No, the Limbo of Infants is Not Defined Catholic Dogma
Last week a friend sent me this link, to an article on a Catholic site (of all places) that makes the false claim that the Limbo of Infants is a dogma of the Church—not a theologically permissible opinion, but an actual dogma. The author, Kevin Kukla, is writing specifically about the eternal destiny of aborted babies. Of such children, he has this to say:
Any aborted baby will not be baptized. Therefore, he or she does not receive forgiveness for original sin. Therefore, he or she is not worthy to go to Heaven, sadly.
This is the first indication that the theology of the article is amiss. No one is “worthy” to go to Heaven, and the sacraments do not make us “worthy.” If the criteria for getting to Heaven were our “worthiness,” we would all end up in Hell. If we needed to be made “worthy,” then, as St. Paul says, “grace would no longer be grace” (Romans 11:6).
That said, still any aborted baby—or really any unbaptized child before the age of reason—has not willfully sinned against God. Thus, this child does not deserve to roast in the flames of Gehenna.
Well, that’s nice to know, I guess. But Mr. Kukla is still wrongly focused on what this or that person “deserves.” Shakespeare, who understood Catholic theology somewhat better, had Hamlet correctly say: “Use every man after his desert, and who shall ’scape whipping?” (This may be particularly true of bloggers.)
So what is the answer? Where do the souls of aborted babies go? To the edge of hell, called limbo.
Here, they enjoy a state of perfect natural happiness, deprived of the beatific vision. The flames of hell do not affect them there.
And then Mr. Kukla claims, in big bold blue letters: “THE LIMBO OF THE CHILDREN IS A DOGMATIC TEACHING OF THE CHURCH.”
He bases that claim on the following three papal statements.
First, Pope Gregory X, at the Second Council of Lyons (1274), said:
The souls of those who die in mortal sin or with original sin only … immediately descend into Hell, yet to be punished with different punishments.
Second, Pope Eugene IV, at the Council of Florence (1439), said:
Moreover, the souls of those who depart in actual mortal sin or in original sin only, descend immediately into hell but to undergo punishments of different kinds.
Third, Pope John XXII, in a Letter to the Arminians (1321), said:
The Roman Church teaches … that souls of those who depart in mortal sin or with only original sin descend immediately to hell, nevertheless to be punished with different punishments and in disparate locations.
“There you have it,” Mr. Kukla confidently concludes. Case closed.
But not so fast.
Though all this is no doubt Catholic dogma, these quotations speak only generally, and do not at all address the specific question of the fate of infants who die without even the possibility of baptism. Mr. Kukla simply assumes that the general has application to the specific, even though none of the passages he cites mention infants who die in utero, still less Limbo. That is a separate issue, and a separate theological debate.
And on that question, Pope Benedict XVI (back in the 1980s, in the Ratzinger Report), said this:
Limbo was never a defined truth of the faith [and] I would abandon it since it was only a theological hypothesis. It formed part of a secondary thesis in support of a truth which is absolutely of first significance for the faith, namely, the importance of baptism. [T]he very theologians who proposed “limbo” also said that parents could spare the child limbo by desiring its baptism through prayer.
The “theological hypothesis”—a permitted one, but still a hypothesis—took the following form:
- Baptism, as Christ taught (John 3:5), is necessary for salvation;
- There are, however, infants who die without having received the sacrament of baptism;
- Hell is only for unrepentant sinners;
- Purgatory is only for the baptized who are ultimately destined for Heaven;
- Therefore, there must be a fourth state for infants who die without the sacrament of baptism, and this we call Limbo
However much this hypothesis may have been the dominant view for many centuries, it was never—as Cardinal Ratzinger stated—a “defined truth.” It was speculation from silence—specifically, the silence of divine revelation about what happens to those who die before the possibility of baptism.
In fact, the Catechism itself (1257–1261) tells us we may hope that infants who die without baptism enjoy the Beatific Vision, just as we may have that hope for martyrs, unbaptized catechumens, and those who are ignorant of the Gospel.
1257 The Lord himself affirms that Baptism is necessary for salvation. He also commands his disciples to proclaim the Gospel to all nations and to baptize them. 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.
Did you catch that important qualification?
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.” God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments.
1258 The Church has always held the firm conviction that those who suffer death for the sake of the faith without having received Baptism are baptized by their death for and with Christ. This Baptism of blood, like the desire for Baptism, brings about the fruits of Baptism without being a sacrament.
1259 For catechumens who die before their Baptism, their explicit desire to receive it, together with repentance for their sins, and charity, assures them the salvation that they were not able to receive through the sacrament.
1260 “Since Christ died for all, and since all men are in fact called to one and the same destiny, which is divine, we must hold that the Holy Spirit offers to all the possibility of being made partakers, in a way known to God, of the Paschal mystery.” Every man who is ignorant of the Gospel of Christ and of his Church, but seeks the truth and does the will of God in accordance with his understanding of it, can be saved. It may be supposed that such persons would have desired Baptism explicitly if they had known its necessity.
1261 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. Indeed, the great mercy of God who desires that all men should be saved, and Jesus’ tenderness toward children which caused him to say: “Let the children come to me, do not hinder them,” allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without Baptism. All the more urgent is the Church’s call not to prevent little children coming to Christ through the gift of holy Baptism.
Likewise, John Paul II, giving further indication that Limbo was never dogmatically defined, called together a commission of theologians to study the question. The commission presented its final report on April 19, 2007. It stated:
Our conclusion is that the many factors that we have considered above give serious theological and liturgical grounds for hope that unbaptised infants who die will be saved and enjoy the Beatific Vision. We emphasise that these are reasons for prayerful hope, rather than grounds for sure knowledge. There is much that simply has not been revealed to us (cf. Jn 16:12). We live by faith and hope in the God of mercy and love who has been revealed to us in Christ, and the Spirit moves us to pray in constant thankfulness and joy (cf. 1 Thess 5:18).
What has been revealed to us is that the ordinary way of salvation is by the sacrament of Baptism. None of the above considerations should be taken as qualifying the necessity of Baptism or justifying delay in administering the sacrament. Rather, as we want to reaffirm in conclusion, they provide strong grounds for hope that God will save infants when we have not been able to do for them what we would have wished to do, namely, to baptize them into the faith and life of the Church.
If one wishes to argue that Limbo has been dogmatically defined by the Church, he would need to explain these three statements (from Cardinal Ratzinger, the Catechism, and the theological commission called by St. John Paul II). He would also need to find a dogmatic statement that specifically mentions Limbo, not merely a generic one about the fate of those who die with original sin. No one who rejects Limbo denies that. The question is different, namely, whether God removes original sin by some means other than baptism, known to him alone, for infants who had no chance to be baptized.
The Church permits Catholics to believe in Limbo, but it also permits them to not believe in it. In my next post, I will outline specific reasons why I reject Limbo.