Can Limbo Be 'Abolished'?

Father Brian W. Harrison, O.S.
Professor of Theology, Pontifical  Catholic University, Puerto Rico

( It seems that a report I read recently in Spanish on the Internet, about a forthcoming Vatican statement on Limbo, was inaccurate. The report said Pope Benedict XVI had already approved a new document ‘opening’ Heaven to all those who die unbaptized before attaining the use of reason. It now appears that the theologians appointed to look into this matter by the late John Paul II, while certainly favoring the ‘abolition’ of the limbus puerorum, have not quite finished their work. However, the question is still highly relevant, particularly because Pope Benedict, prior to his election to the See of Peter, had already gone on record as expressing his personal disbelief in Limbo. (The Internet report I read was probably a garbled version of this private – although publicly expressed – opinion of the then Cardinal Ratzinger.) But precisely because the Holy Father is on record as being predisposed to eliminate this point of Catholic tradition – or at the very least, to reduce its credibility among Catholics practically to vanishing point – it would seem that if the only theological input he receives on this issue is one-sidedly in favor of this “final solution” for the “Limbo problem”, there is a very real possibility that such a magisterial document may in fact be issued before too long.

Hence, I feel it important to stand by, and indeed, reinforce, the position I expressed in a circular e-mail of December 1st, to the effect that this potential new ‘development’ of doctrine is a matter of serious concern. I argued, first: that it would clearly be impossible for the Pope to make an infallible (ex cathedra) definition contradicting the Church’s bi millennial tradition that (at least after the proclamation of the Gospel, and apart from a rare ‘baptism of blood’ – being slain out of hatred of Christ) such infants are eternally excluded from the beatific vision; and secondly, that in view of this impossibility of our reaching any certainty of their eternal salvation, any (non-infallible) magisterial document raising further hopes to that effect would be inopportune and irresponsible. For such a document would inevitably accentuate the already-existing tendency for Catholic parents to be lax and negligent about having their children baptized promptly after birth, and would therefore run the risk of being partially, but gravely, responsible for barring Heaven to countless souls, in the event that Limbo does turn out to exist after all. I am firmly persuaded that nothing more should be said about this matter than what is already said in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. While the Catechism says cautiously that Catholics are “allowed” (not obliged) to “hope” that there is a way of salvation for infants who die unbaptized (#1261), it also emphasizes that “the Church does not know of any means other than Baptism that assures entry into eternal beatitude” (#1257, my emphasis).

In what follows I shall present a survey of recent and ancient magisterial teaching on this difficult question.

After Pope John Paul II’s retraction, in the final and definitive version of Evangelium Vitae #99 (cf. Acta Apostolicae Sedis, vol. 87 [1995] p. 515) of the initial version’s statement that aborted babies “now live in the Lord” (i.e., are in Heaven), it appears that the only papal statement expressly mentioning the destiny of aborted infants is that of Pope Sixtus V, whose Constitution Effrænatam of 29 October 1588 not only abstains from raising any hopes that they may attain the beatific vision, but positively affirms that they do not attain it!

The main purpose of this document was to reinforce civil and canonical sanctions against those who carry out abortions and sterilizations in the papal states: it goes so far as to prescribe the death penalty for both these offences. The Pope begins by affirming the need for sterner measures to be taken against “the barbarity . . . of those who do not shrink from the most cruel slaughter of fetuses still coming to maturity in the shelter of their mothers’ wombs” (“. . . eorum immanitatem . . . qui immaturos foetus intra materna viscera adhuc latentes crudelissime necare non verentur” – my English translation.) Pope Sixtus then continues, by way of explanation (my translation and emphasis):

For who would not detest a crime as execrable as this — a crime whose consequence is that not just bodies, but — still worse! — even souls, are, as it were, cast away? The soul of the unborn infant bears the imprint of God’s image! It is a soul for whose redemption Christ our Lord shed His precious blood, a soul capable of eternal blessedness and destined for the company of angels! Who, therefore, would not condemn and punish with the utmost severity the desecration committed by one who has excluded such a soul from the blessed vision of God? Such a one has done all he or she could possibly have done to prevent this soul from reaching the place prepared for it in heaven, and has deprived God of the service of this His own creature

