Baptism, Babies and Limbo

This past weekend we stayed after Mass to share in the celebration as a new baby was being baptized. baby baptismNot being directly involved as a parent or grand parent allowed me to sit back and reflect on the Sacrament of Baptism. This new life was being regenerated and filled with the Spirit of the Holy Trinity. Original Sin was being washed away and this child was adopted into the family of God. It was a joyful moment but it made me think – what about those little ones that die before being baptized…

The Simple Catholic Snapshots:

  • God is Perfect Love and Desires All His Children to Heaven
  • The Bible tells us that Baptism is Necessary for Eternal Life
  • Theologians have Struggled with the Paradox of God’s Love vs. the Death of Unbaptized Innocents
  • Limbo is a concept that was once considered a solution but has now been discarded.
  • God has not Revealed His Plan for the Unbaptized Innocents so we must Simply Trust in His Perfect Mercy

The Simple Catholic Truth:

In the Gospel of John, Jesus is very direct when speaking to Nicodemus indicating the necessity of being Baptized as a requirement for entry into heaven and eternal life.

Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. (Jn 3:5)

This and other verses (Mk 16:16, Mt 28:18-19), serve as the basis of the Catholic practice of infant Baptism. I don’t intend to reopen that controversy here, but even if you hold the common Reformed-Protestant belief that you are saved at a later time in life when, as a matter of faith you “accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior,” the dilemma still remains. What about those innocent people that through no fault of their own happen to die before giving their life to Christ? Strict interpretation of John’s Gospel above or to the Protestant view of salvation by faith alone would automatically exclude these people from eternal joy with God. This seems a horrible conflict with the idea that God is all loving and desires all his created children to heaven (1 Tm 2:4).

Debate regarding the fate of infants who die before baptism dates back to the late fourth century.  Pelagius asserted that man(kind) is not wounded by original sin. In opposition to Pelagius, St. Augustine successfully defended the reality of original sin using Scripture and the Tradition of the Church. He concluded that unbaptized infants did in fact go to hell. The practice of infant baptism was evidence of the Church’s belief in the extent of original sin and the efficacy of Baptism.  The dilemma of the unbaptized innocent children being damned to hell remained.

Later theologians, including St. Thomas Aquinas, extended Augustine’s thoughts, defining the type of damnation of the infants as essentially the deprivation of the Beatific Vision [seeing God face to face (1 Cor 13:13 & Rev 22:4)], summawhich does not necessarily involve any positive punishment. Distinctions were made between the pain of the senses suffered by condemned sinners, and the pain of loss over being absent from God’s presence.
Therefore, by the thirteenth century, the dominant view was that unbaptized infants would suffer only the pain of loss. St. Thomas posited that they died without the grace of God, and would spend eternity without it, but they were not worthy of punishment. He differentiated the place due to unrepentant sinners (Hell) with this place of privation of the innocents by indicating that these latter people were only in a place ‘near’ Hell or on the edge (latin: limbus) of Hell. Hence the term Limbo for this place of eternal isolation from God. But even St. Thomas’ constructed hypothesis does not completely resolve the dilemma because there remains issues with God’s nature of infinite love.

Although Limbo was long been the prevailing theory, theologians continued to struggle. How can God may provide for the Beatific Vision type of salvation of unbaptized infants yet retain the scriptural requirement of Baptism?

As early as the sixteenth century theologians postulated a ‘Baptism of Desire’ (CCC 1260) for those that would have been Baptized if not for uncontrolled circumstances (death) preventing the knowledge of its necessity. This might apply to the thief on the cross as well as innocent children.

So back to the point: Limbo has never been officially proclaimed by the Magisterium as a matter of doctrine or dogma. Catholics are therefore free to have varying opinions on this matter. In order to clarify the Church’s position on the idea of Limbo, the International Theological Commission (ITC) published a document entitled “The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized.” The ITC is a group of thirty theologians from around the world chosen by the Pope as a kind of advisory committee. Published with papal approval on April 19, 2007 it simply affirmed that the hypothesis of Limbo contained some serious theological difficulties and as such was still insufficient to explain the divine plan for unbaptized children.

The document reminded us that our present Catechism makes no mention of limbo at all, but has this to say regarding infants who die without baptism:

The Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God… 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,” allows us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without baptism. (CCC 1261)

So there we have it. Limbo is a theory, based on serious theological and Scriptural reflection, with some good aspects and some deficiencies, but it’s not an official teaching of the Church. As to the fate of the unbaptized innocent children, well, only He knows for sure and as of today God has not revealed His plan for these innocent children.

I guess for now we’ll just have to have trust the Father and wait until we stand face to face to know for sure.



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