One Man's Visit to Hell
Interview With Author Paul Thigpen
SAVANNAH, Georgia, SEPT. 17, 2007 (Zenit.org).- Those who don't believe
in hell are living with a very dangerous kind of wishful thinking, or a
comfortable fantasy, says author Paul Thigpen.
In this interview with ZENIT, Thigpen discusses his new book "My Visit
to Hell," published by Creation House.
Thigpen is editor of The Catholic Answer, director of the Stella Maris
Center for Faith and Culture, and an award-winning journalist and
best-selling author of 34 books.
Q: You have written a novel, "My Visit to Hell," about just that -- a
young man's visit to hell. What prompted this?
Thigpen: The Holy Father recently lamented the fact that so few people
in our day ever talk about hell. Maybe this book can contribute in some
small way to changing that situation.
Why should people talk more about hell? Many of our contemporaries,
including some Catholics, refuse to believe that hell truly exists.
And several surveys show that even among those who believe in the
existence of hell, the great majority think they have little or no
chance of ending up there.
Nevertheless, in the Gospels Our Lord has warned us solemnly and
repeatedly about the terrors of hell. So what we have here is a very
dangerous kind of wishful thinking, a comfortable fantasy that needs to
We should be thinking about hell, and heaven as well, because our
destiny profoundly shapes our identity.
The more we know about our possible destinations, the more we'll know
about who we are, why we're here, and which way we should be headed.
I certainly don't enjoy thinking and writing about sin and its
tormenting consequences, but given the widespread denial of hell in our
day, and the avoidance of any discussion about it, the time seems right
for a book such as this.
Q: How has your book been received? Do you think it has appeal to those
who do not claim to be Catholic?
Thigpen: Catholic readers often comment that the book has sent them
running to the sacrament of confession, and for that I'm grateful.
It's not intended to condemn people for their sins, but rather to
encourage them to flee to God for forgiveness and healing.
As for non-Catholic Christians, I've had an enthusiastic response from
readers representing a variety of religious backgrounds.
The main themes of the story -- the horror of sin, the hope of grace,
the dignity and danger of human freedom -- lie at the heart of the
Gospel that all Christians embrace.
As for atheists, agnostics, and other non-Christians, my hope is that
they can identify to some degree with several characters in the book
who share their situation.
The main character is in fact an agnostic who must reconsider his
position in light of what he encounters on this terrifying journey.
Anecdotal evidence encourages me that the book is stirring readers to
think seriously about the matters it touches upon.
One reviewer said he plans to make the book a part of his annual
readings for Lent. Another reader composed a series of songs about the
Some book clubs are choosing it to read and discuss. It's required
reading in at least one college course, and a new scholarly study of
contemporary Christian fiction devotes a chapter to it.
Q: Why did you choose the novel as a format, over poetry or simply a
theological discourse on the topic?
Thigpen: Dante's "Inferno," the 14th-century poem about an imaginary
visit to hell from which my account draws heavily, convinced me that a
narrative approach to this subject could be quite powerful in ways that
a straight theological discourse could not.
This isn't to say, of course, that Dante's vision isn't theologically
informed; his portrait of the infernal regions actually embodies the
moral theology of St. Thomas Aquinas, as does mine.
Dante's book was only one in a series of what are known as "tours of
hell" that go back to ancient times, all using narrative fiction to
paint a chastening portrait of sin and its eternal consequences.
Even Our Lord himself spoke of hell using a parable whose stark imagery
awakens in us a sense of dread: see Luke 16:19-31.
Few people today will read lengthy poems of the sort Dante wrote; they
So the contemporary genre of speculative fiction seemed especially
appropriate for this subject matter. You might think of it as a
Q: In some ways your novel is like Dante meeting Walker Percy, put in a
contemporary setting. Is this partially what you had in mind?
Thigpen: You're right -- or even more precisely, Dante meets Flannery
O'Connor, who is one of my literary heroes.
She and I are from the same hometown, Savannah, Georgia, and my mother
went to college with her. So I've always felt a certain kinship with
her and with her vision of the world.
O'Connor masterfully portrays sin in all its revolting ugliness. Yet
always she reveals a "moment of grace," a divine light that shines all
the more brightly because the surrounding darkness is so deep.
My intent was similar: to show that even though sin deforms us into
something grotesque, God still labors to reconcile and heal us.
Q: In your depiction of hell, you describe layers of it rapidly filling
up from sins more readily committed in our cultural climate, for
example, abortion, destroying fetuses for scientific or medical
research, assisted suicide, striving for bodily perfection. In what
ways do you categorize and describe some of these?
Thigpen: What I call the "moral topography" of hell -- its structure of
descending circles, each one punishing a sin worse than the one above
it -- I borrowed from Dante, who based it on St. Thomas' moral teaching.
Below "limbo" lie the circles of "upper hell," which punish sins of
Next is "middle hell," punishing sins of the intellect; and finally
"lower hell," punishing sins of malice, both injury and fraud.
The lower you descend, the more serious the sin and the worse its
When I considered the sins you've noted, I realized that they are
simply more contemporary versions of ancient sins already identified
and positioned in Dante's hell.
Like abortion, destruction of embryos for research is murder of a
particularly loathsome type -- a betrayal of the tiny innocents that
God has given us to protect.
So those who are guilty of this sin aren't punished with other
murderers; they end up much farther down, in the lowest circle with
some of the fiercest punishments, where traitors are tormented.
Or consider the idolatry of bodily perfection: It's actually a form of
gluttony, a narcissistic addiction to the pleasure of looking
So those who are guilty of this sin are ironically punished alongside
the gluttons, whom they detest as undisciplined slobs.
Of particular interest to many contemporary readers, I think, is the
circle punishing sins of the intellect.
Those holding to the popular notion that sincerity of belief is all
that counts will find plenty here to challenge their assumptions.
Q: You mention in the preface that you were reluctant to write this
book given the gravity of the topic. Are there ways in which meditating
about hell has changed your own life?
Thigpen: Spending several months thinking deeply about hell, and
writing down the fruits of that reflection for others, cultivated in me
a healthy fear of the Lord, and "the fear of the Lord is hatred of
evil": Proverbs 8:13.
I came to a new understanding of how repugnant, how despicable, how
corrosive sin truly is, with the result that I wanted all the more to
avoid it and cling to God instead.
It also made me more deeply grateful for divine grace.
I deserve the everlasting misery of hell because of my sin, but God
sent his son to make it possible for me to live with him forever
instead in the joy of heaven.
I can never cease to marvel at such a gift!
The Church: Who's In and Who's Out?
by Dr. Jeff Mirus
July 20, 2007
An ancient Catholic dictum has been brought back to center stage by the
recent clarifications of Vatican II’s teaching on the Church by the
CDF. I refer to the doctrine of extra ecclesiam nulla salus (“outside
the Church there is no salvation”). My email has been fairly hammering
with confusion about what this means.
The Mystery of the Church
The Church is a great mystery, and part of that mystery is that she has
both visible and invisible aspects. The Catholic Church certainly has a
visible structure, and this visible structure alone identifies the one
body constituted by all the gifts granted by Christ for salvation.
Nonetheless, these gifts are found not only within the visible
structure of the Church. For example, some of the sacraments are
operative beyond the Church’s borders, as is Sacred Scripture. And of
course the Spirit of Christ (that is, the Holy Spirit) exists wherever
He chooses to act.
The Magisterium has officially and formally taught on numerous
occasions that there is no salvation outside the Church, but she also
teaches that salvation is possible for those who never become members
of the visible Church, even for those who may never be sacramentally
baptized. To name just two related concepts with which most Catholics
are familiar, baptism by blood and baptism by desire may provide
alternatives to sacramental baptism. Also, Vatican II clearly taught
that all those goods which constitute the Church, but which sometimes
operate outside her visible structure, actually impel those who receive
them toward Catholic unity.
Moreover, Vatican II taught that even those “who, without their own
fault do not know of the Gospel of Christ and His Church, but yet seek
God with sincere heart, and try, under the influence of grace, to carry
out His will in practice, known to them through the dictate of
conscience, can attain eternal salvation” (Lumen Gentium, #16).
Obviously, they receive none of the visible goods of the Church, but
they can still receive the Spirit of Christ. Indeed, St. Paul had
already taught this from the earliest times. God, Paul said, is not
only the God of the Jews but also of the Gentiles (Rm 3:29), and “the
Gentiles who do not have the law, do by nature the works of the law.
They show the work of the law written on their hearts” (Rm 2:14-15). He
makes clear that they will be judged according to their response to
what they have received in this way, “on that day when, according to my
gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus” (Rm 2:16).
If we can find this idea in St. Paul, then those who claim that Vatican
II’s teaching is novel are obviously incorrect. Although this is an
area of doctrine which has been developing rapidly over the past
century, we find precedents and hints of these developments in earlier
magisterial teaching, and indeed they are already widely present in the
Fathers. For example, many of the Fathers were convinced that the great
pre-Christian Greeks (such as Socrates) were saved by their adherence
to the “logos”, the Spirit of Christ, the Holy Spirit. Indeed, St. Paul
tells us that what is necessary for salvation is Faith (a concept
Luther understood very badly). According to the late Scripture scholar
Fr. William Most, who was also supremely attentive to the ecclesial
Magisterium, Paul defines faith throughout his writings as having three
elements: (1) Reading and believing what the Spirit writes in our
hearts; (2) Having confidence in it; and (3) Obeying it.
Mystery and Membership
How, then, can we reconcile these ideas, so clearly stated by the
Second Vatican Council, with other magisterial teachings which
emphasize that those outside the Church cannot be saved. Clearly, the
solution lies in the recognition of the full mystery of the Church—that
it has both visible and invisible elements. Those who are outside the
Church’s visible structure will certainly not be saved because of any
other creed they may profess or any other church they may be in, but
they can be saved in spite of these things by their response to the
Spirit of God writing in their hearts, which somehow invisibly joins
them to the Church. In other words, they are joined to the Church, and
somehow “within” her, by putting their faith in Christ insofar as
aspects of Christ and His goodness are written in their hearts by the
It is not clear exactly what terminology is best to describe this
invisible joining to the Church. Pope Pius XII in Mystici Corporis
(1943), which emphasized the Church’s character as a mystical body,
spoke of “being ordered to” the Church by “an intense desire [desiderio
ac voto] of which they are unaware” (#103). Vatican II, and the
clarification of the CDF, stated that the constitutive goods of the
Church “impel toward Catholic unity” wherever they are found, so that
(presumably) anyone who responds properly is somehow joined to the
Church, even if he has no opportunity to participate in her visible
structure. Eugenius IV, as far back as 1442 in Cantate Domino (a text
often cited in support of a very restrictive view), actually said that
those outside could not be saved unless “before the end of their lives”
they are “added to” the Church.
Those reading this essay may or may not live long enough to see further
precision achieved by the process of legitimate doctrinal development.
John Paul II, in Redemptoris Missio (1990), spoke of salvation being
accessible to those envisioned in Lumen Gentium “by virtue of a grace
which, while having a mysterious relationship to the Church, does not
make them formally part of the Church” (#10). Following his lead, some
theologians have called this mysterious relationship “substantial
membership” as opposed to “formal membership,” which has measurable
Many Questions Illuminated
Now, when we stop to think about it, this understanding of what is
necessary for salvation, and of how those outside the visible structure
of the Church can be saved, actually clears up a great many problems to
which we have become very sensitive in modern times. Our increased
understanding of human psychology has made us painfully aware that no
two people respond to the proclamation of the truth in the same way,
and that the motives involved in the varied responses may be very
different than they seem. We are aware of all sorts of impediments,
which we do not necessarily attribute to personal decisions. We know
that a person who appears to embrace the truth may have unworthy
motives, while another may reject the truth without subjective fault.
The problem of invincible ignorance also fits in here. And what of
those who are mentally impaired?
Deep at work beneath all these questions is the Spirit of Christ, the
Holy Spirit, Who alone knows how much He has written in each heart and
Who alone knows each heart’s capacity to respond. This is why we must
leave final judgment to God, and trust in His mercy—the One who
“desires all men to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth” (1
We cannot quite leave the topic here, however, because it is necessary
to address a great fear, often even a complaint, expressed by those who
think the teaching of the Church has “changed” on this point. They
claim that all of this causes the Church to lose her importance in the
process of salvation, and so eliminates the impetus for evangelization,
missionary work and conversion in general.
