Note from Editor: There is much speculation about infants and small children who die without being baptized: what happens to them? This question is all the more poignant when we consider the millions, if not tens of millions, of abortions that happen worldwide each year. The great Doctor of the Church St. Alphonsus Maria de Liguori explains this perplexing issue in his book The Great Means of Salvation and of Perfection. Although these souls will obviously not be sent to the hell of the damned, nevertheless, it seems certain that they will be deprived of the incalculable good of seeing the Beatific Vision in heaven.
Here it only remains for us to answer the object which is drawn from children being lost when they die before baptism, and before they come to the use of reason. If God wills all to be saved, it is objected, how is it that these children perish without any fault of their own, since God gives them no assistance to attain eternal salvation? There are two answers to this objection, the latter more correct than the former. I will state them briefly.
First, it is answered that God, by antecedent will, wishes all to be saved, and therefore has granted universal means for the salvation of all; but these means at times fail of their effect, either by reason of the unwillingness of some persons to avail themselves of them, or because others are unable to make use of them, on account of secondary causes (such as the death of children), whose course God is not bound to change, after having disposed the whole according to the just judgment of his general Providence; all this is collected from what St. Thomas says. Jesus Christ offered His merits for all men, and instituted baptism for all; but the application of this means of salvation, so far as relates to children who die before the use of reason, is not prevented by the direct will of God, but by a merely permissive will; because as He is the general provider of all things, He is not bound to disturb the general order, to provide for the particular order.
The second answer is, that to perish is not the same as not to be blessed: since eternal happiness is a gift entirely gratuitous; and therefore the want of it is not a punishment. The opinion, therefore, of St. Thomas is very just, that children who die in infancy have neither the pain of sense nor the pain of loss; not the pain of sense, he says, “because pain of sense corresponds to conversion to creatures; and in original sin there is not conversion to creatures” (as the fault is not our own), “and therefore pain of sense is not due to original sin;” because original sin does not imply an act.1 Objectors oppose to this the teaching of St. Augustine, who in some places shows that his opinion was that children are condemned even to the pain of sense. But in another place he declares that he was very much confused about this point. These are his words: “When I come to the punishment of infants, I find myself (believe me) in great straits; nor can I at all find anything to say.”2 And in another place he writes that it may be said that such children receive neither reward nor punishment: “Nor need we fear that it is impossible there should be a middle sentence between reward and punishment; since their life was midway between sin and good works.”3 This was directly affirmed by St. Gregory Nazianzen: “Children will be sentenced by the just Judge neither to the glory of heaven nor to punishment.”4 St. Gregory of Nyssa was of the same opinion: “The premature death of children shows that they who have thus ceased to live will not be in pain and unhappiness.”5
And as far as relates to the pain of loss, although these children are excluded from glory, nevertheless St. Thomas,6 who had reflected most deeply on this point, teaches that no one feels pain for the want of that good of which he is not capable; so that as no man grieves that he cannot fly, or no private person that he is not emperor, so these children feel no pain at being deprived of the glory of which they were never capable; since they could never pretend to it either by the principles of nature, or by their own merits. St. Thomas adds, in another place,7 a further reason, which is that the supernatural knowledge of glory comes only by means of actual faith, which transcends all natural knowledge; so that children can never feel pain for the privation of that glory, of which they never had a supernatural knowledge. He further says, in the former passage, that such children will not only not grieve for the loss of eternal happiness, but will, moreover, have pleasure in their natural gifts; and will even in some way enjoy God, so far as is implied in natural knowledge and in natural love: “Rather will they rejoice in this, that they will participate much in the divine goodness, and in natural perfections.”8 And he immediately adds that although they will be separated from God as regards the union of glory, nevertheless “they will be united with Him by participation of natural gifts; and so will even be able to rejoice in Him with a natural knowledge and love.”
1De Mal. q.5, a. 2.
2Epist. 166, E. B.
3De Lib. Arb. 1. 3, c. 23
4Serm. in S. Lav.
5De Infant, etc.
6In 2 Sent. d. 33, q. 2, a. 2
7De Mal. q. 5, a. 3
8In 2 Sent. d. 33, q. 2, a. 2