Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The Teaching on Limbo in a State Of...

One of the things I find so refreshing in the Catholic Church is the history of such rich theological expression.  Saintly theological giants such as St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Anselm, Bl. Duns Scotus, and even a modern theological giant in our time like Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI have engaged in theological discourse to eloquently spell out matters of a theological nature in blessed Mother Church.  One thing that each of these theological giants had to discuss was a small teaching in the Church that needed plenty of discourse: the Catholic idea of Limbus Infantum, or Limbo of the Infants.

In my Protestant days I never had any question over the souls of infants who die before receiving the Sacrament of Baptism.  Yet, as a Protestant, I never saw baptism as any other means than just symbolic acceptance of Jesus Christ and his covenant.  I didn't have the Catholic understanding of baptism.

Upon my conversion process into the Catholic Church I stumbled upon the teaching of Original Sin, the mark on every man that separates us from God beginning with the sin of Adam and Eve.  Upon learning about how the church understood original sin, the Council of Florence decreed that any person who died in a state of original sin would not receive the Beatific Vision.  The Beatific Vision is our ultimate destination in Heaven- perfect union with God and a perfected state.  Another way of saying this is that those who die in a state of Original Sin are incapable of a destination in Heaven.  Therefore, based off of scripture, the only other destination would be Hell (not Purgatory as Purgatory is a process of purgation of the affects of sin for the Heaven-bound soul).  So the original idea was that unbaptized babies went straight to the place of the damned.  This was not something that sat well with theologians.  Understand, we do not have a monopoly on grace in the post-Vatican II Church.  These theologians tried to reconcile this teaching with the understanding of a loving and merciful God. St. Augustine is a theologian well known for his original discourse on Limbo, who believed these infants were damned.  Peter Abelard, a theologian in the 1100's had made the claim that the loss of the Beatific Vision is all that would occur for the infant who died without baptism.  St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Bonaventure also provided their theories that, while based off of our understanding of Original Sin and believing an unbaptized infant would not receive the Beatific Vision in the afterlife, that there would be no actual eternal punishment and suffering to endure in the afterlife as no personal sin was committed by the child.  It was even posited that an infant in Limbo could experience even a natural joy similarly experienced in our lives now.  So the theory had developed over time in the Catholic teaching on Limbo of the Infants- a place where unbaptized infants were to end up as a result of the loss of the Beatific Vision, but a state of being without eternal torment as a result of personal sin committed during one's life.

As we find ourselves here in the Catholic Church in 2015, this is a teaching that is not spoken of very often.  In many ways it has been downplayed, yet not abrogated by the Magisterium of the Church.

In 2007, the International Theological Commission was asked by the Vatican to weigh in on this issue.  The result was a document called The Hope of Salvation For Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized.  The ITC weighed in to offer grounds that the Church can "hope" for the salvation of these infants.  In the document it correctly acknowledges that as mentioned in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, "The Church does not know of any means other than Baptism that assures entry into eternal beatitude." (CCC 1257)  Yet, the Church teaches that there are 3 means of baptism.  There is baptism by water as the normative means of baptism.  There is the baptism by desire, i.e. someone who may convert to the faith in heart and mind, but for whatever reason cannot legitimately be baptized by water before the time of their natural death.  There is also the baptism of blood, i.e. that one dies as a martyr of the faith before official entry into the Church through baptism of water.  

The Commission makes the correct statement also that God is all powerful and is not bound by any of the sacraments he has prescribed to the Church.  The Commission suggests that God may possibly use any of these other means of baptism to receive the souls of these infants into Heaven.  The problem that has already been deduced by others is that as far as the Church understands, babies do not have a desire for anything.  Babies are not capable of reasoning and therefore cannot desire anything.  They just have natural reflexes guiding their actions.  The guidelines for martyrdom are particular, and it has also been suggested by others that infants do not possess the faith in Christ in order to be martyred for Him.  Also, even though God is not bound by anything, He reveals to us His nature and plan of salvation for mankind.  His nature and plan for us involves the sacraments, therefore one wonders why he would use a new plan outside of the one he has given to His Church.

Nonetheless, the Commission leaves us with a vague permission that one can hope for their salvation even if we do not understand how God saves these children.  This same document also goes against the grain and issues warning to parents not to delay the baptisms of their children, and concedes that Limbo is still a valid theory in the Church.  So the only goal of the document is just to suggest that one has the ability to hope for this salvation of unbaptized infants only, not that the Church knows if this salvation occurs.

So that being said, even based off of this document, I am not convinced that the Church has abandoned the teaching on the Limbus Infantum.  My reasons are as follows:

1. This teaching is not entirely unbiblical, as a Limbo of the Fathers (Abraham's Bosom) is mentioned by Christ himself as being a place of the soul's waiting for the Son of God to come for them.  We know such a state was involved in God's plan, so it is possible that it still is.

2. The list of Catholic theological giants that subscribed to some form of Limbo, whether they were comfortable with the teaching or not, is not to be taken lightly.  Dr. Taylor Marshall has a list mentioned in one of his several blogs on this topic.

3. People mistakenly think that Pope Benedict XVI did away with this Church teaching for God.  NY Times articles declared "Pope Closes Limbo" (as if the Pope had such a power).  In the book format interview with then Cardinal Ratzinger, Salt of the Earth, Ratzinger states that his personal opinion on the issue (and not the opinion as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, his title in the Roman Curia at the time) is that the teaching on Limbo should be done away with. This is based off of our current understanding of God's mercy as spelled out after Vatican II.  As he became Pope, he gave his approval of the Commission's document during his pontificate.  Yet, as mentioned earlier: the teaching on Limbo is still a valid belief to hold in the Church.  So Pope Benedict did not abrogate this teaching at all.

3. It is not infallibly defined intrinsically in any council of the Church, yet it's mention in magisterial  and council documents gives it weight and merit (which leads me to think that this is why the commission, nor Pope Benedict can technically abrogate it).

4. People think that the teaching on Limbo is a punishment on these infants.  I admit, it is hard to understand.  Yet, Jesus had many teachings that did not sit well with others in his own time.  The understanding of Limbo though is a very merciful outreach of the souls of the infants in question.  Limbo explains why these children do not suffer for eternity like the Massa Damnata, but have the possibility of joy in their final state.  So even though it is hard to understand, we can know it is not cruel.

It is obvious that the Church is in need of more dialogue about this teaching.  I hope and pray that this happens over the coming years.  This teaching should not be accepted based off of it being "traditional" or hard-line, but should carefully be accepted to be a teaching that exists in our Church.  Whether or not that actually changes in the future, God be praised!

Some good links on this:

Catholic Exchange

Dr. Taylor Marshall's Blog

Catholic Essentials




  1. Thanks for helping me think through this, Fro.

    One thing that comes to my mind immediately is that because the Church teaches that an unbaptized person can be saved through the baptism of desire, it would seem that the unbaptized infants of Christian parents can be saved through similar means—namely, the desire that their parents have for their baptism. For as we know, the children of Christian parents are not brought to be baptized on their own volition, but rather on the volition of their parents. Was this addressed in the 2007 ITC document you mentioned?

  2. Yes, I think it was. I believe Cardinal Dulles once speculated that to be the case.