The Importance of the Church
Nothing could be farther from the truth. The Church remains central for
three extremely important reasons. First, the Church is absolutely
essential because, being constituted by the complete set of Christ’s
gifts for our salvation, and being the very mystical body of Jesus
Christ, she is the source and fountain of grace in the world. Indeed,
she is the leaven which raises the whole loaf. Moreover, as the very
extension of Christ through time, she is the mystical point of
departure for the Holy Spirit in all His mighty works.
Second, the Church is far and away the most sure means of salvation. In
Mystici Corporis Pius XII, while expressing the possibility of
salvation for those who do not belong to the “visible bond” of the
Church, wrote that they should nonetheless strive to remove themselves
from “that state in which they cannot be sure of their own eternal
salvation” so that they might no longer “lack so many and so great
heavenly gifts and helps which can be enjoyed only in the Catholic
Third, the Church is the most effective and complete means for drawing
into union with God. By some flaw in our modern sensibilities, we often
frame this entire question exclusively in terms of “salvation” as if
salvation is the primary focus of religion. Ever since Lutheranism was
founded by a man who was neurotic about his own salvation, a sort of
skewing of religious reality has to some degree infected all Christians
(one scholar has called this the problem of the ego in faith). In
reality, the primary focus of all true religion is to give glory to
God. We do this first and foremost by responding to His invitation to
draw into the closest possible union with Him. It is precisely this
union which gives Him glory. And it is precisely into the Church that
God has poured all the means of union.
The Church, then, is not ultimately about protecting our right to
superior pay as workers who have labored all day in the scorching heat,
or our role as self-satisfied sons while we watch the despised
prodigals squander their inheritance. The Father goes out from his
vineyard to issue his summons at every hour of the day, and he even
spies the prodigal from afar and rushes out to meet him before he
reaches home. In the same way, the Church is about glorifying God by
helping as many souls as possible to draw into the closest possible
union with Him. All the means of union form the very constitution of
the Catholic Church. The desire to share the great gift of the Church,
then, becomes the most powerful impetus for good example, witness,
preaching, evangelization, catechesis, apologetics, missionary work,
and every form of charity. In all this there can be no lack of motive
for the Catholic. Sharing the Church is simply at the core of what it
means to be in love with God.
Scholar: Ordaining Women Is Disrespectful
Says Promotion of Female Priests Overemphasizes Masculinity
ROME, MAY 4, 2007 (Zenit.org).- Those who want to ordain women to the
priesthood manifest a failure to recognize the dignity of women, said
an expert in moral theology and women's issues.
Pia de Solenni asserted this during her April 27 conference at the
Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome.
De Solenni won the Pontifical Prize of the Academies in 2001, receiving
an award from John Paul II for her doctoral thesis on St. Thomas
Aquinas. She is the director of Life and Women's Issues at the Family
Research Council in Washinton, D.C.
At the conference, de Solenni used St. Thomas' arguments to analyze the
issue of the ordination of women to the priesthood in light of the
natural complementarity between the sexes.
St. Thomas taught that woman was not created from man's head in order
to rule over him, nor from his foot to be ruled by him, but from his
side in order to rule with him, she explained.
The 1994 Vatican document "Ordinatio Sacerdotalis" concentrates on
three basic points, de Solenni explained: "Christ, in ordaining only
men, acted freely without constraints by cultural norms; nonadmission
to the priesthood is not a sign of lesser dignity; the Church does not
have the faculty to ordain women."
De Solenni illustrated the first point saying that many claim Christ
ordained only men because of the cultural norms of his day. Since the
role of women has changed, some say the Church should also adapt and
allow women to be ordained to the priesthood, she said.
De Solenni contended, however, that the Gospels show how Christ often
broke with the cultural norms of his day: In fact, it was to the
Samaritan woman at the well that he revealed himself clearly as the
Messiah -- to her as to no other, she said.
"Ordinatio Sacerdotalis" points out that the non-admission of women to
the priesthood does not signify a lesser dignity. The entire history of
the Church, said de Solenni, "witnesses to the presence and active
participation of women."
"It was the consent, understanding and devotion of a woman that brought
the Church to us," and the fact that the Virgin Mary was not chosen by
her son to be a priest "indicates that the sacrament does not
discriminate on the basis of dignity or merit," de Solenni explained.
De Solenni reiterated a point from "Ordinatio Sacerdotalis" which says
the question of women's vocations should not be confined to ordination.
"Woman will never be the bridegroom, in any form. The temptation to
force upon women a masculine paradigm arises from our confused notions
of power and authority which, in turn, devalue her vocation as a bride,
clearly illustrated by Mary," de Solenni said.
Ordaining a woman, she said, "would be, in essence, to show complete
disregard for the reality she is as a woman, as a bride."
Masculine vs. feminine
De Solenni asserted: "The promotion of ordaining women to the
priesthood is a sign of misunderstanding and even disrespect for the
dignity of woman."
The fact that "the significance of the feminine identity is so largely
misunderstood or even disregarded, indicates that our very notion of
Church is in peril, has lost personality. She has become an 'it,' a
mere institution, rather than a living being," de Solenni added.
The discussion of ordaining women to the priesthood has been a sort of
"overemphasis of the masculine," she said.
"No doubt," continued de Solenni, "women need a voice in the Church,
but it must be an authentic voice and not their voice made to sound
like a man's."
Women, she stated, have a unique role in the Church and in society and
that role should not be forced into masculine paradigms. "To do so,"
she said, "runs the risk of losing what is truly feminine -- not the
femininity of fashion, but the varied femininity of women saints, whose
personalities and strengths span just as far as those of men saints …
if not more."
Catholic Social Doctrine More
Than Mere Policy
Interview With Professor Russell Hittinger
ROME, MAY 4, 2007 (Zenit.org).- Beyond mere policy, Catholic social
doctrine seeks to clarify the proper order and harmony among societies,
says a Catholic author and professor.
Russell Hittinger, the William K. Warren Professor of Catholic Studies
and a research professor of law at the University of Tulsa, spoke
Wednesday at the "Foundations of a Free Society" conference organized
by the Acton Institute, held at the Pontifical Lateran University.
In this interview with ZENIT, Hittinger discusses the history of
Catholic social doctrine, starting with Pope Leo XIII, up to Benedict
XVI's most recent contribution to the body of knowledge in "Deus
Hittinger's most recent book is "The First Grace: Rediscovering the
Natural Law in a Post-Christian World."
Q: Can you explain the seminal role Pope Leo XIII played in shaping
what we now know to be Catholic social doctrine?
Hittinger: Pope Pius XI [1922-1939] is the first Pope to speak of
social doctrine as a unified body of teachings that develop by way of
clarity and application.
In "Quadragesimo Anno," Pius XI said that he inherited a "doctrine"
handed on from the time of Leo XIII. By any measure, it is a prodigious
Beginning in 1878 with the election of Leo XIII, Popes have issued more
than 250 encyclicals and other teaching letters; roughly half are
related, broadly, to issues of social thought and doctrine. No
government, no political party, no encyclopedia or university has
produced such a continuous and voluminous tradition of social thought.
Leo XIII himself wrote some 100 teaching letters.
Why did he write so many encyclicals? The short answer is the collapse
of Catholic political Christendom and the rise of the new secularist
states in the 19th century.
To be disinherited politically was a traumatic event for European
Catholics. Leo XIII understood the need to respond in a measured and
Throughout the world Catholics looked to the papacy to provide
leadership lest Catholicism become divided by the new nation-states.
To his credit, Leo XIII rose to the occasion. Leo XIII saw that he
needed to supply not only juridical but also intellectual leadership.
His teachings proved successful because he was ready to ascertain what
is open or closed in the secular mind, and to use the right mixture of
dialectics and systematics to move the latter toward the former.
He gave Catholics a sophisticated body of thought about social issues
that transcended what could be called simple statements of "policy."
His efforts also proved successful because his lengthy pontificate was
the seedbed for future Popes; hence emerged a remarkably
well-structured, yet quickly evolving body of social doctrine.
Q: Pope John Paul II's encyclical "Centesimus Annus" was written on the
100th anniversary of Pope Leo XIII's encyclical "Rerum Novarum." What
elements from Leo XIII's encyclical are still relevant 100 years later?
What developments in the encyclical were unique to John Paul II?
Hittinger: Like every subsequent Pope, John Paul II expressed his
admiration and profound gratitude for the Leonine project. By my count,
the world in which John Paul II came of age went through three deep
First, after World War I: Nation-states were profoundly demoralized by
the war, and this demoralization became fertile soil for the rise of
totalitarian regimes that Leo XIII could have scarcely imagined.
Second, after World War II: Europe and her former colonies around the
world undertook a painful and searching re-evaluation of their
respective domestic orders, and the international order.
During these years, when Father Karol Wojtyla was a young priest, he
saw the beginning of the human rights movement, the beginning of
European Union, and both the hopes and disorders which followed upon
Third, the revolution in Central and Eastern Europe that ended the Cold
War: "Centesimus Annus" is John Paul II's grand narrative and
philosophical analysis of all these changes.
To be sure, the Leonine principles are quite evident, but John Paul II
deals with the crises of the 20th century.
I encourage people to read both encyclicals because the entire modern
history of the Church is encompassed by the lives of Leo XIII and John
The former was born in 1810, at the zenith of Napoleon's power, and the
latter was born just a decade after Leo XIII's death, and brought the
Church into the new millennium.
Q: Benedict XVI's encyclical "Deus Caritas Est" has elements of a
social encyclical. In what ways does he follow "Centesimus Annus"? Does
he bring a new perspective to Catholic social doctrine?
Hittinger: "Deus Caritas Est" perhaps does not break entirely new
ground in social teaching. But it surely reiterates and makes more
clear that the mission of the Church is not to be confused with the
state and the other temporal instruments of social justice.
Benedict XVI was, of course, familiar with the problem, which surfaced
acutely in certain strands of liberation theology. As the prefect of
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger
had written clear and careful instructions on this subject.
From one point of view, the second half of "Deus Caritas Est" continues
the standing magisterial admonitions about turning the Church into a
mere instrument of politics and the quest for justice.
Beyond the specific questions surrounding liberation theology, however,
Benedict XVI wanted to remind us that while the Church teaches and
promotes social justice, Christ gave the Church a very specific mission
in the order of charity.
The integrity of this mission must be protected. And at a minimum, this
means not confusing it with the ordinary objects and ends of civil
Q: You spoke recently at the Acton Institute event "The Foundations of
the Free Society" in Rome. How is the exercise of virtue important in
building a free and just society?
Hittinger: The natural, acquired virtues and the supernatural virtues
are like spiritual muscles, disposing the intellect and the will to
achieve their proper objects -- namely, the true and good.
Some levels of justice and love are achievable with a minimum of
virtue, but such achievement will not last for long without it. Any one
who has married and raised children understands this point. So, too,
does any superior of a religious order or congregation.
The first stirrings of truth and love provide an initial thrust toward
right order. But without virtue they will turn out to be like seeds
thrown on rocky soil.
Today there is a tendency to believe that right order ensues merely
from arranging a rational set of incentives, as though truth and love
were the products of a system.
Whatever "system" contains real human persons -- polities, markets,
education, families -- it cannot succeed without the internal
perfections of its members.
Q: Additionally, at the Acton Institute event, your lecture was
entitled: "Societies as Persons in Social Doctrine." You argued that
societies can be defined as a person. What do you mean by this and what
ramifications does it have for Catholic social doctrine?
Hittinger: It should be obvious that social teaching presupposes that
there is such a thing as society.
Indeed, there are many different kinds of society. Some are natural, in
the sense that human life is either impossible or very difficult
without them. In the older tradition common to philosophers,
theologians and jurists, the family and the polity counted as natural
Other societies are voluntary, such as clubs, sodalities, faculties,
corporations and so forth. The Church is a supernatural society, though
it has aspects of both natural and voluntary societies.
In her social doctrine, the Church has repeatedly insisted that we must
carefully note the different objects and ends and modes of unity of
How can we do justice if we don't appreciate these differences?
For example, how can we do justice to a matrimonial society if we treat
it the same as a temporary economic partnership? How can we do justice
to a religious congregation if we treat it no different than a chess
I call societies "persons" in a restricted but important sense. A
society is the bearer of rights and responsibilities that are not
reducible to the aggregation of its members. The rights-and-duties
bearing unity called a "society" is a subject of moral appraisal.
