Whatever Happened to Limbo?

Dear Father Kerper: Last April, I heard that the Church had abolished Limbo. Years ago, my grandmother told me that non-baptized babies go to Limbo instead of Heaven because of original sin. Now I hear that Limbo was just an opinion, not a Church teaching. How can I know what’s really true and what’s just opinion?

Thank you for your note of interest in this subject, which reflects your honest concern for the salvation of all of God’s children. Yet I also realize that your question reflects the reality that some of us get very frustrated when ideas and practices suddenly change.

In order to answer your question we must distinguish doctrine from opinion based on what the Church calls the hierarchy of truths. This means that some teachings are more important than others.

Think of it this way. The owner’s manual of your car will show you clearly how to turn on the engine, shift gears, and use the brake. Later, perhaps in a bad snowstorm, you’ll learn how to use your defroster and rear window deicer. Someday when you have nothing to do, you may even read about oil changes, tire pressure, and maintenance.

All these instructions are true and helpful, but each one is not equally important. You need to know where to put the key before you worry about tire pressure. Think of Church teaching as a spiritual owner’s manual.

This article is from “A Priest Answers 27 Questions You Never Thought to Ask.”

The Church has at least four markers for permanent teach­ings: Sacred Scripture, ancient creeds, council statements, and ex cathedra papal statements.

  • First, Sacred Scripture expresses key beliefs, such as the oneness of God, the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the Resurrection of Christ.
  • Second, ancient creeds, such as the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds, contain settled doctrines.
  • Third, core doctrines of faith proposed by ecumenical councils are also permanent, although open to refinement, new formulations, and development.
  • Fourth, teachings declared ex cathedra (from the chair) by the pope are unchangeable. So far, only two popes — Pius IX and Pius XII — have used this form of teaching.

Many older Catholics probably learned about Limbo in religion class. For years, Limbo was proposed as one possible way of resolving the apparent contradiction between two genuine Church teachings, namely, the necessity of Baptism for salvation and God’s desire that everyone be saved.

As much as we want to know precisely what happens to non-baptized persons — children and good people — the simple truth is that God’s revelation doesn’t tell us. In the past, Limbo became the favored opinion because many in the Church stressed the necessity of Baptism. Today, however, many theologians, including Pope Benedict XVI, see that opinion as explaining too much, thereby foreclosing possibilities known to God alone.

If you study Scripture and key Church documents you will find that nothing proposes Limbo as a settled and indisputable teaching. Indeed, it has none of the markers needed for permanent teachings.

Let’s go back to the hierarchy of truths. God’s revelation enlightens us only about matters essential for our salvation. Hence, God tells us how to live a good and moral life, confident that we come from Him, have been redeemed by Christ, and have the hope of eternal life. This information is like knowing how to switch on the engine and use the brake.

But God doesn’t explain every detail of how His saving love works in the world. Such details are akin to a car’s clock and DVD player. We can drive the car perfectly well without the correct time and music. Similarly, we can live the Christian life fully and joyfully without clear answers to every possible theological question.

One way of approaching this subject with those who have lost children through miscarriage, sickness, or even abortion is to reflect on God’s mercy. The one consistent mystery of God that is found in all four markers of the truth is that God is not merely the God of justice, but also the God of mercy and love.

The point is to drive the car rather than to become too engrossed or even distracted by the owner’s manual. And on our road to God, there must, and always will be, mysteries. Our challenge is to let those mysteries serve not as obstacles, but as opportunities for increasing our faith and desire to arrive at our destination, where, we are assured, all things will be revealed.

Can I baptize someone?

Every human being, even a nonbeliever, has the ability to baptize another person validly. However, the Church authorizes this only in cases of imminent death. A Catholic should therefore refrain from baptizing someone else’s child, even a grandchild, and should not feel guilty about it. Such a situation calls for patient sensitivity toward the rights of the parents who have chosen not to baptize their child.

Editor’s note: This article is from a chapter in Fr. Kerper’s A Priest Answers 27 Questions You Never Thought to Ask, which is available through Sophia Institute Press

Fr. Michael Kerper

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Father Michael Kerper is the pastor of Saint Patrick Parish in Nashua.

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  • Dr. Philip Cheung

    How much the concept of LIMBO has transmogrified through the centuries!

    In the 5th century, St Augustine asserted that infants who died without baptism were
    consigned to hell. As Catholics, we need to ask one question: Do babies truly comprehend the gravity of willful rejection of God’s precepts, of mortal sin and of eternal damnation? I think not, not when their intellect has yet to be fully formed. I have stated the obvious.

    To be sure, Free Will is a gift from God, and kids need be taught that there is indeed such an entity as Free Will, a Christian code of deontological ethics, and how to make choices
    while growing into adulthood. St. Thomas Aquinas asked the Holy Spirit to “shine a bean of Thy radiance upon the darkness of my mind, and dispel from me the double darkness of sin and ignorance of which I have been born”. There you have it. Jesus on the Cross asked His Father to forgive those who do not even know that they are offending God: Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing. (Luke 23:34).

    My point is this. All souls face two consequences, justice or mercy; Jesus spoke to Saint Faustina clearly about this choice, our choice. If babies and infants have not even begun to live but pass on without baptism, what exactly are they being held responsible for? Therefore, if they do not face justice, then, to be sure, Jesus will envelope them in His Divine Mercy. My “Faith and Reason” tell me so.

    Recall the scenario towards the end of Deuteronomy. The Israelites were waiting to cross
    the River Jordan. Moses won’t be accompanying them, but he was worried that they may sway from God’s laws (e.g., worshiping a golden calf) once he’s not around. So, once again, he reminded them of their very special relationship with God via homiletic conceptualization of the (Horeb) covenant by didactic admonition of idolatry. Moses uttered two of the most powerful words in the Torah: CHOOSE LIFE (Deuteronomy 30:15 – 18). And that’s crystallizing forty years of desert spirituality!

    There is one problem with LIMBO, in the time dimension. Do un-baptised babies stay there forever? These are souls, purely innocent souls, which God the Creator alone brought into existence. In trying to track down baby Jesus, Herod slaughtered many infants under the age of two. Will God just leave them in limbo, forever? This is too cold and cruel for me.

    In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI abolished the concept of LIMBO from Catholic teaching. God bless Ratzinger-the-Theologian who deemed LIMBO as “only a theological hypothesis” and “never a defined truth of faith”, i.e., it is not a doctrinal issue. He knows that God loves babies, so, after being presented with a 41-page report by the Vatican’s Theological Commission (a three-year research project) that expressed “serious” foundations that baby souls can in fact enter into Heavenly glory, and that the eschatological concept of
    LIMBO was born out of an “unduly restrictive view of salvation”.

    The report says: “There is greater theological awareness today that God is merciful and wants all human beings to be saved. Grace has priority over sin, and the exclusion of innocent babies from heaven does not seem to reflect Christ’s special love for the little ones”. “Our conclusion is that the many factors that we have considered… give serious theological and liturgical grounds for hope that unbaptised infants who die will be saved and enjoy the beatific vision. We emphasise that these are reasons for prayerful hope, rather than grounds for sure knowledge.”

    The claim that LIMBO is a place where souls can enjoy eternal happiness without communion with God does not appeal to reason, since “It is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost” (Matthew 18:14). Amen!

    Let me take liberty and hazard a guess. John the Baptist has his job cut out for him. He’s been busy ever since.

  • LgVt

    The proposition of Limbo had two major problems from the beginning: First, that those souls who dwelt there, even though they were deprived of God’s presence, did not suffer (in contradiction to everything we know about both Hell and Purgatory); second, the unclear destiny of those souls at the General Resurrection, when both the blessed and the damned will be raised and restored to their bodies for all eternity.

    Theologians tied themselves in knots trying to find solutions to these two dilemmas, with minimal success; it is little wonder, then, that Limbo has fallen by the wayside.

    At the same time, though, we must not go too far in the opposite direction. The Council of Trent was very explicit: Original Sin is real, and every mortal who has ever lived (save for the Blessed Virgin) has been afflicted with it. Even infants and the unborn, who have committed no personal sin, have this stain on their souls; unless something is done about it, it will bar them from Heaven.

    Baptism is the only known remedy. If God has reserved to Himself some other unknown method, we can be sure that its effect and essence are the same–Original Sin cleansed, living grace infused, and all this done solely by the power of God, and not through any merit or effort on the part of the child–but we must not presume. We must not take it for granted. If baptism is possible, parents must avail themselves of it. If it is not, we entrust those souls to God, but we do so in blindness, understanding that we shall not know what has become of them until the end, when all is revealed.

  • John Corbin

    Please show us in the scriptures how Mary was without sin. In her magnificat she exclaims: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…she didn’t say THE savior, or your savior. Why would someone with so sin need and rejoice in a savior?

    Did Jesus say, Oh, the mother of God is outside, I’ll go right away, or did He say “who is my mother” (Matthew 12)

    She may have been a virgin, but then lived a normal life, gave normal birth to normal children and, just like us, had original sin.

    Your enthusiasm to take your eyes and faith off Jesus Christ as THE way, THE truth, THE life, is disturbing. She lived and died folks, the only mediator is the Christ.

  • LgVt

    Luke 1:28. The word Gabriel uses to address Mary in the original Greek is Kecharitomene. The root word means grace, and the tense is the perfect passive participle–this indicates an act completed in the past, with continuing effects in the present.

    Sin and grace are incompatible. For Gabriel’s address to make any sense, there is only one possibility: Mary had been preserved from all sin, including Original Sin–saved from falling into it, not by her own merits or efforts, but by those of her Son, which is why she too needed a Savior and called Him such–and continued to be preserved from all sin at the time Gabriel spoke to her, and indeed for the rest of her life.

    You who deny this call the angel Gabriel, the evangelist Luke, and the Holy Spirit who inspired the Scriptures all liars. Repent of your errors and come to the truth.

  • Good question. Most Catholics who rely only on what the Church tells them at a particular point in time, don’t know about “hierarchy of truths”. If they don’t believe what the Church currently tells them, then are not considered to be Catholic enough.
    Those of us who use Scripture to evaluate what we are taught are often accused of being Protestants or “sola Scriptura”. It is a bit confusing, to say the least.

  • DG

    Jesus is the Savior of all the saved. He saved Mary by protecting her from original sin for His own purposes and reasons, just as The Father protected His Son from original sin: “And in Me he [the devil] has nothing.” Why wouldn’t Jesus honor His mother by giving her the same freedom from original sin that He Himself had?

  • DG

    Baptism is a moral obligation for those who are capable of fulfilling that obligation. Baptism cannot be a moral obligation for those (such as unborn babies) incapable of fulfilling that obligation, because God is never unjust.
    The doctrine on Baptism does not include any kind of an obligation on God to bar entrance into heaven of those who were not able to be baptized.
    God loves the unborn babies He creates with infinite love.
    Given the above, what basis could there be for holding that God will exclude unbaptized babies from heaven?

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