May 2020 Print

Complex Questions & Simple Answers

Part Three

By Prof. Felix Otten, O.P. and C.F. Pauwels, O.P.

Editor’s Note: This article continues the series of straightforward responses to frequently-encountered questions and objections concerning the Catholic Faith. The questions and answers are adapted from Professor Felix Otten, O.P. and C.F. Pauwels, O.P.’s The Most Frequently Encountered Difficulties, published originally in Dutch in 1939.

Children who are unbaptized cannot go to Heaven, yet they have done nothing wrong and it is not their fault that they were unbaptized. How can this be reconciled with God’s righteousness?

We have no direct statements from the Scriptures about the fate of the unbaptized children who have died. The text of Mt. 19:14 (also at Mk. 10:14 and Lk. 17:16), “Let the little ones come to Me,” do not refer expressly to children. For in this passage, Christ only means that we must be simple as children in order to enter the kingdom of God.

But we do have indirect statements from Biblical texts that no one enters Heaven who has not been reborn through Baptism. And so, we know for sure that unbaptized children cannot go to Heaven. Where they do go, we know from the teaching of the Church, which is based on tradition and the teachings of the theologians. Unbaptized children do not go to hell because they have not committed personal sins, and no one is doomed except for those who have personally committed sins. The original sin with which those children were still infected is not a personal sin of theirs, but rather a “natural sin.” The place where they do go, we call limbo or limbus. We can compare it with the place where the patriarchs before Christ waited until Heaven was opened to them. But we don’t know where that place is. In limbo, according to the teachings of the theologians, these children enjoy natural happiness.

The unbaptized children’s lack of the supernatural blessed sight of God does not cause them sorrow or suffering. For either they do not even know that such happiness has been given to others, or, if God has revealed it to them (which, of course, we cannot tell), they see that it is a completely free gift from God on which no one can claim a right of his own accord.

Thus, it appears that their fate is not contrary to God’s justice. They lack nothing; they are happy and do not suffer at all. While these children lack something that was given to others, that is, the beatific vision, that is something to which they have no right, because it is a supernatural gift. And so, if unbaptized children know anything of this gift, they rejoice in the happiness of others.

A Christian must rely on the merits of Christ’s sacrifice to obtain forgiveness and salvation. However, Roman Catholics do not; they instead hope to be rewarded for their good works. In this way, are Catholics not like the Jews?

In the first place, there is a great difference between the Jews and the Catholics. The Jews thought they were pleasing to God through purely outward good works: receiving the circumcision, belonging to the chosen Jewish people, keeping the precepts of the Law, rest on the Sabbath, maintain purity, give alms, fasting, etc. Catholics, however, speak of a work as being good only if the inner intention is good and so one does not do good out of habit or routine or pride or human respect, but for God alone.

Further, Catholics teach that we can do such truly good works only through the power of grace, which Christ has earned for us. So, they do put all their trust in Christ and know that they cannot do anything without Christ. Catholics believe, contrary to certain Protestants, that a man can really do something through Christ’s grace that is pleasing and pleasant in God’s sight. Catholics accept with confidence all statements of the Apostle Paul against the “working sanctity” of the Jews and about trusting in Christ; they do not contend with this teaching.

Catholics believe that men can do good works by grace. When they say that they will receive Heaven as wages for those good works, they use this image metaphorically. On Saturday the worker gets his wages for a week’s work. They just want to say this, that man has done good by the undeservedly received grace of Christ; and therefore, in view of that good work done by the grace of Christ, God gives him back something much greater and more glorious, namely, the gift of Heaven.

There is in a sense “achievement and consideration” with salvation, so we can rightly speak of the wages for the good works. But then we take all those terms in a very particular sense, so that no wages or merit on earth can be compared to them.

In that sense, Christ will also say, “Come, blessed ones of My Father, take possession of the realm, … for I was hungry and you have fed Me” (Mt. 25:34-35). This indicates that we receive the Kingdom of Heaven because we have done good. In the same sense St. Paul wrote: “From now on is the crown of righteousness ready for me, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give me” (II Tim. 4:8). This shows that God, out of righteousness and because Paul had fought the good fight, would give him that crown. In summary, Catholic teaching about merit is indeed based on the Holy Scriptures, and in no way undermines the merits of Christ.

A good Christian must have the intention to honor God in his life. Catholics, on the other hand, think only of the happiness and rewards their actions will bring.

When someone puts forward this objection, he frames it as if honoring God and thinking of one’s own happiness are in conflict. Only then is it a compelling difficulty. But this is a forced contrast. The two can easily go together and the whole difficulty is eliminated. After all, God has a dual purpose in creation: His own glorification and the happiness of His creatures.

Because of His wisdom and omnipotence, God has arranged it so that these two things can go together, and so that man, who honors and serves God, can find real and true happiness in life (even though it is still imperfect in this life on earth). Of course, the glorification of God is the first and main purpose of creation; and therefore man must first of all aim to honor God and devote all of his powers to it. But that does not mean that he should consider all thoughts of his own happiness as wrong and bad. However, if someone wants to work out his own happiness in such a way that he cannot serve and honor God, in other words: if he goes to seek his happiness in something that violates God’s will, then he is doing wrong. Likewise, if a person were to serve God outwardly, but would think only or mainly of the reward he hopes to receive, is also doing wrong.

If a person honors and serves God from the bottom of his heart, consecrates his work to God at the beginning of the day, and thanks God for all that is good, then that is good and according to God’s will.

Finally let us consider the Gospel: Do we not pray in the Our Father, “Hallowed be Thy name,” and also, “Give us this day our daily bread”? Does this not prove with Christ’s own words that we may also think of our own interests? If, incidentally, someone says that Catholics only think of rewards and happiness, we can only deny it. After all, the fact that we also talk about this is not proof that we are only thinking about it.