So what happens to a baby who dies without Baptism? After all, neither Heaven or Hell seem like an obvious fit. On the one hand, they weren’t baptized, so they seemingly can’t enjoy the Beatific Vision: “For whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Hebrews 11:6). On the other hand, they didn’t sin, so it would be unjust to damn them.
For centuries, Catholics tended to believe that they went to Limbo. On surface, this idea doesn’t look Biblical: you won’t find the word “Limbo” anywhere in Scripture. What you will find, though, is the idea that the faithful who died before Christ descended into what’s “the Bosom of Abraham.” This is where Jesus describes Lazarus as going after death (Luke 16:23). It’s hell, inasmuch as it’s not the perfect rest and enjoyment of the Beatific Vision of Heaven… but it’s not damnation, and there’s no sense that Lazarus or anyone else in Abraham’s bosom suffered.
So it’s sort of hell, but only barely… and so theologians began referring to this as the edge (“limbus”) of Hell, which is where we get the term Limbo. It’s this sense of hell that we’re referring the Apostles’ Creed says that Christ “descended into Hell,” and it’s this descent that St. Paul refers to in Ephesians 4:8-10, and that St. Peter refers to in 1 Peter 3:18-20. So the term Limbo isn’t Biblical, but the idea is, at least for the just who died before Christ opened the gates of Heaven.
So those souls before Christ who died without meriting Hell but incapable (as all of us are) of meriting Heaven went to Limbo until Jesus Christ freed them. Keen theologians, considering the question of unbaptized infants, concluded that maybe these babies go to Limbo, too. The logic behind the “Limbo of the Fathers” largely seems to support the idea of the “Limbo of Infants,” after all. And there’s even a possible hint of this in 2 Samuel 12:23, in which David talks about being reunited with his (uncircumcised) son after death. If they’re both going to Limbo (David temporarily, his son permanently), that makes sense.
There’s an obvious drawback, though. Scripture just doesn’t tell us what happens to unbaptized infants. And the idea of the Limbo of the Fathers was that it was a sort of waiting place for Christ, not an alternative to Heaven. And so, while Limbo of the Fathers is a part of the faith, Limbo of Infants has always just been a theory. A popular theory, but a theory nevertheless. That’s why the old Baltimore Catechism said:
Persons, such as infants, who have not committed actual sin and who, through no fault of theirs, die without baptism, cannot enter heaven; but it is the common belief they will go to some place similar to Limbo, where they will be free from suffering, though deprived of the happiness of heaven.
But wait, you object: isn’t Limbo closed? Haven’t we settled this issue once and for all? You probably recall hearing something a few years back about how Pope Benedict XVI had dogmatically declared that Limbo doesn’t exist.
Here’s what really happened. During Pope Benedict’s pontificate, the International Theological Commission took a fresh look at the question. The ITC isn’t part of the Magisterium; instead, as the Vatican’s website explains, they’re an advisory body, a group of theologians who are tasked with “helping the Holy See and primarily the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in examining doctrinal questions of major importance.” In 2007, they submitted their final report, The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized, which the Holy Father approved for publication.
In it, the ITC explicitly affirmed the possibility of Limbo:
It is clear that the traditional teaching on this topic has concentrated on the theory of limbo, understood as a state which includes the souls of infants who die subject to original sin and without baptism, and who, therefore, neither merit the beatific vision, nor yet are subjected to any punishment, because they are not guilty of any personal sin. This theory, elaborated by theologians beginning in the Middle Ages, never entered into the dogmatic definitions of the Magisterium, even if that same Magisterium did at times mention the theory in its ordinary teaching up until the Second Vatican Council. It remains therefore a possible theological hypothesis. However, in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992), the theory of limbo is not mentioned. Rather, the Catechism teaches that infants who die without baptism are entrusted by the Church to the mercy of God, as is shown in the specific funeral rite for such children.
The ITC then give several arguments in favor of an alternate possibility – that Christ’s merits are applied to these children in some way, winning them Heaven – but stresses 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).” In other words, the popular theological opinion on this question has shifted, while acknowledging that the answer remained unclear, and might simply be something that is outside of the Deposit of Faith. Meanwhile, the Magisterium maintains her silence on the question.
How does the media respond to this?
The New York Times ran this story: Vatican City: Pope Closes Limbo. The headline alone has three glaring errors: it was the ITC, not the pope; Limbo wasn’t rejected; and even if the theory of Limbo had been rejected, that wouldn’t be the “closing” of Limbo (since it would mean that Limbo never existed).
Across the pond, The Telegraph went one worse, coupling the headline The Pope ends state of limbo after 800 years with this atrocious lede: “Babies who die before being baptised will no longer be trapped in limbo following a decision by the Pope to abolish the concept from Roman Catholic teaching.”
All of this points to a painfully obvious reality: the secular media are not a reliable source for Catholic information. This has only gotten worse since Pope Francis’ election. Reporters like the Boston Globe’s John Allen and Time Magazine’s Elizabeth Dias have openly denounced the falsehoods and inaccuracies in their peers’ reporting on the pope. Even Pope Francis has spoken out against the way his words are continuously twisted in the media, giving this example:
The mass media also grab a word from over there and take it out of context. The other day I was in the parish of Ostia, near Rome. I go along greeting the people, and they had put the elderly and the sick in the gymnasium. They were sitting down and I walked by and greeted them. Then I said, “Look how funny, here where children usually play are the elderly and the sick. I understand you because I’m old too and I also have my aches and pains, I’m a little bit sick.” The next day the newspapers say: “The Pope admitted that he was sick.” There’s nothing you can do against that enemy.
Sometimes, these inaccuracies are the result of ignorance, inexperienced and non-Catholic reporters trying to cover a complex religion. Other times, it’s opportunism, dressing up a non-story as if it’s something radical so that more people read your piece. Still other times, there’s a more sinister agenda at play, selling people on the idea that Pope Francis is changing Church doctrines.
I believe that there’s something of this agenda at playing in the media’s Limbo coverage. These days, Pope Benedict is cast as the bad old pope that represents the Old Catholic Church that Francis has to change, but this ITC-Limbo story is a throwback to the way that the media used him for their “the Pope is changing the teachings of the Catholic Church!” narrative. If they can convince you on this – that the pope has the ability to change Catholic doctrine – they’ve succeeded in undermining your faith in the Church and her Tradition.
So there you go. Limbo is a theory, based on serious theological and Scriptural reflection, but it’s not an official teaching of the Church. It’s not the only theory out there, but it’s a valid one. And anyone who tells you otherwise should probably get a better source for their Catholic news.