wtm1, of course the Catholic Church can acknowledge that Augustine was wrong on specific points. She can do so on the basis of her primary apprehension of the catholic faith in fullness. This, as I understand the matter, is the meaning of Holy Tradition.

  4. […] sacraments/ordinances) in this life. Didn’t South ever read Dante’s Inferno, if not St. Augustine? In fact, by Augustinian doctrine, even Christians, however sincere, who never received an […]

  5. jonolan says:

    I believe the question of the “virtuous pagan” to be moot or near moot. The Catholic chaurch would en mass claim that in the modern world every pagan is exposed to Christianity and therefor must have chosen NOT to convert if they remained pagan. This would seem to be enough in the eyes of the church to constitute a mortal sin.

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