4 Reasons I Do Not Believe in the Limbo of Infants

Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506), “Christ's Descent Into Limbo”
Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506), “Christ's Descent Into Limbo” (photo: Public Domain)

In my last article, I explained why the Limbo of Infants is not defined Catholic dogma, but instead a “theological hypothesis” (to use Ratzinger’s words) that Catholics are free to accept or to not accept. I promised a follow-up giving my own reasons—certainly not the only ones that could be given—why I do not believe in Limbo.

I need to start with the “Big Red Disclaimer,” as Jimmy Akin has called it: This is not just a theoretical or theological discussion for me. Ten years ago, on April 18, 2006, my daughter was stillborn. Where is she? I asked pointedly in RCIA one night. And I was told about the baptism of desire, and that the birth waters were Caitlyn’s baptismal waters.

As it turns out, this was the very same answer that St. Bernard of Clairvaux gave to a couple who had a miscarriage and asked him what was the fate of their child. St. Bernard said:

Your faith spoke for this child. Baptism for this child was only delayed by time. Your faith suffices. The waters of your womb—were they not the waters of life for this child? Look at your tears. Are they not like the waters of baptism? Do not fear this. God’s ability to love is greater than our fears. Surrender everything to God.

I would have had my child baptized, but there never was a possibility for it in her case. But according to St. Bernard, my faith is enough. My tears are enough. I do not believe in Limbo because I believe in the baptism of desire that Bernard describes.

Cardinal Ratzinger himself pointed out that even those medieval theologians who surmised a Limbo for unbaptized infants “also said that par­ents could spare the child limbo by desir­ing its bap­tism through prayer.”

For example, St. Thomas Aquinas affirmed the baptism of desire in Summa Theologiae III.68.2 (here):

[T]he sacrament of Baptism may be wanting to anyone in reality but not in desire: for instance, when a man wishes to be baptized, but by some ill-chance he is forestalled by death before receiving Baptism. And such a man can obtain salvation without being actually baptized, on account of his desire for Baptism, which desire is the outcome of “faith that worketh by charity,” whereby God, Whose power is not tied to visible sacraments, sanctifies man inwardly. Hence Ambrose says of Valentinian, who died while yet a catechumen: “I lost him whom I was to regenerate: but he did not lose the grace he prayed for.”

Likewise, the Council of Trent, in its Decree on Justification, Chapter 4 (here) said that one is saved from original sin by baptism, “or its desire.”

And likewise, the Catechism of Pius X (here) affirms the Baptism of Desire:

17 Q. Can the absence of Baptism be supplied in any other way?

A. The absence of Baptism can be supplied by martyrdom, which is called Baptism of Blood, or by an act of perfect love of God, or of contrition, along with the desire, at least implicit, of Baptism, and this is called Baptism of Desire.

Second, I do not believe in Limbo because I believe in the Baptism of Blood to which the Catechism of Pius X also refers. Even when no desire for baptism exists on the part of a mother who aborts her child, the International Theological Commission that studied this question said, in its final report, §86, why a Baptism of Blood could be said to apply to such children, and why theirs is a martyrdom for Christ:

Some of the infants who suffer and die do so as victims of violence. In their case, we may readily refer to the example of the Holy Innocents and discern an analogy in the case of these infants to the baptism of blood which brings salvation. Albeit unknowingly, the Holy Innocents suffered and died on account of Christ; their murderers were seeking to kill the infant Jesus. Just as those who took the lives of the Holy Innocents were motivated by fear and selfishness, so the lives particularly of unborn babies today are often endangered by the fear or selfishness of others. In that sense, they are in solidarity with the Holy Innocents. Moreover, they are in solidarity with the Christ who said: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Mt 25:40).

The victims of abortion “are in solidarity with the Holy Innocents.” Their blood supplies their lack of baptism.

They are also in solidarity with the Christ who desires the salvation of all, and who has a particular affection in that regard for children. When His disciples rebuked those who brought children to Christ to be blessed, Christ in His own turn rebuked the disciples. “Let the children come to me,” He said, “and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 19:14).

I do not believe in Limbo because these words of Christ convince me that, because of His particular love for children, He will know how to supply the lack of baptism for those who never had the opportunity in the first place.

To theorize a Limbo of Infants for such children is to put up a barrier between them and Christ, and I cannot imagine that would please the very one who said, “Let the children come to me.” He will make a way when baptism can not.

And lastly, I do not believe in Limbo because it makes the sacraments greater than God. To say that the lack of water baptism, even in cases where it was not possible, means there is no possibility that God would remove this person’s original sin in some other way, is to assume that it is the sacraments that save, and not God Himself. It is to assume that God creates the sacraments, and then forever abandons all power to them.

But that is not how St. Thomas Aquinas saw it. God’s power, he said in the quotation above, “is not tied to the sacraments.” He can save without them. And if he can save without them, why would he not, when baptism was not possible and the Scripture itself tells us that God desires the salvation of all? (1 Tim. 2:4)

The Son of Man is Lord also of the sacraments. The sacraments were made for man, not man for the sacraments.

I have been told that I should not be troubled by Limbo because it is, after all, a place of perfect natural happiness. But I can not accept that. If there were a Limbo, it would not be a place of happiness, since there is no such thing as happiness apart from God. Any happiness we have on earth is nothing other than a foretaste of the Beatific Vision. If unbaptized infants go to Limbo and are forever denied the Beatific Vision, then there can be no happiness for them. It would be a contradiction.

A final disclaimer. Nothing that I have said here should be taken to mean that I am speaking on behalf of the Church or that Catholics are not free to disagree. The Church has not spoken on this topic. It can’t, because there is no divine revelation on this question. But we are meant, I think, to entrust our stillborn infants, and aborted infants, and any others who die without the possibility of baptism, to God; and we are meant to have faith in his power and desire to save, and faith in his special affection for children.

Nor is anything I have said here to be taken as implying that baptism may be delayed when it is possible. Baptism remains the only means of removing original sin that we know, and though we should always have faith, we should never presume upon God’s mercy.