Thus, three times in the one paragraph, in different ways, the Pope affirms that aborted babies are excluded from the beatific vision. It is obvious he is taking for granted the broader thesis that those infants in general who die unbaptized suffer the same deprivation. It would also be gratuitous, in view of the force of the Pope’s language and his use of the word “eternal” (line 5 above), as well as the whole of the previous tradition of the Church, to postulate that perhaps Sixtus V only meant to affirm here that the “exclusion” of such infants from Heaven is at least temporary, i.e., that he wasn’t rejecting here the possibility that Limbo is really only a kind of Purgatory for infants. The original text of the above paragraph is as follows: “Quis enim non detestetur, tam execrandum facinus, per quod nedum corporum, sed quod gravius est, etiam animarum certa iactura sequitur? Quis non gravissimis suppliciis damnet illius impietatem, qui animam Dei imagine insignitam, pro qua redimenda Christus Dominus noster preciosum Sanguinem fudit, aeternae capacem Beatitudinis, et ad consortium Angelorum destinatam, a beata Dei visione exclusit, reparationem coelestium sedium quantum in ipso fuit, impedivit, Deo servitium suae creaturae ademit?” (ibid.). The Latin text of this Constitution can be found in P. Gasparri (ed.), Codex Iuris Canonici Fontes, vol. I, p. 308.

These expressions certainly do not constitute an ex cathedra definition, and indeed, the Constitution itself is primarily a legislative act — an exercise of the Pope’s governing authority rather than his teaching authority. Nevertheless, in view of the clarity and force of the Pontiff’s teaching, in this preamble to the legislative norms which form the main body of the document, it would seem that the doctrinal proposition in question — namely, that the souls of infants who die without baptism are eternally excluded from the beatific vision — should be seen as belonging at least to the authentic  teaching of the magisterium.

This conclusion is reinforced when we consider other magisterial teachings on unbaptized infants. As early as 385, Pope St. Siricius, writing to Bishop Himerius, showed that he felt gravely bound in conscience, for the sake of his own salvation, to warn the latter to insist on the baptism of infants as well as adults in his diocese, “ . . . lest Our own soul be in danger if, as a result of being denied the saving font, . . . each one of them, on leaving the world, loses both [eternal] life and the kingdom” (“. . . ne ad nostrarum perniciem tendat animarum, si negato . . . fonte salutari exiens unusquisque de saeculo et regnum perdat et vitam” (DS 184, my translation, not found in earlier editions of Denzinger).

Would not any subsequent pope be wise – in the interests of his own salvation! to follow St. Siricius’ vigilant example in this, if there is any doubt whatsoever that unbaptized infants reach Heaven. The teaching of the Ecumenical Council of Florence (the Bull Cantate Domino of February 4, 1442) is more emphatic. It says (my emphasis):

Regarding children, indeed, because of danger of death, which can often take place, since no help can be brought to them by another remedy than through the sacrament of baptism, through which they are snatched from the domination of the devil and adopted among the sons of God, [the sacrosanct Roman Church] advises that holy baptism ought not to be deferred for forty or eighty days, . . . but it should be conferred as soon as it can be done conveniently (. . . ).  (Denzinger 712 = DS 1349.)

The Latin original of the words emphasized above is: “. . . cum ipsis non possit alio remedio subveniri, nisi per sacramentum baptismi, per quod eripiuntur a diaboli dominatu et in Dei filios adoptantur”. (I have followed Roy Deferrari’s English Denzinger version here except for the first word, cum, which is translated there as “when” instead of “since”. “When” is misleading here, because if, as it seems to insinuate, there can be circumstances where some “remedy” other than baptism exists and can be “brought to” infants in original sin, then the document would surely have to tell us what this other mysterious “remedy” is. But neither this nor any other magisterial document in history has ever suggested what other “remedy” could be applied by Christians to such infants.)

