How doctrine denied dead infants a decent burial
Published 15/06/2014 | 02:30
The earliest documentary evidence for the use of cilliní in Ireland dates from the 17th century, but this is not to say that they were not in use before then. The practice arose from the belief that the unbaptised could not be given a Christian burial.
For many, these are the "Limbo" babies, consigned to an alternative abode of rest (other than heaven), until this Catholic doctrine was quietly brushed aside in recent years. As ever, though, the story is somewhat more complicated than that. In fact there have been a variety of approaches to this issue in the Christian Church from earliest times.
The difficulty arose because, on the one hand, the Christian Church professed baptism to be necessary for salvation (John 3:5) and yet at the same time claimed that God wished "all to be saved".
Christianity in the West, especially under the influence of Augustine, emphasised that all humans shared in Adam's sin and this "Original Sin", as it came to be called, needed to be wiped clean at baptism. Keeping these three claims simultaneously afloat would be no easy task.
Augustine, in reaction to a figure called Pelagius who denied Original Sin, taught that unbaptised children were denied heaven and, indeed, went to hell, where they experienced punishment "of the lightest kind".
It was in reaction to this harsh teaching that medieval scholars started to row back from Augustine's stance. The Cistercian, Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), suggested the faith of parents might be a substitute and thus spare the child from hell.
Others claimed that the only suffering a child might experience was being deprived the sight of God (Beatific Vision). Others still (including Thomas Aquinas) argued that unbaptised babies wouldn't have the capacity to even realise what they were missing and would therefore be naturally happy in an intermediate state.
Another thinker, Peter Lombard (1096-1164), cautioned that God shouldn't be bound by his own rules. One notable, Gregory of Rimini (1300-1358), tried to revive Augustine's no-nonsense approach and was branded a tortor infantium ("torturer of infants") for his trouble.
For most, though, the gentler view of Aquinas was the most attractive compromise. The term limbus infantium (the "limbo of infants") had come into use in the early 13th century. Yet it was just one theory among many, and was never officially taught by the Church and rarely, if ever, mentioned in official documents.
After Vatican II, the emphasis had changed again, to "allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without baptism", as stated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992). This more hopeful approach is reflected in the provision of a liturgy for unbaptised infants in the Roman Missal.
In 2007, an International Theological Commission, while not dispensing with the necessity of baptism, nor the idea of Limbo as a hypothesis, claimed that in the past "the doctrinal nature of the question or its implications were not fully understood".
SALVADOR RYAN IS PROFESSOR OF ECCLESIASTICAL HISTORY AT ST PATRICK'S COLLEGE, MAYNOOTH