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Despite being a hot topic going back to the early Church, the theological opinions regarding limbo have never been confirmed as official Church doctrine. Most Catholics, including clerics, have never had a clear understanding of it. But even after understanding it, I argue that we should do away with it altogether.
For the sake of clarity, there are two theological definitions for limbo. The first is called the limbo of the patriarchs. The Catholic Encyclopedia describes it as "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 second definition, the one being addressed here, is "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 [still being in the state of] original sin."
Many mistakenly think that limbo is part of Purgatory — or even just a different name for it. To add to the confusion, Sacred Scripture does not mention limbo even once.
As I heard it bantered about in my youth, limbo was said to be in an upper chamber of Hell, without the sulfur and brimstone. And its occupants were denied ever seeing God. To them, this place was basically a "Hell light."
But in 2007, but Pope Benedict XVI came to the rescue. Under his approval, a commission of theologians produced The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized.
This document ended the idle speculations. Individuals like me, who had family members die at birth, welcomed this beautifully written study. Thankfully, many now dismiss the idea of limbo altogether, if they think about it at all, and realize that God sent His Son into the world to redeem humanity — not to condemn to limbo all those who die before birth or are killed through abortion.
For many centuries, Catholic theologians have speculated about limbo. They defined it as an upper chamber of Hell, a place where all the unbaptized go: all those who died before, during or just after birth, including those who, through no fault of their own, died without the grace of baptism.
Digging a little deeper, despite its nebulous nature, the concept of limbo got loads of traction from theologians. This was, in large part, in response to Pelagius (c. A.D. 344–418), who taught that there was no such thing as Original Sin.
Pelagius denied that anyone inherited Original Sin at birth, so no infant had any need for the sacrament of baptism. Pelagius reasoned that since infants had neither Original Sin nor any personal sins, they had no need at all to be baptized.
The great St. Augustine (A.D. 354–430) was an opponent of Pelagius and his heretical theology. Despite his unexcelled brilliance in explaining many profound theological concepts, St. Augustine speculated that "infants who die without Baptism are consigned to hell."
Countering Pelagius' denial of Original Sin, Augustine writes:
Why are little children brought to the baptismal font, especially infants in danger of death, if not to assure them entrance into the Kingdom of God? Why are they subjected to exorcisms and exsufflations if they do not have to be delivered from the devil? Why are they born again if they do not need to be made new? Liturgical practice confirms the Church's belief that all inherit Adam's sin and must be transferred "from the power of darkness into the kingdom of light." (Col 1:13) There is only one baptism, the same for infants and adults, and it is for the forgiveness of sins. ... God is just. If he condemns unbaptised children to hell, it is because they are sinners. Although these infants are punished in hell, they will suffer only the "mildest condemnation" ("mitissima poena"), "the lightest punishment of all", for there are diverse punishments in proportion to the guilt of the sinner.
For contemporary Catholics, St. Augustine's assignment of all the unbaptized to an upper chamber of Hell is harsh and confusing. They ask, "Where is the love? What about those millions of poor souls who have been murdered through abortion in their mother's wombs? Did not Jesus die to redeem especially the most vulnerable of souls?"
Again, the Church has never officially made any doctrinal pronouncements regarding limbo, so a Catholic is free to speculate. Part of the reward of going to Heaven for those who enter the glory of God is having all these matters made clear.
In the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council, many prominent theologians saw the need to weigh in on the concept of limbo and address many of the unsettling questions surrounding it. Thus, Benedict's document was promulgated.
This document, after making a complete review of centuries of theological speculation on limbo, effectively shelves limbo as just a theological opinion, with this astounding statement:
[T]he affirmation that infants who die without Baptism suffer the privation of the beatific vision has long been the common doctrine of the Church, which must be distinguished from the faith of the Church. As for the theory that the privation of the beatific vision is their sole punishment, to the exclusion of any other pain, this is a theological opinion, despite its long acceptance in the West. The particular theological thesis concerning a "natural happiness" sometimes ascribed to these infants likewise constitutes a theological opinion.
In other words, the opinion of theologians is secondary to the faith of the Church. Limbo is consigned to the past. As an idea, limbo had its day, but in a world in which hundreds of millions are killed by abortion, this idea does not help people in understanding the faith; rather, it obfuscates it.
For contemporary Catholics, it makes no sense whatsoever that God, who sent His Son into a fallen world to redeem it, would restrict the gift of redemption — or deny the beatific vision — from those who, through no fault of their own, are murdered before they can choose to sin.
