Friday, May 1, 2015


Limbo Roman Catholic Church The abode of unbaptized but innocent or righteous souls, as those of infants or virtuous individuals who lived before the coming of Christ.

One or two commenters here get hysterical about limbo but of course for one it is a notorious ignorance of the history of the subject.

This long essay is good and puts things into proper perspective:
Catholic Teaching: Mystical Baptism and Limbo

The Concept

Four different types of limbo have been suggested.

1. The Limbo of Purgatory - a figurative 'upper level' of Purgatory, sometimes called the limbo of the Fathers, this is a temporary place, where the holy persons who lived before Christ waited for Christ to die for their salvation so that they could enter into Heaven. The residents of this version of limbo are happy, in that they know that they are saved, but they do not yet have the Beatific Vision of God, nor the full happiness of Heaven.

2. The Limbo of Hell - a figurative 'upper level' of Hell, sometimes called 'the limbo of children' (or of infants), this is a permanent place, lacking most of the physical and spiritual punishments of Hell, but also lacking the Beatific Vision and the happiness of Heaven. The residents of this version of limbo are unhappy at their loss of Heaven, but not to the point of torture or torment. Despite the name 'limbo of children' the residents of this limbo can include adults.

3. Limbo as a Third Final Resting Place, which is neither Heaven nor Hell - this is also sometimes called 'the limbo of children' (or of infants). It is thought of as a permanent place of perfect natural happiness, but one lacking the Beatific Vision, the Communion of the Saints, and other benefits of Heaven. The residents of this version of limbo are happy, but not with the full joy of Heaven. Despite the name, the residents of this limbo can include adults.

4. Limbo as a Fringe of Heaven - this idea is found among some members of the faithful, but it is not supported by any theologian, as far as I know. The idea is that those prenatals and infants who die without Baptism cannot have the Beatific Vision and the full happiness of Heaven, but they can go to a limbo which is a part of Heaven, an area on the edges of Heaven, where they will have some significant measure of happiness. It is not clear whether the residents of this version of limbo would include unbaptized adults.

The Problems

Why have a limbo at all? There are certain theological problems that are addressed by the idea of Limbo.

The Limbo of Purgatory

The limbo of the Fathers addresses the problem of how the holy persons who died before Christ's own salvific death can possibly be saved. The idea is that they waited in a temporary place without suffering, but also without the happiness of Heaven. Then, when Christ died for our salvation, the gates of Heaven were opened, and they could then enter into eternal salvation.

Since Christ is Eternal God, how is it that He could be so limited by time that these persons would have to wait, centuries perhaps, for Christ to die before they could enter Heaven? The idea of a limbo of the Fathers considers Time to be an obstacle that the Almighty Eternal God cannot overcome, except by waiting.

Also, the limbo of the Fathers does not address the problem of how any holy persons before Christ can be saved without the Sacrament of Baptism. The idea of a Baptism of Desire might be applied to them, so that their hope for the Messiah would be taken as a type of implicit desire for Baptism. But this concept turns out to be too limited to explain all situations. Most human persons in the world before Christ were not devout Jews hoping for the Messiah.

The Limbo of Children

The limbo of children, either as a Third Final Resting Place or as an upper level of Hell, addresses the problem of an apparent conflict between two fundamental Catholic teachings, Baptism and original sin.

1. Baptism, and the sanctifying grace that it provides, are absolutely required for salvation and entrance into Heaven.

2. Original sin took away sanctifying grace, so that no one (except Christ and Mary) has sanctifying grace from conception; we must obtain it through Baptism.

What happens to a person who dies in a state of original sin?
What happens to a person who dies without having been baptized?

The usual answer to these questions has been that such persons go to Limbo, either as a place of natural happiness, or as an upper level of Hell. But both of these proposals are problematic.

The problem with sending those who die without being baptized to an upper level of Hell is that it would seem contrary to, not only the Mercy and Love of God, but also His Omnipotence, as if God were unable to offer salvation to such persons.