In the moral sense of the term, a society can harm and be harmed. In
"Centesimus Annus," No. 13, this is what John Paul II meant by the
"subjectivity of society."
He simply meant that a society is something more than mere
intersubjectivity; rather, it constitutes a "subject" in its own right.
All of us belong to more than one society.
Catholic social doctrine seeks to clarify the proper order and harmony
Limbo: In or Out?
An exclusive interview with a member of the Pontifical Theological
Commission on the controversial topic of original sin, baptism,
salvation, and the doctrine of limbo
By Andrew Rabel
On Friday, April 20, 2007, the International Theological
(ITC), an advisory body comprised of 30 theologians from around the
world chosen by the Pope, released its long-awaited document, The Hope
of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized -- the issue of
original sin, baptism, salvation, and limbo.
Following the release of the document, commissioned under Pope
Paul II (1978-2005), there was considerable confusion in the press,
with typical comments being that the Church had finally buried its
teaching on Limbo after some 800 years.
In hopes of shedding some light on this controversial theological
matter, Inside the Vatican’s Andrew Rabel, an Australian Catholic
writer, in late April conducted an exclusive interview with an
International Theological Commission member, the American nun Sr. Sara
Butler, a Missionary Servant of the Most Blessed Trinity (MSBT). She is
one of two women appointed to the International Theological Commission
by John Paul II in 2004, and presently teaches dogmatic theology at St.
Joseph's Seminary in Dunwoodie, New York.
Sr. Butler has been a Missionary Servant of the Most Blessed
since 1956. She has served as instructor and professor at a variety of
institutions, including 14 years at Mundelein Seminary in the
Archdiocese of Chicago. She is a member of the Anglican-Roman Catholic
An early supporter of women's ordination, Sr. Butler says she came
the conclusion, after much theological research, that she could support
the Church’s teaching. She recently published The Catholic Priesthood
and Women: A Guide to the Teaching of the Church, (Hillebrand Books,
2007), a strong defense of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, the document in
which Pope John Paul II set forth the reasons for the Church’s teaching
that only males may be priests. Here is the transcript of the interview.
Inside the Vatican: Sister Butler, your commission’s latest
about limbo has sparked a lot of controversy. In essence, what is the
International Theological Commission trying to say in its document
about the fate of unbaptized infants?
Sister Sara Butler: The commission is trying to say what the
of the Catholic Church (CCC 1260, 1261, 1283) has already said: that we
have a right to hope that God will find a way to offer the grace of
Christ to infants who have no opportunity for making a personal choice
with regard to their salvation. It’s trying to provide a theological
rationale for what has already been proposed in several magisterial
documents since the Council.
ITV: The weekend after the document was issued, statements in the
indicated Pope Benedict had approved its publication, and agreed with
its contents. Can you comment on this?
Sister Butler: The Pope was present for the initial discussion at
meeting of the International Theological Commission, as the Prefect of
the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). He said this was
a topic that had been brought by bishops to the CDF and therefore was
being recommended for our consideration.
At that time, Cardinal Ratzinger did not impose any conclusion on
and as far as I know it would be unprecedented that a Pope would
comment publicly on a document prepared by the ITC.
The current Prefect of the CDF, Cardinal William Levada, has
the document. According to our statutes, the conclusions are submitted
to the Pope and are published only with his consent. It seems that this
document is being handled in a different way than previous documents. I
don’t remember that any previous ones received special notice from the
ITV: If this is not a document of the Magisterium, does this mean
can expect subsequent action from the Holy See, affirming any authentic
theological developments here?
Sister Butler: The document is a theological explanation of why
Church now feels it is possible to hope that a way of salvation is open
for infants who die without Baptism; in the past, it seemed that there
was no hope for them.
I would not be able to speculate on whether there will be any
subsequent action. I think the document is for the use of other
theologians. Generally, the ITC documents offer a point of reference
for bishops and theology professors in seminaries, for example, to
offer an explanation for the development of doctrine. But I doubt
whether this would lead to a further statement from the Magisterium,
because it says no more than what has already been said in the CCC, in
the funeral rites for infants who have died without baptism in the 1970
Roman Missal and, in Pastoralis Actio (the document from 1980 from the
CDF on the baptism of infants). It says nothing new; it is simply
trying to make explicit the theological grounding for this hope.
Gaudium et Spes 22 and Lumen Gentium 14 & 16 at Vatican II, opened
the way for this development. Actually, some wanted the teaching on
Limbo formally defined at the Council, but the topic was excluded from
ITV: In paragraph 37 of your document, a line from the Council of
II is cited: that "as for the souls of those who die in mortal sin or
with original sin only, they go down immediately to hell to be punished
with different punishments." It says that these magisterial statements
do not oblige us to think that these infants necessarily die with the
stain of original sin, so that there would be no way of salvation for
them. How so?
Sister Butler: That quotation is taken from a section entitled
of a Hermeneutical Nature." The effort there is to give a theological
interpretation of a magisterial statement from the past. First of all,
you have to consider what was at issue at the time. The question was
whether the soul is judged immediately after death or whether the
judgment was deferred till later on. The focus was not on the destiny
of unbaptized infants who die but on when the soul was judged. This was
a question between the East and the West, and the formulation you quote
was proposed to the Eastern Church in the hopes of restoring full
So the "hermeneutical question" requires understanding the
its context. The controversy was whether judgment took place at the
moment of death, or at the end of time. No one was contesting whether
different kinds of sin warranted different kinds of punishment.
ITV: In n. 40 it says in summary: the affirmation that infants who
without Baptism suffer the privation of the beatific vision has long
been the common doctrine of the Church, which must be distinguished
from the faith of the Church. It then says that the privation of the
beatific vision, which is the traditional understanding of this
punishment, is a theological opinion.
How does that square with statements in Denzinger numbers 858 and
(according to the new version) which after all is a compilation of
magisterial teaching, in this case taken from the Councils of Lyon II
Sister Butler: I don’t have my Denzinger near at hand. In number
the document we are trying to distinguish what belongs to the faith of
the Church from the "common teaching." The faith of the Church is that
these infants inherit original sin and therefore baptism is necessary
for them as the ordinary means of salvation. That infants who die
without being cleansed of original sin by baptism are deprived of the
beatific vision is the common teaching.
That common doctrine that such infants suffer the loss of the
vision is not the same thing as the faith of the Church; it’s a
conclusion theologians drew. The theories that they suffer only this
loss, and not the torments of hell, or that they enjoy a "natural
happiness," are theological opinions.
So we are distinguishing three things, (i) the faith of the
(ii) the common doctrine about the privation of the beatific vision,
and (iii) certain theological opinions. There are different levels of
We did a thorough review of the history of the doctrine, and what
Denzinger has been taken into consideration in the document.
ITV: Reading sections 68-69, the document seems to take a line
to the late Swiss theologian, Hans Urs Von Balthasar, who seemed to
argue that we are allowed to hope that all men may be saved. Is the
document trying to say all unbaptized infants are saved, on the basis
of this theological concept?
Sister Butler: It doesn’t draw that conclusion; it just indicates
given our understanding of God’s mercy and the plan of salvation which
includes Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit in the Church, we dare
to hope that these infants will be saved by some extra-sacramental gift
of Christ. We do not know what the destiny of these children is, but we
have grounds for hope. We are very clear that the ordinary means of
salvation is baptism, and that infants should be baptized; Catholic
parents have a serious obligation.
The document makes no blanket declaration. It only attempts to
in view of what was previously the common teaching, that it is
reasonable to hope that these infants may be the object of God’s
special providence. We hope that God will embrace them in His saving
mercy, just as it says in the Catechism, the funeral rites, and
ITV: In section 86 the document says, "Some of the infants who
and die do so as victims of violence. In their case, we may readily
refer to the example of the Holy Innocents and discern an analogy in
the case of these infants to the baptism of blood which brings
salvation." This seems to square with what certain groups in the Church
are pushing for, namely, the declaration of aborted unborn infants as
martyrs of the Church, thus baptized in their own blood. Does the
document lend support to such individuals?
Sister Butler: I’m sure we never considered suggesting that these
infants be declared martyrs. We were, of course, aware that in many
places Catholics remember the unborn babies who have been aborted on
the feast of the Holy Innocents. We didn’t propose a solution; we just
offered some indicators as to why we think God offers them a way of
salvation. In this particular instance, death is the way these children
might be united with Christ: through the violent circumstances of their
deaths, they may be united to His Paschal Mystery.
ITV: In Ludwig Ott’s masterful treatise Fundamentals of Catholic
he says, "Other emergency means of baptism for children dying without
sacramental baptism, such as prayer and the desire of the parents or
the Church (vicarious baptism of desire - Cajetan), or the attainment
of the use of reason in the moment of death, so that the dying child
can decide for or against God (baptism of desire - H. Klee), or
suffering and death of the child as quasi-Sacrament (baptism of
suffering - H. Schell), are indeed possible, but their actuality cannot
be proved from Revelation."
Does the ITC document say anything much different from this when
says in paragraph 79, "It must be clearly acknowledged that the Church
does not have sure knowledge about the salvation of unbaptized infants
who die. She knows and celebrates the glory of the Holy Innocents, but
the destiny of the generality of infants who die without Baptism has
not been revealed to us, and the Church teaches and judges only with
regard to what has been revealed. What we do positively know of God,
Christ and the Church gives us grounds to hope for their salvation, as
must now be explained."
Sister Butler: The ITC document agrees that nothing has been
revealed about the destiny of these infants. It does not directly
endorse any of the theories he mentions. Ott’s manual was published
just before the Council, and summarized what was taught at that time.
At this time -- especially in the 1950s -- there was a very lively
discussion of the topic, with theologians proposing different ways in
which God might bring about the salvation of these infants. You might
say this discussion was interrupted by the Council, and now it has been
taken up again, with the advantage that it can incorporate the
The Council explicitly taught that God provides a way of salvation
those who are invincibly ignorant of the Gospel and therefore have no
access to sacramental baptism. The Council is optimistic about the
possibility of salvation for those persons when it teaches in Gaudium
et Spes 22 (cited in CCC 1260) that "since Christ died for all, and
since all men are in fact called to one and the same destiny, which is
divine, we must hold that the Holy Spirit offers to all the possibility
of being made partakers, in a way known to God, of the Paschal Mystery."
The Catechism goes on to say, "Every man who is ignorant of the
of Christ and of his Church, but seeks the truth and does the will of
God in accordance with his understanding of it, can be saved." The ITC
report extends the logic of this teaching to infants. We suggest that
the Holy Spirit offers to them, in a way known to God, the possibility
of being made partakers in the Paschal Mystery. Pope Pius XII said in
an Allocution to Italian midwives that since infants are incapable of
making a personal act of love that would bring about their salvation,
it is imperative to see that they are baptized. Given the teaching of
the Council that I have just mentioned, we are more confident that God
will offer them salvation in some way. We are not obliged to conclude
that they are in Limbo, without any further hope.
However, the theory of Limbo is not ruled out. According to no. 41
the document: "...besides the theory of Limbo (which remains a possible
theological option), there can be other ways to integrate and safeguard
the principles of faith outlined in Scripture." The ITC wants to give
more weight to God’s universal salvific will and to solidarity in
Christ than to the necessity of baptism, which is not absolute but is
qualified in certain ways.
ITV: The document says that Catholic belief in Limbo actually did
start to be challenged until the middle of the 20th century (ie no.
26). Do you envisage this doctrine surviving? The document still says
that Limbo is a legitimate option to uphold in balancing the tension
between the necessity of sacramental baptism and the infinite mercy of
Sister Butler: The report concludes that Limbo remains a "possible
theological opinion." Anyone who wants to defend it is free to do so.
This document, however, tries to give a theological rationale for
hoping that unbaptized infants may be saved.
If somebody like Fr. Richard McBrien supposes that the ITC
rejects the doctrine of original sin, this is of course a mistake. The
fact that one might jump to this conclusion, however, is precisely why
a careful theological study was needed. There are several doctrines
involved. We have set out the theological principles in a new order.