In the final part of this document, the importance of the sacrament of baptism is reaffirmed for the Church, apart from the Pelagian heresy and idle theological speculation.
The commission wrote:
God the Father intends to configure all human beings to Christ by the Holy Spirit, who transforms and empowers them by his grace. Ordinarily, this configuration to Jesus Christ takes place through sacramental Baptism, whereby one is conformed to Christ, receives the Holy Spirit, is liberated from sin and becomes a member of the Church.
After reaffirming the importance of baptism, the commission explains why we have a legitimate hope, as Catholics, that those who, through no fault of their own, are killed, or die before being baptized can be thought of as belonging among the blessed and able to reside with God in Heaven.
The commission argues eloquently:
So Christians, even when they do not see how unbaptized children can be saved, nevertheless dare to hope that God will embrace them in his saving mercy. They are also prepared to make a defense to any one who calls them to account for the hope that is in them (cf. 1 Pet 3:15). When they meet mothers and parents in distress because their children died before or after birth, without being baptized, they feel urged to explain to them why their own hope for salvation can also extend to those infants or children.
Avoiding an overly complicated theoretical explanation of God's mercy, the document clearly affirms the boundless mercy of God for those who died before receiving the grace of the sacrament of baptism. It affirms that God's mercy is boundless for all his creatures and that it is legitimate to believe that the God who seeks out the lost sheep to be saved, and the God who forgives even the prodigal son will make a place for these little innocents whose lives were snuffed out in the womb.
The last section of the document explains how the idea of limbo works against the good news of Jesus:
Where sin abounded, grace superabounded! That is the emphatic teaching of Scripture, but the idea of Limbo seems to constrain that superabundance. "[T]he free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man's trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many"; "as one man's trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man's act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men"; "where sin increased, grace abounded all the more" (Romans 5:15, 18, 20).
The members of the commission summarily added:
We wish to stress that humanity’s solidarity with Christ (or, more properly, Christ's solidarity with all of humanity) must have priority over the solidarity of human beings with Adam, and that the question of the destiny of unbaptized infants who die must be addressed in that light.
Our hope as Catholics, then, is real and substantive because we believe God sent His Son into the world to redeem all — everyone who has ever lived and everyone who will ever live. Simply because someone's mom chose to end his life in the womb is no reason to condemn him to "Hell light."
The words of the evangelist John exemplify this hope: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life." (John 3:16)
Despite the Church being relatively slow to officially address this conundrum — the 2007 document was approved two years into Benedict's papacy — most Catholics shun the idea of limbo (if they pay it any attention at all).
And thanks to the efforts of the commission, we now have substantial research to put limbo where it belongs, on the shelf with other bad theological ideas. A contemporary Catholic shouldn't believe in a first level of Hell where sinless, unbaptized children go.
A testament to the belief among many contemporary Catholics that all those children murdered through abortion are with God is presented in "Requiem for the Unborn," an original orchestral and choral production performed recently in Houston, Texas.
The Catholic composer, Chris Bearer, commemorated the millions of unborn babies murdered by abortion who are en route to God's presence. His last movement ends with "In Paradisum" with the choir singing in Latin, "May the angels lead you into paradise."
The entire concert is a musical affirmation that the unborn are indeed in paradise with God because God's mercy is abundant, and his love is limitless.
God's mercy is so great that He can bring into His presence even those innocents who, through no fault of their own, died before any sacrament could be administered.
Recall that Our Lord at the Last Supper, as documented in John's Gospel, said, "In my Father's house there are many dwelling places. If there were not, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you?" (John 14:2)
Jesus offered these words of comfort and assurance to those disciples in the Upper Room, even knowing that they would all abandon Him in the Garden of Gethsemane. Many rightly cite this passage to support the Church's teaching on Purgatory and how, even in the afterlife, God aids souls by purifying them so they may be in His presence.
This passage explains how truly boundless God's mercy is for all those murdered before a sacrament could be administered. With a loving and merciful God, there can be no such thing as limbo. This allows Catholics to have hope that the innocent victims of abortion, the young innocent souls lost through miscarriages and children lost in other similar situations may dwell with God in the highest Heaven.
Limbo — it's gone! Thank God! And thank Pope Benedict XVI for encouraging the creation of The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized.
I would like to take a moment to thank Fr. Peter Damian Akpunonu, one of the members of the commission that created The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die without Being Baptized. Father Akpunonu was one of the best seminary teachers at St. Mary of the Lake Seminary. He was a good priest who taught me the importance of always being compassionate.