Dead Children and Justice, as a Doctrinal, and Political, Problem

“God forbid we say this was done without its being deserved.” — Augustine of Hippo[1]

If death is punishment for sin, then why do babies die? Around the year 400, in the doctrinal struggle between the Roman church and what it called Pelagianism, this question was of central importance to questions of free will, human goodness, and especially God’s justice.[2]

Augustine of Hippo, whose position most closely aligned to what became church orthodoxy, held that infant death was evidence that they were stained by original sin, transmitted to them ultimately from Eve and Adam’s first disobedience in Eden.[3] That alone was enough to condemn them to the mortality we all share.

His opponent, Pelagius, was a devout Christian, perhaps born in Britain, perhaps a monk, who fled Italy when Rome fell to the Goth Alaric in 410, and who ended up in Palestine. The “Pelagians” – Pelagius himself, but especially thinkers associated with or inspired by him (Rufinus the Syrian, Caelestius, the Sicilian Anonymous, Theodore of Mopsuestia, and Julian of Eclanum) – held that since “God is righteous, he does not command the impossible; because he is holy, he does not condemn us for what we could not avoid.”[4] We have it in ourselves, through our efforts, to follow God’s commandments and be saved. And since we begin pure, and since babies die, death must be no punishment: it must simply be part of the human condition, perhaps the result of the sin of Eve and Adam, perhaps not.

The hub of the disagreement concerned the doctrinally complex issue of God’s grace: could we, through human effort, do anything to save ourselves, or did escape from eternal suffering require God singling out a few lucky ones, selected for what could only seem to us arbitrary reasons? Augustine was a proponent of grace, because this struck him as both the most scripturally supportable position, and because it best preserved God’s infinite majesty. Pelagius, however, was appalled by Italy’s new Christians, converts of convenience in a newly Christianized Empire, and dismayed by how feeble Augustine’s teachings would have been to correct them. He felt grace, at least insofar as he interpreted Augustine’s model, to be little more than a fatalistic mandate to let God sort it all out. The problem has of course bothered Christians for millennia: too little emphasis on grace, and they must wonder why Christ bothered to sacrifice himself at all;[5] too much emphasis, and they must wonder why anyone bothers to try to do anything.

Babies were a way for the two camps to work out what we were most fundamentally – were we basically sinners, or not? – while also trying to square the grim realities of our world with their belief in God’s goodness. For whatever their conflicts on the matter of human effort, each side shared a belief in God’s omnipotence, omniscience, and benignity, and therefore in his infinite justice. But each side likewise shared a belief in infantile irrationality, and therefore in babies’ inability to make choices. How could a just God let a thing so evidently innocent die?

Beginning with the premise of God’s justice led the two camps in opposite directions. The Pelagians argued that we are born innocent, and that the deaths of babies were evidence of nothing but our lineage in Adam. Augustine and his allies, which is to say, the Roman Church itself, would sometimes argue that a baby’s death was meant to test the parents,[6] just as Job was tested by God with the loss of his riches, his health, and his family. This logic of “not being given a burden heavier than you can bear” is what I remember hearing in the church that raised me. The stronger argument from Augustine and his allies held that babies deserved their deaths, just as we all deserved our deaths, because all of us, including babies, still bore the stain of what was routinely called “Adam’s sin.” Babies were evidently not born pure and perfect, they argued, because some were born deformed;[7] and all cried and complained when they were baptized, as if they didn’t want to be brought to God.[8] By demonstrating that babies were sinners too, they preserved God’s justice.

As always, theodicy is less about justifying the ways of God to man than it is about making excuses for what we believe God has either done or allowed to have happened. Given the state of the world, we all must be in the hands of an angry God: if we convince ourselves we are there because we are sinners, then that, at least, makes some sense of our awful predicament.

