“(Late Latin limbus) a word of Teutonic derivation, meaning literally ‘hem’ or ‘border,’ as of a garment, or anything joined on (cf. Italian lembo or English limb).
“In theological usage the name is applied to (a) the temporary place or state of the souls of the just who, although purified from sin, were excluded from the beatific vision until Christ’s triumphant ascension into Heaven (the ‘limbus patrum’); or (b) to the permanent place or state of those unbaptized children and others who, dying without grievous personal sin, are excluded from the beatific vision on account of original sin alone (the ‘limbus infantium’ or ‘puerorum’).
“The New Testament contains no definite statement of a positive kind regarding the lot of those who die in original sin without being burdened with grievous personal guilt. But, by insisting on the absolute necessity of being ‘born again of water and the Holy Ghost’ (John 3:5) for entry into the kingdom of Heaven, Christ clearly enough implies that men are born into this world in a state of sin, and St. Paul’s teaching to the same effect is quite explicit (Romans 5:12 sqq.). On the other hand, it is clear from Scripture and Catholic tradition that the means of regeneration provided for this life do not remain available after death, so that those dying unregenerate are eternally excluded from the supernatural happiness of the beatific vision (John 9:4, Luke 12:40, 16:19 sqq., 2 Corinthians 5:10). The question therefore arises as to what, in the absence of a clear positive revelation on the subject, we ought in conformity with Catholic principles to believe regarding the eternal lot of such persons. Now it may confidently be said that, as the result of centuries of speculation on the subject, we ought to believe that these souls enjoy and will eternally enjoy a state of perfect natural happiness; and this is what Catholics usually mean when they speak of the limbus infantium, the ‘children’s limbo.’” –Patrick Toner, “Limbo.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 9. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. 28 Aug. 2013
It is all too often asserted today that the “limbus infantium” does not exist, and it is said that those who believe in it are mean evil people who are denying the little children heaven and saying that it contradicts God’s mercy. Yet this teaching is a much more merciful option than that which was taught by that great Father and Doctor of the Church Saint Augustine who was of the opinion that these little ones deprived of baptism went to hell, which was a departure of the more ancient teaching of the existence of Limbo.
It will happen, I believe . . . that those last mentioned [infants dying without baptism] will neither be admitted by the just judge to the glory of Heaven nor condemned to suffer punishment, since, though unsealed [by baptism], they are not wicked. . . . For from the fact that one does not merit punishment it does not follow that one is worthy of being honored, any more than it follows that one who is not worthy of a certain honor deserves on that account to be punished.” -Saint Gregory Nazianzus, Father and Doctor of the Church, [Oration 40, no. 23]
Augustine even agreed with and held this opinion himself until the outbreak of the Pelegian heresy, with which he was to wrestle against for the rest of his life.