From our review we conclude that the common teaching which has been in
our possession does not belong to the faith of the Church. We take the
doctrine of God’s universal saving will of God as a starting point. By
contrast, St. Augustine took the necessity of Baptism as a starting
point, and incorporated the doctrine of God’s universal saving will in
a very qualified way.
ITV: Following the attacks made by McBrien et alia, does the
Church say now that baptism is not necessary for salvation?
Sister Butler: Those who suppose this document denies the doctrine
original sin are wrong, but so are those who presume it teaches that
all unbaptized infants who die are saved, as if this were a truth of
revelation. It says there are good grounds for the hope that God offers
them a way of salvation. This is an important distinction: we don’t
know, for there has been no revelation about this. We are only trying
to assess what we don’t know from what we do know. From what has been
revealed, we judge it reasonable to hope that God will bring unbaptized
infants to heaven.
As to your question regarding baptism, "Does the Church now say
baptism is not necessary for children?" the answer is "no." In the
Catechism, paragraph no. 1257 says: "We do not know of any means other
than baptism into eternal beatitude." But God is not bound to the
sacraments, and therefore, just as we understand there are other
possible ways for adults who are in invincible ignorance of the Gospel
to achieve salvation, so we presume there are other ways, known to God,
open to infants who unfortunately die without baptism.
The Physician's Relationship With Morality
By Dr. José María Simón
World Federation of the Catholic Medical Associations (FIAMC)
Relations between the physician and the moralist have not always
been easy. Numerous colleagues from different countries are asking for
reflections to help them to practice the medical profession with moral
security. One of the requirements of this moral security is frequent
consultation with experts to enlighten the professional conscience. In
order to be truly human, it must be well trained and correctly informed
and must be frequently refined in its permanent search for the truth.
In recent times, given the nature of the answers of the experts, it is
worth offering certain clarifications on the quality and scope of these
The natural law exists
The natural law is the ability of straightforward human reason to
know and to stick to the truth. There is no other profession that
appreciates the existence of this law as much as physicians.
Although the natural law does not coincide with biological law, we
are perfectly aware that if we underestimate human physiology, for
example, our patients will be sick. No one can, for example, eat stones
without transgressing the laws of our body and, therefore, falling ill.
This can help us to understand that there is also a law which helps us
to value human dignity. We all "know" that it is bad to kill an
innocent human being. Or that it is bad to steal. We know that if we do
not consider the human being also as a psychological, spiritual, family
and social being, our duty to transform suffering into well-being (as
physicians we are like Nazarenes, like Cyrenaics, who help to withstand
the weight of the disease and the pain) will never fully attain its
Although the absolute majority of the inhabitants of planet Earth
believe in a Supreme Being, in many Western societies many thinkers and
opinion creators do not. We can also give them natural reasons for what
is good or bad for the human being. Furthermore, it will sometimes be
with these reasons that they will perceive how sublime our thinking is.
In view of the existence of the "natural law," given its
complexity (although some rules are very simple), and as it is obvious
that we human beings have suffered from serious limitations since the
times of Adam, we can wonder whether there is some ultimate authority
which can interpret this law correctly. Numerous intermediate
jurisdictional levels help or hinder the perception of this law.
Our ultimate personal authority is our personal professional
conscience, which will trigger the decisions on medical acts. Indeed,
each of us just with our own reason can go far in the search for the
truth. But there is a safe, genuine and objective, and therefore useful
and good authority for a general interpretation of the law, something
which prevents us from making glaring errors with the human being and
which moreover seeks the transcendental happiness of people.
God is the Creator of the universe and of man. And, as some
political constitutions say, God made man free. Free to choose the
truth and good. But also free to choose evil. Experience tells us that
good and evil are entwined in countless shades inside our health-care
structures. If evil exists, confusion and error also exist. Both
blameworthy and blameless error (we must fight against both!).
Moreover, it is possible that some people are particularly determined
to spread the confusion. And evil can establish real "sin structures,"
places, establishments or laws which do not serve the human being.
The Church interprets the natural law
Our Creator stipulated that it is the Church that should interpret
the "natural law" in an authentic manner. It moreover looks after
everything that he revealed and which is not in nature. As human beings
we are only passing through this world as a test, to a certain extent
isolated from God but not at all forsaken. In the Lord's Prayer we say
"Our Father, who art in heaven," which already shows that we are on
another level, not in Heaven. "Thy kingdom come" and "deliver us from
evil" clearly show us that there is a better condition which can come
and which has not yet fully come and that the Creator can do
everything. The teachings of the Catholic Church can help us on not
leaving us alone. The Church speaks with human language (and in
different languages) about everything that happens to man.
Another truth that our own and historical experience perceives is
the reality of the progress of medicine, irrespective of the fact that
there have also been advances, backward movements and asymmetries in
different countries and cultures. As human beings we have numerous
surprises to discover in nature itself and we are capable of inventing
and of building no end of things, which makes living a passionate and
never complete experience.
Progress should be made using both sides of the coin: science and
ethics. In recent years the name and contents of a supposed new
discipline, bioethics, have made a fortune. Personally, I believe that
many years ago as physicians we already had equivalent disciplines. I
recently read books on medical morals and on professional ethics from
the beginning of the last century and they are treatises on bioethics …
The teachings accompany the progress of medicine
The progress of medicine is also accompanied by a deployment of
the teachings of the Catholic Church. New techniques, new discoveries,
call out to physicians, who find support in the teachings. Support is
security. Moral security is necessary in order to practice our
profession. The [Church] teachings enlighten the professional
conscience in order to practice with good, adapting to the times and
moments of progress. The teachings intervene after considering the data
obtained by the experimental sciences. They do not save us from the
effort of studying the world by ourselves. On the contrary, they impel
us to do this de facto and de iure.
Ecclesiastic common sense tells us that, although all of us who
are baptized are the Church and we all do our bit for it, it is the
Pope and the bishops in communion with him who exercise the teachings
of the Catholic Church. It could not be otherwise. The Almighty became
one of us and left representatives, acting as they want and how they
want, but adapting to the logic written by himself. It is not
reasonable for anyone, in any way, to produce teachings or to try to
interpret the "natural law" authentically.
Therefore, when a papal or episcopal document appears on a subject
of interest to the profession, the Catholic physician should be
critical with the legion of moralist theologians who interpret and
reinterpret it in the media. As if the Pope did not write clearly. As
if as Catholic physicians we could not understand it by ourselves! They
should not offend the intelligence of professionals or of the
population in general. I know that some theologians have the backing of
numerous publications, have been prestigious university lecturers for
years or are linked to us by friendship. Emotivity can turn heads that
are well screwed on and, on the other hand, also make people understand
by other means what they do not understand through reason.
Any ordinary person understands the saying "What the boss says
goes." This should be enough to silence anyone who shamelessly takes
over someone else's duties.
It is essential to take into account that, as in the case of
personal appearances or revelations, the public aspect of the Catholic
Church takes precedence over private teachings. The public teachings of
the Catholic Church on the subjects which affect us thus always have
priority and truth. The private teachings of theologians must always be
rejected if they contradict the teachings of the Catholic Church. And
even if they appear to contradict them.
One of the principles of communication in the Catholic Church is
that of clarity and non-contradiction. There are no secrets in the
Catholic Church. The major truths are public and are clear (they can be
found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church). When a mystery is
proclaimed, it is clear and it is classified as such.
The life of people on this Earth is aimed at their eternal
destiny. Man cannot be measured in just two dimensions. The third
dimension, the one that points upward, is the one that gives our lives
An exemplary case
This is a case of a declaration of experts on the possible
legality of the transfer of an altered nucleus to an egg to obtain stem
cells. The genetic material from one cell would be altered in such a
way that the product resulting from the insertion of this material into
an egg and its activation would not give rise to a human being. It
would be something like the hydatidiform mole, which also comes from an
altered egg and spermatozoid, although in this case naturally.
The exemplariness of the case comes from the intelligence of
considering the possibility, from the way of prudently expressing
opinions, from the sincerity of the signatories admitting that each is
an expert only in one area and that they are not speaking in the name
of their Church or work institution, and from the fact that they
propose beginning the research with animals.
When making decisions the problem should be framed
On many occasions as Catholic physicians we come across moral
dilemmas and have to make decisions. It is therefore important to know
how to distinguish between good and evil, which it is impossible to do
on the fringes of the Church (this is the way things are).
When making decisions, it would be good to take into account the
ancient principle of "primum non nocere" (first, do no harm) and the
evangelical principle "no more burdens than necessary." Also, that of
working with an overabundance of good. This allows us to go much
further on facing problems with humanity.
Although we are not usually responsible for the evil that third
parties do or for finding ourselves working within sinful structures,
we should never lose the strength of the ideals of youth, the freshness
of wanting to change things, however deeply rooted they appear to be,
or the conviction that we are never alone.
Before making decisions, the physician takes stock of the
situation on facing a specific problem. It is good to fit things into
the big picture (the frame) and from a healthy anthropology. I remember
the time I was invited to one of the mass media for a debate on
artificial insemination in lesbian couples. The different opinions were
supposed to be balanced. The guests, however, were a gay activist, a
lesbian, a bisexual, a libertine and a heterosexual. Moreover, the
presenter and the supporting reports were light-years from the thought
of the heterosexual minority. On asking the program editors about such
a coarse manipulation, I had to hear that everything had been designed
to ensure the strictest equality of opinions …
In this case, the frame of the issue is not whether or not this
kind of couple has a right to insemination or whether there are
heterosexual couples who ill-treat their children. The broader
perspective can help the fertility professional to be a conscientious
objector. Because what is ideal, with the millions of couples and
children who are and have been happy, is for children to be born
naturally in the family, to a man and a women. This is where we should
take the debate because this is where it really lies.
Can you do harm to do good?
Although in general the problems in medical decisions do not tend
to be presented as harm which does good, the truth is that this is the
key to the issue on many occasions. And the principle of never doing
harm to do good (the end does not justify the means) is essential.
Medical decisions are moral acts. Life's routine often means that
we do not see them as such. Maybe one day we considered the morality of
a procedure or protocol, we decided that it was fair, and we applied it
to our different patients without thinking any more about it.
Automatisms form part of nature and help us to live without wasting
huge quantities of mental energy. However, on some occasions -- not
just in extraordinary cases -- the moral act should be studied with
The traditional dissection of the moral act into object, aims and
circumstances is useful. A good act requires the simultaneous goodness
of these three elements which constitute the morality of human acts.
Sometimes we have to sharpen our wits to put everything in its place
and to clearly detect what object we are assessing. In short, what we
are really talking about.
For example, can you get drunk (an evil act) in order to have
decayed teeth removed (a laudable aim) in the absence of medicines (a
setting favoring the act)? Is this not accepting that the end justifies
the means or that harm can be done (getting drunk) in order to do good
(health)? The answer to this apparent dilemma, which can be applied to
many other cases but not to all, is that we have classified the act as
"getting drunk" whereas really it is an "anaesthetic" act. Alcohol is
an anaesthetic, although of a secondary category. Our practical reason,
with a little training and practice, will help us to classify the moral
There are behaviors whose choice, because of their nature, is
always wrong. For example, in the case of abortion, it cannot be stated
that sacrificing the child to supposedly favor the mother is a good
act. However you look at it.
The double effect
The double effect theory has a bad reputation in Europe due to the
discredit of the so-called collateral damage in recent wars. You bomb
the enemy and, unintentionally, your action injures innocent civilians.
This is terrible.
However, medicine holds firm because we accept the theory.
Chemotherapy is intended to eliminate cancerous cells while also
damaging healthy cells. We remove a sick uterus despite the fact that
the woman will be infertile forever. We vaccinate thousands of children
despite the fact that some will die from the side effects.
Obviously we must do everything possible to minimize side effects,
just as we should do everything possible to prevent a war. With the
double effect, it is not a question of doing bad to achieve good. The
bad is not wanted. It appears like an unwelcome and persistent guest.
With so-called therapeutic or eugenic abortion, to make it clear
that here there is no double effect and that what is being fought first
here is the embryo, John Paul II himself stated that the death of an
innocent can never be legitimized.
With indirect abortion, although it is right to treat a mother
even if we expect the side effect to be the death of the embryo or
fetus, some people have given us a solution to moral problems with an
excess of good. This is the case of Dr. Gianna Beretta, who refused
treatment so as not to harm her pregnancy. She died and her son lives.
