Limbo Never Official Church Teaching
Father Richard Kunst, Curator
Recently (on All Souls Day) I wrote on the subject of purgatory. Keeping with the same theme, I will address the church’s teaching (or lack thereof) on limbo, especially in light of recent Vatican discussion of the topic.
Any priest can tell you the anguish families can experience from a stillbirth or SIDS or whenever a child has died prior to baptism. Perhaps your own family has experienced this terrible tragedy. The age-old question is: What has happened to the soul of this baby, since we have the understanding of the necessity of baptism for salvation?
In the “Catechism of the Catholic Church” it is written, “Baptism is necessary for salvation for those to whom the Gospel has been proclaimed and who have had the possibility of asking for this sacrament: (1257). So what happens to the souls of unbaptized infants, or even of those who may have been aborted?
The term limbo is derived from Latin “limbus,” which literally means the hem or boarder of a garment. The word is neither used in the Scriptures nor mentioned by the early church fathers. Since the 13th century, it has come to be used to designate the place, or state, of souls who did not deserve hell, but had not been baptized. In essence, the idea of limbo was to explain that these souls could not experience the fullness of the beatific vision (heaven) because they were indeed without the necessary sacrament of baptism, but experience a state of happiness.
So has the church ever really, officially taught a doctrine of limbo? The answer is no, which may surprise many readers. The church has never officially taught anything about limbo, but there have been many theologians, some of them canonized saints, who have written or spoken about the existence of limbo.
In 1786, there was a group of heretical theologians who gathered at what is referred to as the Synod of Pistoia, in Italy, which proclaimed that all unbaptized infants who have died go to hell. (Now you know why they were heretics.) In answer to this heretical proclamation, the pope at the time, Pius VI, forcefully came out with the papal bull “Auctorem Fidei,” which condemned the false belief. It is the only official document in the history of the church that has ever contained the word “limbo,” and then only to condemn a heresy.
Any discussion of limbo must also include mention of other forms of baptism. The church believes that there is a baptism of blood, which could be somebody who died for the faith before they were baptized in it. This happened regularly in the early church, when it took years of preparation to be initiated by baptism. The church honors the Holy Innocents, the babies who were killed by Herod the Great when he was trying to kill the infant Jesus. These babies were baptized only in their blood, but they are now saints in heaven. A number of contemporary theologians believe this same baptism by blood can also apply to aborted babies, although the church has not spoken to the issue.
There is also the baptism of desire, which could result from someone dying in an accident while in preparation for baptism into the church. Some theologians believe this baptism by desire carries over into the desire of the parents to baptize their babies.
Most theologians and historians now see that the idea of limbo arose out of the tension between the church’s teaching on the necessity of baptism and the fact that these children had no personal sin. The possibility of an eternal state of natural bliss, separate from heaven, or the beatific vision, is never addressed in any official church teaching.
We can look to the funeral right for unbaptized babies to see the compassion and mercy of God spelled out in the liturgical prayer. Here in full is the beautiful opening prayer for a funeral of an unbaptized baby: “God of all consolation, searcher of mind and heart, the faith of these parents is known to you. Comfort them with the knowledge that the child for whom they grieve is entrusted now to your loving care.”
God is all merciful. His mercy even transcends our imagination. It is this reality that gives us the assurance that these children are now with him. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus gives us further reason to hope in the salvation of these children when he says, “Let the children come to me, do not hinder them” (10:14).
The Jubilant Dead All Pray
The Jubilant Dead All Pray
In the cemetery I looked up at the sky and thought of the great sea of graces that was flowing down on Gethsemani as her hundredth year was ending. All the crosses stood up and spoke to me for fair this time. It was as if the earth were shaking under my feet and as if the jubilant dead were just about to sit up and sing.
And I got some taste of how much there is to be glad for in the world…Not that I am looking for any such taste anymore: only how to serve God better and belong more completely to him.
Father Amadeus was speaking today of the need for a concrete spiritual ideal. What strikes me is the need of something absolutely concrete and definite–poverty, humility: not something abstract, off in the heavens, but here…Not for other people first, fut for myself first. To make it a real ideal you work for, not just one you occasionally think and preach about. To ask God somehow to make me the quietest and meekest and most unobtrusive man in the whole house, the poorest man, the one with nothing. I am right at the other end of the pole from that–but in the circumstances God has given me to work with, there are still graces–and all the Fathers of Gethsemani, whom I love, will all pray for me. —-Thomas Merton (1915-1968), a Trappist monk of the abbey of Gethsemani
Thomas Merton was born in Prades, France, to artists Ruth and Owen Merton. His early years were spent in the south of France; later, he went to private school in England and then to Cambridge. Both of his parents were deceased by the time Merton was a young teen and he eventually moved to his grandparents’ home in the United States to finish his education at Columbia University in New York City. While a student there, he completed a thesis on William Blake who was to remain a lifelong influence on Merton’s thought and writings.
But Merton’s active social and political conscience was also informed by his conversion to Christianity and Catholicism in his early twenties. He worked for a time at Friendship House under the mentorship of Catherine Doherty and then began to sense a vocation in the priesthood. In December 1941, he resigned his teaching post at Bonaventure College, Olean, NY, and journeyed to the Abbey of Gethsemani, near Louisville, Kentucky. There, Merton undertook the life of a scholar and man of letters, in addition to his formation as a Cistercian monk.
The thoroughly secular man was about to undertake a lifelong spiritual journey into monasticism and the pursuit of his own spirituality. The more than 50 books, 2000 poems, and numerous essays, reviews, and lectures that have been recorded and published, now form the canon of Merton’s writings. His importance as a writer in the American literary tradition is becoming clear. His influence as a religious thinker and social critic is taking its place alongside such luminaries as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Flannery O’Connor, and Martin Luther King. His explorations of the religions of the east initiated Merton’s entrance into inter-religious dialogue that puts him in the pioneering forefront of worldwide ecumenical movements. Merton died suddenly, electrocuted by a malfunctioning fan, while he was attending his first international monastic conference near Bangkok, Thailand, in 1968.
Papal Artifacts gratefully thanks the web site of the Thomas Merton Society of Canada for this biographical information.