What Does the Church Say About Limbo?

A Reflection on Church Teaching for Those Grieving the Loss of a Child

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Editorial note: The following article contains mentions of pregnancy/infant loss.

The loss of a child is a heartbreaking situation. There is grief over the death of the beloved child, of course, but also over the child’s future now lost. Additionally, there can be grief and uncertainty over the soul of the child and where they are now. In the midst of this loss, the Catholic Church has always offered words of consolation and hope, trusting in God’s infinite love and mercy. Amid the pain of miscarriages, stillbirths, and lost children, we find consolation in our God who desires all children of the world to come to him. To any and all persons facing such loss, please know you have the prayers of the Busted Halo staff.

Throughout history, some have responded to these griefs and uncertainties by saying that children who pass away before receiving the Sacrament of Baptism are in Limbo. Limbo is at the heart of a tension between understanding God as being all-loving and desiring the salvation of all and the Catholic understanding that baptism is needed for salvation. This raises questions, especially about the souls of unbaptized children and what happens to them in the next life. The loss of a child is always especially difficult, and many in the Church have tried to find explanations that offer consolation. Limbo was one such answer to those questions, and while never completely embraced by the Church, neither has it been completely done away with. The answer to “Does Limbo exist?” is a much more complex question and requires a look at the growth of the idea of Limbo over time.

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In the tension between understanding salvation that required baptism and understanding that a loving God wouldn’t punish children who never had the option or ability to be baptized, St. Augustine was among the first to discuss the idea of “Limbo.” This would be a place separate from heaven and fully enjoying the presence of God, but also away from hell. To some theologians, Limbo existed on the edge of hell but was not a place of suffering. To others, it was a place of pleasant neutrality. There was, however, never an official definition or understanding of what Limbo was or what it was like. Other theologians throughout the ages, such as St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Alphonsus Liguori, would continue to write about Limbo.

Yet with all of this writing, the concept of Limbo had never been formally adopted as the Church’s position. The closest the Church got was the mention of Limbo in St. Pius X’s Catechism in question 100 wherein he wrote: “Children who die without baptism go to Limbo, where they do not enjoy God, but neither do they suffer.” However, this Catechism was never made known as official teaching for the whole world, but rather, for the faithful in the city of Rome. St. Pius X wrote and published it only for the immediate Church in Rome as the local bishop, not for the whole world.

Even though this idea was shared by a pope, it was never a universal idea in the Church, or adopted as official Catholic teaching. St. Cajetan, a priest in the 16th Century, notably wrote against the idea of Limbo. He argued that children who are unable to be baptized in life share in the concept of Baptism by Desire (that someone who desires God’s grace but is physically unable to be baptized is still saved and in effect, baptized) because of their mothers’ love and desire to have them baptized. St. Cajetan argued for a more open approach to God’s mercy for these children.

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In 1980, the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith (CDF) put out Instruction on Infant Baptism. In this document, they stated that: “As for children who die without Baptism, the Church can only entrust them to God’s mercy, as she does in the funeral rite provided for them.” The CDF felt that the most important thing to say on the death of a child before they were baptized was to entrust that soul to God’s infinite mercy.

About 25 years later, the International Theological Commission wrote The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized. In this, the Commission made several arguments to uphold the idea that a child who died before baptism could share in God’s joy in heaven eternally. They rooted these arguments in paragraph 1261 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church which states: “[there is] hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without Baptism.” They also point to our celebration of the infant martyrs on December 28, that we celebrate them as martyrs and saints even though they were never baptized. Finally, the document reminds us that Christ’s salvific love is true – and a greater truth than original sin, which we are all subject to. As such, Christ’s love will win out, and this gives us great hope and joy for the salvation of unbaptized children.

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Interestingly enough, though, none of these statements outright deny the existence of Limbo. Rather, the Church places greater emphasis on hope and trust in God’s love when it comes to the souls of unbaptized children. One can be a good Catholic whether or not they believe in Limbo.

Personally, I find that the idea of Limbo does not line up with what I have been taught about a loving and merciful God. I have great hope and trust in God’s love to welcome unbaptized children into heaven and find that this gives greater peace to those who have faced such a loss. If anyone should find themselves in the situation of walking with someone who lost a child before a baptism was celebrated, my first piece of advice is simply to be with them. Not necessarily to even say anything, but to be present alongside them in mourning and an image of God’s merciful love in the time of loss. When words are needed, words of hope, especially those of Christ, are most consoling. As Jesus said, “Let the children come to me, and do not prevent them; for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Matthew 19:14).