Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Where Do Unbaptized Babies Go When They Die?

Q. In reading Dante's Inferno, I was taken aback by reading his account of Limbo. What exactly is Limbo? Does the Church still teach it? 

First, "limbo" can refer to two distinct places, so we have to be clear from the get go exactly what we are talking about. "Limbo" can be either:

1) "The Limbo of the Fathers" - the place where the righteous dead went before Christ died and opened the gates of heaven for them. This is in the Bible - see 1 Peter 3:19. This Limbo surely existed, although there would be no one in it for the last two millennia.

2) "The Limbo of Infants" - the place where unbaptized babies go. This isn't explicitly mentioned in Scripture (but neither is the Trinity, so that isn't an argument against it). It can, however, be inferred from the doctrine that all must be baptized to go to heaven (see John 3:3).

Your question concerns "the limbo of infants."

 It might be interesting to look at the word "limbo" and see what that tells us. The English word "limbo" comes from the Latin "limbus", meaning "border" or even "hem". Thus, limbo would refer to a place at the border of, but not inside of Hell. The souls in limbo, therefore, are not numbered amongst the damned.

Although not popular today, some of the greatest minds in Church History have taught that unbaptized babies go to limbo, including Dante Alighieri, the greatest poet and lay scholar in Church history; St. Thomas Aquinas, the greatest doctor in the history of the Church (see HERE); and various Church Fathers including St. Gregory Nazianzen , Tertullian, and St. Ambrose. Other great Catholics, including the second greatest doctor in the history of the Church, St. Augustine didn't teach limbo (Augustine taught that unbaptized infants would go to Hell, but have the mildest of all punishments).

More recently, especially in the twentieth century (even before Vatican Council 2), theologians began contemplating the idea that the unbaptized go to Heaven. The Church has never officially endorsed this position. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (then called simply the Holy Office) issued a statement in 1958 urging parents to baptize their children ASAP, noting that the state of the unbaptized after death is unknown,
"The practice has arisen in some places of delaying the conferring of Baptism for so-called reasons of convenience or of a liturgical nature" a practice favored by some opinions, lacking solid foundation, concerning the eternal salvation of infants who die without Baptism. Therefore this Supreme Congregation, with the approval of the Holy Father, warns the faithful that infants are to be baptized as soon as possible..."
 The Catechism of the Catholic Church likewise leaves the door open stating, in paragraph 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"

The closest the Church has ever gotten to making a definitive statement on limbo was with Pope Pius VI's Auctorem Fidei in which he condemned the Jansenists for teaching, as certain, Augustine's theory that the unbaptized were in Hell, but were not tormented by the flames of Hell. Pius doesn't declare that limbo exists, he simply rebukes the Jansenists for teaching that limbo doesn't exist, Pius, like the Church today, was leaving the question open.

Unfortunately, many Catholics today think that Limbo has been definitively rejected in favor of the idea that all unbaptized babies are certainly saved (which dovetails with an increasing tendency toward universalism, that all will be saved, in the minds of many Catholics). This simply isn't the teaching of the Church. The fact is, we really don't know what will happen to them and Catholics are free to decide for themselves between Augustine's theory (they go to Hell), Aquinas' (they go to limbo), and simply trusting in God's mercy (they go to Heaven).


  1. I feel compelled to write this. I believe that Limbo was just used as a name. Unbaptised babys are in the mercy of God,therefore they go straight to "Heaven".

  2. Talk about angels on the head of a pin. This kind of church teaching will be the end of the church. "The mildest of 'punishments'"? Does your head spin all the time or just when you're thinking about this stuff?

    1. Sheila, Why is wondering what happens to the unbaptized akin to "talking about angels on the head of a pin" (a question, incidentally, never asked in the Middle Ages)? It doesn't make my head spin, does it make yours?

    Are infants, unborn children, and young children sinners? Of course they are not sinners. To believe that you would have to believe the false doctrine of original sin. There is no Biblical evidence that men are now nor were they ever guilty of Adam's sin. Men die physically because of Adam's sin. Men die spiritually because the the sins they themselves commit.

    Romans 9:11 (for the children not yet being born, nor having done any good or evil......(NKJV)

    The unborn cannot commit evil.

    Deuteronomy 1:34-39 ......39 'Moreover your little ones and your children, who you will be victims, who today have no knowledge of good and evil, they shall go in there; to them I will give it, and they shall possess it. (NKJV)

    The Lord does not punish children for the sins of their fathers nor for the sin of Adam.

    Isaiah 7:14-16 ...Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel. 15 "Curds and honey He shall eat, that He may know to refuse the evil and choose the good. 16. "For before the Child shall know to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land that you dread will be forsaken by both her kings.(NKJV)

    Even Jesus had an age of accountability. Jesus had to reach an age where He knew right from wrong before He could be charged with committing sin. Infants, the unborn, and small children have to reach a certain age before they can be guilty of sin. Jesus was not guilty of Adam's sin nor did He Himself commit sin.

    The doctrine of original sin and infant baptism is a man-made tradition.

    Matthew 18: 2-3 ..."Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter into the the kingdom of heaven. (NKJV)

    Certainly Jesus was not saying you have to be guilty of original sin like these children to enter into heaven. Little children are not guilty of Adam's sin nor any other kind of sin.

    Hebrews 2:10-17....17 Therefore, in all things He had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. (NKJV)

    In order to believe the false doctrine of original sin you would have to believe that Jesus was guilty of Adam's sin and therefore a sinner from birth. Jesus had to made like us in every respect.

    Jesus was born like us all. NOT GUILTY OF ADAM'S SIN NOR ANY OTHER SIN.

    Men are only guilty of the sins they themselves commit at the point when they can distinguish good from evil. Yes, there is an age of accountability.

    You can believe the false doctrine of original sin and of children sinners that is written in man-made creed books or you can believe God's word as recorded in the Bible.

    YOU ARE INVITED TO FOLLOW MY BLOG. http://steve-finnell.blogspot.com

    1. Thank you, Steve, for the well thought out reply. I'll simply point out the falsity of your dilemma, that Jesus Himself would be "guilty" of Original Sin, just because we are. That conclusion doesn't follow from anything you wrote. We Catholics wholeheartedly agree with you that Our Lord was born without O. Sin and never committed an actual sin. As a matter of fact, we think the same thing about Mary (although I don't want to open that can of worms here, I'm simply showing how it doesn't follow to say "Jesus had no original sin, ergo no one does"). Honestly, I think you completely misunderstand the doctrine of Original Sin, which isn't about "guilt" (we are only "guilty" of actual sins that we commit) but is about being "born out of Eden (i.e. out of the state of grace, out of relationship with Christ). Baptism corrects that. Original Sin isn't a "punishment" from God, it is the natural consequence of what Adam and Eve did. You can think of it like this. If my father is a millionaire, I'd be financially set for life. This is equivalent to Adam before the fall. But if my dad gambled away all his money and died broke, leaving me not one red cent, I would lose my inheritance (like Adam's children did after the fall). This isn't a punishment from God, my lack of an inheritance isn't me being punished for the sins of my father, it is the natural consequence of my fathers actions. Original Sin works in the same way. Adam and Eve's children (had they not fallen) would have been born in Eden and would have walked with God in the cool of the evening. If no one had ever sinned, this would include me and you. However, as we well know, sin came into the world and we are all born out of the intimate relationship Adam originally had with God. This "being born out of Eden" is Original Sin. What happens to those who die in original sin is dealt with above. God bless.