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Limbo

Catholic statements about the fate of unbaptized
newborns, infants, etc.,
before the 20th Century

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Overview:

The Roman Catholic Church has historically taught that embryos, fetuses, or infants that die before being baptized may suffer one of two fates in the afterlife:

bullet Because they suffer from original sin, they will end up being tortured in Hell for all eternity. On the bright side, many church theologians suggest that they might suffer a lighter degree of pain than adults who died in mortal sin. However, their punishment will still be infinite in nature because it will last forever without any hope of cessation.

bulletBecause they suffer from original sin but not from any sin that they have personally committed, they will spend eternity in Limbo -- a pleasant place where they will never mature into adulthood.

In recent decades, some Catholic theologians have departed from the Church's traditional position and suggested that unbaptized infants, etc. may somehow attain salvation and thus be accepted into Heaven. The current Catechism states that there is a possibility that this might happen. A document issued by the Church's International Theological Commission and approved by Pope Paul XVI states that there are "... serious theological and liturgical grounds" for hope in their eventual salvation.

The Church's position on Limbo seems to remain in limbo.

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Early statements by Roman Catholic theologians:

bulletThe "Limbo of the Fathers" is not mentioned in the Bible, but is believed to be a state or place for the souls of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and other believers who died before Christ's ascension. They may have qualified for Heaven on the basis of their holiness during life, or on the basis of attaining holiness through painful discipline in Purgatory. However, they must wait in this Limbo until the time of the Final Judgment when they will be admitted to Heaven. Meanwhile, they generally believed to be in a state of happiness. Limbo is this state/location mentioned in the Apostles' Creed where Jesus Christ is said to have visited during the almost 2 days between his death and resurrection.
 
bulletThe "Limbo of children" (a.k.a. Limbo, Linbus Infantium, Puerorum) is believed by many Roman Catholics to be a state where embryos; fetuses; unbaptized newborns and infants; and children who die before the age of accountability when they become capable of committing grievous actual sin; enjoy perfect natural happiness. Catholic theologians have traditionally agreed that the unbaptized  are excluded from Heaven.

Although belief in Limbo is common, the Roman Catholic church has never formally proclaimed its existence as a dogma in which its membership must believe.

Some Church leaders have commented on the fate of unbaptized infants:

bullet4th century CE:
bulletSt. Gregory of Nazianzus (circa 329 - circa 390) commented in Orat., XL, 23 that infants dying without baptism "will neither be admitted by the just judge to the glory of Heaven nor condemned to suffer punishment, since, though unsealed [by baptism], they are not wicked." This was the common view of the early Church Fathers.

bulletPope St. Siricius insisted on the baptism of infants as well as adults lest "each one of them on leaving the world, loses both [eternal] life and the kingdom.2

bullet

5th century CE: St. Augustine of Hippo (354 - 430) convinced the Council of Carthage (418 CE) to reject the concept of limbo "of any place...in which children who pass out of this life unbaptized live in happiness." According to the Catholic Encyclopedia:

"St. Augustine and the African Fathers believed that unbaptized infants share in the common positive misery of the damned, and the very most that St. Augustine concedes is that their punishment is the mildest of all."

That is, they go to Hell for eternal punishment, but are not as badly treated as other inmates. According to Revelation 14:10, the infants would be tortured in the presence of Jesus. However, this verse is ambiguous about whether Jesus is directing or merely observing the torture.

bullet11th century: St. Anselm (1033 - 1109 CE) supported St. Augustine's belief that "unbaptized children share in the positive sufferings of the damned [in Hell]."2

bullet12th century: Peter Abelard (1079 - 1142) deviated from St. Augustine by rejecting material torment (poena sensus) and retained only the pain of loss (poena damni) as the eternal punishment of unbaptized infants for their original sin.

bullet13th century: St Thomas Aquinas (1226-1274), who was the first major theologian to speculate about the existence of a place called limbo. Its name is derived from the Latin limbus which means "hem" or "edge". There, on the edge of heaven, the unbaptised would exist in a state of what he described as "natural happiness".

bullet 14th century: Pope John XXII's issued an Epistle to the Armenians in 1321 CE. Fr. Brian W. Harrison writes that the Epistle, along with two earlier ecumenical councils:

"... teach that the souls of those who die in original sin ... go down without delay into Hell' where, however, they suffer 'different punishments' from those who die in actual mortal sin."

Harrison suggests that this "... could only be infants and the mentally retarded who never reach the use of reason," and who were never baptized. 1 Presumably, the "different punishments" would involve a lighter level of torture of the infants than is experienced by adults who die in moral sin.

bullet15th century:
bulletLater writers, {e.g. Griolamo Savonarola (1452 - 1498) and Ambrose Catharinus (16th century)} believed that "the souls of unbaptized children will be united to glorious bodies at the Resurrection." 2

bulletThe Ecumenical Council of Florence wrote in 1442:

"Regarding children, indeed, because of danger of death, which can often take place, since no help can be brought to them by another remedy than through the sacrament of baptism, through which they are snatched from the domination of the devil and adopted among the sons of God, [the Church] advises that holy baptism ought not to be deferred for forty or eighty days, ... but it should be conferred as soon as it can be done conveniently." 1

bullet16th century:
bulletCardinal Cajetan speculated that unbaptized newborns, fetuses, etc people may benefit from a "vicarious baptism of desire." i.e. even though an actual baptism may not have occurred, it might have been desired by the parents, or the church or by someone else. A "desired baptism" which had never actually been conducted might have the same power as a real sacrament.

bullet Pope Sixtus V declared in a papal statement that aborted fetuses do not attain the beatific vision in Heaven. From the content of his statement, it appears that newborns and infants who die before being baptized suffer the same fate. 1

bullet The Council of Trent stated that justification includes the remission of original sin in infants as well as moral sin in adults. They state that justification "cannot take place without the washing of regeneration [i.e. baptism] or the desire for it." Since infants cannot have a desire for baptism, it would appear that only actual baptism will make it possible for an infant to attain heaven at death. 1

bullet 18th century: A group known as the Jansenists reverted to St. Augustine's belief. They rejected the idea of Limbo in favor of eternal torture of unbaptized infants, etc. in Hell. In response, Pope Pius VI wrote Auctorem Fidei in 1794. It condemned their teaching as being "false, rash, and injurious to Catholic education" because they denied the existence of a place "which the faithful generally designate by the name of limbo for children." Pope Pius VI implied that there are two possibilities: that unbaptized infants might spend eternity comfortably in Limbo or they might spend it being tortured in Hell. The Jansenists' denial of the possibility of Limbo was regarded as un-Catholic.

bullet19th century: Theologian Heinrich Klee speculated that God might enlighten the infant at the instant of death and enable them to make a decision for or against God.

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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 > Christian groups > Sorting groups > Families > Catholic  here

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Fr. Brian W. Harrison, "Could Limbo be 'abolished'?" The Seattle Catholic, 2005-DEC-07, at: http://www.seattlecatholic.com
  2. Kevin Knight, "The Catholic Encyclopedia" at: http://www.newadvent.org/ 

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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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