The Problem of Unbaptized Infants
Let’s start examining this question by acknowledging what we do know:
- Nothing impure enters Heaven (Rev. 21:27).
- Original sin is real, and even damnable. (Romans 5:12, Rom. 5:18-19, 1 Cor. 15:22, Council of Florence).
- All of us (save Jesus Christ, and the Virgin Mary) are conceived with original sin.
- Baptism is the ordinary means of being cleansed from original sin, and being justified and sanctified before God. Put another way, Baptism saves us (1 Peter 3:21).
- Damnation is a punishment for deliberate (or voluntary) sins. As Blessed Pope Pius IX put it, “Because God knows, searches and clearly understands the minds, hearts, thoughts, and nature of all, his supreme kindness and clemency do not permit anyone at all who is not guilty of deliberate sin to suffer eternal punishments.”
Now, all of this creates an obvious problem for the question of the eternal souls of those who die, unbaptized, in infancy (including, for example, the souls of the unborn). On the one hand, they were conceived with original sin, and did not receive Baptism. This seems to foreclose their ability to enjoy the fullness of the Presence of God in Heaven, the Beatific Vision. On the other hand, they commit no voluntary sin, so eternal damnation would be unjust. Unlike an adult who died with original sin on their conscience, the infants did not refuse Baptism, but lacked the capacity to will it. In the case of those who died in vivo, it wasn’t even possible for them to receive it!
Considering this problem (that there seems to be no solid basis to say that unbaptized infants are either in Heaven or damned), theologians have hypothesized that these infants enjoyed a state of Limbo, similar to what was experienced by the righteous dead who died before Christ. If you’re not familiar with the Limbo of the Patriarchs, read up on the Harrowing of Hell, and what Scripture has to say about the Bosom of Abraham (see Luke 16:19-31).
We sometimes envision Limbo as being a place free of any pleasure or pain, like some sort of Christian Nirvana. But that’s not how the theologians described it at all. Rather, they envisioned it as the state of the highest natural happiness, but without the Beatific Vision. That’s a big caveat: after all, the chief torment of Hell is the pain of loss, that the souls are separated from God. Dante properly placed Limbo as the outer ring of Hell, just as those souls in the Bosom of Abraham prior to the Death of Christ were in Hell (just not the hell of damnation).
So the souls in Limbo suffer, in the sense that they do not enjoy the Beatific Vision of God, the purpose for which they were created; but they don’t suffer what’s called “pain of sense,” and (despite their suffering, at being detached from God), aren’t being damned or punished by Him. In fact, those who advocate for Limbo generally argue that they enjoy “perfect natural happiness.” In other words, their original sin prevents them from enjoying the Beatific Vision, but they’re in as close to a paradisaical state as one can get without being able to see God.
The advantages to the theory of Limbo are clear. It respects both the reality of original sin, and the necessity of voluntary sin for damnation. It’s even consistent with what we know about what the Patriarchs experienced (who were likewise incapable of entering Heaven, since Christ had not yet atoned for their sins, but unworthy of being damned, since they lived by faith). But the central problem with the theory is this: there’s no reference to a Limbo of Infants anywhere in Scripture.
|The Visitation (detail from a 1410 German parament)|
There is an alternative to Limbo: namely, that God simply saves unbaptized infants through an extraordinary grace. This doesn’t violate the truth that Baptism is the ordinary means of being cleansed from original sin. As the Catechism notes, “God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments.” So we’re required to be Baptized to be saved, but God isn’t required to damn the unbaptized. He can do whatever He pleases, including welcoming unbaptized infants into Paradise.
There is also a thread (admittedly, a thin one) running through the Scriptures that provide some hope on this point. When David’s infant son died, he reasoned (2 Samuel 12:23) “now that he is dead, why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I will go to him, but he will not return to me.” This provides a basis for concluding that infants and adults arrive at the same destination, but it’s complicated by the fact that this is the Old Covenant, while the Limbo of the Patriarchs still exists (that is, the opposing view may well say: yes, David did join his son… in Limbo!). But the implication of the passage would seem to suggest an eternity together in Heaven.
