May 10, 2007
Catechism of the Catholic Church was published in 1992, Pope John Paul II made a notable omission. He dropped Limbo from the catechism. He also asked the International Theological Commission to study the theological teaching about Limbo. The 30 members of this commission function in an advisory manner to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The reports of their commission are not an expression of authoritative Church teaching. However, their work can sometimes lead to an official pronouncement by the Holy See.
Recently the International Theological Commission concluded its study on Limbo. On April 20, 2007, the commission published its report,
The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized. Some newspapers interpreted the report to mean that the Pope was reversing Church teaching. The actual situation is much more nuanced than that. In fact, a careful look at the commission’s document provides a useful insight into the way the Church comes to understand the deposit of faith over the centuries.
To begin, it is important to understand how the Church teaches. In Christ is the fullness of divine revelation. He is the final and complete Word of God to humanity. From one generation to the next, the Church hands down the Word of God. She also has the exclusive task of interpreting the Word of God in the name of Jesus Christ (cf.
Dei Verbum, 10).
The Church is not above the Word. She is the servant of the Word. The Church guards the Word scrupulously and always listens to it devoutly. The Church explains the Word of God “faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit, [and] draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed” (
Dei Verbum, 10).
By contemplation and study, through liturgy and life-experience, the entire Church in all her members grows in her understanding of the truths of the faith. This takes time. This requires the questioning and reflection of theology. Theology listens to the Word of God. Theology is not the Word of God. Theology is not divine revelation. It is a way to deepen our awareness and understanding of the implications of the truths of divine revelation with the use of human reason.
In the fifth century, St. Augustine taught that infants who died without baptism were still in the state of original sin. Therefore, they went to hell. Rather harsh. Not everyone agreed with Augustine.
By the 13th century, theologians were speaking about the "limbo of infants." This was a place where unbaptized babies were deprived of the vision of God. Since they committed no personal sin, they were not confined to hell nor did they go to purgatory. But since they died in original sin, they could not go to heaven. Rather they went to Limbo, a place of natural happiness.
This teaching about Limbo was repeated for many generations. But, it never was defined as dogma. It always was a
Why did theologians ever settle on Limbo as a reasonable answer to the fate of unbaptized infants? Why do theologians, including our present Holy Father, think otherwise? The answers to these questions give us a glimpse into the way theology helps the Church understand the faith.
Every individual is born into this world in a state of sin (cf. Romans 5:12 ff). That is why Christ insists on the necessity of being "born again of water and the Holy Spirit" (John 3:5) to enter the kingdom of Heaven. Baptism takes away original sin. Baptism confers grace. Baptism gifts the individual with a share in the life of God that is enjoyed in its fullness in heaven. But unbaptized babies are still in original sin. If they die without baptism, they die in original sin. This is why some theologians opted for Limbo as the destiny of babies who die without baptism. Theirs was a more merciful answer to the question than Augustine’s.
The New Testament itself contains no positive statement about those who die in original sin. We need to look at what the Scriptures do teach. We need to see the truths contained in revelation and their implications. And, once we do, we can see that what we do know from divine revelation does not necessitate the theological opinion about Limbo.
First, God wills the salvation of all people (cf. Gen 3:15; 22:18; 1 Tim 2:3-6).
Second, every one is in need of salvation, since everyone is born in original sin. Original sin is not a sin we ourselves commit. Rather, it is the state of deprivation of the original holiness and justice that Adam forfeited by his sin.
Third, God accomplishes the work of salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus who frees us from sin and gives us a share in the divine life (cf. Eph 1:20-22; Phil 2:7-11; Rm 14:9; 1 Cor 15:20-28). No one is saved apart from Christ. He is the one mediator between God and man.
Fourth, the redemptive work of Christ is historically mediated through the Church. The Church is the instrument of salvation. Anyone who is saved enjoys some relationship to the Church.
Fifth, baptism is the ordinary way for someone to enter the Church and come to share in the salvation given by Christ.
Using human reason, theology tries to see the relationship of these truths to each other. Theology also takes into account human experience. Today, many are not baptized. Countless babies die because of abortion, embryonic stem cell research, and in-vitro fertilization.
Since God has chosen baptism as the revealed means of sharing in salvation, the necessity of baptism cannot be reduced to a mere theological opinion. Baptism cannot be delayed. Nor should baptism be denied to infants. However, baptism is secondary to the absolute will of God to save all. God’s will to save all is primary. But, God is free over the means he uses to bring individuals into the saving event of Christ.
Every human person has the same divine destiny. God creates us in His image and likeness and calls us to life with Him in heaven. By the mystery of the Incarnation, the Son of God unites himself with every human being. Christ died for all. And, since God’s will to save all is absolute, the Church believes that “the Holy Spirit offers to all the possibility of being made partners, in a way known to God, in the paschal mystery” (
Gaudim et Spes 22). Therefore, it is more reasonable to entrust the unbaptized infants to the mercy and love of God than to posit the theological necessity of Limbo. The all-loving God can bring even the infant who dies without baptism to salvation in Christ.
This is the third of a series of articles that explore Limbo as a way to understand the Church’s faith on the gift of salvation.