No, the Limbo of Infants is Not Defined Catholic Dogma

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

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.