The lesser evil
It has become fashionable to talk about the lesser evil as if it
were something desirable. But no. You can never do bad, however little
it may be or you may consider it to be. Bad is always bad. The theory
of the lesser evil does not refer to doing but rather to tolerating.
The lesser evil is decided by one or more third parties without us
intervening. We have to tolerate certain evils because we are not
Quixotes who must fight against everything and moreover the human being
is free even to use this freedom badly. Our obligation is never to do
bad. Always to do the most good possible. What we should not get used
to is to tolerating the bad inflicted on innocents. These are never
Collaboration with evil
With the current state of the world, we often have to consider
whether to avoid collaborating with those people and structures which
go against the dignity of the human being. Although they may find
others who will collaborate with evil, they will not find us. It should
not be attributable to us, and, if possible, we should try to lead
these situations down the correct paths.
On some occasions we have doubts, especially if the collaboration
is remote. Remote collaboration, although effective, is not
attributable to us if we do not want it to be. It is good to avoid
scandal and not to become contaminated by it. But we cannot isolate
ourselves in a glass bubble and stop being a good substance in the
world around us.
Freedom and moral security
The Catholic physician has broad freedom to practice the
profession. We have intelligence and we need to make it perform to the
maximum. Moreover, the security that we are acting correctly (moral
security) can be achieved with a minimum ethical training, accepting
the [Church's] teachings and consulting certain cases with senior
colleagues or with a priest who knows the correct doctrine. Thousands
of physicians worldwide practice daily with the peace of mind that they
are acting correctly.
As Catholic physicians we have great models on which to base our
actions. They have simply identified themselves perfectly with the
principle of ethics: "Christus medicus." St. Luke, St. Cosme, St.
Damian, St. Joseph Moscati, St. Gianna Beretta, St. Richard Pampuri,
Father Pere Tarrés, Dr. László
Batthyány-Strattmann, and many more, have preceded us and have
become the giants of medicine. Curiously, patients often venerate them
more than us, the physicians …
Some reflections on specific issues
The "affaire" of using condoms to prevent infection with AIDS or
unwanted pregnancies is another of the things that drives activist
Catholic physicians mad. But we should not let ourselves be led to
territories which are not ours. Sexuality is one of the gifts of
marriage and within marriage it is expressed to the maximum. As
Catholics, and in marriage, we live sexuality to the full. Sexuality
outside marriage, between males or polygamous sexuality, does not form
part of our anthropology. The Church cannot be accused of spreading
AIDS (the other 29 sexually transmitted diseases are almost always
forgotten) when it preaches abstinence, faithfulness and patience. This
is useful to prevent diseases or teenage pregnancies. But the main
purpose of chastity is not to prevent an epidemic but rather to promote
virtue and to provide happiness.
It is obvious that Catholic physicians, who work in a world in
which there is a bit of everything and in which the same health
structures are often perverted, will come across people who will want
to continue practicing sequential polygamy or homosexuality. It will
not be ingenuous, in an environment of good physician-patient
relations, to present them with our proposals. If the person insists
implicitly or explicitly on continuing with their practices, the
physician will talk to them about the condom as the more or less
imperfect "barrier," without presenting it, and especially not
recommending it, as something good. And, finally, if the person is
infected, they will treat them with affection and professionalism.
It is important to take into account that the Catholic Church's
mission is not to promote solutions so that the human being can
continue to carry out improper behavior. And as far as possible we
should prevent the media from using us to promote unworthy conduct.
There is scientific knowledge which is not obtained from reading
the science sections of the media. Thus, knowing that hermaphrodites
exist, that post-abortion syndrome is frequent and painful, or that
homosexuals can often change, is learned in specialized journals or
from experienced teachers.
It is good to always bear healthy anthropology in mind and to
think that the mass media understand what is simple better, that they
are obliged to have striking headlines and that they can rarely hold a
good moral debate.
Euthanasia: dying is not the same as being killed
We cannot abandon a terminal patient, we cannot be cruel to them
and we cannot kill them. The only decent thing that we can do is to
provide them with quality palliative health care. This should take into
account the biopsychosocial, spiritual and family dimensions of the
person. This is the path that we should take.
Euthanasia kills freedom. It is a supposed free decision which
means that the person will not ever again make free decisions. Not even
the very human decision of rectifying. Euthanasia, its popularization
or legalization, are on the dark side of the profession, whoever
Cases of consultations on whether or not the treatments for the
terminally ill are proportional are extremely frequent. Medicine can
never refuse hydration, nutrition, hygiene, oxygenation, basic
medicines. Recently, an elderly man presented cardiac insufficiency and
the ethical committee of his hospital recommended only a treatment with
morphinic drugs, while awaiting his death. But the physician dealing
with the case solved it with a diuretic, oxygen and digoxin. The true
sage was the ordinary physician.
As human beings we were deliberately created incomplete by God.
Man needs woman to be fulfilled and woman needs man to be happy.
Furthermore, man and woman also need children to complete their
plenitude as a family. Husband and wife have all the children that they
can maintain and bring up. The number of children depends on many
factors and should be decided on with generosity. Large families are a
joy for society and for the Church. In my personal opinion, it would be
unnatural for the mature human to do without the other sex, unless it
becomes a supernatural good, as with celibacy for the Kingdom. There
are of course causes of "force majeure" [greater force] or imponderable
causes which mean that a person cannot be fulfilled with a partner.
The sex act holds such a sway that it leaves no one indifferent
and always has consequences. It unites man and woman in an incomparable
manner. It should take place in a context of maturity, commitment and
exclusivity: marriage. Man and woman give each other everything,
including the ability to generate new human lives. This is good.
There are times when, objectively, for medical, social or family
reasons, the responsibility of the parents leads them to avoid a new
birth. This possibility is already foreseen in the "natural law." Women
are only fertile for a few days a month. Natural fertility regulation
methods (Billings, sympto-thermal, etc.) allow these infertile periods
to be used for man and wife to remain in communion with sexual
relations and thus overcome the unhealthy attraction of other flesh.
Pope Paul VI, in the encyclical "Humanae Vitae," warns that
physicians and health care personnel should consider it their
professional duty to obtain all the science necessary in this field in
order to be able to give the married couples which consult us wise
advice and healthy guidelines which they are fully entitled to expect
Contraceptives infringe several human rights: the right to life
(in the case of the abortion or morning-after pill), the right to
health (they have side effects, unlike natural methods), the right to
education (people are entitled to know about their own fertility) and
the right to equality between the sexes (the contraceptive burden
always tends to fall on the woman).
In July 2005, the International Agency for Research on Cancer
(Lyons, France), of the World Health Organization, reported on the
carcinogenicity of oral contraceptives with combined estrogen and
progestogen, based on the conclusions of an "ad hoc" international work
group. They were classified as Group 1 carcinogens.
Regrettably, dear colleagues, at present we are unable to provide
natural methods for all those who need them. The low fertility rates in
countries with a Catholic majority (Spain, Italy), together with the
low knowledge of these methods, means that many married couples use
artificial methods. If we take into account that they are relatively
rich countries, it cannot be said either that they are especially
generous with the number of children. We have an immense challenge
here. We should never put out the torch that has been lit in favor of
Unfortunately, contraception is not the only challenge of Medicine
and of society. Also, we are unable (us and nations in general) to
provide means against malnutrition, malaria and the vertical
transmission of AIDS. We have the knowledge and some means but we
cannot make them available to the needy. There is therefore no lack of
Without judging married couples who use artificial contraceptives
-- our job is not to judge -- we should never forget this professional
duty to offer natural means and to dissuade from using artificial
means. It is a sign of progress to understand nature well and to help
it as far as possible. The world is incomplete. We have work to do.
And, when we do it, the progress can be seen.
Is there anything worse than dragging a child out of its mother's
womb? Can abortion be explained to a 5-year-old child? Does a woman who
loses a child through miscarriage not weep as if she had lost a child?
Do we as physicians do everything possible to transform the suffering
of parents with problems in pregnancy into happiness and joy? The
Catholic physician practices the preferential option for mothers. Not
sole or exclusive but preferential.
We know very little about the physical beginning of the human
race. Without falling into scientism, we will need to wait decades
until science enlightens us more on this subject. It is not known how
or when one species changes into another, if this occurs at all. A
large part of what has been written on this subject is provisional and
As you know, except in extremely exceptional cases, amniocentesis
is performed to provoke abortion if a fetal malformation is suspected.
Therefore, as this practice is not carried out for the good of the
fetus and the mother, it cannot be considered as a correct medical
From President of World Federation of Catholic Medical Associations
ROME, DEC. 2, 2006 (Zenit.org).- Here is the text of a document
released by the World Federation of the Catholic Medical Associations.
* * *
Letter to Catholic Physicians Worldwide on
"The Physician's Relationship With Morality"
The physician can and must help
infertile couples, but cannot substitute them. This principle is very
useful to understand that, despite the popularity of so-called assisted
reproduction techniques, we cannot give in to easy, profitable,
temptations. All efforts should concentrate on improving the fertility
studies for couples and on treating what can be treated, which is a
lot. Given the obsession that many clinics have with in vitro
fertilization, it would be good to explain to couples that the medical
function is not to replace them, that amniocentesis is almost always
performed to abort defective children, that surplus embryos are often
eliminated, that children are frozen.
Catholic gynecologists are the heroes of present-day medicine. Their
care and promotion are a top priority for the associations of Catholic
physicians and for the FIAMC. General practitioners and other
specialists can also contribute wise advice on matters of fertility.
Respect for the embryo: stem cells
I sincerely believe that the most coherent position with the knowledge
that we have on the embryo is scrupulous respect from the moment of
conception. And that this is the position that avoids the most
problems. Our coherence is highlighted when defenders of whales and
seals, death penalty detractors, human rights activists and different
sorts of philanthropists accept the destruction of an embryo without
batting an eyelid (always with therapeutic aims, of course).
Conception lasts for some time, but the process has already been
triggered and respect for the wholeness of the embryo starts much
earlier: it starts with respect for the union of a man and a woman,
avoiding in vitro conceptions. Human beings should not introduce chaos
into the bios.
To make a comparison with the beginning of the Gospel according to St.
John, we can say that in the beginning is the genetic message, and the
genetic message is in life and the genetic message is life. When there
is a complete genetic message, which can be expressed and which is
expressed in a continuous, coordinated and gradual manner, unstoppable
if it were not for adverse external factors, then there is a unique and
unrepeatable human being which must be respected. It comes to us and
its family (us) must accept it and welcome it.
It is understood that, although any cell, for example from our skin,
contains the complete human genetic message, it is not a human being in
itself. The expression of this message, which is partial, means that it
is not a human being. It is the fertilized egg which is already acting
like a human! In the beginning, we are a single and unrepeatable
message surrounded by some membranes, RNA, energy reserves and other
services. To date, no researcher has "created" life. Human beings are
only capable of transmitting it, correctly or incorrectly.
Embryonic stem cells exist to give rise to the embryo. And adult stem
cells exist to regenerate tissues. It is that simple.
Strictly speaking, the human being does not have any right to life.
Life is a gift that we receive. Before existing we were nothing and we
were not therefore subject to rights. What we are entitled to is to not
having our life taken away by another human being!
Our profession is perhaps the most admired profession in the world and
the one that people expect the most from. I would recommend that you
never stop studying, that you bear in mind the physician's promise and
prayer (www.fiamc.org), that you do not fall into the temptation of
venerating the god Mammon (money) and that you consider the possibility
of bringing colleagues to the already existing associations of Catholic
José María Simón
December 1, 2006
P.S. I am grateful to Monsignor Maurizio Calipari, ecclesiastic
assistant of the FIAMC, for the advice that he has given me for the
final version of this letter. Although under the supervision of the
hierarchy, the Code of Canon Law gives widespread autonomy to the
international Catholic organizations such as the one that I chair. The
FIAMC is a public-law organization in the universal Church, and
therefore "speaks and acts in the name of the Church." This is a clear
sign of ecclesiastic trust in lay people.
Arian Heresy Still Tempts,
Says Cardinal Bertone
Sees Example in "Da Vinci Code"
ROME, OCT. 9, 2006 (Zenit.org).- Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the
Vatican secretary of state, says that the Church continues to be
tempted by the Arian heresy, the idea that Christ is not God.
In an interview with the Chilean newspaper El Mercurio, the
cardinal acknowledged that "one of the main problems of our time is the
problem of Christology," according to which Christ is considered only
as "a great man."