But now let us look at the constant teaching of the Fathers and Saint of the Church…
“Baptism is given for the remission of sins; and according to the usage of the Church, Baptism is given even to infants. And, indeed, if there were nothing in infants that required the remission of sins and nothing in them pertinent to forgiveness, the grace of Baptism would be superfluous.” -Origen, Homily on Leviticus 8:3 -AD 244
“But in respect to the case of infants, which you say ought not to be Baptized within the second or third day after their birth, and that the law of ancient circumcision should be regarded, so that you think one who is just born should not be Baptized and sanctified within the eighth day ….And therefore, dearest brother, this was our opinion in council, that by us no one ought to be hindered from Baptism …we think is to be even more observed in respect of infants and newly-born persons.” -Saint Cyprian, Epistle 58, To Fides  — AD 251
“We do Baptize infants, although they are not guilty of any [personal] sins.” -Saint John Chrysostom, Father and Doctor of the Church, Ad Neophytos — AD 388
“Unless a man be born again through water and the Holy Spirit he cannot enter the Kingdom of God. No one is expected: not the infant; not the one prevented by necessity.” –Saint Ambrose of Milan, Father and Doctor of the Church (Abraham 2,11:79 — AD 387)
“Be it so, some will say, in the case of those who ask for Baptism; what have you to say about those who are still children and conscious neither of the loss nor of grace? Are we to Baptize them too? Certainly, if any danger presses. For it is better that they should be unconsciously sanctified than that they should depart unsealed and uninitiated.” -Saint Gregory Nazianzus, Father and Doctor of the Church, Oration on Holy Baptism, 40:28 — AD 381
“Likewise, whoever says that those children who depart out of this life without partaking of that Sacrament (Baptism) are alive in Christ, certainly contradicts the apostolic declaration and condemns the universal Church, in which it is the practice to loose no time and run in haste to administer Baptism to infant children, because it is believed as an indubitable truth, that otherwise they cannot be made alive in Christ.” -Saint Augustine, Father and Doctor of the Church, Epistle 167, AD 415
“If you want to be a Catholic do no believe, do no say, and do not teach that infants carried off by death before they are baptized can attain the remission of original sin.” -Saint Augustine, Father, Doctor, and Bishop of the Church, On the Soul and its Origin Book II “The idea that infants can be granted the rewards of eternal life without even the grace of baptism is utterly foolish.” -Pope Saint Innocent I, Letter to the Bishops of the Church, 417 AD
“Likewise it has been decided that whoever says that infants fresh from their mother’s wombs should not be Baptized …let him be anathema.” -Council of Carthage, Canon 2, AD 418 “[Those dying with only original sin on their souls will suffer] no other pain, whether from material fire or from the worm of conscience, except the pain of being deprived forever of the vision of God.” -Pope Innocent III (1160-1216), Corp. Juris, Decret. l. III, tit. xlii, c. iii – Majores
“By Baptism a man is ordained to the Eucharist, and therefore from the fact of children being baptized, they are destined by the Church to the Eucharist; and just as they believe through the Church’s faith, so they desire the Eucharist through the Church’s intention, and, as a result, receive its reality. But they are not disposed for Baptism by any previous sacrament, and consequently before receiving Baptism, in no way have they Baptism in desire; but adults alone have: consequently, they cannot have the reality of the sacrament without receiving the sacrament itself.” -Saint Thomas Aquinas, ST III Q. 73 a. 3
“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…” -Pope Eugene IV, Council of Florence, Cantate Domino, February 4, 1442
“If any one denies, that infants, newly born from their mothers’ wombs, even though they be sprung from baptized parents, are to be baptized; or says that they are baptized indeed for the remission of sins, but that they derive nothing of original sin from Adam, which has need of being expiated by the laver of regeneration for the obtaining life everlasting,–whence it follows as a consequence, that in them the form of baptism, for the remission of sins, is understood to be not true, but false, –let him be anathema. For that which the apostle has said, By one man sin entered into the world, and by sin death, and so death passed upon all men in whom all have sinned, is not to be understood otherwise than as the Catholic Church spread everywhere hath always understood it. For, by reason of this rule of faith, from a tradition of the apostles, even infants, who could not as yet commit any sin of themselves, are for this cause truly baptized for the remission of sins, that in them that may be cleansed away by regeneration, which they have contracted by generation. For, unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” -Council of Trent, Session 5, Part 4
“The faithful are earnestly to be exhorted to take care that their children be brought to the church, as soon as it can be done with safety, to receive solemn Baptism. Since infant children have no other means of salvation except Baptism, we may easily understand how grievously those persons sin who permit them to remain without the grace of the Sacrament longer than necessity may require, particularly at an age so tender as to be exposed to numberless dangers of death.” -Catechism of the Council of Trent; Issued by Pope Saint Pius V in 1547 AD
“Noticing that frequently by various Apostolic Constitutions the audacity and daring of most profligate men, who know no restraint, of sinning with license against the commandment “do not kill” was repressed; We who are placed by the Lord in the supreme throne of justice, being counseled by a most just reason, are in part renewing old laws and in part extending them in order to restrain with just punishment the monstrous and atrocious brutality of those who have no fear to kill most cruelly fetuses still hiding in the maternal viscera. Who will not detest such an abhorrent and evil act, by which are lost not only the bodies but also the SOULS?” -Pope Sixtus V, Apostolic Constitution Effraenatam (against abortionists), 29 October 1588
“The common teaching of the scholastic theologians is the within the earth there are four inner chambers: one for the damned, another for those being purged of sin, a third for those infants who have died without receiving Baptism, and a fourth which is now empty but once held those just men who died before the passion of Christ.” -Saint Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621), Doctor of the Church
“The doctrine which rejects as a Pelagian fable that place of the lower regions (which the faithful generally designate by the name of limbo of the children) in which the souls of those departing with the sole guilt of original sin are punished with the punishment of the condemned, exclusive of the punishment of fire… is false, rash, injurious to Catholic schools.” -Pope Pius VI, Auctorem Fidei, August 28, 1794
“Q. #100 – Where do infants go who die without Baptism?
