Limbo and the Mystical Body: on the Borderlands of Dogma

In Salvation for Non-Catholics and Limbo, Dr. Jeffrey Mirus makes two arguments I would like to address. The first deals with limbo and claims that the lack of certitude that we have about the fate of unbaptized infants provides a way for us to think about the fate of non-Catholic adults. The second cites the encyclical Mystici Corporis as proof of the assertion that “the Church does officially teach a way of salvation for adults outside the visible structure of the Church.”

Regarding limbo, the argument goes like this: If unbaptized babies can be saved, then adult non-Catholics can, too, and without Faith or Baptism. Dr. Mirus does acknowledge the significant difference between adults, who can make volitional acts (both good and bad), and infants, who cannot. But, he says, the situation is “similar,” so that an argument from one can be applied, mutatis mutandis, to the other.

The problem with this line of reasoning is that the anti-limbo argument is itself wrongheaded. In other words, as Falstaff said, “[Dr. Mirus,] I deny your Maior.”

The question of limbo is often approached backwards. “Limbo was never a teaching of the Church,” its critics claim, and truly. Limbo is a theological conclusion. However, minus certain details of its packaging, it was generally considered an inescapable conclusion from the data of revelation. What is dogmatic is that unbaptized infants cannot be admitted to the Beatific Vision.

The Second Council of Lyon (1274) and the Council of Florence (1438-1445) both taught that “The souls of those who die in actual mortal sin or in original sin only immediately descend into hell, even though they suffer different penalties” (D 464, 693).

The Council of Florence (the Bull Cantate Domino of February 4, 1442): “Regarding children, indeed, because of danger of death, which can often take place, since no help can be brought to them by another remedy than through the sacrament of baptism, through which they are snatched from the domination of the devil and adopted among the sons of God, [the sacrosanct Roman Church] advises that holy baptism ought not to be deferred for forty or eighty days, . . . but it should be conferred as soon as it can be done conveniently” (DS 1349).

In 385, Pope St. Siricius sent a letter to a Bishop Himerius, telling the bishop that both of their souls are in danger if they defer the baptism of infants or adults: “. . . lest our own souls be in danger if, as a result of our having denied the saving font to those who stand in need of it, each one of them, on leaving the world, should lose the kingdom as well as his life” (DS 184).

Pope St. Innocent I, in 417, wrote to the Synod of Milevis, that: “The idea that infants can be granted the rewards of eternal life even without the grace of baptism is utterly foolish” (DS 219).

Further, the teachings of the Council of Trent on justification, the Roman Catechism’s teaching on baptism, and Pope Pius XII’s Allocution to a Congress of the Italian Catholic Association of Midwives (October 29, 1951) all confirm the traditional teaching that unbaptized infants cannot be saved.

Johannes M. Schwarz, Ph.D., is a scholar who has surveyed the various theories of unbaptized infant salvation. In an interview by, he made some insightful remarks in favor of the traditional teaching. Here are two excerpts from that interview:

It might be true that there are no definitory statements on the questions, but there is a firm tradition in the ordinary magisterium, that cannot simply be discarded. It is insufficient to state that limbo was never defined, and therefore unbaptized children might equally be thought to be in heaven. Historically the doctrinal alternative to limbo never was infant salvation, but a stricter Augustinian interpretation assigning also pain of sense to the state of the children. That limbo was never defined had much to do with leaving room for the Augustinian theory as a study of the Jansenist controversy helps to see. The non-salvation of children was not disputed, except for very limited exceptions (Cajetan and some others).


In my study I found that limbo is not only valid as an explanation, it also has a greater probability than most other theories and, as a model of non-salvation, a longstanding tradition with authority. I do not rejoice over the fact, that such a state could be the state of unbaptized children. But then, there are many things in this world, I find hard and difficult. I often fail to understand why God permits this or that, but I do not believe in God because he conforms to my image, but simply because God is. I trust, that how he ordains things is right, just and merciful.

