Is Limbo Closed? (Where Do Unbaptized Babies Go?)

François-Joseph Navez, The Massacre of the Innocents (1824)
François-Joseph Navez, The Massacre of the Innocents (1824)

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.

Rubbish.

Lucas Cranach the Elder, Christ in Limbo (1530)
Lucas Cranach the Elder, Christ in Limbo (1530)

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.

20 Comments

    1. Laura,

      As with infants who die after birth before baptism, we entrust them to the mercy of God. We know that they’re not damned, but it’s an open theological question of whether they enjoy the natural happiness of Limbo or the supernatural happiness of the Beatific Vision. Either way, we know that they’re not in any pain, and that their hearts are filled with Christ.

  1. in The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized they used Marchetti theology, an irrational theology. This is the theology being used by the International Theological Commission. It is also known as Cushingism.
    Cushingism assumes there is known salvation outside the Church. Then it infers wrongly that since there is known salvation outside the Church these ‘known cases’ are ‘explicit’ exceptions to the traditional interpretation of the dogma extra ecclesiam nulla salus.
    So since there are exceptions to the dogma not every one needs to enter the Church formally for salvation according to the Cushing-Marchetti thesis.
    Since not every one needs to enter the Church there is salvation outside the Church for the ITC. So it is possible that babies can be saved without the baptism of water is the ITC, Pope Benedict XVI thesis.
    It is also based on an irrational premise i.e we personally know of deceased in the present time who are in heaven without ‘faith and baptism’

    1. Lionel,

      As you know, the “ITC-Benedict” hypothesis doesn’t rest on the presumption that their is salvation outside the Church. Rather, all salvation is through the Church, although there is a possibility that those formally outside the Church can be saved through the Church, if they cooperate with God’s grace and if they are formally outside the Church through no fault of their own. The Church hasn’t repudiated EENS. You’ll also note the concept of the invincibly ignorant being possibly saved without formally joining the Church, dates back at least to the discovery of the Americas and can even be found in St Thomas Aquinas’ concept of “potential Christians.”

      1. From St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae II-II, Q 2, A 7, ad. 3:

        “Many of the gentiles received revelations of Christ, as is clear from their predictions. . . . If, however, some were saved without receiving any revelation, they were not saved without faith in a Mediator, for, though they did not believe in Him explicitly, they did, nevertheless, have implicit faith through believing in Divine providence, since they believed that God would deliver mankind in whatever way was pleasing to Him[.]”

        Clearly salvation by implicit faith doesn’t violate extra ecclesiam nulla salus est, if St. Thomas Aquinas believed it! And it’s clearly old, if he believed it.

        And what’s more, even in the early 1300s the principle was more widely recognized than just by expert theologians:

        In Dante’s Inferno, Canto 4, lines 34-39, Virgil says this about the souls in Limbo:

        “If they had merits, these
        mere not enough–baptism they did not have,
        the one gate to the faith which you believe.
        And if they lived before the Christian faith,
        they did not give God homage as they ought,

        and of these people I myself am one.”
        (from Anthony Esolen’s great translation)

  2. “But for infants who lack altogether the merit of a will to do good and who, just like all other mortals, are wounded with original sin, they can offer no explanation whatever. Why are some of them regenerated in baptism and saved, while others fail to be reborn and are lost” (Call of the Nations, Book 1, Chapter 22)?

    I’m not an expert on heaven and hell, so I couldn’t definitively say that those who go to hell just for their original sin versus those who go to hell for more sins than that have it worse (though Christ says that the day of judgment is more tolerable for some people rather than others, perhaps because they have to give a longer account for even more idle words and sins?)

    What I think the early Church taught right, which has been mostly abandoned these days, is that universal infant salvation is not Biblical and has not been historically taught by the Church. I think the biggest problem is we do not take our sin seriously enough, and God who knows all hearts does.

    Further, we fail to appreciate that every human being was in Adam’s loins when he sinned, and therefore when he sinned we sinned, just as when Abraham sacrificed to Melchizedek, so did Levi because he was in Abraham’s loins. Infants were real participants, not merely theoretical, in the original sin. Christ’s sacrifice on the cross is the only thing sufficient to save these infants. The Catholic Church at least has a consistent theology in teaching how infants can be saved (by baptism) and how their salvation can be maintained (via remaining faithful, which includes taking part in the sacramental life).

