Skip to comments.Limbo and the Hope of Salvation
Posted on 05/14/2005 10:32:40 PM PDT by Salvation
by Dr. Jeff Mirus, special to CatholicCulture.org
May 12, 2005
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 Churchs very proper emphasis on baptism raised thorny questions about the possibility of salvation for certain personsunbaptized through no fault of their ownwho 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 IIs 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 hellan extension of the Hebrew concept of Sheolwhere they awaited the coming of the Savior. The Creeds 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. Pauls 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 childs parents might supply a sort of baptism, just as it supplied the necessary assent to sacramental baptism.
Still later theologians have wondered whether the souls 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 Alzheimers 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.
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Do any of you have grandchildren who are unbaptized as I do? This subject concerns me, and this article seemed to be a good one to post for a discussion.
Bump for later read...Thanks for posting and interesting topic!
They need to change that word....limbo.
Just doesn't sound dignified enough or something. :>)
But when we come to the penal sufferings of infants, I am embarrassed, believe me, by great difficulties, and am wholly at a loss to find an answer by which they are solved; and I speak here not only of those punishments in the life to come, which are involved in that perdition to which they must be drawn down if they depart from the body without the sacrament of Christian grace, but also of the sufferings which are to our sorrow endured by them before our eyes in this present life, and which are so various, that time rather than examples would fail me if I were to attempt to enumerate them.
... Morever, who knows what may be given to the little children by means of whose sufferings the parents have their obdurate hearts subdued, or their faith exercised, or their compassion proved? Who knows what good recompense God may, in the secret of his judgments, reserve for these little ones? For although they have done no righteous action, nevertheless, being free from any transgression of their own, they have suffered these trials. It is certainly not without reason that the Church exalts to the honourable rank of martyrs those children who were slain when Herod sought our Lord Jesus Christ to put Him to death. (St. Augustine, Letter 166:16,18)
It also seems that preaching and catechesis about limbo have largely disappeared since the Second Vatican Council, so that younger Catholics are often unaware of the teaching and unaffected by it. Certainly its absence from the Catechism of the Catholic Church officially confirms the closure of limbo as a place for unbaptized infants.
As dysfunctional as my family is, I believe all my grandchildren are baptized, whether properly or not I couldn't say, Methodist, Lutheran, possibly AOG, Episcopalian. One, even though baptized by a Methodist female preacher (seemed nice) according to the Trinitarian formula (I hope - they have traditionally used that) now claims to be an atheist.
Then there are my niece and nephew who were "baptized" in a Congretational church in some newfangled "naming ceremony", whatever that is. They have what I would consider an ultra-liberal, revisionist interpretation of Christianity. I wobble with my catholicism, but tend to have fundamentalist, traditional leanings about basic doctrine.
I'm worried about some of my immediate ancestors whom I'm pretty sure were never baptized and, of course, the atheist one.
It IS a concern, and no amount or articles are very reassuring because we simply DO NOT KNOW, no matter what the church said, then, now, or what some saint said.
In these "latter days" (meaning Christianity is now 2000 yearsold), I figure a lot of my protestant ancestors got disgusted with some of the "fruits" they witnessed of Christianity in America, the hypocrisy, denominational tug 'o wars, you name it. Also, they were farmers, and it wasn't easy to get into town to go to church regularly. I can only guess.
I pray for them all. That's all I or anyone can do and hope there really is such a thing as baptism of desire, that I can pray them out of purgatory, or something.
I'll bet I'm not alone in this, and I didn't read the article. It will just get me upset.
What is this? Universalism?
Certainly its absence from the Catechism of the Catholic Church officially confirms the closure of limbo as a place for unbaptized infants.
The CCC states that, for infants, there is no known way of salvation other than baptism, and that salvation for those unbaptized can only be hoped for. Now, if limbo has suffered "closure", does that mean that the infants are headed for the torments of hell?
1257 ... The Church does not know of any means other than Baptism that assures entry into eternal beatitude; ...
1261 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. All the more urgent is the Church's call not to prevent little children coming to Christ through the gift of holy Baptism.
Why is it "urgent" for them to be baptized, if they're assured salvation?
Such a loving sacramental ritual gives expression to the faith of the community and its desire to include this child in the Christian community. Such a baptism celebrates the gift of this life and Gods love for this person from the moment of conception, and it offers the child Gods grace and the support, love and prayers of the community. My concern here is with the urgency in the past to baptize infants in danger of death primarily out of fear that the child would be assigned eternally to limbo.
This is a flat-out denial of original sin, and a complete distortion of the Sacrament of Baptism, as well as being directly opposed to the teaching of the CCC on the urgency of infant baptism.
If any one denies, that infants, newly born from their mothers' wombs, even though they be sprung from baptized parents, are to be baptized; or says that they are baptized indeed for the remission of sins, but that they derive nothing of original sin from Adam, which has need of being expiated by the laver of regeneration for the obtaining life everlasting,--whence it follows as a consequence, that in them the form of baptism, for the remission of sins, is understood to be not true, but false, --let him be anathema. For that which the apostle has said, By one man sin entered into the world, and by sin death, and so death passed upon all men in whom all have sinned, is not to be understood otherwise than as the Catholic Church spread everywhere hath always understood it. For, by reason of this rule of faith, from a tradition of the apostles, even infants, who could not as yet commit any sin of themselves, are for this cause truly baptized for the remission of sins, that in them that may be cleansed away by regeneration, which they have contracted by generation. For, unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. (Council of Trent, Session V, Decretum de peccato originali, Canon 4)
He also wasn't satisfied with the concept of Limbo.
