Susanna Spencer has a masters in theology from the Franciscan University of Steubenville. She is a writer and the theological editor for Blessed is She, and writes on her own blog Living With Lady Philosophy. She is a homeschooling mother of four and lives with her family in St. Paul, Minnesota.
A statistic that I have been hearing a lot is that 1 in 4 pregnancies end in miscarriage. In my case it has been 3 in 7. So, as you can imagine, I have spent a good amount of time trying to come to grips with the fact that we all come into existence with Original Sin, and that Baptism is necessary for salvation, and that I was simply unable to baptize three of my children because they died inside me.
The Church says nothing certain about what happens to these children after they die, only that “as regards children who have died without Baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God, as she does in her funeral rites for them.” (CCC 1261)
What exactly does it mean to entrust these children to the mercy of God? Well there are two key points of doctrine and a point of faith that prevent the Church from giving certainty to the matter. I am going to explain those and then share a few theological possibilities for where our unbaptized children might be.
As for the official Church teaching:
1. We have to believe that original sin is transmitted to all humans. (CCC 403)
The first sin of Adam and Eve caused all human beings to come into the world with original sin, and this original sin is now part of human nature. (CCC 404) This is a doctrine that we must believe (CCC 389). In original sin, we cannot have the life of grace.
Original sin is different from sins we actually commit in that while we are born with it through no fault of our own actual sins we commit after the age of reason through our own fault.
2. We have to believe that Baptism is necessary for salvation.
While we all come into existence in a state of Original Sin, Jesus has provided for all humanity through the Church with a remedy for our fallen state—a remedy which brings us into the life of Grace. That remedy is Baptism.
“The Lord himself affirms that Baptism is necessary for salvation.60 He also commands his disciples to proclaim the Gospel to all nations and to baptize them.61 Baptism is necessary for salvation for those to whom the Gospel has been proclaimed and who have had the possibility of asking for this sacrament.62 The Church does not know of any means other than Baptism that assures entry into eternal beatitude; this is why she takes care not to neglect the mission she has received from the Lord to see that all who can be baptized are "reborn of water and the Spirit."” (CCC 1257)
God has promised us that those who are baptized and who die in a state of grace will have eternal happiness with him in Heaven.
3. God is “not bound by his Sacraments.”
The end of § 1257 of the CCC states that “God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments.”
While the Church does not know of any other certain means other than Baptism in order for humans to be saved, she does acknowledge that God can work outside of the Sacraments according to his perfect will. (CCC 1257) Examples of this in the tradition are in the case of martyrs who die for the faith who are unable to receive baptism before death, Baptism of blood, (CCC 1258) and those who die with an explicit desire for Baptism. (CCC 1259) In these cases they are adults desiring Baptism, not infants who have died before the age of reason are incapable of desiring Baptism.
THEOLOGICAL OPINION ABOUT
CHILDREN WHO DIE WITHOUT BAPTISM
1. Natural Happiness and Original Sin
Under Pope Benedict XVI the International Theological Commission, published a document, The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Baptism, which outlined the history of theological thought about these children. This document states “the affirmation that infants who die without Baptism suffer the privation of the beatific vision has long been the common doctrine of the Church” (Hope for Salvation, 40). The position is held because people who die in original sin cannot have the happiness of Heaven that those who have been redeemed by sanctifying grace can have.
Within this tradition there are two possible theological opinions that have been commonly held—one by St. Augustine and one by St. Thomas Aquinas.
St. Augustine said that because of original sin unbaptized babies would in no way be saved, but would actually be in Hell experiencing a lesser punishment in Hell than those people who have committed actual sin against God. Hell is to be understood as place of punishment without the vision of God. (Hope for Salvation, 15-19)
He wrote that in Hell, “the mildest punishment of all will fall upon those who have added no actual sin, to the original sin they brought with them.” (St. Augustine, Enchiridion ad Laurentium, 93).
He makes the important distinction between the original sin we have because of our fallen human nature and the sins we actually commit. Unbaptized children who die below the age of reason never actually offended God through their own sin, but the original sin still stains their souls. He held this position because of the doctrine that Baptism is necessary for salvation.
His position was supported by later church documents, such as one from the Council of Florence in 1439: “As for the souls of those who die in actual mortal sin or with original sin only, they go down immediately to hell, to be punished, however, with different punishments.” (Denzinger, Heinrich and Peter Hunermann, Enchiridion Symbolorum: A Compendium of Creeds, Definitions, and Declarations of the Catholic Church. (Ignatius Press, 2012) 1306)
St. Thomas Aquinas and others proposed a state of natural happiness, what is often referred to as Limbo, where unbaptized children are perfectly happy and suffering no other punishment than being without supernatural grace. They are aware of God’s goodness in a natural way, and understand His perfect will that they cannot participate in supernatural happiness because they were not Baptized. St. Thomas holds that they feel no pain at this deprivation of the vision of God. (Hope for Salvation, 23 and Aquinas, De Malo, q. 5, a. 3)
His theory comes from his understanding that humans are capable of a twofold happiness:
“One is proportionate to human nature, a happiness, to wit, which man can obtain by means of his natural principles. The other is a happiness surpassing man's nature, and which man can obtain by the power of God alone, by a kind of participation of the Godhead, about which it is written (2 Peter 1:4) that by Christ we are made "partakers of the Divine nature." (Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I-II. Q. 62, art 1.)