The problem with sending them to a place of perfect natural happiness is that there is no happiness apart from God. No one could be happy knowing that they had lost Heaven and had no part in the Communion of the Saints. And the idea that God would keep them in semi-blissful ignorance forever is contrary to the teaching that God is Truth. Also, to be happy, one needs the grace of God; but it is contradictory to say that such persons in limbo have the grace of God to be perfectly happy on a natural level, but still lack the sanctifying grace needed for Heaven. There is no happiness, natural or supernatural, without God's sanctifying grace.

This version of limbo applies also to adults who die with original sin, but without having committed mortal sin. There is a problem with sending adults to a place of perfect natural happiness because, if they spent their whole adult lives without finding sanctifying grace, they would be guilty of a mortal sin of omission. For sanctifying grace is available to everyone through either a formal Baptism or a mystical Baptism.

Proposed Solution

Mystical Baptism

This proposed solution is described in detail in my article, Treatise on Mystical Baptism. That article asserts that a mystical Baptism (a non-formal Baptism, i.e. Baptism without any ceremony of Baptism) can include not only a Baptism of blood or a Baptism of desire, but more general forms of mystical Baptism, based on the great suffering of the loss of one's life at an early age, or based on selfless good deeds done in one's life.

The proposed doctrine of Mystical Baptism asserts that prenatals and infants receive a mystical Baptism in the last moment of life, if they suffer an early death. Their suffering need not involve physical pain; it only need involve the great loss of the rest of their normal lifespan. Since these young souls are created in God's image, their great suffering of an early death unites them with Christ's great suffering and death on the Cross for their salvation; as a result, they each necessarily receive a mystical Baptism, in the last moment of their life, from Christ on the Cross.

The proposed doctrine of Mystical Baptism also asserts that adults who have not received a formal Baptism might attain a mystical Baptism, at anytime during their life, if they respond wholeheartedly to God's grace by choosing a substantially selfless act of love and mercy (or a set of such acts) in accordance with God's will. In this way, they are united to Christ's preeminent selfless act of love and mercy in His suffering and death on the Cross, and they receive a mystical Baptism from Christ on the Cross.

Now those adults who have never heard of Christianity, or who have barely heard of it, might not be culpable for not having found formal Baptism in their lives; therefore, mystical Baptism would be available to them. All human persons who lived from Adam to Christ have had mystical Baptism available to them as their only path to salvation (but it is a wide path).

Some adults, who have had substantial knowledge of Christianity but who nevertheless have rejected Christianity and its Baptism, might not be culpable to the extent of an actual mortal sin. But neither can they be entirely without culpability and sin in this regard, for they should have sought the truth more thoroughly. Even so, if their culpability is less than that of an actual mortal sin AND they have attained a mystical Baptism in their life through a substantially selfless act of love and mercy which is, unbeknownst to them, an imitation of Christ's selfless sacrifice on the Cross, then they can still reach eternal salvation.

1. The Limbo of Purgatory exists

Those who attain a mystical Baptism in their life may well have to spend much time in Purgatory, suffering for various sins. Those who died before Christ, having either some knowledge of a future Messiah, or no such knowledge, may need more than mere temporal punishment in Purgatory for their sins to be fit for Heaven. They may need additional sanctification, for they have received only the Sacrament of Baptism, in it mystical form, and have little or no knowledge of Christ. Limbo does exist as an upper level of Purgatory, that is, as a last step before entering Heaven, a step during which the final preparations for Heaven are completed, not in the form of suffering for sin, but of gaining the knowledge and understanding needed to make that soul fit for Heaven.

This is the limbo referred to as the limbo of the fathers, but it is not for the patriarchs of the Old Testament only. It is for all who were saved before Christ, so that they will know Christ before they enter Heaven. Christ himself visited this place in Purgatory after His salvific death and before His Resurrection.
"The triumphal scene, described by the Psalm in the third poetic picture, has been applied by the Christian liturgy of the East and of the West to the victorious Descent of Christ to the Limbo of the fathers, spoken of in the First Letter of Peter (cf. 1 Peter 3:19)…." (Pope John Paul II, general audience of 20 June 2001)
And in my theological opinion, this upper level of Purgatory is also for the souls after Christ, who died in a state of grace, having had a mystical Baptism, but who did not know Christ. Everyone must know Christ and become a Christian before entering into Heaven.