He did not, however, hold that God's will that "all men be saved" meant that all would be saved. In fact, the CCC specifically distinguishes between those who have reached the age of reason, who will all be given a chance to choose for or against God, and the infants who have no other certain way of salvation than baptism.
If Limbo was not acceptable to JP II, and he held that all infants go to heaven, why does the CCC state that the danger of damnation for infants makes baptism for them an "urgent" necessity?
**Certainly its absence from the Catechism of the Catholic Church officially confirms the closure of limbo as a place for unbaptized infants.**
This I was not aware of.
**Then there are my niece and nephew who were "baptized" in a Congretational church in some newfangled "naming ceremony", whatever that is. **
My daughter calls this "dedication" in an Assembly of God church.
**Why is it "urgent" for them to be baptized,**
The graces that come with infant Baptism would seem to explain the urgency, at least in my mind. Helps from the Holy Spirit during the "growing-up" years.
Today's children need this extra help in my opinion.
I don't see anything about "danger of damnation" in the CCC statement. JPII simply asked theologians to re-examine the question of infants who die without baptism.
We simply don't know how God provides for these infants. But we should trust that He does, and that it is not some kind of place of "natural happiness," for a soul that was made for Him.
CCC 403 Following St. Paul, the Church has always taught that the overwhelming misery which oppresses men and their inclination towards evil and death cannot be understood apart from their connection with Adam's sin and the fact that he has transmitted to us a sin with which we are all born afflicted, a sin which is the "death of the soul". Because of this certainty of faith, the Church baptizes for the remission of sins even tiny infants who have not committed personal sin.
**there can only be a hope, no certainty, for the salvation of unbaptized infants. **
Thanks -- you found the passage in the Catechism! They just don't call it limbo anymore. The teaching is still there!
**CCC 403 Following St. Paul, the Church has always taught that the overwhelming misery which oppresses men and their inclination towards evil and death cannot be understood apart from their connection with Adam's sin and the fact that he has transmitted to us a sin with which we are all born afflicted, a sin which is the "death of the soul". Because of this certainty of faith, the Church baptizes for the remission of sins even tiny infants who have not committed personal sin.**
The statement goes like this (1) We can only hope for their salvation (2) Therefore, the Church's call for their baptism is "All the more urgent" (implied: because they might not be saved). There is no other reading possible.
We simply don't know how God provides for these infants. But we should trust that He does, and that it is not some kind of place of "natural happiness," for a soul that was made for Him.
Contradictory statements, there. You say that you don't know, then say that it's not natural happiness - so it must be the supernatural happiness of heaven. And, all souls were made for God.
Pastorally, that's the only view that makes sense.
So long as, pastorally, you agree that "All the more urgent is the Church's call not to prevent little children coming to Christ through the gift of holy Baptism." (CCC 1261)
My wife and I lost our 1st child to miscarriage. While I do not know where exactly our baby is, I ask for his prayers every nite! He's closer to God than we are.
Much confusion over the entire topic of the afterlife consists of misunderstanding what it and its various components are.
First of all, there are not seperate places called "heaven" (where God is) and "hell" (where God is not). God is everywhere - omnipresent, so when we die, everyone comes before God and is with Him forever. The Bible says of going to hell "if I descend into hell, Thou art present" (Psalm 138.8). And the Bible, when speaking of the condemned, says clearly that they "shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the sight of the holy angels and in the sight of the Lamb" (Revelation 14.10). Thus, the wicked rich man in his torments clearly beholds Abraham and Lazarus in their glory (cf. St. Luke 15.19-31).
Hell is not a real place, but a state of mind and condition of a human who hates God - a sinner who has died. It certainly isn't something on the part of God, since God loves all humanity.
"For our God is a consuming fire." (Hebrews 12.29). The glorified - those who are baptized and persevere to the end - behold this fire as the light and love of God towards us, as the beatific vision. The damned, who hate God, behold this as an eternal burning torment from which they will never have any relief. Hell is the condition of eternal spiritual death, the state of human spiritual garbage once God has killed the souls of the wicked by allowing them to cut themselves off from His love - "fear him that can destroy both soul and body in hell" (St. Matthew 10.28), and "Behold all souls are mine: as the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son is mine: the soul that sinneth, the same shall die" (Ezekiel 18.4).
From this, the fate of the unbaptized infants is much clearer. They too, like everyone else, come before God upon death to remain before His face forever. But they neither behold His glory, since they were not united to Him in grace, nor are they tormented by His fire, since they were not seperated from Him by sins. Instead, they enjoy Him and His goodness in a natural manner fitted to their capacity as innocent spiritual beings deprived of grace. They do not grieve in loss like the damned because they never lost the gift of life, since they never had it. They dwell in the darkness of the absence of grace, but they enjoy the light of God given the just in the beatific vision as the Sun is enjoyed at night in the reflection of the full Moon, or as we enjoy the vision of God clothed in the bread of the Eucharist, or perhaps even as we enjoy basking in the light of the sun, even as we cannot look at the sun because of the fierceness of its glory. They know He is there, and rejoice at Him for making them and bringing them to Him, even if they cannot see Him directly face-to-face. What is more, they are able to interact with God and the saved, and rejoice with them, on a natural level again fitted to their capacity, just as we might interact with other people here on earth today on a natual level. Their lot is hardly intolerable, especially when compared to the fate of the damned to be burnt alive in eternal death forever.
If there is some other way besides Baptism for them to receive grace, we do not know it, and God has not chosen to reveal it to us; therefore, let us leave it at that.
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