"If Christ's divinity is doubted," the foundation of Christianity
doubted, he said.
The Vatican official recalled the doctrine of Arius (256-336), a
of Alexandria and later a bishop, who, beginning in 318, denied the
divinity of the Word, the Second Person of the Trinity.
Symptoms of this denial of Jesus' divinity include the support
by "The Da Vinci Code," despite its "absolutely shameful fictional
inventions," said Cardinal Bertone, 71.
"But we see in addition that even in the elaboration of certain
theology, doubt is cast on the divinity and salvific unicity of Christ,
the only Savior," he continued. "This Christological reduction betrays
the faith of the nascent Church and of the great Christological
councils of Nicaea, Constantinople and Chalcedon.
"It is an authentic betrayal and a denial of the faith of our
According to the cardinal, "it is necessary, therefore, to return
Christological faith, to the centrality of Christ, true God and
therefore only Savior."
However, according to the Vatican secretary of state, the Church
only faces the threat of Arianism, but also of a new Pelagianism, one
of the worst heresies, which arose in the fifth century.
"This hinges on thinking that we can build a Church ourselves and
believing that it is possible to save ourselves, without the Lord's
grace and help," he noted. "They are recurring dangers which appear
successively in history."
These two challenges were addressed in the 2000 declaration
Iesus," signed by the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and Archbishop
Tarcisio Bertone, in their capacity as prefect and secretary,
respectively, of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
on Limbo "neither essential nor necessary"
Oct. 2005 (CWNews.com) - The International Theological Commission
will recommend against using the concept of Limbo in explaining the
eternal fate of unbaptized babies. But the group does not intend any
"break from the great tradition of the faith."
Bruno Forte, a member of the International Theological Commision, made
these predictions in a conversation with the I Media news agency.
Archbishop Forte, who was a renowned theologian prior to his
appointment in 2004 as Archbishop of Chiete-Vasto, is in Rome this week
for the Commission's plenary session, held from October 2 to 6.
concept of Limbo, which has never been formally defined in Catholic
teaching, can be dropped "without compromising the faith at all," the
archbishop said. In recommending that move, he said, the Commission is
not contemplating a change in doctrine, but only "avoiding the use of
images and metaphors that do not adequate account for the richness of
the message of hope that is given to us in Jesus Christ."
Forte reported that the Commission is close to completion of a
statement on the fate of unbaptized children. But he warned that the
document, which has been heavily anticipated, is not likely to be
publicized soon. He pointed out that the International Theological
Commission does not work quickly; the group is convened for 5-year
terms, and the current term, which was charged with discussion of this
question, began its work in 2004.
he said that the Commission's statement on unbaptized children is now
in "mature" form, the archbishop added that some refinements would be
needed before it is complete. Then it would be submitted to Cardinal
William Levada, who as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of
the Faith is also the chairman of the International Theological
Commission. Cardinal Levada, in turn, would submit the statement to
Pope Benedict XVI (bio
International Theological Commission is an advisory body, and the
document that is eventually submitted to the Pontiff will not carry any
teaching authority. But Pope Benedict-- who will preside at a Mass on
October 6 to conclude this plenary session of the Commission-- may
welcome the statement. In 1984, then-Cardinal Ratzinger expressed his
own "purely personal" belief that the concept of Limbo had outlived its
Forte, a longtime theological colleague of the current Pope, explained
to I Media that the document now being prepared by the International
Theological Commission does not simply discard the notion of Limbo.
Instead, he reported, the statement sets forth the doctrinal questions
involved in the discussion, including the reality of Original Sin.
Sin is a reality that really marks the fragility of the human
condition," the archbishop remarked. Salvation from sin can come only
through Jesus Christ, and baptism is necessary to remove the stain of
Original Sin. But in the case of children who are not baptized, through
no fault of their own, "then it would seem that the saving power of
Christ ought to prevail over the power of sin," he said. In a "complex
and secularized society," questions about the fate of unbaptized
children are raised more and more frequently, Archbishop Forte said.
Most pastors, he continued, respond to those questions by encouraging
the faithful to place their trust in God's mercy and entrust the
children to his loving care. That pastoral response, he noted, is
backed by the teaching of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
archbishop emphasized that the International Theological Commission is
not introducing any change in Catholic doctrine, and said that he hoped
to "reassure those who are worried about a discontinuity" in teaching.
The essential doctrinal points that have led theologians to posit the
existence of Limbo are still clearly upheld in the forthcoming
document, he said; in fact the Commission hopes to present those points
with greater clarity.
the same time, Archbishop Forte said, one can "set aside certain
formulations without compromising the faith of the Church in any way."
Again he noted that the concept of Limbo had "never been defined by the
Church, although it was a very common teaching." In this case, the
archbishop said, the International Theological Commission is reaching
the conclusion that the concept of Limbo is "neither essential nor
Angels, Our Best Friends
Interview With Angelologist Father M. Stanzione
ROME, JUNE 8, 2006 (Zenit.org).- There is a lack of education
angels, especially among young Christians, and other groups take
advantage of this vacuum, warns an expert on angelology.
Father Marcello Stanzione, a priest at the Abbey of Santa Maria La
in Campagna, Italy, and author of numerous essays and books on
angelology, spoke with ZENIT about the modern perception of angels.
In 2002, Father Stanzione refounded the Catholic association
St. Michael the Archangel, which organizes an annual
theological-pastoral meeting on angels. The second annual meeting was
held June 1-2 with the theme "The Return of the Angels Today, Between
Devotion and Mystification."
Q: What do angels represent for the Catholic faith and why are
object of more attention by other groups and religious movements than
Father Stanzione: Sadly, the catechesis on evangelization has been
somewhat lacking on this point of the world's knowledge of angels.
Others have taken advantage of the vacuum that has been created.
What is central in theology is the doctrine on God, the Holy
and Jesus Christ. But the angels are not useless or superfluous
realities, because they are part of God's revelation.
Angels are creatures as we are, with an ontological difference. We
born and die; angels do not die and have been given to us by God to
keep us company. The angels are an important complement in the creation
of the body; they are human beings' best friends.
A theologian has written that the angels are servants of God, and
make themselves servants of those who make themselves God's servants.
Some maintain that Jesus Christ, being the only mediator, does not
angels. In fact, in the Acts of the Apostles, the history of the early
Church makes evident the fundamental role of the angels. We can say
that Jesus Christ is the only mediator and the angels collaborate in
Jesus Christ's mediation.
The decline in attention and veneration of the angels in the last
years is due to a kind of secularization, influenced by a Protestant
deviation, which criticizes veneration of the Virgin, saints and
angels. There has been no clear evangelization on the nature and role
of angels and there is some confusion even among Catholics.
I have written and published several texts of Christian prayers to
angels to avoid catechists also believing and using ambiguous texts
circulating in bookstores.
Several of these ambiguous texts are reviewed by Catholic
without making any critical observation. They are essays that are based
on astrology, on the 365 degrees of the zodiac, and they hold that
there is a protector angel every five degrees, so that those born in
those five degrees have that protector angel.
It is a kind of white magic. I have met several Church people who
confused Catholic devotion with these rites. However, it would be
enough to enter a bookstore to find in the esoteric section some 30-40
titles on the angels. This indicates the great confusion that exists.
There are few Catholic authors who write orthodox texts on the angels.
Q: Has the intercession of angels before the Lord been forgotten
Father Stanzione: The problem exists. For some people it is
to use the angels to falsify the relationship with Jesus Christ and
with ecclesiastical institutions.
In this way, the discourse of the Ten Commandments and of morality
also falsified. It is a religion a la carte, with angels who serve to
help one find a fiancé or parking place.
In sum, a trivial, magic use is made of them. Instead, angels have
great dignity; even the simplest angel is much more intelligent and
powerful than a human being.
Evident is the lack of education of the new generations in
relationship with the angels. I have been concerned with this question
for 15 years, and in this endeavor of education I am appreciated and
supported by my bishop.
Q: Were angels created before man? What happened with Lucifer?
Father Stanzione: There is an ongoing debate on the birth of the
angels, in the sense that some hold that the angels were created before
men, and others that they were created contemporaneously with men.
In regard to Lucifer, it is proof that God does not impose faith
does not want to be loved by force but allows freedom of choice.
It must be specified that there is no dualism, in the sense that
Lucifer is not God's antagonist. Lucifer is the Archangel Michael's
antagonist because God does not lower himself to combat Lucifer, but
Q: What is the purpose of the congress you organize annually?
Father Stanzione: Every year, at the beginning of June, we hold a
meeting on the angels. Last year we reflected on the figure of St.
Michael. This year we are discussing the angels today, between devotion
and mystification. Next year we will reflect on the relationship
between the angels and saints.
In this way we want to fill a gap and overcome the prejudice that
discussion about angels is not worthy of theological debate. We give
our congresses a theological and above all a pastoral focus.
Q: Is it plausible and Christian to think that each one of us has
Father Stanzione: Whoever does not believe in the existence of the
guardian angel is outside the doctrine of the faith. Each person has an
angel as a good pastor. The Catechism of the Catholic Church also says
One cannot say that one believes in God, in the Holy Spirit, in
Virgin, without believing in the angels.
We do not see angels except in the history of the Bible and the
of the Church. Many saints had frequent contacts with angels; they
experienced a relationship. Different mystics speak about the
relationship with angels.
I think the time is ripe for the creation of courses on angelology
demonology in theological faculties.
Afraid of change? More myths of
By George Weigel
National Catholic Register, USA Week of May 24, 2006
In a recent editorial on condoms and AIDS, the London-based
influential weekly in the Catholic Anglosphere, argued that “in 1968,
the most persuasive reason advanced in favor of retaining the ban on
artificial birth control was that to lift it would suggest that the
Church could change its mind, and hence undermine its teaching
That is a distortion of history and the editors of the Tablet —
played a large role in the Humanae Vitae controversy — should know it.
Pope Paul VI was terrified that the Church, by “changing its
would undermine the authority of its magisterium? Please. Paul VI
presided over a Church that “changed its mind” — better, developed its
thought, practice, and doctrine — on many once hotly-disputed
questions: the validity of concelebrated Masses; the use of the
vernacular in the liturgy; the relationship of the Bible and the
Church’s tradition as sources of divine revelation; the diaconate;
religious freedom and the juridical, limited state. The Tablet’s take
on the bottom-line rationale for Humanae Vitae is a myth. But it’s a
myth of a piece with the journal’s longstanding misconception of the
Church’s teachings on marital chastity and family planning: a
misconception which holds that these teachings are “policies” or
“positions” that can be changed, rather like governments can change the
income tax rate or the speed limit.
In 1967, the Tablet (and the National Catholic Reporter) printed a
leaked memorandum to Paul VI from members of the papal commission
studying the morality of family planning. According to that memorandum,
a majority of the commissioners had been persuaded that the morality of
conjugal life should be judged by the overall pattern of a couple’s
sexual conduct, rather than by the openness of each act of marital love
to conception. A close reading of this so-called “Majority Report”
suggests, however, that the proponents of the Church “changing its
mind” on the question of artificial contraception were after much
bigger game: they intended to install proportionalism and the theory of
the “fundamental option” — methods of moral reasoning later rejected by
John Paul the Great in the 1993 encyclical, Veritatis Splendor — as the
official moral theological method of the Catholic Church. Paul VI
recognized this, and rejected the proposal accordingly. Pope Paul
undoubtedly was told that a “change” of “position” on contraception
would undermine the credibility of the magisterium; but that was, at
best, a secondary question. The real issue was much graver, and touched
virtually every question in the moral life.
If you want to measure the effects of proportionalist moral
a once-great ecclesial community, you need go no farther than the
Anglican Communion, which is being torn apart today because
proportionalists, insisting that they are the party of progress, have
jettisoned both biblical and classical Christian morality to the point
where the moral boundaries of the Anglican community are so porous as
to be virtually undecipherable. Perhaps the editors of the Tablet
imagine this a desirable future for the Catholic Church. Others will
find that view hard to comprehend.
