What happened to limbo?
If you are Catholic and can remember the “old Mass,” you were likely made well aware of the Catholic Church’s doctrine of limbo.
Yet, if you ask anyone in the last two generations or so, they are very unlikely to have been taught about it.
Why is that?
This post is the third one in my series on the Catholic Church’s teaching of the limbo of the children. In my first post I answered where do unbaptized infants go when they die? I showed that the limbo of the children has been a doctrine declared de fide by two (2) different Church councils.
In my next post, I gave you even more support for the doctrine. There I provide quote after quote from popes and saints through the centuries affirming this as the infallible teaching of the Church.
Here in this post, I wish to respond to several counterarguments modern folks make to the doctrine of limbo.
Here is a short review, in case you have yet to read the prior posts.
The Catholic Church teaches as an infallible doctrine that the limbo of the children does exist and God does send souls there. Limbo is on the edge of hell, where no flames reach. The children here experience a state of perfect, natural happiness, but are deprived the beatific vision.
Children who end up here are those who are unbaptized upon death before the age of reason (generally seven years of age). These would include babies who die by abortion, abortifacient birth control, stillbirth, IVF discarding, miscarriage, infant mortality, etc.
Such children are deprived the beatific vision of going to heaven because they never received baptism to forgive their original sin. Yet, they never committed a willful offense against God, so they do not merit burning in hell. Thus, out of His mercy, God sends them to limbo.
This is a teaching of the Church, as defined by no less than two ecumenical Church Councils. It is also taught by numerous popes and saints, including Doctors of the Church like St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas.
Okay, now let’s answer some common objections these days to the Church’s doctrine of limbo.
Let’s begin with the current Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1261. It reads as follows:
“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,’ [citing Mk 10:14; 1 Tim 2:4] 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” (emphasis added).
As you can read, the current Catechism claims the faithful are allowed to “hope” children who die without baptism still go to Heaven.
Sadly, this is a false statement in the current Catechism, to put it bluntly. This is not to say that the entire current Catechism is no good and should never be read. But it is to say that, at least here, it is incorrect.
Notice that paragraph 1261 cites no prior Church council, pope, Magisterial document, or the like. It just makes a base assertion.
Moreover, this part of the Catechism does not obligate any Catholic to “hold” to the belief that unbaptized infants go to heaven. Only, the Catechism claims they can “hope” for it. A Catechism’s purpose is to synthesis the Church’s teachings, not to introduce new ones.
As well, a Catechism is not necessarily an infallible document produced by the Church. Consider that this current Catechism is on its second edition, published in 1997. The first edition was published in 1994, but its paragraph 2358 was rewritten for the new version.
We can also point out that the Catechism in circulation before this modern one did explicitly teaching the truth of limbo. Published in 1910 the Catechism of St. Pius X read this way:
“Q[uestion] #100 – Where do infants go who die without Baptism? A[nswer:] – Infants who die without Baptism go to Limbo where they do not enjoy the sight of God, but also do not suffer. This is because having original sin and it alone, they do not merit heaven, but neither do they merit purgatory or hell” (emphasis added).
Pope Saint John Paul II’s encyclical, Evangelium Vitae, paragraph 99 is another place objectors commonly turn.
Some English versions state that aborted babies “now live with the Lord.” However, that statement of the whereabouts of their souls is not found anywhere in the official, Latin version of this encyclical.
Besides, the pope has not the authority to override the dogmatic teaching of two Church councils.
What About a “Baptism of Desire” Applied to the Children?
A common objection to the doctrine of limbo of the children remains a “Baptism of desire” for the children. What if a miscarried baby would have been baptized by the parents? Or, can’t the Church supply the desire for Baptism to all the unborn, especially those who die by abortion?
Unfortunately, Baptism of desire is not transferable. In other words, no one’s desire for a child to be baptized will credit the child with the grace of the Baptism of desire.
How do we know this? Well, this is the teaching of the Universal Doctor of the Church, St. Thomas Aquinas himself.
“By Baptism a man is ordained to the Eucharist, and therefore from the fact of children being baptized, they are destined by the Church to the Eucharist; and just as they believe through the Church’s faith, so they desire the Eucharist through the Church’s intention, and, as a result, receive its reality. But they are not disposed for Baptism by any previous sacrament, and consequently before receiving Baptism, in no way have they Baptism in desire; but adults alone have: consequently, they cannot have the reality of the sacrament without receiving the sacrament itself” (ST III Q. 73 a. 3, emphasis added).
The ITC’s “The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die without Being Baptized” Document
An additional common objection to the doctrine of limbo comes from the document, “The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die without Being Baptized” by the International Theological Commission (ITC), published April 19, 2007.