Also highly pertinent is the Council of Trent’s teaching on justification – infallible at least by virtue of the universal and ordinary magisterium. First, the Council defines “justification” so as deliberately to include the remission of original sin in children (as well as mortal sin in adults): justification is said to be “the transition from that state in which man is born as a son of the first Adam to the state of grace and ‘adoption as children’ of God [Rom. 8: 15]” (translatio ab eo statu, in quo homo nascitur filius primi Adae, in statum gratiae et “adoptionis filiorum” [Rom. 8, 15] Dei). Then, the Fathers of Trent go on immediately to assert categorically that this justification “cannot take place without the washing of regeneration [baptism] or the desire for it” (sine lavacro regenerationis aut eius voto fieri non potest – D 796 = DS 1524, my translation and emphasis). How, then, could unbaptized infants, incapable of any desire for baptism, be justified? Are we to suppose that God miraculously ‘fast-forwards’ the mental development of these infants (and gravely retarded persons) in the instant before death, following this up with a special illumination so as to render them capable of an at least implicit desire for baptism? But miracles cannot be gratuitously postulated, so we could never be sure, in the absence of any revealed truth in Scripture or Tradition, that this is in fact what God does. And even supposing He does, this miracle would still not guarantee the salvation of such infants. For on reaching the use of reason, they would also attain the use of free will, and hence be capable, under the burden of original sin, of rejecting, as well as accepting, the actual grace offered for their justification. Indeed, even on the still more gratuitous hypothesis that God renders these infants capable of such a choice after death, the same would apply. So, no matter where we look for ‘wiggle room’, the Council of Trent prevents us from attaining any certainty that infants dying without baptism can be saved.

And it is important to emphasize that reaching Limbo does not mean reaching salvation. In an e-mail I mistakenly conceded to a correspondent his view that the word limbus, literally meaning “fringe”, “hem”, “margin”, or “border”, was adopted by the Church in order to indicate that Limbo (for unbaptized infants) was at the “border” of Heaven. In fact, as I soon discovered with a little more research, what was meant is that Limbo is at the “border” of Hell! This is evident both from the teaching of two ecumenical councils (Lyons II: D 464 = DS 858; Florence: D 693 = DS 1306); and Pope John XXII’s 1321 Epistle to the Armenians (D 493a = DS 926). All these authorities teach that the souls of those who die in original sin only (who could only be infants and the mentally retarded who never reach the use of reason) “go down without delay into Hell” (mox in infernum descend[unt]), where, however, they suffer “different punishments” (poenis disparibus) from those who die in actual mortal sin. In other words, if Hell is defined broadly as eternal exclusion from the beatific vision, Limbo is actually the outer “fringe” or “border” of Hell itself. The seeming implication of these councils and popes is that the only “punishment” of those who die with souls stained by nothing worse than original sin is eternal exclusion from the beatific vision, which is compatible, however, with a natural (as distinct from supernatural) happiness. The “pain of sense” – or at least, a pain severe enough to warrant being described as “the torment of hellfire” – is reserved only for those who die in mortal sin. This is the teaching of Pope Innocent III in an epistle of the year 1201 (see D 410 = DS 780).

That Limbo is not to be understood as a place or state on the “border” of Heaven – or even an “intermediate” place or state in between Heaven and Hell – was confirmed yet again by Pope Pius VI in 1794, in condemning an opinion of the Jansenist Synod of Pistoia. To understand this condemnation, one first needs to realize that well over a thousand years previously, the regional (non-ecumenical) Council of Carthage (418) had condemned with ‘anathema’ the Pelagian opinion that in John 14: 12 (“In my Father’s house are many mansions”), Our Lord is to be understood as teaching that “in the heavenly realms there will be some kind of intermediate condition, or some other place, where the little ones who have departed from this life without baptism will live happily” (“. . . in regno caelorum erit aliquis medius aut ullus alicubi locus, ubi beati vivant parvuli, qui sine baptismo ex hac vita migrarunt”) (DS 224 = D102: 4. This canon is not found in earlier editions of Denzinger, including Roy Deferrari’s English version.)

