The Need for Theological Precision on Limbo

Pietro Longhi, “The Baptism” (1755)
Pietro Longhi, “The Baptism” (1755) (photo: Public Domain)

Scott Eric Alt has recently written two articles on the “Limbo of Infants” arguing that limbo is not dogmatic and explaining why he disagrees with it as a theological opinion. This is a highly debated and very emotional point for many, especially those who have experienced miscarriage and still birth. There has been both a development in theological opinion and also it seems that a development of doctrine may be working itself out as well. Sorting out all of the theological details will take some time. I would at least like to make a few clarifications to help guide a discussion of this topic.

1. Limbo is not a distinct, fourth place in the afterlife; it is a part of hell. The teaching on limbo simply acknowledges that those who die without sanctifying grace, and thus may not enter heaven, have not merited punishment for sin. This point is found in the Magisterium of the Church, at the Ecumenical Councils of Lyons and Florence. This point follows from an understanding that there is a gradation both of punishment in hell and reward in heaven (cf. 1 Cor 15:41-42). This point is not theological speculation. The Church has definitely taught in two Ecumenical Councils that there is a distinct punishment for those who die only with original sin and not actual sin (which is what is meant by the word limbo). The theological opinion related to limbo pertains to the assertion that all unborn children necessarily would enter this state.

2. Who would be in a position to enter limbo (a distinct state within hell), who have died without sanctifying grace but also without actual sin? This is where the position on unborn children comes in. It would not simply be children who die before birth, but also children who die before the age of reason and those who through a physical impairment do not have the full use of reason. The Magisterium has spoken on this point (cf. Pope Pius VI’s Bull, Auctorum Fidei), but not as definitively as point one.

3. The teaching on a state in hell with no punishment for actual sin flows essentially from the dogma of original sin. Some who would like to do away with limbo do so by denying the reality of original sin. Does original sin lead to hell or not? Original sin is “deprivation of original holiness and justice” and means that we are born in need of God’s sanctifying grace (405).  The Catechism accordingly teaches that original sin means that “all men need salvation,” which is to say they do not have it automatically.  To assert that original sin (the absence of sanctifying grace) does not lead to hell without the infusion of sanctifying grace would contradict the Church’s teaching.  

The Council of Trent in its Decree on Original Sin teaches definitively on both how original sin is death to the soul and that Baptism is a necessary remedy, even for children:

If anyone asserts that the transgression of Adam injured him alone and not his posterity, and that the holiness and justice which he received from God, which he lost, he lost for himself alone and not for us also; or that he, being defiled by the sin of disobedience, has transfused only death and the pains of the body into the whole human race, but not sin also, which is the death of the soul, let him be anathema, since he contradicts the Apostle who says: “By one man sin entered into the world and by sin death; and so death passed upon all men, in whom all have sinned.”

If anyone asserts that this sin of Adam, which in its origin is one, and by propagation, not by imitation, transfused into all, which is in each one as something that is his own, is taken away either by the forces of human nature or by a remedy other than the merit of the one mediator, our Lord Jesus Christ, who has reconciled us to God in his own blood, made unto us justice, sanctification and redemption; or if he denies that that merit of Jesus Christ is applied both to adults and to infants by the sacrament of baptism rightly administered in the form of the Church, let him be anathema; for there is no other name under heaven given to men, whereby we must be saved.

4. The Church’s teaching on the Baptism of Desire refers to catechumens. It is, of course, possible to make an argument for how this teaching could be extended to children who die without the grace of Baptism, but an argument is necessary. We cannot simply take texts out of context and apply them to a different situation. How is an unborn child like a catechumen? Obviously a key point is the intention of the parent, but it is the intention of another, not one’s own entrance into the catechumenate. The intention of the parents and the faith of Church suffices for infant Baptism and so we can see how this same principle could apply. But has the Magisterium made this point explicit?

5. What the Magisterium has done is to point to hope for the unborn who die without Baptism, but it has not definitely asserted that they will be saved. Other than a non-magisterial statement of the International Theological Commission, the Catechism is the central place to look for the Church’s teaching on this matter:

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 (1261).

It is key that the statement speaks only of entrusting these children to the mercy of the Lord and hoping for their salvation. That is actually quite substantial, but it is not the same thing as saying that these children are assured of their salvation through the desire of their parents. If we are to hope and pray, there is a realization that that salvation is needed. This at least implies the possibility of limbo (understood as exclusion from heaven with no actual sin), as otherwise there would be no need for prayer.

6. What about children and others without the full use of reason who die without anyone desiring Baptism on their behalf? If the key refutation of limbo is the hope of Christian parents desiring Baptism for their children, it is clear that this would not apply in this case. It is possible, of course, that the Lord could look with mercy upon children who did not sin themselves and offer them the grace of Baptism, but this would require a distinct argument from the one employed in the Catechism.

Taking all of these points into consideration, here are my conclusions.

First, we should not make our own theological opinions into the same kind of overstep that has been criticized in the limbo of infants by Cardinal Ratzinger and the International Theological Commission.

Second, if we allow ourselves to fall into such an overstep, we may not take seriously enough the Church’s teaching on the need for Baptism, for instance. Many parents and pastors approach Baptism for children in a very leisurely fashion.

Third, if the Church teaches us in the Catechism to pray and entrust our children who die before Baptism to the Lord, then this is precisely what we should do: pray, trust, have Masses said, etc. If we presume the salvation of unborn children, which completely ruling out limbo would seem to imply, we will not take seriously enough this crucial task.