However, it is unnecessary and contrary to the omnipotence of God to consider the limbo of Purgatory to be merely an time of empty waiting. And it is false to claim that such a time of waiting must conform to the passing of time on earth, such that if one dies centuries before Christ, one would wait centuries in the limbo of Purgatory. God is unbounded by Time, and Heaven is beyond Time. Now time in some form passes in Purgatory, but it is independent of the passage of time on earth. Those who are in the limbo of Purgatory are there for the final sanctification and increase in an understanding of God and of Christ that is needed to make them fit for Heaven.

Since Christ is God and is Eternal, even though Christ died at one particular point in time on earth, the gates of Heaven have always been open, for they were opened by Christ beyond Time. Those who died centuries before Christ, once they arrived in the limbo of Purgatory, would find that they did not need to wait for centuries, but that Christ was already there. The length of time that they spend in the limbo of Purgatory would be based on their own need, small or great, for final sanctification and knowledge of Christ before Heaven.

Now, prenatals, infants, and young children, who die at such a young age, certainly go to Heaven. For by means of a mystical Baptism, they have sanctifying grace and are not in a state of original sin. Nor can they commit an actual mortal sin at such a young age (for they do not have sufficient understanding of their actions to sin seriously). Therefore, they certainly go to Heaven; this conclusion is an indisputable, since it is based on the infinite Mercy of God.

Furthermore, in my theological opinion, these young souls first go to the limbo of Purgatory, so that they can advance in spiritual development and have a much greater enjoyment of Heaven. Consider, in the extreme case, a prenatal who dies only a few hours or days after conception. If this youngest of souls went straight to Heaven, his or her enjoyment of Heaven would be very limited. And what sort of body would such a young soul be given at the Resurrection of the just? But if this young soul goes first to the limbo of Purgatory, he or she can continue the spiritual development unjustly denied on earth. This development takes place, as it were, in the womb of the Church, for all the souls in Purgatory benefit from the communion of the saints. Then, after the soul has developed a greater understanding of truth and of Christ, the soul can desire and accept Heaven of his or her own free will. Entering Heaven after this development offers the benefits of correcting the harm done to this soul when he or she was denied development on earth, and of giving the soul the ability to experience much greater joy in Heaven, and of allowing the soul to develop to the point where he or she can accept Heaven with understanding of Christ and with free will.

Therefore, the ancient teaching that these young souls go to some type of limbo, rather than straight to Heaven is correct, except that it is the temporary limbo of Purgatory (the limbo of the fathers), rather than a permanent one. And this limbo of the fathers has more purpose and is not restricted by Time, than was previously understood.

2. The Limbo of Hell exists

Despite the broad access to salvation that mystical Baptism offers to all those who have not been formally baptized, it is still possible for persons to be sent to Hell forever. This final resting place called Hell is given to those who commit an actual mortal sin and who fail to repent through the last moment of their lives; final impenitence is the only unforgivable sin. Such persons are punished in Hell with unending torments, because they did evil in their lives and they refused God's continual offer of the grace to repent.

In addition, those adults go to Hell forever who have not committed actual mortal sins, but who have culpably failed to find either a formal Baptism or a mystical Baptism in their lives. These persons die in a state of original sin, and they are sent to an upper level of Hell, where they are not tormented or tortured, except by the loss of the Beatific Vision and the happiness of Heaven. Their suffering is a kind of suffering, but it is substantially less than those who actively did substantial evil and refused to repent. The reason that they go to Hell at all is that their failure to find the sanctifying grace of a formal or mystical Baptism is itself an actual mortal sin of omission. Repentance from such an omission can only take the form of a commission: that of seeking and receiving a formal Baptism, or of committing at least one substantially selfless act of love and mercy in imitation of Christ (whether knowingly or unknowingly).

