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Limbo and the Hope of Salvation

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | May 12, 2005

In a recent website review, we were compelled to list the site’s views on limbo as a weakness. Some Catholics are under the impression that the Church has formally taught that unbaptized infants cannot be saved but must inevitably be consigned to a marginal abode known as limbo, where no supernatural happiness is possible. But this is not what the Church teaches.

The Questions Raised by Baptism

The Church does teach that the enjoyment of the presence of God in heaven is not ours by right. It is a free gift. With Scripture, the Church further teaches that we must be reborn by water and the Holy Spirit before we can enjoy the Beatific Vision, and that the means of this rebirth is ordinarily the sacrament of baptism. Thus, the Church formally taught at the Councils of Florence and Trent that those who die without sacramental baptism, and for whom the want of baptism has not been supplied in some other way, cannot enter heaven.

But we need to be careful about what this means. From the beginning, the Church’s very proper emphasis on baptism raised thorny questions about the possibility of salvation for certain persons—unbaptized through no fault of their own—who were otherwise thought to be saved. The most obvious case was that of catechumens who suffered martyrdom before they were baptized. Very early on, the Church recognized in these martyrs a different kind of baptism, that of blood.

Later, theologians began wondering about the case of men and women of good will who did their best to seek God but who never had an opportunity to be exposed (or effectively exposed) to the Gospel. The Catholic belief that it was possible for such a person to be saved was partially explained by Pius XII in Mystici Corporis Christi, which taught that one could be joined to the Church inscio quodam desiderio ac voto (“by a certain desire and wish of which he is not aware”), commonly called baptism of desire. This was further developed in Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium, which clearly stated that even non-Christians who sincerely seek God “can attain eternal salvation”.

The Theory of Limbo

Perhaps the earliest case of all was that of the holy men and women of ancient Israel who died before the coming of Our Lord, including such critical figures in salvation history as Moses, David, Elijah and Ruth. Since the gates of heaven were closed when they died, Catholic theology generally holds that they went to a place on the border (limbus means the border or hem of a garment) between heaven and hell—an extension of the Hebrew concept of Sheol—where they awaited the coming of the Savior. The Creed’s statement that Christ “descended into hell” is traditionally held to refer to this limbo, from which He freed their souls and led them into Paradise.

It was a short conceptual jump from a temporary Limbo of the Fathers to a permanent Limbo of Infants. Clearly, the one thing the unbaptized groups we have discussed have in common is a desire to be with God. The presumption has generally been that infants cannot have this desire. Therefore, when the Council of Trent said that passing from our original state into “the state of grace and adoption as sons of God” cannot take place “without the water of regeneration or the desire for it”, it seemed to confirm a widespread medieval belief that limbo must be the final destination for unbaptized infants, who could not be damned because they had no personal sin.

Later, Pope Pius VI condemned the Jansenists as teaching something “false, rash and injurious to Catholic education” because they claimed that a place “which the faithful generally designate by the name limbo of children” was a Pelagian fable. Still later, Pius XII wrote that “an act of love can suffice for an adult to acquire sanctifying grace and supply for the lack of baptism; to the unborn or newly born infant this way is not open” (Acta Apostolicae Sedis, XLIII, 84). The theory of limbo was solidified within these strictures.

Problems with the Theory

But it remained a theory because the Church has never formally defined the existence of limbo for unbaptized infants. For the Church to condemn as rash those who call limbo a fable is simply for the Church to point out that the idea of limbo is not some fabulous creation of unschooled or heretical minds but a legitimate attempt to answer a very real and serious question. And for the Church to note that certain non-sacramental ways to salvation are not open to infants is simply for the Church to assert that unbaptized infants are not saved by these specific means.

On the other hand, we have the interesting case of the Holy Innocents. It has always been inconceivable to Christians that these infants, who were murdered because they might be the Son of God, could be denied the Beatific Vision by God the Father. One can argue that the Holy Innocents were not martyrs in the strict sense. They neither had an opportunity to practice the Faith nor to renounce it. They had no opportunity to perform an act of love, and no greater ability than other infants to express a desire for God. Yet they have always been included in the baptism of blood and the Church celebrates a feast in their honor.

In addition, we must never forget St. Paul’s great teaching that God desires all to be saved (Timothy 2:4). The very core of Catholic theology is that Christ died for the salvation of all. The Church teaches that we cannot earn our salvation, which is always a free gift, but we can either work with grace to grow in union with God or resist grace, turn our backs on God, and choose to live apart from Him. This leads to one of the most vexing theological questions of our own time: Is it reasonable to suppose that God refuses supernatural happiness to those who have no personal fault, who have not turned away? Is the theory of limbo adequate?

Countless Efforts at Resolution

Some of the most famous (and faithful) theologians have settled this question quite differently over the centuries. St. Augustine denied the concept of limbo (which was indeed held by the Pelagians) and taught that unbaptized children were consigned to hell but in a way that involved the least possible punishment. St. Thomas Aquinas argued that their souls lacked grace and the beatific vision but enjoyed a natural happiness in keeping with their capacity. St. Bernard and, later, Cardinal Cajetan (Aquinas’ greatest commentator) suggested that the prayer and desire of the child’s parents might supply a sort of baptism, just as it supplied the necessary assent to sacramental baptism.

Still later theologians have wondered whether the soul’s faculties of intellect and will, quite apart from neurological development, are not sufficient to express an interior desire for God. A similar question has been asked about how God “gets through” to those with Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia, as He sometimes seems to do. The point is that the Church does not claim to have settled every question; moreover, she has specifically left the fate of unbaptized infants unsettled. At present, she freely admits in that she simply does not know.

The official Catechism of the Catholic Church, while not failing to stress the paramount importance of baptism amid all these uncertainties, teaches that, “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.” (1261)

This is a legitimate hope of salvation that must not be denied.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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