In the state of natural happiness, souls can know God only on a natural level. It is only by sanctifying grace, which we do not receive without Baptism or a desire for Baptism, that we can participate in the supernatural happiness of union with God.
These two understandings of natural happiness are rooted in the belief that “those who were not capable of a free act by which they could consent to grace, and who died without having been regenerated by the sacrament of Baptism, are deprived of the vision of God because of original sin which they inherit through human generation.” (Hope for Salvation, 25)
We must keep in mind that if there are people in a state of natural happiness, they do not experience punishment as those who are punished for their actual sins, but they experience happiness as much as humans are capable of without the beatific vision.
2. God Has Provided an Extraordinary Way
While we must hold that humans who die in original sin (with no actual sin of their own) cannot have the beatific vision, the language of the Catechism of the Catholic Church that we “can only entrust them to the mercy of God” (§1261) implies that we could hope that God has provided a way to sanctify these children meaning that they would no longer have original sin. It also states in §1283 that “with respect to children who have died without Baptism, the liturgy of the Church invites us to trust in God's mercy and to pray for their salvation.” These prayers are found in the Funeral Rite and the Rite of Burial for Unbaptized Children.
Even while holding to his position of natural happiness for those who die unbaptized below the age of reason, St. Thomas Aquinas proposed that God may choose to sanctify infants who are not yet born:
Children while in the mother's womb have not yet come forth into the world to live among other men. Consequently, they cannot be subject to the action of man, so as to receive the sacrament, at the hands of man, unto salvation. They can, however, be subject to the action of God, in Whose sight they live, so as, by a kind of privilege, to receive the grace of sanctification; as was the case with those who were sanctified in the womb. (ST, III, Q. 68, art. 11)
In this case they would not die in a state of original sin and therefore be able to go to Heaven. The idea that God would choose to sanctify a baby in the womb is not unknown to the tradition either given the examples of Our Lady’s Immaculate Conception and St. John the Baptists sanctification in the womb at the visitation.
Scriptural grounds for hope of the salvation of children who die without Baptism are based on 1 Timothy 2:1, 3-6: “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all men. This is good, and it is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, the testimony to which was borne at the proper time.”
And Matthew 18:14 “It is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.”
God desires the salvation of all, so we can hope that he has provided a way for babies who die before birth and children who die unbaptized before the age of reason.
Theological grounds for this hope are based in the theology of infant baptism. An infant who is baptized is not capable of desiring baptism for him or herself, therefore the Church professes the faith for the infant. The Church makes the act of faith. In the same way, the Church could desire baptism and make an act of faith on behalf of children who die without baptism, as the Church desires along with God that all humanity be saved. (Hope of Salvation, 98) This is a theological possibility because of the tradition of a baptism by desire of those who are unable to receive baptism before death by those who are above the age of reason.
Theologian Dr. Stephen M. Hildebrand, professor of theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville, defends this position in his paper An argument for hope: On the salvation of children who die without baptism (Homiletic and Pastoral Review, November 2011) saying that if God makes an offer of salvation to unbaptized children before their death, that they will, through God’s prompting of grace that is offered to all before conversion and through the faith of the Church, accept sanctifying grace. Thus, they would die in a state of grace without original sin, and be capable of having the beatific vision. Though Hildebrand says we are not able to know how this offer of grace is made, but must trust in God’s universally salvific will that he makes this offer.
Dr. Lawrence Feingold, associate professor of theology and philosophy at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary, gave the paper Limbo and the Hope of Salvation for Unbaptized Babies on July 1, 2017, at the Colloquium on Limbo at the St. Augustine Abbey, Ramsgate, England, hosted by the Dialogos Institute, defending the hope that “God, by extra-sacramental means, will give sanctifying grace to infants dying without Baptism, such that they will not die with original sin, and thus not be deprived of the vision of God for eternity.” (pg. 12) He holds through his understanding of the works of St. Thomas Aquinas that every human being has the potential to be obedient to God’s call to love him, even unborn babies and children. Feingold argues that if they are incapable of a personal act then God could grant the Church’s desire which is Christ’s desire for these children. (For more information on obedientual potency see Feingold, The Natural Desire to See God According to St. Thomas, 112-119).
Even if one holds to this position that God has made a way for these children to be saved, we cannot say that we are certain of the salvation of our children who die without physical sacramental baptism. We can only trust that through the mercy of God that our children are able to be in Heaven.
I personally, have found the position of entrustment to the mercy of God to be quiet comforting. It is so easy to want to grasp salvation for my children—as a parent it is hard to not want to control every aspect of my children’s lives. But I have found that ultimately, I have to entrust all of my children to his care. My ability to help them as a mother is limited.
When I say that I entrust my miscarried children to the mercy of God, I am saying that I know that all humans inherit original sin, that we need to be freed from it by sanctifying grace in order to go to Heaven and that Christ has given the Church Baptism as the way to do this. But for those who were not able to be baptized, I believe that God is not bound by the sacraments, and hope that in his great mercy he makes a way for unbaptized children who die before the age of reason to receive sanctifying grace outside of the physical sacrament of Baptism. In this hope, I entrust with the Church the salvation of my children to the mercy of God, and if in his great will they are in a state of natural happiness instead of Heaven then let his wisdom and goodness be praised.
Much thanks to Dr. Stephen M. Hildebrand and Dr. Lawrence Feingold for access to their papers and their advice in the compiling of this information.