The Definition of “Common Teaching” and What That Tells Us About Limbo

The Definition of “Common Teaching” and What That Tells Us About Limbo April 28, 2016

"Limbo was never a defined truth of the faith and I would abandon it since it was only a theological hypothesis" (Image via Creative Commons)

“Limbo was never a defined truth of the faith and I would abandon it since it was only a theological hypothesis” (Image via Creative Commons)

Limbo apologist Kevin Kukla is at it again. In the comment section of one of his many posts on this topic, he makes a concession and throws the game; then, he forthwith denies that he has done so:

As others have rightly pointed out, no pope has defined limbo by an ‘ex cathedra’ statement. [That’s the part that matters.] Therefore, they conclude, any opinion on the matter is a valid one. This is false. No pope needs to define this to be true. When it comes to limbo, the doctrine has been taught by everyone, everywhere, at all times through Church history. This makes it a doctrine we can call infallible [Not so.] and can have assurance is true.

Mr. Kukla, I am sorry to say, does not understand either “common teaching” or infallibility. I am here to correct him. When he says that the Limbo of Infants “has been taught by everyone, everywhere, at all times through Church history,” though never defined to be true and binding on the faithful, he is describing “common teaching.”

(A quick aside. It is false, this claim that Limbo has been taught “at all times through Church history.” You’d have to chop off the first 400 years and the most recent 50-100. Limbo is the product (I say it again) of theological speculation; it arose out of St. Augustine’s teaching on original sin. Most people through most of Church history (75 percent) have believed it. The Church itself has never proclaimed that Limbo is an article of faith binding on all Catholics. We can stop there.)

To understand what “common teaching is,” one should go to Ott’s Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma. [The relevant section is here; but you also have it on your bookshelf; right?] Ott begins by defining “theological opinions”:

Theological opinions are free views on aspects of doctrines concerning Faith and morals, which are neither clearly attested in Revelation nor decided by the Teaching Authority of the Church. Their value depends upon the reasons adduced in their favour.

Ott places these theological opinions within the larger category of “common teaching”:

Common Teaching (sententia communis) is doctrine, which in itself belongs to the field of the free opinions, but which is accepted by theologians generally.

Now, the fact that Limbo is “accepted generally” does not, ipso facto, take it out of the category of free opinions and place it in the category of infallible and binding teaching. It would take an ex cathedra definition to do that; and as Mr. Kukla concedes, there is no such definition.

Common teaching is not infallible teaching. Common teaching does not bind the conscience. We can stop there.

That is why Benedict XVI, while he was Cardinal Ratzinger and the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, rightly said that “Limbo was never a defined truth of the faith”; and added: “I would abandon it since it was only a theological hypothesis.” You will forgive me, dear reader; but I consider Benedict XVI a higher authority on this question than Mr. Kukla.

No less an authority than St. Robert Bellarmine himself describes Limbo as “common teaching.” Oddly, Mr. Kukla cites Bellarmine as though he lends supports to his own false claims. Here is what Bellarmine says:

The common teaching of the scholastic theologians is that within the earth there are four inner chambers: one for the damned, another for those being purged of sin, a third for those infants who have died without receiving Baptism, and a fourth which is now empty but once held those just men who died before the passion of Christ.

So not only is Limbo “common teaching,” in the sense Ott defines it, but it is the common teaching only “of the scholastic theologians”; not the Church itself. I know that some folks treat the scholastic texts as though they are the true Catechism; but it is not thus. In one of his comments on Mr. Kukla’s posts (this one), Deacon Jim Russell rightly points out that, even if we were to find that a pope has repeated this common teaching in a Magisterial text, that “does not automatically elevate it to authoritative magisterial teaching.” It would require an independent definition to do that.

Vatican I, in Pastor Aeternus, defines for us the limits of infallible teaching. Infallibility exists “when the Roman Pontiff speaks ex cathedra” and “defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church.” Then, and only then, is a statement infallible.

If, as Mr. Kukla admits, there is no ex cathedra statement, and no definition of Limbo, then we may have common teaching—i.e., theological opinion largely accepted—but we do not have infallible truth binding upon Catholics. That means that Catholics are perfectly free not to believe in Limbo, and that differences of opinion are to be judged solely on the criteria of (in Ott’s words) “the reasons adduced in their favour.”

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