Therefore, the concept of Limbo as an upper level of Hell is a true doctrine, except that no prenatals, infants, or young children could be there. There is an upper level of Hell for those adults who have committed an actual mortal sin of omission by not obtaining a formal or mystical Baptism, despite the ample opportunity for this offered by God throughout their life. Since Baptism removes that stain of original sin which is a lack of sanctifying grace, such persons are sent to this upper level of Hell because they died in a culpable state of original sin.

No one can die both in a state of original sin and without culpability because God in His Infinite Mercy always offers sanctifying grace to all the descendents of Adam and Eve, even in the time before Christ, even to those who have rejected Christ, without culpability to the extent of an actual mortal sin. And the youngest of those who die (prenatals, infants and young children) necessarily receive a mystical Baptism, at least in the last moment of life.

Therefore, the name for this upper level of Hell, 'the limbo of children' (or of infants) is incorrect. It is perhaps possible that an older child or teenager could end up in Hell through sins of commission, or even through failure to find a mystical Baptism in their life. But it is more likely that an early death and some good deeds or acts of kindness would combine to give them a mystical Baptism, at least at the hour of death. It is certain that there are no prenatals, infants, or young children in this type of limbo as an upper level of Hell, but this type of limbo does exist.

3. Limbo as a Third Final Resting Place does not exist

The Papal Bull, Auctorem Fidei, was issued in 1794 by Pope Pius VI, condemning a series of errors as either heretical, or schismatic, or erroneous, or with other designations.
“26. The doctrine which rejects as a Pelagian fable, that place of the lower regions (which the faithful generally designate by the name of the limbo of children) in which the souls of those departing with the sole guilt of original sin are punished with the punishment of the condemned, exclusive of the punishment of fire, just as if, by this very fact, that these who remove the punishment of fire introduced that middle place and state free of guilt and of punishment between the kingdom of God and eternal damnation, such as that about which the Pelagians idly talk,-false, rash, injurious to Catholic schools.”
The Pope here refers to two idea ideas about limbo. First, he refers to limbo as an upper level of Hell, calling it, 'that place of the lower regions' (i.e. Hell) where souls are punished for 'the sole guilt of original sin' (i.e. for the actual mortal sin of omission of never finding sanctifying grace through either a formal Baptism or a mystical Baptism). And he notes that those so condemned have less punishment than the others; this is why the limbo of Hell is conceived of, figuratively, as an 'upper level' of Hell.

Notice that Pope Pius VI's Bull teaches that limbo, as an upper level of Hell, does exist. The Magisterium sometimes teaches a truth by condemning its opposite. Pope Pius VI condemns any doctrine which rejects the idea of a limbo of Hell, that is, of a place within Hell where those who die in original sin, i.e. without having found sanctifying grace in their life, are punished forever. Those who found sanctifying grace, but lost it by some evil deed, and who also never repented so as to recover sanctifying grace, are punished with greater punishments in Hell. Therefore, this Bull teaches that the limbo of Hell does exist, and that those who die in original sin go to Hell, and that they are punished less than those who found sanctifying grace, lost it, and never recovered it.

Second, the Pope refers to another version of limbo, that of a 'middle place' between Heaven and Hell, i.e. limbo as a third final resting place. He condemns this idea also, calling it also false, rash, and injurious to Catholic education. Now the Pope in this Bull does not address the idea of the limbo of the fathers, probably because this idea was well established in Catholic thought and was not the subject of any heresy at the time. But in sum, this Bull rejects the idea of limbo as a middle place between Heaven and Hell, a place of perfect natural happiness, as a false and harmful idea. And the Bull established the idea of a limbo of Hell as an orthodox Catholic doctrine.

The degree of authority of this section of the Bull (n. 26) is certainly not that of papal infallibility. For the Pope condemns other false doctrines more strongly elsewhere in the same Bull; those he even calls heretical, but these ideas he merely calls false, rash, and injurious. So clearly he was teaching less definitively, dissuading the faithful from false ideas, without issuing a solemn definition. Therefore, this teaching falls under the Ordinary Magisterium of the Pope.