This group of theologians serves as an advisory board for the Vatican, especially for the Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith. The ITC does not have the authority to produce a document binding on any of the faithful.
Keep this in mind, because it states the following as the conclusion of its study as to whether we may “hope” for the salvation of unbaptized infants. They write this:
“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 emphasise that these are reasons for prayerful hope, rather than grounds for sure knowledge” (paragraph 102, emphasis original).
So, even the ITC admits it cannot state with any certainty that infants who die without baptism go to Heaven. Thus, those who claim the Vatican “did away” with limbo are mistaken. The ITC never made any such claim.
The ITC makes a similar assertion in paragraph 79. But it also admits in paragraph 79: “the Church does not have sure knowledge about the salvation of unbaptized infants who die” (emphasis added). For the record, paragraph 97 also makes their assertion that they can “hope” for the salvation of all deceased, unbaptized infants.
Granted, the ITC did a pretty thorough job examining the historical teaching of the Church on the doctrine of limbo. Yet, it still led them to a false conclusion.
On their side, the ITC rightly point out that God is not bound by His sacraments (paragraph 82). They even cite St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica as proof (III, 64, 7; cf. III, 64, 3; III, 66, 6; III, 68, 2). God could save souls outside of the water of regeneration (a.k.a., baptism by water).
However, God has given us no revelation that this is, in fact, what He does for babies who die without being baptized. In fact, the Holy Spirit has led the Catholic Church to just the opposite/ revelation. In the Second Council of Lyons and the Council of Florence, the Holy Spirit led the Church to assert dogmatically that such souls do go to limbo.
SO, WHAT HAPPENED TO LIMBO?
If we dig even further into the 2007 ITC document, I think we can begin to understand what happened to limbo. The ITC document, in many ways, serves as a microcosm of the modern thinking on this topic.
In paragraph 71 the ITC admits they looked to the world for answers. They seemingly downplayed Church tradition (cf. paragraphs 77 and 102).
In fact, in paragraph 96 they say the Second Vatican Council failed to affirm the doctrine of limbo because bishops claimed it was not in congruity with the sensus fidelium (‘sense of the faithful’) (cf. paragraphs 28 and 78). Doctrinal matters are not subject to popular vote, so I am not sure why the vote never came. If it were possible to vote on matters of the faith among the laity, I think we would have chucked out the requirement a long time ago to take up our cross daily to follow our Lord (Luke 9:23).
In my opinion they completely downplayed the significance of two Church councils asserting the doctrine of limbo (cf. paragraphs 22, 29, and 37).
Moreover, in paragraph 83 the ITC attempts a work around Pope Innocent III’s teaching. They state, “There is no question of denying Innocent’s teaching that those who die in original sin are deprived of the beatific vision. What we may ask and are asking is whether infants who die without Baptism necessarily die in original sin, without a divine remedy.”
In other words, they are merely speculating that God might provide Baptism to those who did not receive it. Again, the ITC is merely speculating.
Moreover, paragraph 90 misrepresents the debate within the traditional teaching of limbo. While it is true there was debate historically about the doctrine of limbo, it is often misunderstood.
Historically, among the Church Fathers whether limbo exists has not been debated. It is known to be true. In fact, St. Augustine traces the origins of the teaching back to the Christ’s apostles themselves!
What was debated was whether the children in limbo suffer any pain of the senses. St. Augustine said yes, and some followed his line of thinking. While St. Thomas Aquinas said no, and still many others preferred his teaching. Historically, that has been the debate on the limbo of the children.
In the last 40 years or so the truth of the doctrine of limbo has been largely forgotten or ignored. Some have taught and many have been led to believe limbo was merely a “theological theory.” As the ITC points out, funeral liturgies and Mass intentions were changed to add confusion to the matter, making it seem as though we could “hope” that unbaptized babies who die might go to heaven.
In short, what happened to limbo is that the clergy and religious education failed to preserve this teaching, by and large.
My hope in responding to these objections is to show that the historical evidence for support in the belief in limbo severely outweighs the modern teaching of a “hope” for the children to be saved. What the Church has already defined, no pope or any other has the ability to undo.
We have unanimity among the Church Fathers, and among the scholastics of the Church. That should be enough in itself. Then in addition, we have two Church councils, papal writings, Denzinger, and so forth. And still, some will refuse to accept it as dogma.
In so doing, they will, in effect, say they know better than St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine, and so forth.
How else do you explain what happened to limbo?
Were you aware of the Church’s historical teaching?
Do you see where the Church cannot define it to be anything else?
Please feel free to add a comment below.