(Two informative articles on the subject are Limbo and the Will of God, by Robert T. Miller and Could Limbo Be ‘Abolished’?, by Fr. Brian W. Harrison, O.S.)

Dr. Mirus cites two authorities for the possibility of the salvation of unbaptized infants:

The current Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC] does not offer the theory of limbo; instead, it sugggests [sic] that we may hope that God has a way we do not know to “let the children come to me” (see #1261; cf. Mt 19:14). Similarly, the most recent major Vatican study of the the question of salvation for unbaptized infants (the 2007 document issued by the International Theological Commission, The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized) concludes that there are good grounds for abandoning the concept of limbo.

The first of these authorities, the CCC, does not say that infants can be saved. Even if it did, this catechism did not bind us to any of its teachings that were not already authoritative, as the present Roman Pontiff has confirmed. And it certainly does not enjoy the same level of authority as the Council of Florence, cited above. And despite the grand sounding appellation Dr. Mirus gives it, the “major Vatican study” has absolutely no magisterial authority. In fact, the document he invokes is a wonderful piece of theological chicanery that totally eviscerates the concept of the ordinary magisterium. As I wrote in There Is a Hell, and It Makes Perfect Sense:

The ITC is a purely advisory body. Its documents have literally no authority. (Father Georges Cottier, O.P., General Secretary of the ITC, said that the body “does not have the role of pronouncing with the authority, which is characteristic of the Magisterium.”) This is true even though the news media are utterly oblivious to the fact, and presented “The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized” as quite authoritative.

One very good thing about the ITC’s document is that its study of scriptural, patristic, and magisterial sources provides abundant proof for the conclusion that unbaptized infants do not partake of the Beatific Vision. Few defenders of the orthodox position could have put the case better. Only in its last few pages, where modern theologians suddenly took precedence over these much weightier authorities, do we find a false optimism concerning the unbaptized. It is not disrespectful to write this way of “The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized,” The document, as I said, has no magisterial authority.

The second of Dr. Mirus’ arguments cites the encyclical Mystici Corporis as proof for the assertion that “the Church does officially teach a way of salvation for adults outside the visible structure of the Church.”:

Thus Pius XII, in his great encyclical Mystici Corporis Christi, explained that those outside the visible structure of the Church can “have a certain relationship with the Mystical Body of the Redeemer” by means of “an unconscious desire and longing” (inscio quodam desiderio ac voto) (#103). It is this teaching that has led theologians to examine the possibility of “substantial” membership in the Church even where “formal” membership is lacking.

What Pius XII said, in context, was this:

We wish that they [non-Catholics], each and every one of them, . . . may be zealous and eager to tear themselves out of that state in which it is not possible for them to be without fear regarding their eternal salvation [… ab eo statu se eripere studeant, in quo de sempiterna cuiusque propria salute securi esse non possunt]. For, even though they may be ordained toward the mystic Body of the Redeemer by a certain unknowing desire and resolution [quandoquidem, etiamsi inscio quodam desiderio ac voto ad mysticum Redemptoris Corpus ordinentur], they still remain deprived of so many precious gifts and helps from heaven, which one can enjoy only in the Catholic Church. Let them, therefore, come back to Catholic unity, and united with us in the organic oneness of the Body of Jesus Christ may they hasten to the one Head in the society of glorious love. . . . We wait for them with open arms to return, not to a stranger’s house, but to their own, their Father’s house.

All men are ordained toward the Mystical Body of Christ (the Catholic Church), just as all men are, by nature, ordained to the Beatific Vision. Both of these truths are found in the theological corpus of St. Thomas Aquinas. But just because men “may be ordained to” (ordinentur) the Church and to Heaven does not mean that they will necessarily enter either. At any rate, Pope Pius XII did not say in this passage from Mystici Corporis that there is “a way of salvation for adults outside the visible structure of the Church,” as Dr. Mirus claims he did.

The words of Pope Pius XII should not be used to do something that Pontiff censured in Humani Generis, namely, to “reduce to a meaningless formula the necessity of belonging to the true Church in order to gain eternal salvation.”