Now, the Pistoia Jansenists – too liberal on some issues and too severely rigorist on other issues, including this one – had denounced the commonly accepted Catholic thesis of Limbo as being nothing more than a “Pelagian fable”. They claimed such a place or state would be none other than that which the Council of Carthage had so emphatically taught does not exist. But these Jansenists, in thus rejecting Limbo, were not doing so as liberals claiming that unbaptized babies go to Heaven, but as rigorists following the gloomy Augustinian view that they go to Hell in the full sense, that is, suffering the ‘pain of sense’ (albeit only very mildly) as well as the ‘pain of loss’ (exclusion from the beatific vision). Now, Pope Pius VI rejected this Jansenist view of Limbo as a mere “Pelagian fable” branding it as “false, rash, and injurious to Catholic schools”. But while thus upholding Limbo, he made it very clear that he was also upholding the Council of Carthage’s rejection of any intermediate human destiny between Heaven and Hell. This he did, logically, by following the teaching of the Councils of Lyons II and Florence, that is, including Limbo as being itself a part (the extreme ‘outer’ part) of Hell. In his own words, Pope Pius condemned

. . . the [Jansenist] doctrine which rejects as a Pelagian fable that place of the lower regions [“locum illum infernorum”] (which the faithful generally designate as the limbo of children) in which the souls of those departing with the sole guilt of original sin are punished with the punishments of the condemned, exclusive of the punishment of fire, just as if, by this very fact, these who remove the punishment of fire introduced that middle place and state free of guilt and of punishment between the kingdom of God and eternal damnation, such as that about which the Pelagians idly talk. (Deferrari translation, my emphasis.)

It needs to be noted, furthermore, that Pius VI’s teaching here does not go so far as to condemn or reject as un-Catholic the Jansenists’ view that unbaptized babies in the after-life do in fact suffer (albeit very mildly) the ‘pain of sense’. After all, St. Augustine and various other Latin Fathers had held precisely that, and Pope Pius was not about to condemn all these great and wise saints as unorthodox. What he is rejecting is not their own severe view of the fate of unbaptized infants, only their denunciation of the accepted alternate view – Limbo – as being Pelagian and therefore unorthodox. In effect, this Pontiff was implying that the Church allows either hypothesis regarding what actually happens after death to unbaptized infants; but he taught that any Catholic who opts for the severe, Augustinian hypothesis is not entitled to employ, amongst his arguments for that opinion, the false and unjust calumny that Limbo is just a ‘Pelagian fable’ already condemned by the Council of Carthage.

It should be clear from the above survey of relevant Catholic magisterial statements that those who now talk about Limbo as only ever having been a mere “hypothesis”, rather than a doctrine, are giving a very misleading impression of the state of the question. They are implying by this that the pre-Vatican II Church traditionally held, or at least implicitly admitted, that an alternate ‘hypothesis’ for unbaptized infants was their attainment of eternal salvation – Heaven. Nothing could be further from the truth. Limbo for unbaptized infants was indeed a theological “hypothesis”; but the only approved alternate hypothesis was not Heaven, but very mild hellfire as well as exclusion from the beatific vision! In short, while Limbo as distinct from very mild hellfire was a ‘hypothetical’ destiny for unbaptized infants, their eternal exclusion from Heaven (with or without any ‘pain of sense’) – at least after the proclamation of the Gospel, and apart from the ‘baptism of blood’ of infants slaughtered out of hatred for Christ – this was traditional Catholic doctrine, not a mere hypothesis. No, it was never dogmatically defined. But the only question is whether the doctrine was infallible by virtue of the universal and ordinary magisterium, or merely “authentic”.

Recommended reading: Fr. Le Blanc’s articles, “Children’s’LimboL Limbo: Theory or Doctrine?”, American Ecclesiastical Review, September 1947, and “Salut des enfants morts sans baptéme”, Ami du Clergé, January 15, 1948, pp. 33-43. (At that time, the liberal theologians criticized by Fr. Le Blanc were beginning for the first time in Church history to raise the possibility of Heaven for all unbaptized infants – a totally novel hypothesis which was soon censured by the Holy Office under Pope Pius XII as unsound and “without foundation”.)


Fr. Brian W. Harrison, O.S.,  is an Associate Professor of Theology

at the Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico