Dear Grace, What does the Catholic Church teach about what happens to children who die without being baptized? Do they go to heaven or hell? What ever happened to the teaching about limbo?
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Jesus taught clearly that, “no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit” (John 3: 5). He was speaking of Baptism and its necessity for salvation. We notice that He said “no one” and this cannot be taken lightly. Every word that He uttered was for our good and our salvation. Before ascending to heaven, Jesus also commanded His apostles, “Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved; whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:15-16). Throughout the ages, this teaching of Christ has left His followers wondering what happens to those who die without being baptized, especially innocent children.
Every man, woman and child is born into this world with a fallen human nature and tainted by original sin (CCC 1250). We are not guilty of that sin, but we have inherited its consequences. Anyone who doubts this must simply look at himself or herself. If we do that, we see the effects of that sin in our lives and behavior. Look at how we are drawn to do that which is wrong, sometimes even when we do not want to. Because of this, children, as well as adults, are in need of the cleansing sacrament of Baptism. Through it “we are freed from sin and reborn as sons of God” (CCC 1213).
Please keep in mind that in this article we are mainly speaking of children who die without Baptism. There are other circumstances to consider when speaking of adults who die without being baptized. The Church, for example, has always held the firm conviction that those who suffer death for the sake of the faith without having received Baptism are baptized by their death for and with Christ. This Baptism of blood, like the desire for Baptism, brings about the fruits of Baptism without being a sacrament. (CCC #1257-1258).
If Baptism is necessary for salvation, then what does the Church teach happens to children die without it? As we read above, the Church has been entrusted by Christ to proclaim the gospel to all nations and to have them baptized. This means that we thus understand Baptism to be necessary for those to whom the Gospel has been proclaimed and who have had the possibility of asking for this sacrament. But we know that many children, especially infants of course, have not had the Good News proclaimed to them, so that they would have an opportunity to ask to be baptized. In addition, Scripture proclaims to us that God “wants all men to be saved” (Timothy 2:4).
Infants are not guilty of any personal sin because they have not yet reached the age of reason, but they are born with the stain of original sin, and we must not overlook that. This stain of original sin is precisely why it is very important that children be baptized as soon as possible after their birth. The Catholic Church has never formally taught belief in a state of “limbo” for infants dying without baptism. Certain theologians in the past suggested that there might exist a state in which these infants would a live a life of eternal bliss but excluded from heaven. Perhaps this is why some put off baptizing their children. But they should not, because limbo is not a teaching of the Catholic Church.
What we do believe is the following: “As regards children who have died without Baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God, as she does in her funeral rites for them. Indeed, the great mercy of God who desires that all men should be saved, and Jesus' tenderness toward children which caused him to say, ‘Let the children come to me, do not hinder them,’ allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without Baptism. All the more urgent is the Church's call not to prevent little children from coming to Christ through the gift of holy Baptism” (CCC 1261).
So, what we are saying here is that the Church cannot be absolutely certain what happens to children who die without Baptism because it has not been revealed. We can only hope that they are saved. Therefore, we do not take a chance – we baptize them as soon as possible after birth. And if they do die without Baptism, we entrust them to God, hoping that in His great love and mercy, He will save them.
© Copyright 2003 Grace D. MacKinnon