Action Alert!

Salvation for Non-Catholics and Limbo

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Aug 11, 2010

Continuing my survey of Sound Off! comments on Salvation for Non-Catholics: Not a New Idea, I see that Laudeturjc1162 notes a similarity in this discussion with the problems surrounding the salvation of unbaptized infants and the theory of limbo. This is worth pursuing.

In this context, limbo is a state of natural happiness for unbaptized infants who cannot be guilty of personal sin. The theory is that since the human person lacks the supernatural capacity to enjoy God before he is baptized, and since infants and very young children cannot receive this supernatural gift through baptism of desire, then after death they must enjoy a maximum of natural happiness, but not the vision of God—hence limbo. Although this has been a widespread idea in Catholic circles for a long time, it has never attained any official status; at best it was a common theological opinion.

The current Catechism of the Catholic Church does not offer the theory of limbo; instead, it sugggests that we may hope that God has a way we do not know to “let the children come to me” (see #1261; cf. Mt 19:14). Similarly, the most recent major Vatican study of the the question of salvation for unbaptized infants (the 2007 document issued by the International Theological Commission, The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized) concludes that there are good grounds for abandoning the concept of limbo.

This is highly relevant not because we know the answer, but precisely because we do not know exactly how salvation works for unbaptized infants. The situation is similar in some ways to the question of salvation for adults outside the visible borders and sacramental structure of the Church, but there are some differences. When I refer to infants and adults, of course, I really mean all those who are incapable of personal sin on the one hand and all those who have matured sufficiently to sin personally on the other. Indeed, this is the first difference: Since no rational adult can claim innocence, there is no need to worry about the fate of rational adults who are completely guiltless. That, if you will, is the dark side of this question.

On the bright side, however, such adults can do more than sin; they can also desire God, and the Church does officially teach a way of salvation for adults outside the visible structure of the Church. This way is often called baptism by desire. Thus Pius XII, in his great encyclical Mystici Corporis Christi, explained that those outside the visible structure of the Church can “have a certain relationship with the Mystical Body of the Redeemer” by means of “an unconscious desire and longing” (inscio quodam desiderio ac voto) (#103). It is this teaching that has led theologians to examine the possibility of “substantial” membership in the Church even where “formal” membership is lacking. (There is also, of course, baptism by blood—martyrdom—but that applies only to believing Christians who are killed for their faith before being baptized.)

The two cases—unbaptized infants and adults who, as Vatican II put it in Dei Verbum, “perseveringly do good in search of salvation”—have in common the key fact that even the Catholic Church does not know everything about how God works to draw all men to Himself (cf. Jn 12:32). What we as Catholics do know is what we might call the ordinary, programmatic and certain way—and definitely the easiest way—to grow in holiness and union with God and be rewarded with eternal life. But the Church does not know exactly, in all its details, how God works to save those who have no chance to seek Him, or who do seek Him diligently but cannot, through no fault of their own, follow the Catholic high road to heaven.

Moreover, the Church is very conscious of her limitations here. Without completely understanding how God does it, she knows, as St. Paul put it, that God “desires all men to be saved” (1 Tim 2:4), and so it is unthinkable that He would damn those who have not incurred the guilt of rejecting that salvation. For this reason, she is able to hope for the salvation of unbaptized infants and she is able to state without doubt that those who “perseveringly do good in search of salvation” can be joined in some mysterious way to herself and so attain eternal salvation in Christ.

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.

Sound Off! supporters weigh in.

All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a current donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!

  • Posted by: koinonia - Aug. 13, 2010 4:10 AM ET USA

    The Church was founded by God himself. The Word, by his death on the cross, had provided an infinite treasury of grace. The Church is the vehicle of salvation- the dispenser of those graces- in union with her divine Spouse. Nonetheless, at nearly the same moment of her birth at the death of her Savior, an astonishing display of mercy allowed the Church to welcome her first unlikely martyr. The Good Thief died a "witness" to that incredible mystery of God's undying and merciful love.

  • Posted by: gallardo.vm5565 - Aug. 12, 2010 12:54 PM ET USA

    "...a non-Catholic Christian who is "in good faith" is a Catholic malgre lui." Ronald Knox, The Belief of Catholics. I recomend a copy to all.

  • Posted by: Justin8110 - Aug. 11, 2010 5:12 PM ET USA

    Anyone who wants a different view on this by a priest in good standing with the Holy See is directed to go to the audiosancto website and listen to the talk "Contra sedevecantism and Limbo." I'm not convinced that Limbo doesn't exist based on the solid Tradition the Church has in speaking of it; however, if the Pope speaks ex cathedra in favor of the nonexistence of Limbo than I will humbly assent.

  • Posted by: Defender - Aug. 11, 2010 3:25 PM ET USA

    There are many things: Limbo was taught in the old catechism as the place where Jesus descended (Hell in the Creed) and, because we are born with original sin, infants need to be baptized to wash away this stain. The latter probably drove being baptized soon after birth, which we don't do anymore (months later it seems)- another VII change? Both "states" are temporary. Plus, we can (and should) trust in God's grace.