    Protestants on the other hand cannot help bu disprove salvation by faith alone when they bring up the supposed salvation of infants. I am actually surprised that Joe, in is polemics, did not take this up. You can very easily argue that Protestant soteriology disallows the salvation of any infants whatsoever, while Catholicism actually makes it possible. Just some food for thought.

    1. Craig,

      I think the point is all the stronger coming from you! You’re right, of course: infant salvation is incompatible with sola fide.

      It’s also incompatible with “once saved, always saved.” After all, if you hold that all infants are saved, this means that all the damned were once saved, but lost their salvation.

      Excellent point!

      1. Good point about “once saved, always saved” (a doctrine I believe is taught by the Scripture). Presbyterians obviously teach this, yet they also teach that the children of Christians are by default saved. Of course, this would necessitate a denial of once saved, always saved. I got banned from Puritan Boards for pointing this, among other things, out.

        Lutherans, who teach baptismal regeneration, can offer a consistent theology behind the salvation of infants. Because, with pain, I do not believe baptismal regeneration is Biblical, I tend to believe that the salvation of infants is not normative. Though it isn’t impossible with God to give several an infant unseen, saving faith there is no reason to expect that every single Christian’s child that dies before they grow old enough in which we can observe faithfulness or faithlessness, that the dead ones all happened to be invisible believers.

        However, God sorts it out, we know that He is righteous in His judgments. His will be done.

        1. Craig,

          You’re a guy who enjoys the Fathers: what do they have to say about Baptismal regeneration?

          The Protestant history Philip Schaff, in his History of the Christian Church, Volume II: Ante-Nicene Christianity. A.D. 100-325, writes in the section on “The Doctrine of Baptism” (http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/hcc2.v.vii.xiii.html) that “This ordinance was regarded in the ancient church as the sacrament of the new birth or regeneration,” and that its “effect consists in the forgiveness of sins and the communication of the Holy Spirit.” Again, this is A.D. 100 – 325. The situation remains the same for centuries more, until after the Reformation in the 1500s.

          Lutheran Satire presents the Scriptural evidence in a light-hearted way, so I’ll defer: https://m.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=JwxHzo0QVYY

          1. Oh, I know what they say relatively well, which is why it is with pain I disagree. I don’t want to, but I have read the exegesis offered by the Fathers and it does not appear to accurately represent passages such as Acts 2:38 and Titus 3:5, though I may be deceived.

            I read a bit of Everett Ferguson’s Baptism in the Early Church, which ironically is a Protestant argument in favor of baptismal regeneration. In fact, I was warming quite a bit to the doctrine of baptismal regeneration until I read a great portion of that book and his presentation of the ECF on baptism. What I saw was a lot of eisegesis that shoehorned the Scripture and some of the earlier fathers to conform with the opinions of mid third century and later ECFs. From memory, I found that any teaching about baptismal regeneration was found only in the third century and on. Attempts were made by him to argue that earlier ECFs argued the same, but I honestly did not find it convincing.

            It’s a topic I am open to being convinced to, but my view of the sacrament would be that of Cyril’s. Faith must precede the sacrament, or the sacrament has no power:

            If you stand in faith, blessed are you; if you have fallen in unbelief, from this day forward cast away your unbelief, and receive full assurance…For He is present in readiness to seal your soul, and He shall give you that Seal at which evil spirits tremble, a heavenly and sacred seal, as also it is written, In whom also ye believed, and were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise. Yet He tries the soul. He casts not His pearls before swine; if you play the hypocrite, though men baptize you now, the Holy Spirit will not baptize you. But if you approach with faith, though men minister in what is seen, the Holy Ghost bestows that which is unseen (Catechetical Lecture 17, Chapters 35 and 36).

            Cyril never wrote on the baptism of infants, though he clearly affirmed baptismal regeneration. However, it would take a stretch of logic to make Cyril’s very valid, and Biblically consistent view of the sacrament fit with Prosper of Aquataine’s, which I previously quoted. It is not that Prosper was not a great mind in his own right (he is repeating what Augustine taught on the matter), but it turns the sacrament of baptism into something efficacious based upon future presumptive faith, which would not be true of any other sacrament which is void when there is no faith behind it.