Prior to Humanae Vitae, while the self-styled party of progress in
Church agitated the contraception issue in the press (much like a
political campaign), classical Catholic moralists tried to construct a
responsible theological case for a development of doctrine that would
sanction the use of chemical and mechanical means of regulating
fertility — and found they couldn’t do so without opening the Pandora’s
box of proportionalism, which blunts the edge of moral analysis and
drains the moral life of its inherent drama. True, Humanae Vitae might
have been better received had it adopted the richly humanistic defense
of natural family planning proposed by then-Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of
Cracow, as the approach to marital love and responsibility most
congruent with the dignity of women and the dignity of sex. But the
Church would have been terribly ill-served if the theologians most
responsible for shaping (and likely leaking) the so-called “Majority
Report” had had their way.
This myth-making about Humanae Vitae, which falsifies history and
distorts theology, should stop. Now.
George Weigel is a senior
fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.
Weigel’s column is distributed by the Denver Catholic Register, the
official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Denver. Phone: 303-715-3215.
The Meaning of Dogma
By James V. Schall
Catholicism has always taken dogmatic statements seriously because
realizes that the failure to state the truth properly often leads to
“If the average man is going to be interested in Christ at all, it
the dogma that will provide the interest. The trouble is that, in nine
cases out of ten, he has never been offered the dogma.”
— Dorothy Sayers, “Creed or Chaos?” 
“I suppose I have got a dogmatic mind. Anyhow, even when I did not
believe in any of the things called dogmas, I assumed that people were
sorted out into solid groups by the dogmas they believe or disbelieved.”
— G. K. Chesterton. The Autobiography. 
Contrary to popular assumptions, the terms “dogma” and “doctrine”
not intrinsically bad or evil words. No doubt, they can, in popular
parlance, stand for a kind of rigidity in which careful consideration
or reconsideration of an argument or a truth is rejected. The motive of
this refusal is often traced to an unwillingness to frankly admit that
problems concerning the presentation or meaning of a subject are at
issue. But essentially, a dogma is intended to clarify, to state what
can be stated about an ultimate issue or with something connected to
it. We not only long to behold reality in itself, to see God “face to
face,” and know that we do, but we long to understand, to make sense of
what it is we behold or hold in faith or in observation. The world of
reality and the world of mind are parallel to each other, but the
latter depends on the former for its truth. Truth, as Aquinas said, is
the conformity of the mind with what is, not the opposite, not the
conformity of reality with whatever the mind wants it to be. Dogma, its
statement, and what the dogma is about, its object, are not
contradictory to each other. If they were, we could know nothing about
anything. Our minds and the world would never meet or check one
another. The latter, the dogma, depends on the former, on what is. The
what-is-to-be-known always stands as prior to and as the basis of our
statement of what is known. A dogma is simply the stating accurately,
in the best way we can, in the language we know, what we know. The mind
is, as Chesterton said, a “dogma-making” faculty. To deny the mind this
capacity to state what it knows is to deny what it is to be mind in the
first place. We are the rational animals, the mortal beings in the
universe who both are and know what is not ourselves.
Often in more recent times, a curious “fear” has arisen that the
of Catholicism might indeed prove to be true. Thus, what has come to be
challenged is not so much the dogmas themselves, in their articulated
intelligibility, but the mind’s very power to know anything at all
including dogma. To obviate any possibility of a truth of things and of
human things that man did not give to himself, we propose, as a first
line defense, that we can know nothing but what we formulate for
ourselves. Since it is claimed as a consequence that we are obliged by
nothing in being, we are guaranteed freedom to do, not what follows
from the objective order of things, including human things, but what we
want, whatever we choose. No objective “givenness” can correct us. For
nothing objective can be known.
This denial of any relation between mind and things generally
with the epistemological problem, namely, with separating any
connection between our senses and our mind. Following a tradition from
at least Locke, if not Epicurus, we are said to know only an “image” of
reality, not reality itself. But, in fact, what we know through our
sensory powers is not a picture or image, but the thing itself. We know
this reality through the normal workings of our senses and mind as they
relate to each other in an orderly fashion. We do not know the images,
but the thing through our sensory and intellectual powers and their
relation to each other. If we only know the image of a thing, we can
never know anything outside of ourselves, including one another. And of
course, if we cannot know what is not ourselves, we cannot even know
ourselves, since the knowledge we have of ourselves comes initially and
indirectly through our knowing what is not ourselves. We know ourselves
not directly but indirectly through knowing what is not ourselves. The
very knowledge of ourselves is a gift from what is not ourselves.
Not infrequently, moreover, we find that the very effort to
dogmas, itself often a classically “Catholic” endeavor, is under attack
because, it is held, human beings substitute or confuse the statement
of the dogma or doctrine with the reality itself to which the dogma
points. Thus, it is held, we believe in “dogmas” but not that towards
which dogmas direct us or to what they articulate. Catholics, for
instance, consciously and deliberately say the Creed together at Sunday
Mass. This is, at bottom, the Church’s recognition that Catholicism is
an intellectual faith whose members know and want to know precisely
what it is that they hold about the Trinity and its Persons in relation
to us. The Creed is the minimal but most accurate statement of this
“holding” insofar as it can be properly formulated by the human mind
considering revelation and what it means.
When we say this Nicene Creed, the objection goes, we are said to
“believe” in the Creed as a statement but not in that to which the
Creed points. As a matter of fact, I doubt if very few, if any,
believing Catholics actually make this subtle confusion, however much
they are accused of it for being “dogmatists.” But if, in spite of it
all, they should do so, it would prove that they do not believe in a
reality but only in a statement of reality. While this confusion is
possible, the very accusation is, I think, often an effort to prevent
us from making the effort to state what the doctrine actually indicates.
None the less, it is a perfection of the human mind to seek to
however imperfectly, what reality means through the formulation of a
stated dogma. Nowhere in Catholic tradition is it claimed that the
dogma or doctrine as a statement is, even by reason of its accuracy,
something that exhausts the actual reality of what is defined. Nor is
it claimed that no better statement can be concocted. This better
statement depends on facts. The dogma is always designed to encourage
us to pursue a further knowledge, understanding, and indeed love of the
what is that we seek to know.
Catholicism has always taken dogmatic statements seriously because
realizes that failure to state the truth properly can and often does
lead to error and confusion. Wars and hatred have no doubt been related
to this problem of the accurate statement of the truths of things.
Historical relations with Orthodoxy, with Islam, with Protestantism,
with Marxism, with modern liberalism, with other religions, are at
bottom rooted in theological questions having to do with the proper
understanding of reality, of God, man, and the cosmos. This conflict,
however, is one of the sources of skepticism about dogmas. They are
said to “cause” wars, mere quibbles over nothing important, so it is
said. The argument follows that if we forbid or deny doctrine, prevent
or hinder its public expression, we will have peace. If we agree,
however, that nothing is true, we will be “free” from all the
“fanaticism” of the dogmatists, or so it is claimed.
In another sense, this controversy or violence surrounding
statements, while we do not easily praise it, does witness to the
long-range importance of getting things right in our understanding of
them. Things, both divine and human things, really are at stake if we
misunderstand the meaning of dogmas. Many a beautiful statue or
building has been destroyed by an iconoclastic dogma holding that any
representation of the divine is evil. Nothing in revelation, however,
gives us cause for thinking that its proper understanding and statement
is something that makes no difference to ourselves or to the world. The
“going forth and teaching” all nations means at least this, that
lacking proper “dogmas,” lacking the proper understanding of ultimate
things is a detriment to every people. The famous Aristotelian dictum
that a “small error in the beginning leads to a greater error in the
end,” moreover, has its validity and indeed its history. The idea that
“no dogma is true” is itself a dogma. And if it is this “dogma” that
claims itself to be “true,” it contradicts itself in its very
statement. So the effort to find the truth of dogmas is in fact
unavoidable if we wish to be sane about what the world and our
relationship to it means.
The term “dogmatic” theology, before its subject matter came to be
called the more ambiguous “systematic” theology, used to mean the
orderly effort to spell out, in careful philosophic terms, what was
revealed to us about God, man, and the world. It was concerned
primarily with the truth of what was revealed as presented in clear
terms that we could understand and accept. When any one read the
various accounts of Christ and the events leading up to him, both
remotely in the Old Testament, and more particularly in the New
Testament, questions of exact meaning or understanding were bound to
occur to anyone with a minimum of curiosity. There was absolutely
nothing wrong with seeking to examine apparent contradictions or
seemingly insoluble problems found in the sources of revelation.
Indeed, it would be wrong not to seek to do so. Human beings cannot
live with the internal suspicion of a contradiction in things.
Seriously to hold the famous “two truth” theory, namely, that a truth
of revelation and a truth of reason could contradict each other in the
same person and both still be true, is a formula for madness.
The human mind is a searching instrument or faculty of our souls
whereby we are in a constant state of wonderment about anything that
is. Christ calls God his “Father.” He does not call him an “It.” He
does not call him a “she” either, nor does he call him a “Form” or an
“Energy,” or some static or dynamic abstraction. Maybe Christ was just
confused, though that creates other problems. If he was confused, there
is no reason to take him seriously. He maintained that “I and the
Father are one,” while also asking the Father to let this “chalice”
pass from him. It might be all right to hold one or the other of these
positions, but both? Surely some inconsistency exists here. It is the
function of theology to spell out, in terms of dogmatic statements, the
consistency of what happens or is claimed to happen in revelation.
Revelation is a claim to truth, a truth we are expected to know
and accept. We are addressed on the basis of truth in what is revealed.
This truth will be coherent with all other truth, even the truths of
reason, following Aquinas’ principle that grace builds on nature. We
cannot help but make an effort to state precisely what is to be held as
true and, if possible, why. But then, why would we think that proving
something to be “inconsistent” proved anything wrong with it? Maybe the
world is itself “incoherent.” Maybe anything flows from anything.
Perhaps no meaning can be discovered so that we just arbitrarily assign
meanings as we see fit or as suits our private purposes?
On the other hand, what is wrong with suspecting that things fit
together? But if they do fit together, we are not wrong to seek to
explain why they do. That point brings us to the question of “what is
an explanation anyhow?” An explanation is not necessarily true because
everyone believes it, though that is an indication to be taken
seriously. Rather it is more likely that if everyone holds something to
be true, it is because it is evident to the normal mind that there is a
valid argument for it. Mathematical propositions are famous for their
clarity and inner logic. The easier ones are comprehended by almost
every one who takes the trouble to grasp the terms of their proposition
and how they are related.
Dogmatic truths, even if they require faith to hold them, none the
bear their own inner logic and consistency. They seem to be addressed
to enigmas that philosophic truths or arguments do not in fact fully
answer though they approach them. The very fact that philosophy, to be
philosophy, must remain open to what it does not know, to the love of
wisdom, means that intrinsically it cannot reject positions addressed
to itself from whatever source. How does philosophy know that something
in its own order, the order of reason, is addressed to it? The short
answer for this is that certain things are found in revelation that are
likewise found in philosophy, as if to say that the same mind lies
behind both. This is particularly the case if the major issues that
philosophy does not answer likewise have coherent or sensible answers
In his Philosophical Dictionary, Mortimer Adler included, as one
words to be examined, the word, “dogmatism.” He thought that most
people fail to see the proper theological sense of the word as
“referring to the articles of religious faith,” as distinct from
philosophical questions where “dogmatism is totally inappropriate.”
Philosophical questions as such need to be submitted to “rational
inquiry” on which their truth or falsity is based. Still, Adler
thought, there are some philosophical positions “the affirmation of
which are beyond the power of reason to establish.” Philosophy, in
other words, recognizes its own limits and with that, it recognizes
that it is concerned with a whole that it does not completely grasp.
As an example of this latter principle of something reason cannot
itself establish, Adler uses the instance of “ontological materialism.”
This view holds that “nothing really exists except bodies and their
physical transformations.” Using the evidence of logic itself, Adler
pointed out that “that thesis, being a denial, therefore is a negation,
and as such it is indemonstrable.” That is, we might be able to prove
that something is there, or something is necessary if what is there
exists. But the proposition “what is not body does not exist” cannot
hold on its initial premise about material bodies.