A. – Infants who die without Baptism go to Limbo where they do not enjoy the sight of God, but also do no suffer. This is because having original sin, and it alone, they do not merit heaven, but neither do they merit purgatory or hell.” -Catechism of Pope Saint Pius X, first published in 1910 AD
“If what We have said up to now deals with the protection and the care of natural life, it should hold all the more in regard to the supernatural life which the newly born infant receives with Baptism. In the present economy there is no other way of communicating this life to the child who has not yet the use of reason. But, nevertheless, the state of grace at the moment of death is absolutely necessary for salvation. Without it, it is not possible to attain supernatural happiness, the beatific vision of God. An act of love can suffice for an adult to obtain sanctifying grace and supply for the absence of Baptism; for the unborn child or for the newly born, this way is not open…” -Ven. Pope Pius XII, October 29 1951, Congress of the Italian Catholic Association of Midwives
“The Church has thus shown by her teaching and practice that she knows no other way apart from Baptism for ensuring children’s entry into eternal happiness. Accordingly, she takes care not to neglect the mission that the Lord has given her of providing rebirth “of water and the Spirit” for all those who can be baptized.” -Instruction on Infant Baptism, The Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, 20 October 1980, with approval of Blessed Pope John Paul II
And finally let us consider the Churches infallible pronouncements on this matter:
“The souls of those who die in mortal sin or with original sin only… immediately descend into Hell, yet to be punished with different punishments.” -Pope Gregory X, Second Council of Lyons, 1274, ex cathedra
“…the souls of those who depart this life in actual mortal sin, or in original sin alone, go down straightaway to hell to be punished, but with unequal pains.” -Pope Eugene IV, Council of Florence, Laetentur Caeli, July 6, 1439
“The Roman Church teaches… that the souls of those who depart in mortal sin or with only original sin descend immediately to hell, nevertheless to be punished with different punishments and in disparate locations…” -Pope John XXII, Nequaquam Sine Dolore, 1321 AD
In conclusion to address the issues that have arisen in recent years concerning this teaching let us turn to a learned priest for a quick overview and correction of the errors floating around:
No Injustice in Limbo
In regard to the article by Hurd Baruch (“On Freeing Children From Limbo,” April) and subsequent letters (June), many important factors have been neglected.
(1) Although limbo may have been “elaborated by theologians beginning in the Middle Ages,” as the Vatican’s International Theological Commission states, it nevertheless goes back at least to the Fathers of the Church. For example, even though he does not use the word “limbo,” St. Gregory Nazianzen wrote, “It will happen, I believe, that the children dying without baptism will never be admitted by the Just Judge to the glory of Heaven, nor condemned to suffer punishment since, though unsealed [by baptism], they are not wicked” (de Bapt., XVIII). Clearly, from this quote alone (and there are others like it found among the Fathers of the Church), the notion of limbo is an ancient tradition of the Church.
