Reflections on Limbo

James Tolhurst FAITH Magazine July-Aug 2007

In a 41 page report issued this April, the International Theological Commission says that there are “serious theological and liturgical grounds for hope that unbaptised infants who die will be saved and brought into eternal happiness.”

Although the report is very cautious – ‘grounds for hope’ – it does move the argument on in the matter of unbaptised babies. For the pastoral priest funerals of unbaptised babies are the most traumatic; made more so by not being able to inform the parents that the babies are in heaven. One would be inclined to say that they are in God’s hands, and leave it at that. Officially, the Church did not teach that they were in heaven as that would be seen to undermine the importance of baptism for salvation.

It is precisely this dilemma which was immediately highlighted by Kenneth Wolfe, a columnist for The Remnant. He remarks, “It makes baptism a formality, a party, instead of a necessity. There would be no reason for infant baptisms.” But he also adds, “It would also deprive Catholic leaders of a tool in their fight against abortion. Priests have long told women that their aborted foetuses cannot go to heaven, which in theory was another argument against ending pregnancy. Without limbo, those foetuses presumably would no longer be denied communion with God.” Here is one priest who was not aware of that particular argument, which seems to have a distinctly Jansenist flavour with a subtle touch of blackmail thrown in. Fr Richard McBrien, on the opposite wing, concludes that, if we’re notgoing to revert to St. Augustine’s teaching that unbaptised infants go to hell, we’re left with only one option, namely, that everyone is born in the state of grace. Baptism does not exist to wipe away the ‘stain’ of original sin, but to initiate one into the Church.”

The Professor of Theology at Notre Dame does not perhaps realize that he has combined the errors of Pelagianisn (against which Augustine was fighting, and therefore stressing the importance of baptism forgiving sin and granting entry into heaven) with Modernism. The Church has always taught that baptism not only conferred grace but also remitted sin. The Second Council of Orange in 529 decreed, “If anyone says that it was not the whole man, that is both body and soul, that was ‘changed for the worse’ through the offence of Adam’s sin, but believes that the freedom of the soul remained untouched and that only the body was made subject to corruption, he is deceived by the error of Pelagius.” Later, in 1439, the Council of Florence was to add, “By Baptism all sins are forgiven, original sinand all personal sins, as well as all punishment for sin.” The Decree Lamentabili (now in its centenary year) directed against Modernism condemns the opinion that, “The Christian community brought about the necessity of baptism by adopting it as a necessary rite and joining to it the obligations of the profession of a Christian.” Pius XI added, in Casti Conubii (1930), “Even though Christian parents are in the state of grace themselves, they cannot transmit this grace to their children; in fact, natural generation of life has become a way of death, the way by which original sin passes to children.” It seems a liberating (and liberal) stance to say that we are all born in grace, but it contradicts both Scripture and Tradition.

The Church has always believed that the forgiving grace of God can be given without the waters of baptism. The Holy Innocents have been honoured as the first example of those who were welcomed into heaven because of the gift of their lives for God. Catechumens who die before baptism are said to receive the grace of the sacrament because of “their desire to receive it, together with repentance of their sins and charity” (Catechism of the Catholic Church in 1259). This does not in any way undermine or denigrate the importance of baptism. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that “God has bound salvation to the sacrament of baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments” (n.1257).

The use of Limbo (from the Latin ‘limbus’, for hem of edge) refers to a state of natural happiness outside heaven for babies and certain virtuous people, such as the faithful Jews who lived before Christ. But it has always been considered a theological construct. Can it be said that humanity has ever been destined for a natural happiness? Some theologians, among them, Augustine, and following him the poet Dante, had to conclude that if babies could not go to heaven then they had to go to hell. Augustine tempered this judgement by having recourse to a ‘mitissima poena’ – the mildest condemnation. Limbo was a later fudge invented to avoid putting innocent infants in hell, while being unwilling to put them in heaven, because it would seem to go against John 3:5 and Tradition. But at thefinal resurrection we know that there will only be heaven and hell. The International Commission now says, “Limbo reflects an unduly restrictive view of salvation.

The Commission will not totally commit itself (leaving this up to the Supreme Authority of the Church) to the view that unbaptised babies go to heaven and says this is not “sure knowledge”. But it states that this is in the context of a loving and just God who “wants all human beings to be saved” (cf. I Timothy 2:4). It goes so far as to say that there are “serious theological and liturgical grounds” for this hope.

It would now seem entirely reasonable that we can tell grieving parents – especially those who are practicing members of the Church – that in God’s mercy, their unbaptised children are now in heaven. For those who have had an abortion and confess their sin, it would surely be adding insult to injury if we have to inform them that in addition to their crime, they have condemned their unborn child to even the mildest of punishments. Instead we can now ask them to believe that God in his goodness has received their innocent victim and they should have a Mass said as a sign of their repentance and in thanksgiving for God’s mercy.

In no way does this undermine the importance of baptism, rather, reducing limbo to a theological hypothesis, it would seem to enhance it. Heaven and Hell stand in more stark relief.

Faith Magazine

July - August 2007