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Our readers asked:

What is the deal with the Vatican now saying that there is no Limbo? Isn’t this a change in doctrine?

Richard G. Malloy, SJ Answers:

What is the deal with the Vatican now saying that there is no Limbo? Isn’t this a change in doctrine?

The issue is more about the relationship of baptism and salvation, than it is about limbo.  The teaching on limbo didn’t change so much as the teaching on salvation without baptism changed.  At Vatican II the church shifted gears and taught: “Those also can attain to everlasting salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the gospel of Christ or his church, yet sincerely seek God, and moved by grace, strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience” (Lumen Gentium #16.  trans. Abbot).  The catechism realizes that “God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacrament” (CCC #1257.  Italics in the original).

Once the church realized God may do more than we had imagined, and recognized that a lot of unbaptized people are in heaven, the teaching on limbo, had to change.  Limbo was always a derivative teaching.  Limbo was seen as a place on the “edge” of heaven where unbaptized infants existed for all eternity, because the unbaptized could not be admitted to heaven.  Now we trust to the grace and mercy of God children who die without baptism (CCC #1261).  We trust God can bring all to the joys and beatitude of heaven.  “God our savior… wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth” (I Tim 2:4).

In 2006, Pope Benedict formally recognized that the teaching on limbo had to be “placed in limbo” (so to speak) given the increasing awareness of the theological understanding of the relationship between salvation and baptism.  His updating the tradition to recognize that unbaptized children go to heaven is a real word of consolation for those in developing countries where infant mortality is high and for any parent who has lost a small child before the baby could be baptized.

Here is a local news story that I commented on that might also explain a bit more.


Fr. Rick Malloy, S.J., is a Jesuit priest, fisherman and author.  He is an Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia, and serves as a Chaplain at the college.  His book, A Faith That Frees: Catholic Matters for the 21st Century, (Orbis Books 2007) examines the relationships between the practices of faith and the cultural currents and changes so rapidly occurring in our ever more technologized and globalized world.

The Author : Richard G. Malloy, SJ
Richard G. Malloy, S.J., Ph.D., is Vice President for University Ministries, the University of Scranton, Scranton, PA, and author of A Faith That Frees (Orbis Books).
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