(2) The Code of Canon Law is very explicit in regard to the urgency of baptizing infants. Canon 867 states, “Parents are obliged to see that their infants are baptized within the first few weeks,” and “If the infant is in danger of death, it is to be baptized without any delay.” What is more, even the infant of a non-Catholic who is in danger of death is to be baptized immediately: “The infant of Catholic parents, in fact of non-Catholic parents also, who is in the danger of death (in periculo mortis) is licitly baptized even against the will of the parents” (can. 868; emphasis added). The Code also mentions that aborted babies, “if they are alive, are to be baptized, in so far as this is possible” (can. 871). Why worry about getting into an altercation, even a possible lawsuit, by baptizing some non-Catholic’s dying baby if there is no limbo? Why worry about baptizing aborted babies if there is such assurance they go straight to Heaven? Why is Hell so bent on abortion if all babies go straight to Heaven? Even the Catechism (#1261), after giving room for an option other than limbo, follows up immediately by saying, baptize! In other words, “the Church does not know of any means other than Baptism that assures entry in to eternal beatitude” (#1257; italics added).
(3) Fr. Albert J. Herbert, in his book Saints Who Raised the Dead (TAN Books), indicates that around eleven saints raised little babies from the dead in order to have them baptized. Among them was St. Joan of Arc, who raised a child already turned somewhat black from being dead for some days. The child came to life, was baptized, and then died again. Other saints listed in the book include Hilary of Poitiers, Colette, Frances of Rome, Philip Neri, Francis Xavier, and Gerard Majella. Why did God do this if there is no limbo and all infants go straight to Heaven?
(4) We have the superhuman efforts of missionaries seeking to baptize every infant possible. St. Jean de Brebeuf summed it up when he declared that he would “go to the ends of the world to baptize a single savage.” When St. Anthony Daniel was being shot with arrows and clubbed to death, he noticed a brave of his company dying who had not yet been baptized. He used all his remaining strength to move toward him in order to baptize him. He did not leave him to “baptism of desire,” but rather made certain of his baptism by water, as our Lord commanded. These saints displayed a remarkable sense of urgency in seeking the baptism of each and every person, both children and adults, regardless of their own safety. We should ask ourselves what drove them to this. Was it not the Holy Spirit?
(5) We must admit that there is no injustice with limbo. Limbo has always been considered merciful — most fathers, doctors, and saints considered the only other option to be Hell itself. Such punishment would indeed be along the lines of injustice. We must recognize that we are all beggars, and no one has a right to Heaven or to grace (cf. Catechism, #2007). If a man gives to one beggar rather than to another, he does not violate justice. And here we arrive at the modern problem with limbo: We have lost the sense of sin. When we recognize the evil of sin, then we will see that it can have disastrous effects on our children and the generations that follow — effects that reach beyond this life. This behooves us to take responsibility for seeking the conversion and baptism of the nations (cf. Mt. 28:19) instead of making God responsible for it all, when, in fact, He has given us the remedy in baptism. This means the Church has the remedy! And she does not bar children from this Sacrament, as the Code of Canon Law indicates. Rather, it is the sins of the parents and the loss of the sense of sin that are often visited upon the children. Is not the current vocations crisis at least in part brought on by the sins of our parents’ generation — i.e., indulgence in contraception and sterilization? Think of all the damage done to children by divorce, drugs, pornography, etc. It seems to me that this is “the serious pastoral problem” that needs to be addressed — not limbo.
Neither the Catechism nor the recent International Theological Commission’s report on children dying without baptism dismisses limbo as a reality, because it simply cannot be done. At the end of the day, all we can really do is entrust unbaptized babies to the mercy of God, because God Himself left the matter grey, if for no other reason than to encourage us all the more to fulfill His commandment: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Mt. 28:19).
Fr. Sean Kopczynski, C.P.M.
Carmelite Monastery of the Holy Cross
Iron Mountain, Michigan