4. Limbo as a Fringe of Heaven does not exist

Some of the faithful have suggested that limbo might be fringe area within Heaven, such that those in this limbo might have perfect natural happiness, but not the Beatific Vision. This suggestion errs in two ways. First, it has much the same faults as the idea of limbo as a third final resting place, since it is also not Hell or Purgatory, and not the full happiness of Heaven. Second, it contradicts the Constitution issued by Pope Benedict XII in 1336, On the Beatific Vision of God, (which I believe meets all of the criteria for papal infallibility), as follows (with my numbering):
By this Constitution which is to remain in force forever, we, with apostolic authority, define the following:

I. According to the general disposition of God,

A. the souls of all the saints who departed from this world before the passion of our Lord Jesus Christ
B. and also of the holy apostles, martyrs, confessors, virgins and other faithful who died after receiving the holy baptism of Christ—

1. provided they were not in need of any purification when they died,
2. or will not be in need of any when they die in the future,
3. or else, if they then needed or will need some purification, after they have been purified after death—

C. and again the souls of children
1. who have been reborn by the same baptism of Christ
2. or will be when baptism is conferred on them,
3. if they die before attaining the use of free will:

D. all these souls,
1. immediately after death
2. and, in the case of those in need of purification, after the purification mentioned above,

E. since the ascension of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ into heaven,
F. already before they take up their bodies again and before the general judgment,
G. have been, are and will be with Christ in heaven, in the heavenly kingdom and paradise, joined to the company of the holy angels.

II. Since the passion and death of the Lord Jesus Christ,

A. these souls have seen and see the divine essence with an intuitive vision and even face to face, without the mediation of any creature by way of object of vision;
B. rather the divine essence immediately manifests itself to them, plainly, clearly and openly, and in this vision they enjoy the divine essence.

III. Moreover, by this vision and enjoyment the souls of those who have already died are truly blessed and have eternal life and rest.

IV. Also the souls of those who will die in the future will see the same divine essence and will enjoy it before the general judgment.

V. Such a vision and enjoyment of the divine essence do away with the acts of faith and hope in these souls, inasmuch as faith and hope are properly theological virtues. And after such intuitive and face-to-face vision and enjoyment has or will have begun for these souls, the same vision and enjoyment has continued and will continue without any interruption and without end until the last Judgment and from then on forever.

VI. Moreover we define that according to the general disposition of God, the souls of those who die in actual mortal sin go down into hell immediately (mox) after death and there suffer the pain of hell.

VII. Nevertheless, on the day of judgment all men will appear with their bodies “before the judgment seat of Christ” to give an account of their personal deeds, “so that each one may receive good or evil, according to what he has done in the body” (2 Cor. 5.10).
The above quoted Apostolic Constitution teaches that all the souls in Heaven, even those of baptized infants who die in infancy, have the beatific vision of God and the full happiness of Heaven. Now the Church also teaches that without Baptism, no one may be saved, but this includes both formal (ceremonial) Baptism and non-formal (mystical) Baptism.

So, on the question of limbo, if any of these little souls arrive in Heaven, they must have received at least a mystical Baptism, and they must also, once there, possess the Beatific Vision. The idea that some souls go to Heaven, even to its so-called fringe (i.e. a version of limbo), but that they are without the Beatific Vision, is contrary to this infallible definition by Pope Benedict XII. All the souls in Heaven have the Beatific Vision, therefore, there is no fringe of Heaven, no limbo of Heaven, where the souls of unbaptized prenatals or infants go merely because they lack Baptism.

This same idea of a limbo or fringe of Heaven is also contrary to the teaching of the Church about Baptism: “Baptism is absolutely necessary to salvation for our Lord has expressly said: 'Unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God.' ” (Pope Pius X, Catechism, On Baptism, Q. 16.) Since no one can enter Heaven without Baptism, neither can anyone enter a fringe or limbo of Heaven without Baptism. On the other hand, if they have Baptism, even a non-formal Baptism, and they die before 'attaining the use of free will' (i.e. before the age of reason), then Pope Benedict XII has infallibly defined that they must not only go to Heaven, but also enjoy the highest benefit of Heaven, which is the Beatific Vision.