            So, the long short of it, I don’t think baptismal regeneration has to be unbiblical, but I think the way it is applied to absolve the original sin of unbelieving infants is. The Catholic teaching on the matter is logically consistent, it comes from Augustine and Augustine is probably the greatest theologian of the ECFs. However, where it falls in my mind is that it ignores that salvation is not by a sacrament that makes us faithful, but by faith that leads into the sacrament.

            That’s the best I understand the matter. 🙂

          2. To correct myself, baptismal regeneration has very early backing from Justin Martyr:

            “Those who are convinced that what we teach is true and who desire to live accordingly are instructed to fast and to pray to God for the remission of all their past sins. We also pray and fast with them. Then we bring them to a place where there is water, and they are regenerated in the same manner in which we ourselves were regenerated. They then receive the washing with water in the name of God (the Father and Lord of the universe) and of our Savior Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit. For Christ said, ‘Unless you are born again, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven”‘ [John 3:5]. (Justin First Apology chant 61)

            To reiterate, there is a difference between those who desire baptism being regenerated (as the RCC teaches baptism by desire, so faith brings upon the regeneration to begin with) and the teaching that those without faith can be baptised by someone else without faith, but that baptism regenerates the former party (as Orthodox doctrine does not exclude the baptism of heretics.)

            Nonetheless, I wanted to correct my comment that the teaching first appears in the third century. At the very least, it is in Justin Marty’re writings, which come 100 years after most of the Scripture was finished.

  3. Maybe I’m just missing something here, but why should the limbo of unbaptised infants be permanent whilst that of pre-Christians is temporary? If Christ could bring David out of limbo, why couldn’t He bring David’s son as well?

    1. Maybe I’m just missing something here, but why should the limbo of unbaptised infants be permanent whilst that of pre-Christians is temporary?
      Lionel:
      The pre Christians were waiting for the Saviour.They had to wait in Abraham’s Bosom.It was afiter the Resurrection of Jesus that they went to Heaven.

      If Christ could bring David out of limbo, why couldn’t He bring David’s son as well?
      Lionel:
      Christ decides.

  4. As one who has taught Baptismal Preparation for parents requesting infant baptism for a long time I get the Limbo question a lot. As I have tried to come up with a satisfactory answer (which has evolved into “we entrust them to the mercy of God”) We wonder however about the “Baptism of Desire” which I understand to mean that if the parents of children who die prior to Baptism earnestly hoped of the sacrament, they would receive God’s consolation and be joined with their parents in the eternal life of heaven.

    This same challenging question also comes into play when the question of “What happens to babies who are killed in abortions?”

    Your thoughts here?

    Pax

    1. An essay I ran across some time ago proposed the example of a catechumen who dies before baptism as a model we might follow here. We would have good reason to hope for such an individual’s salvation.

      In a similar way, we might hope for the salvation of an infant who dies or is miscarried before his/her parents can have him/her baptized…and then the author took it a step further, and suggested that even in cases where the parents would not have had any such intentions (e.g. abortion) the guardian angel might also stand in that role.

      If correct, that would effectively cover the whole population prior to the age of reason, and eliminate the need for Limbo altogether.

  5. I have the hardest, hardest, hardest time in believing that unbaptized babies will ‘not’ go to heaven, like those of you are saying. If the catechism, and the prayers that are said at the funeral of unbaptized babies says that “they are entrusted to the mercy of God”, how then can we even think that God will send them to any other place than heaven ???

    Also…….is there anywhere that says that a person has to be baptized before they die ? I do not know the answer to that, but when I hear the church saying that …”There is no salvation outside of the Catholic Church”, and since The Church consist of 3 places…….Heaven (The Church Triumphant), Purgatory (The Church Suffering), Earth (The Church Militant), then I think that it can be surmised that a soul can be baptized anywhere before Heaven. Does this sound crazy to anyone ?

    1. Infants are in Adam when he sinned and are participants in his sin. This is beyond dispute. So, being that we cannot see the work of the Spirit on these infants, we commend them to God’s mercy and in so doing, do not presume upon it.

      1. Again, that sounds very much like the Catholic Doctrine, Craig.

        Do you see a difference between what you said and this?

        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,”64 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.

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