Later thinkers would come at the problem otherwise. The most representative example, Thomas Aquinas, preserved Augustine’s point about the disagreeableness of babies at baptism,[9] but emphasized things differently. As had been doctrinally settled long ago, mortality was an inheritance of original sin. Still, he argued, babies are no more responsible for themselves than the insane. Babies do not die because of their own sin, nor do they need to consent to baptism. For a baby belongs, in some sense, to its parents (akin to its status in property law); it carries their sin, and is therefore guilty too.[10] When it is baptized, it believes “not by himself but by others,” because it also already in some sense belongs to the church (for the same reason, the children of Jews, he argues, should not be forcibly baptized).[11] To be sure, since the baby’s guilt is just a kind of background condition, fundamental to being human but not a result of their personal decisions, unbaptized babies do not suffer terribly after death, despite being barred from heaven. In short, although Aquinas salves his own belief in God’s justice by keeping unbaptized babies from the flames of hell,[12] he still perseveres in his belief that they have a fault that justifies their death.

This week I dipped into this long theological controversy because of my interest in ideas of reason, and its limits, for the book I’m working on right now, The Irrational Animal. For medieval Christian theologians, the free will that reason enables has its lower and upper limits. Boethius ranks among the key medieval thinkers in whittling out a little space for human free will amid God’s omniscience and omnipotence. Ideas like his establish the lower limits to our rational powers; they establish that we can, in fact, make choices that matter. Augustine and his ilk establish the upper limits, marking out what free will and therefore the reason that enabled it cannot do; in a sense, he establishes that the only choices we can make on our own that really matter are the bad ones.[13] Amid all this are babies, condemned – at least in mainstream medieval Roman Christianity – despite their being irrational, unable to acquire merit or be burdened with faults. Being provided with a rational soul whose powers of discernment and will are as yet unrealized is just enough to put them in peril. What is this fault without choice, without personal responsibility? A fascinating problem for anyone interested in the history of questions of reason and responsibility![14]

Yet apart from my project, it’s no accident that I’m thinking about the death of children right now. Not including the hundreds kidnapped, some of whom have since died, and some of whom have been returned, the nearly 1200 victims of Hamas on October 7th included 36 children, including one 10-month-old, and three children (aged between two and six) belonging to a family murdered in its entirety. Likely more than 18,000 Gazans have been killed since October 7th (West Bank killings of Palestinians by Israeli settlers have also increased in intensity since October 7th, although these numbers are far lower, unsurprisingly, given that they have been committed in a more ad hoc fashion). While it’s commonly said that Gaza has one of the most heavily surveilled populations on the planet, accurate deaths counts in the midst of war are still hard to come by. It’s generally said, though, that nearly half of Gazans were under the age of 18. They must number in the thousands among the Gazans killed in the last two months. Many of these dead Gazan children would necessarily be babies.

Why are they dying? As an accidental byproduct of a purely military campaign? In self-defense? Because they’re being used as “human shields” by Hamas? Because there are no civilians in Gaza? Because there are no innocent Palestinians? These are among the answers that I’ve encountered so far from the defenders of the Israeli campaign.

Beginning with the premise that anything that happens must be just and working backwards from this premise to explain present violence and death may be, in an algebraic sense, difficult, but it can lead only to moral catastrophe. By no means am I accusing Augustine of moral equivalence to what Hamas did, or to what, at a far larger scale, Israel is currently doing. He was trying to seal doctrinal holes, while still others burst forth all around him. An impossible task. To my knowledge, he never killed anyone. Still, beginning with a dead baby, and asking what the baby could have done to deserve this, that, for me, cannot help but resonate with the present moment.

Judith Butler’s Precarious Life and Frames of War have been with me since I first read them, now some 17 years ago.[15] Her argument that social groups define themselves in part by which deaths they grieve explains so much. I have tried to keep space in myself for both the people killed on October 7th, and those killed since. Some of these – and here I’m still drawing on Butler — would be left by the killers and their allies beyond the grievable. Some of these are left beyond the grievable because they have been “dehumanized.” In such a condition, the killers, and their allies, only barely notice them. They were something in the way, present to consciousness at most as only something to be done away with. Some ungrievable life, however, remain sufficiently human to killers and their allies to exult in their deaths. The sadist gets off by destroying a human, not a rock. And some of the ungrievable dead remain sufficiently human to be blamed. We have heard so many calls against “dehumanization” in the last two months, but not all forms of being humanized should be welcomed.[16] For here are the dead ungrieved because it’s said that they deserved what was coming to them. These are the dead humanized only enough for them to be made to bear the responsibility for their own death.

