Wrestling with the Fate of the Unbaptized

“One man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men” (Rom. 5:18). With these somber words, St. Paul expressed one of the truths that govern human history. On account of what St. John Henry Newman called the “aboriginal catastrophe”—namely, the Fall of man—the human race was turned aside from its supernatural goal: seeing God face-to-face.

Yet God has provided remedies by which those who believe his word may return, one by one, to the path that our first parents left. In ancient times, he offered the remedy of circumcision. Since the passion of Christ and until the end of the world, we have the far more perfect remedy of baptism.

But not even the most perfect medicine will help a sick man if he never has the chance to take it. Accordingly, the Fathers of the Church taught that those who die unbaptized before reaching the age of reason, though they have no sins of their own to answer for, do not inherit “the glorious liberty of the sons of God.” St. Gregory Nazianzen (c. 329-390), called “the Theologian,” declares that such souls will be neither glorified nor chastised (Oration 40.23). St. Augustine had to warn a young convert, over-confident about his own ideas, “If you wish to be a Catholic, do not believe or say or teach that children who are taken away by death before they are baptized may gain remission of original sin” (On the Soul and Its Origin, III.12).

What happens, then, to the souls of these children? Augustine wrote that he would not dare to say of them that it would be better had they never been born (Against Julian, 5.44); in other words, he would not deny that their experiences were ones that it was worth being created to enjoy. And so later theologians, basing themselves on Scripture and on the Fathers of the Church, have said that such souls go to Limbothat is, “the permanent place or state of those unbaptized children and others who, dying without grievous personal guilt, are excluded from the beatific vision on account of original sin alone.” St. Thomas Aquinas taught that these souls are free of both inward and outward suffering, and even have a certain union with God (De Malo, Q.5, art. 2-3). And although different theologians have assessed this state in various ways, the view has tended to prevail that Limbo is a place of natural happiness. To the supernatural happiness of heaven, the lot of those who live and die in Christ, these souls do not even aspire.

In 1439, the Council of Florence met under Pope Eugenius IV to re-establish unity with Greek-speaking Christians. One of the matters under discussion was the situation after death of various categories of soul. Faithful to both Eastern and Western tradition, the Bull of Union (Session 6) states, “We define that the souls who die in actual mortal sin, or in original sin alone, descend immediately to the world below, but that they will receive dissimilar penalties.”

This is a definition by an ecumenical council. Such definitions are protected from error by the Holy Spirit and therefore remain valid for all time. Although something may be added to them, nothing can be taken away.

Florence, therefore, defined that souls who leave this world in original sin alone will descend to the world below. The Latin word used is infernum, the same word used in the Apostles’ Creed when we say that our Lord “descended into hell.” Hell in this older and broader sense does not mean a place of torment, but any place or state after death that does not include the vision of God. It is possible to understand the “penalty” spoken of by Florence as simply being this absence of the beatific vision. This is in fact what theologians both before and since have generally considered the penalty proper to original sin.

The Council of Florence did not use the word Limbo. Why? Perhaps in part because this word is not found in the writings of the Fathers; partly also because the term was not familiar to the Greeks. Nor did the council give any account of what the souls in this state will experience.

In addition to the teaching of Florence, we should note also two later papal teachings. Pope St. Pius V, in the sixteenth century, condemned the opinion of Michael du Bay, who had taught that the souls of infants who die without baptism will in the next life hate God and resist his law (Denzinger-Hünermann 1949). Pope Pius VI, in the eighteenth century, condemned those who insisted that Catholics ought to believe that the souls of such infants are punished by hellfire: he didn’t forbid this opinion, but he forbade anyone to say it was obligatory to believe (Denzinger-Hünermann 2626). This condemnation, incidentally, contains the only important magisterial use of the term Limbo.

The twentieth-century Catechism of the Catholic Church did not mention the doctrine defined by the Council of Florence. This does not, of course, mean that the Catechism rejected that doctrine. It could not do so, since, as we have seen, the Florentine teaching is fixed forever. It is no criticism of a catechism to say that it is not exhaustive: a catechism is a compilation of such truths as its editors suppose will be useful for handing on the Faith to the people of their time. Its omission of a given doctrine says nothing about the truth or falsity of that doctrine, and it certainly cannot suggest that the Church has “changed its mind” about a doctrine formally defined. In the same way, the fact that this catechism did not repeat the teaching of Pius V does not mean that Catholics today may or should hold that the souls of unbaptized infants do hate God after all.

Note also that this catechism is a collection of quotations and paraphrases of authoritative documents; any comments that the editors add to the doctrines that they recall don’t of themselves enjoy any special authority.

In 2007, during the pontificate of Benedict XVI, the International Theological Commission (ITC) published a document called “The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized.” It is important to realize that the ITC is not an organ of the Magisterium, but a committee of scholars valued by the Holy See. Its documents are meant to promote debate in the Catholic academy, but they are worth only what their arguments are worth. They are not magisterial texts, which would have some prior claim on our assent. The authors of the 2007 document note that it has long been “common doctrine” that infants who die unbaptized do not enter the beatific vision, but they think that this teaching gives rise to “numerous pastoral problems,” and so, despite the Church’s tradition, they wish to replace it with a hope that all these souls will in fact be glorified. A major weakness of the document is that it gives no serious consideration to the meaning and authority of the Florentine definition, which it alludes to only in a footnote.

One sometimes hears it said: “Florence taught that souls dying in original sin alone would not enter heavenly glory, but it did not say that there were any such souls. So maybe Limbo is empty.” This argument fails. Florence defined that God had made a definite decree about what would happen to such souls: they would be excluded from heaven, but not punished as they are who are guilty of personal sin.

Now, God could have made different decrees about what would happen to these souls. He could have annihilated them. He could have offered them an opportunity at the moment of death either to believe in him and be saved or to reject him. Or he could have given them all the beatific vision, as he did to the Holy Innocents killed by Herod. Florence teaches that he did not decree to do any of these things. But if God had resolved, for example, to give the beatific vision to all such souls, then the Florentine definition would be simply false: it would be saying that God had freely decreed something that he had not in fact decreed.

When a baby dies without baptism, we shouldn’t say, “He is in heaven.” In divine matters, above all, we don’t have the right to believe what we like. We believe God’s word, interpreted by the Church. We can say that this soul is kept safe in the wisdom and mercy of God, and that is enough.