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Limbo:

Introduction: Catholic theological beliefs
about the fate of unbaptized infants, etc.

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Where adults go -- or what is the state in which adults find themselves in -- after death:

The Roman Catholic church teaches that there are two main permanent locations or states after death: Almost everyone will spend eternity in either Heaven or Hell. The existence of these places or states is supported by many dozens of Biblical passages and millennia of church teaching. A person's eventual destination is determined by their salvation status at the instant of their death. 

The Church also teaches that most adults who are destined for heaven will spend a time being purified by time-limited torture in Purgatory.

Most people in the world today die as adults. The Roman Catholic teaches that when they were newborns, they were tainted with original sin inherited by the entire human race as a result of Adam and Eve's transgression in the Garden of Eden. However, the Church teaches that an infant is saved from this state if it is baptized. Later in life, when a person reaches the age of accountability, any future mortal sin can cause them to lose their salvation, so that they would be sent to Hell at death. But by making a genuine confession of their their sin to a priest in the Sacrament of Penance, they can obtain absolution and the -- perhaps temporary -- restoration of their salvation.

Thus:

  • One person might be a professional hit man for his adult life, murdered dozens of people, sincerely repented of his sins, gone through the sacrament of penance, die, spend time in Purgatory and eventually attain Heaven.
  • Another person could be free of sin all their life, totally devoted themselves to helping others, commit a sexual sin and die of a heart attack during the commission of the sin and go to Hell.

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The theological problem regarding unbaptized infants:

Infants who die before baptism have not had their Original Sin erased. Church teaching has been diverse: theologians have taught that such infants are eternally tortured in Hell, or that the infants go to a permanent place of happiness where they never mature, or that there is no way to know their fate. The Roman Catholic church itself does not take an official stand on the fate of unbaptized infants, newborns, fetuses, embryos, and pre-embryos who die. They remain agnostic on the matter of Limbo, but hold out hope that some path to Heaven will be possible.

St. Thomas Aquinas was the first major Catholic theologian who speculated that unbaptized infants, and others, would spend eternity in Limbo.

Since the Church teaches that souls are indestructible, they must be present in some state or location. Many Catholic theologians and clergy have speculated that they go to an actual place or state of existence, which has been traditionally been called "Limbo". A Catholic dictionary states that:

"The great majority of [Roman Catholic] theologians teach that such children and unbaptized adults free from grievous actual sin enjoy eternally a state of perfect natural happiness, knowing and loving God by the use of their natural powers. This place and state is commonly called Limbo." 1

The word "Limbo" is derived from the Latin word "lumbus" which means a fringe, edge, hem or border. It implies that Limbo is neither in Heaven or Hell, but is an in-between location or state of being. 

Also, since the Church teaches that human life becomes a human person at the instant of conception, the same fate would presumably await pre-embryos, embryos, fetuses, and infants who die during the process of being born.

To judge by the distressed Emails that this group receives from parents and family members, the lack of a definitive statement by the church of the fate of unbaptized infants (or others incapable of experiencing a mortal sin) has resulted in great distress and uncertainty among Roman Catholics.  It also appears to be a confession of failure on the part of the Church that they have been unable to assess the will of God on this important doctrinal matter for millennia.

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The destination/state of others who are also unbaptized:

Although the concepts of salvation, Heaven, Hell, Purgatory, and sacraments form a clear and consistent belief system, there are some exceptional instances in which they do not seem to fit:

bulletThere are persons who have died without having been baptized:

bulletA fertilized ovum, morula, zygote, embryo or fetus are all regarded by the Roman Catholic church to be a full human being. Thus they are all subject to that original sin that the entire human race inherited from Adam and Eve. If they were to die due to natural causes or an abortion, then they would die under a state of sin; they would not be eligible for acceptance into Heaven. On the other hand, they would not have had the opportunity or knowledge to commit an actual sin, so they would not appear to be eligible for Hell either.

bulletA newborn who died before being baptized would be in the same situation.

bullet There are those who died when or where baptism was unavailable:

bulletPersons who lived before Jesus Christ would not have been able to take advantage of baptism and the church's sacraments, because neither existed when they were alive.

bullet Persons who live in countries where the population of Christians is miniscule: These individuals would have no access to baptism.

bulletOther individuals may be in a similar state:
 
bullet A person suffering from autism, or others who suffer from an inability to communicate might not be able to engage in the Sacrament of Penance, regardless of their age.

bullet A developmentally disabled individual may also be able to engage in the Sacrament of Penance, or to understand the nature of sin -- again regardless of age.

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A possible exception:

The Church has long taught that infants slaughtered by persons motivated by a hatred for Christianity experienced "baptism of the blood" and would attain Heaven as martyrs. Some contemporary theologians have suggested that aborted fetuses may be considered martyrs and are therefore saved through the same "Baptism of Blood."

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Site navigation:

 Home > Christianity > History, beliefs... > Specific beliefs > Afterlife > Limbo > here

Home > Christianity > Bible > Contents > Afterlife > Limbo > here

Home > Christianity > Christian groups > Sorting groups > Meta groups > Catholic > Limbo > here

Home > Christianity > Christian groups > Sorting groups > Denominations > Catholic > Limbo > here

or Home > Christianity > Chr. groups > Sorting groups > Families > Catholic  here

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Reference used:

  1. Fr. L.E. Latorre, "Guidebook for Baptism," at: http://www.domestic-church.com/

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Copyright © 1999 to 2010 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 1999-DEC-19
Latest update: 2010-DEC-09
Author: B.A. Robinson

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