I have no practical advice to offer. Nothing but to beg for the killing to stop, and to leave alive the people still living. To help keep those people from dying later, from exposure, from disease, from dehydration, from starvation. I’ve heard some think that’s impractical too. Here is where I have been donating.

  1. Against Julian III.6.13, p. 118 (Marc Schumacher trans)
  2. Much of what follows is most indebted to the fifth chapter, “From Origenism to Pelagianism,” from Elizabeth A. Clark’s superb The Origenist Controversy: The Cultural Construction of an Early Christian Debate (Princeton UP, 1992). I am also indebted to a host of entries from specialist encyclopedias I read rapidly earlier this week. Among the better ones was “Pelagianism” from the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (2005; online 2009). I also recommend Tarmo Toom’s review of Ali Bonner’s The Myth of Pelagianism (Oxford UP, 2018), published in Reviews in Religion and Theology 26, no. 3 (2019): 387–391.
  3. 1 Corinthians 15:21-22; Romans 5:12.
  4. Ad Demetriadem 16, qtd and trans by Clark, 208.
  5. Indeed, Augustine argued that babies must be guilty of something, since Christ died for them. See Clark, 238, discussing On Marriage II.33, 56.
  6. Augustine, On Free Will III.23, cited in Clark, 229.
  7. See Against Julian, where Augustine speaks twice about “the manifest bodily faults with which not a few infants are born; yet, let none ever doubt that the true and good God forms all bodies. Nevertheless, from the hands of so great a Creator proceeds a multitude not only of faulty things, but even such monsters that they are called ‘errors of nature’ by some who, unable to search out the divine power, what God does and why, are ashamed to confess they do not know what they do not know” (V.15,53, pp. 294-95, trans Matthew A Schumacher, 1957; see also III.6.13, qtd in part as the epigraph).
  8. In addition to Confessions, see his sermon 165, and Against Julian IV, 8, 42: see Clark 240-41.
  9. ST 3, q. 68, art 9 (“whether children should be baptized”) reply objection 1.
  10. Q. 68, art 9, reply objection 2, quoting Augustine against the Pelagians, “in the Church of our Saviour little children believe through others, just as they contracted from others those sins which are remitted in Baptism.”
  11. ST 3, q. 68, art 10 (“Whether children of Jews or other unbelievers be baptized against the will of their parents?”), reply objection 3, “Man is ordained unto God through his reason, by which he can know God. Wherefore a child, before it has the use of reason, is ordained to God, by a natural order, through the reason of its parents, under whose care it naturally lies, and it is according to their ordering that things pertaining to God are to be done in respect of the child.”
  12. Summa Theologiae, Supplement, Appendix 1, art 1 (“Whether those souls which depart with original sin alone, suffer from a bodily fire, and are punished by fire?”).
  13. I’m drawing in part on the introduction to Bernard McGinn’s introduction to Bernard of Clairvaux, On Grace and Free Choice, trans. Daniel O’Donovan (Cistercian Publications, 1988).
  14. For example, Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Supplement, Appendix 1, art 1 (“Whether those souls which depart with original sin alone, suffer from a bodily fire, and are punished by fire?”), reply obj 2, “ Of all sins original sin is the least, because it is the least voluntary; for it is voluntary not by the will of the person, but only by the will of the origin of our nature.” !!
  15. Her recent piece in the Boston Review is also superb.
  16. See especially the introduction to Zakiyyah Iman Jackson’s Becoming Human: Matter and Meaning in an Antiblack World (NYU Press, 2020).