Stronger evidence is found in the Infancy Narratives of the New Testament. First, there’s John the Baptist, who Luke 1:15 promised would be filled with the Holy Spirit from birth. In fact, even before birth, the Holy Spirit dwells in him. We see this at the Visitation, in which, Mary (pregnant with Our Lord) goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth. As Luke 1:41 says: “When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.” Of course, it’s not only Elizabeth who is filled with the Holy Spirit, here: it’s also the unborn John the Baptist, which is why he leaped for joy. For John to have an indwelling of the Holy Spirit (both in the womb and at birth) requires that he not be tainted by original sin. The Church has long recognized this, and it’s for this reason that John the Baptist’s is one of only three Nativities that we celebrate (the other two being Jesus and Mary, the other two people born without original sin).
|François-Joseph Navez, The Massacre of the Innocents (1824)|
There’s also the Massacre of the Innocents, in which Herod murdered the children in the vicinity of Bethlehem (Matthew 2:16-18). The Church celebrates their feast day as the Feast of the Holy Innocents, and they’re considered the very first Christian martyrs. St. Augustine himself (while expressing severe doubts as to the eternal fate of unbaptized children) was explicit that these infants were in Heaven:
In full right do we celebrate the heavenly birthday of these children whom the world caused to be born unto an eternally blessed life rather than that from their mothers’ womb, for they attained the grace of everlasting life before the enjoyment of the present. The precious death of any martyr deserves high praise because of his heroic confession; the death of these children is precious in the sight of God because of the beatitude they gained so quickly. For already at the beginning of their lives they pass on. The end of the present life is for them the beginning of glory. These then, whom Herod’s cruelty tore as sucklings from their mothers’ bosom, are justly hailed as “infant martyr flowers”; they were the Church’s first blossoms, matured by the frost of persecution during the cold winter of unbelief.
If then, these infants can enjoy the fullness of Heaven with Our Lord without water Baptism (or being old enough to form a Baptism of desire), it certainly seems possible that other unbaptized infants join them… and particularly those unborn and infants who are murdered.
The chief difficulty on both sides (those who think the unbaptized children go to Limbo, and those who think that they go to Heaven) is that the New Testament writings assume an audience of the age of reason. The party of Limbo faces the difficulty that a Limbo of infants is simply never mentioned in Scripture, unlike the Limbo of the Patriarchs (which is referenced in both Luke 16 and 1 Peter 3). The obvious answer is that the New Testament readers aren’t going to Limbo (since they’re not infants), so there’s no need to mention it, just as Christ avoided telling Peter the fate of John in John 21:21-22.
The party of Heaven faces the difficulty posed by Christ’s injunctions that “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:16) and that “whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son” (John 3:18). But the obvious answer here is the same: the New Testament is directed at an audience capable of belief, which infants are not. In fact, to the extent that Jesus does directly address the salvation of children, His Message is reassuring (Matthew 18:1-3).
If Scripture is silent on this question, perhaps that’s for good reason. As noted above, no matter what the answer is, it may simply be best for us not to know, to avoid either despair or presumption, or to cause us to delay or neglect Baptism.
|Pietro Longhi, The Baptism (1755)|
That would seem to be the thinking of the Church right, and perhaps the most reasonable solution to this problem. Pope John Paul II assembled an International Theological Commission to study this question. In 2007, during Benedict’s pontificate, they released their findings on “The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized.” It concludes:
Our conclusion is that the many factors that we have considered above give serious theological and liturgical grounds for hope that unbaptized infants who die will be saved and enjoy the beatific vision. We emphasize 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 Thes 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. [Cf. Catechism, 1257.] 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.
So get your babies Baptized, and if they die before you can, simply entrust their souls to God. This side of eternity, that may well be all that we can know on the issue for certain.