24 June 2010

You knit me in my mother's womb

This reflection was delivered three years ago on the Solemnity of the Nativity of John the Baptist by the Pontifical Household Preacher, Father Raniero Cantalamessa, O.F.M. Cap. He uses the Readings proclaimed on this solemnity to touch on a very serious problem of today’s culture. Here’s an excerpt:

This is an ancient feast that goes back to the fourth Century.

The devotion to John the Baptist spread rapidly and many churches throughout the world were dedicated to him. There have been twenty-three popes who have taken his name. To the last one, John XXIII, the phrase from the fourth Gospel has been applied: ‘There came a man sent by God and his name was John’. Few know that the seven musical notes -- do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti -- have something to do with John the Baptist. They are derived from the first seven syllables of the first strophe of a liturgical hymn composed in his honor.

The passage from Sunday's Gospel Reading talks about the choice of the name John. But what we hear in the First Reading and the Psalm is also important. The First Reading, from Isaiah, says: ‘The Lord called me from birth, from my mother's womb he gave me my name. He made of me a sharp-edged sword and concealed me in the shadow of his arm. He made me a polished arrow, in his quiver he hid me’.

The Psalm returns to this idea, namely, that God knows us from our mother's womb: ‘Truly you have formed my inmost being; you knit me in my mother's womb . . . When I was being made in secret, fashioned as in the depths of the earth. Your eyes foresaw my actions’.

We have a very reductive and juridical idea of the person that causes a lot of confusion in the debate over abortion. It seems that a child acquires the dignity of a person only when this is recognized by human authorities.

For the bible the person is he who is known by God, he who God calls by name; and God, we are assured, knows us from our mother's womb, His Eyes saw us when we were still being fashioned in the womb.

Science tells us that in the embryo the whole human being who will be is becoming, projected in each tiny detail; to this our faith adds that what we have is not some unknown project of nature but a project of the creator’s love. Saint John the Baptist's mission is entirely traced out before his birth: ‘And you, child, will be called prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare His ways’.

The Church holds that John the Baptist was already sanctified in his mother’s womb by the presence of Christ. That is why she celebrates the feast of his birth. This gives us an occasion to touch on a delicate problem, which has become acute today because of the millions of babies who, above all because of the frightening spread of abortion, die without receiving baptism. What are we to say of them? Are they also in some way sanctified in the womb of their mother? Is there salvation for them?

My answer is without hesitation: Certainly there is salvation for them. The risen Christ says of them too: ‘Let the children come to me’. According to an opinion that has become common since the Middle Ages, unbaptized children go to limbo, an intermediate place in which there is no suffering nor is there the enjoyment of the vision of God.

But what we have here is an idea that has never been defined by the Church as a truth of faith. It was a hypothesis of theologians that, in light of the development of Christian conscience and the understanding of Scripture, we can no longer maintain.

When I expressed this opinion of mine a while ago, there were various reactions. Some expressed their gratitude to me for taking this position which lifted a weight from their heart; others reproved me for abandoning the traditional doctrine and minimizing the importance of baptism. Now the discussion is closed because the International Theological Commission, which works for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, published a document in which they affirm the same thing.

I think it would be helpful to return to the question in light of this important document so as to explain some of the reasons that brought the Church to this conclusion.

Jesus instituted the sacraments as the ordinary means of salvation. Therefore, they are necessary, and those who, though able to receive them, refuse or neglect to receive them against their conscience, put their eternal salvation in serious jeopardy. But God is not bound by these means. He can also save by extraordinary means, when the person, by no fault of his own, is deprived of baptism. He did this, for example, with the Holy Innocents, who also died without baptism.

The Church has always admitted the possibility of a baptism of desire and a baptism of blood, and many of these babies have certainly known a baptism of blood, even if of a different nature.

I do not think that the Church's clarification will encourage abortion; if it did, it would be tragic and we would need to seriously worry, not about the salvation of the unbaptized children, but of the baptized parents. It would be making fun of God.

This clarification will give, on the contrary, some ease to the believers who, like everyone, are dismayed in the face of the terrible fate of so many children in today's world.

Let us return to John the Baptist. In announcing the birth of the child to Zechariah the angel says to him: ‘Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son who you will call John. You will have joy and gladness and many will rejoice at his birth’ (Luke 1:13-14). Many did indeed rejoice at his birth if, twenty centuries later, we are still here to speak of that child.

I would like also to convey those words to all the fathers and mothers who, like Elizabeth and Zechariah, are expecting or experiencing the birth of a child: You too can have the joy and gladness in the child God has entrusted to you and rejoice in his birth your whole life long and for eternity!