Simply because we know that bodies exist, we cannot conclude that
is not body does not exist. Obviously, if something that is not body
exists, it exists in a non-bodily way. Adler suggests that most
scientists inadvertently accept the materialist thesis “without a
logical qualm.” Evidence of our senses does tell us that material
things exist. This is true. “There is no evidence that reality does not
and cannot include the immaterial and the nonphysical. To assert that
it does not and cannot is sheer dogmatism, of a kind that should be
avoided in philosophy.”  It is this kind of “dogmatism” that
Catholicism seeks to avoid in its own understanding of the meaning of
What, then, is the evidence that what is not physical exists? This
alternative is why Plato is always good for us to know. Plato forever
stands for the principle that the idea of a thing and the particular
existing thing of a certain kind are not the same. The idea or form of
a thing is universal. It prescinds from matter. What it is to be a tree
may have been acquired from observing many actual trees, but it is not
the same as an individual tree, though both have what it is to be a
tree in common. The idea of a tree does not change, ever, even if all
actual trees cease to exist. Trees come and go, the idea of a tree, or
of a man, does not. We may need minds to think these ideas, but they
are not material even when we know that the actual tree is largely
material. “There is no evidence that reality does not and cannot
include the immaterial and the nonphysical.” Indeed, in our very minds
in their functioning, we reflectively see that something more than what
is material is present.
The great encyclical, Fides et Ratio, of John Paul II was
concerned with the philosophical knowledge, or lack thereof, of
theologians. It was quite aware that everywhere we look in biblical or
theological questions that, behind them, are basic philosophical
questions that can condition how we understand revelation and the
propositions explaining it. The Church has prided itself historically
in insisting that it had no “philosophic system” of its own, that it
was open to any philosophy provided that it could maintain its truth.
Yet, the Church has since the Middle Ages been aware of the
Thomas Aquinas, with the idea that not every philosophy is equal simply
because it claims to be a “philosophy.” Indeed, the Church has frankly
stated that not every philosophy can sustain or present a coherent
understanding of the truths contained within revelation. Not all
philosophical systems are true, even though there is probably a point
of truth even in their errors. There are, none the less, philosophies
that would make the Incarnation or the Trinity, the basic truths of
Catholicism, impossible of understanding or acceptance. It is at this
point that an examination of the validity of any philosophy as
philosophy becomes imperative.
The very fact that faith is itself directed precisely to
then, would indicate that, in the very effort to understand what is
revealed in all its perplexity, there would come about as a by-product,
as it were, a deepening of philosophy and a confirmation of that
philosophy more capable of explaining the coherent meaning of what is.
As Aquinas states, “What comes from God is well ordered. Now the order
of things consists in this, that they are led to God each one by the
others” (I-II,111.1). If we understand the logic of this position, it
means that philosophy, by being what it is, is open to or aware of what
are its own limitations. Revelation, on the other hand, by being what
it is, leads philosophy and other disciplines and realities to what
they are, to knowing more of what they are than they would without the
stimulus of revelation. But it does so on the grounds of reason, not
As I mentioned earlier, there is a sense in the modern world that
philosophy has deliberately closed itself off from considering anything
to do with revelation out of fear that things might just cohere, that
there is a whole that somehow includes both reason and revelation. The
human mind in fact is able to invent numerous reasons for not doing
what is right. The human person can choose to follow some path or
position of its own formulation as a reason for doing what he wants..
There is a more sophisticated modern version of this position.
Philosophy, it is said, is not in principle to be understood as
anything but what the human mind can know by its own powers. This
methodological limitation, generally called “rationalism,” would mean
that philosophy must a priori reject any “addition” or “deepening” of
itself that would, even if true, come from outside its own control, no
matter how “real” or fruitful the latter was to this same truth.
Philosophic rationalism, on such a thesis, could only reject what
concluded to by philosophy’s own efforts to understand or articulate
what is revealed or to resolve the apparent difficulties or
contradictions said to be found in revelation. Thus, referring to the
famous project of whether there can be such a thing as a “Catholic”
philosophy, even if what is meant is a genuine philosophical position
but one derived from considerations of revelation, we conclude that, if
we are not Catholic, we cannot accept the philosophical position gained
under its stimulus. We reject what is true even if it is philosophy
because of its “tainted” origins in revelation.
But this rejection seems like a very un-philosophical act, one
refuses even to consider an issue that arises from revelation, whether
one believes it or not. A genuine philosophy would mean, it would seem,
an openness to a truth, from whatever source. The question comes down
to the matter either of a genuine openness to what is or to a
systematic restriction of philosophy to a rationalism that sets limits
on what it can think.
The meaning of dogma, in conclusion, takes us back to the
of Dorothy Sayers that was cited in the beginning of these reflections.
The normal person, she remarked, is interested in dogma. He wants to
know the truth. But it is rarely presented to him in terms in which he
can understand. Lacking the proper explanations, many likely go about
listening to or concocting ideas that are far from the true
understanding of what the faith teaches. And this is the pertinence of
Chesterton’s remark, that even before he realized the intrinsic
importance of dogma, it was clear that people implicitly organized
themselves about dogmatic ideas or positions so that to understand
them, it was necessary to examine what they held. Chesterton’s famous
book Heretics, which was published a century ago in 1905, was precisely
on this point. The real choice is not between dogma and no dogma, but
between a dogma that is true and one that is not.
In the end, we want to know the truth of things. But we also often
not want to know the truth if it requires us to change our lives. Yves
Simon remarked that for intellectuals and academics in particular, one
of the most difficult things they face is the necessity to change their
minds when they discover that their favorite theory does not prove to
be true. But there is the further point that Paul wrote to Timothy,
that many would come to believe in almost any sort of doctrine once
they refused to accept what the faith held to be true and the
explanations of it that we call dogmas. The alternate to a true dogma
is not, in practice, no dogma, but a dogma that is not true.
If there is anything peculiar about revelation, it is its
that certain truths need to be known to be saved. We are to live
upright lives on the basis of these truths, to be sure, but revelation
does address our intellects with a claim to be true. It is the truth,
we are told, that will make us free. As we see and articulate the
alternatives, as we see worked out in historical reality the
alternatives to the truth of things, we begin to suspect that the
effort of revelation to address itself also to our minds is at the
heart of what it was about. Generally speaking, we do not live well if
we do not think well. This is why, whatever else it is, Catholicism is
an intellectual claim that addresses our minds in the name of what any
mind can think.
1. Dorothy Sayers, “Creed or Chaos?” The Whimsical Christian (New
Macmillan, 1978), 39
2. G. K. Chesterton, The Autobiography (San Francisco: Ignatius
 1988), CW, XVI, 167.
3. Mortimer Adler, Philosophical Dictionary (New York: Touchstone,
Reverend James V. Schall, S.J.,
is now teaching at Georgetown University after having taught at the
University of San Francisco and the Gregorian University in Rome for
twelve years. A prolific writer, he is the author of many books and
hundreds of articles. A frequent contributor to HPR, Fr. Schall is also
a regular columnist in Crisis magazine. His last article in HPR
appeared in May 2005.
What the Church Has
Said About Children Who Die
Father Peter Gumpel
Gives an Overview
VATICAN CITY, DEC. 15,
2004 (Zenit.org).- What
to the souls of children who die before birth, or shortly after birth,
or are aborted?
Questions of this
nature are ever more frequent, to
point that John Paul II himself, on Oct. 7, asked the International
Commission to study the matter more profoundly.
To better understand
the matter at stake, ZENIT
Father Peter Gumpel, a theologian and historian who has studied the
since the 1950s.
"The fate in the
hereafter of souls that have not
baptized seems to be a marginal problem, but in reality it is at the
of some dogmatic theses," Father Gumpel said.
"According to Catholic
doctrine, all are born with
sin; no one can enjoy the beatific vision without overcoming original
The normal way is to be baptized; it is an infallible means to ensure
happiness in the beatific vision," the theologian explained.
Q: But, what happens to
those who die without
Father Gumpel: Although
in history there have been
opinions, the supreme magisterium of the Church offers very precise
In particular, in the
struggle between St. Augustine
Pelagius, the latter denied original sin, while Augustine, Doctor of
Church, asserted its existence. In St. Augustine's time, the doctrine
according to which outside the Church there was no salvation, so the
was that those who were not baptized, whether adults or newborns, could
not enjoy the salvific vision.
In this context, St.
Augustine speaks about children
without baptism and thinks that hell is their destiny, saying that they
are subject to the flames of hell, although adding that they are "very
mitigated flames." Given this very harsh consideration, the question
if St. Augustine ever considered a substitution to baptism by water,
example, baptism by desire.
Catechumens who had
shown a willingness to enter the
through baptism, perhaps could be saved. Also catechumens not baptized
with water, but who suffered martyrdom for their faith in Christ, could
undoubtedly be saved. In this case, the concept of baptism of blood is
St. Augustine did not
consider the question of
who wish to enter the Church.
Q: St. Thomas Aquinas
proposes a view that is
from that of St. Augustine. In what way does it change?
Father Gumpel: Indeed.
St. Thomas and the
abandon St. Augustine's theory that children who are not baptized go to
hell, even if the latter is in a mitigated form, and construct an
form, known as "limbo." It is a theological construction, to explain
situation of human beings who die and are not in heaven.
Q: Has this theory of
limbo ever been presented by
Church as a matter of faith?
Father Gumpel: In 1954
I carried out an exhaustive
in which I examined all the arguments in favor of the thesis expressed
by the infallible magisterium done with authority. I studied all the
councils, and I came to the conclusion that "limbo" is not an
It is an opinion that
has been repeated in the
of time, without carrying out a critical historical examination of the
Prior to Vatican II, a
schema was prepared, entitled
Save in Its Purity the Deposit of Faith." In a special way, by the
of the Faculty of Theology of Naples, the 11th chapter was included in
the document, which formally condemned those who attacked "limbo."
When the plan reached
the General Preparatory
the most important commission for the preparation of the council, there
were such objections, on the part of cardinals and other bishops, that
it was decided to cancel this chapter. The commission referred
to the study I had done, which was later published.
Q: What does the
Catechism of the Catholic Church
on this subject?
Father Gumpel: The
Catechism of the Catholic Church,
in 1992, dedicates No. 1261 to children who die without Baptism, and
reads that one can hope that they will attain the beatific vision.
It is an element of the
greatest importance, which
the way to a broader point of view, and it is a pronouncement of the
magisterium of the Church. We cannot say with certainty that they will
We can hope, and the
fact that we can hope, as the
says, is an interpretative key. No one hopes or can hope legitimately
something one is certain is impossible.
Q: What is the basis of
Father Gumpel: The
first consideration that must be
is that, every human being, even if he was an embryo or fetus in the
is part of the human family and, ontologically, in his being, has a
with all people and, therefore, also with Jesus Christ, who is the head
of the new humanity, the new Adam.
From sacred Scripture,
we know the salvific will of
Christ is the redeemer of all and wants all to be saved. Moreover,
founded the Church, a visible body, and instituted the sacrament of
And given that baptism is an infallible means, we must do everything
to have people baptized.
But, what do we do with
those who, without any one
at fault, cannot receive the baptism of water? There must be another
to maintain God's salvific plan.
We do not know what
this means is. There are many
For example, will very small children continue to be so after death, or
will they have a different state? Might they not receive a divine
with the possibility of choosing for or against God?
Others mention the
desire of those parents, good
who have conceived a child and whom they would certainly have had
if it had been possible, and wonder if the parents' desire or that of
Church is not enough.
Of course, although we
cannot indicate with
by what means they could be saved, the fact remains of their union with
Christ and the universal salvific will. This is the central point.
Q: Why did the Pope ask
Commission to study the matter more profoundly?
Father Gumpel: Today
the problem is more complex
with laws that have legalized abortion, life is taken away from many
who might have desired baptism.
I don't know the Holy
Father's intention in detail,
I don't think he wants to go back. The question is rather of a pastoral
nature because, when I wrote those articles in 1954, there were few
But today, with the multiplication of the number of abortions and the
to manipulate fetuses, the number of human beings implicated has
Q: Finally, the
question remains of the mystery of
soul and its destiny.
Father Gumpel: Yes. We
take seriously a very small
being, just conceived, and call him a human person. If this is so, what
will be his final state? Will he be a fetus? Will he grow? It is true
he is already separated from the body but if we say that he has a soul,
how will this soul be? Will the soul remain in the state of the fetus,
of the child, or will it develop?
As Christians we
clearly reject any eugenic
Handicapped children, for example, do not remain with their limitation
when they enter the beatific vision, because there is no longer a body,
and the soul does not have handicaps.
The souls of these
children do not have obstacles of
body, and can reach the full development of their mental faculties.
there are many reasons why it is worthwhile to have hope.