St. Thomas Aquinas taught, in his interpretation of Matthew 25, that there are only two final resting places. The king, in that parable, divides the nations into sheep on his right and goats on this left. There are only two divisions. Then the sheep on his right go to eternal life, and the goats on his left go to eternal damnation. Of course, Purgatory is only a temporary place, so this parable does not rule out Purgatory; the limbo of Purgatory and the limbo of Hell are not refuted by this passage. However, limbo as a separate third final resting place is refuted by this passage, because all the nations are divided into only two parts.

{25:34} Then the King shall say to those who will be on his right: 'Come, you blessed of my Father. Possess the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.
{25:35} For I was hungry, and you gave me to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me to drink; I was a stranger, and you took me in;
{25:36} naked, and you covered me; sick, and you visited me; I was in prison, and you came to me.'
{25:37} Then the just will answer him, saying: 'Lord, when have we see you hungry, and fed you; thirsty, and given you drink?
{25:38} And when have we seen you a stranger, and taken you in? Or naked, and covered you?
{25:39} Or when did we see you sick, or in prison, and visit to you?'
{25:40} And in response, the king shall say to them, 'Amen I say to you, whenever you did this for one of these, the least of my brothers, you did it for me.'

Notice that in this passage some of those who go to eternal life did not know that they were imitating Christ when they helped those in need. Yet the reason that they are given eternal life is that they performed good deeds that were selfless and substantially like the deeds of Christ, especially his salvific death on the Cross. Here is support in Scripture for the idea of a mystical Baptism. Certain selfless acts of true spiritual love for others, when done in full cooperation with God's grace, can unite those who perform such acts with Christ on the Cross, from whom they then receive a mystical baptism and sanctifying grace.

The above passage clearly supports the idea that those who perform acts of selfless mercy to others enter into eternal life because of those acts. But the Church has always taught the necessity of Baptism for eternal life. And this passage makes it clear that those performing the acts of mercy did not know that they did it for Christ, so many of them must not have been Christians. They could not have entered eternal life without Baptism, but they did enter without a formal Baptism. Therefore, they must have received a non-formal Baptism, i.e. a mystical Baptism, by virtue of these very acts, described by Christ himself, acts which, unbeknownst to them, brought them in union with Christ on the Cross, the very source of all salvation.

{25:26} But his lord said to him in response: 'You evil and lazy servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown, and gather where I have not scattered.
{25:27} Therefore, you should have deposited my money with the bankers, and then, at my arrival, at least I would have received what is mine with interest.
{25:28} And so, take the talent away from him and give it the one who has ten talents.
{25:29} For to everyone who has, more shall be given, and he shall have in abundance. But from him who has not, even what he seems to have, shall be taken away.
{25:30} And cast that useless servant into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'

In contrast to those who receive a mystical Baptism, there are souls who go to Hell for never finding any Baptism in their lives. Here, in the passage above, is an explanation in Sacred Scripture as to why some souls are sent to the limbo of Hell, despite having refrained from committing any actual mortal sins. The useless servant in the parable did no evil, but he also did no good. They are guilty of an actual mortal sin of omission who spend their whole lives, even into their adult years, without finding a formal or mystical Baptism, at least by cooperating with God's grace in some truly selfless act of love or mercy which is an imitation (even unknowingly) of Christ's salvific act of love and mercy on the Cross. They rightly suffer less than those who had sanctifying grace, lost it, and never recovered it, but they rightly suffer forever nonetheless.


Some say that we should completely discard any and all use of the idea of limbo. But this idea has been in the writings of the Saints, and has been in a part of the beliefs of the faithful for a very long time. Now the faithful have always realized that this doctrine was both true and in need of further development. For the idea that unbaptized babies go anywhere but Heaven has been rejected by the sensus fidelium for a very long time.

But the total abandonment of the idea of limbo is foolish. The idea of a limbo of Purgatory and a limbo of Hell is so closely united with other teachings of the Church, definitive teachings, that these ideas are essential to a proper understanding of salvation. They cannot be discarded or nullified without harm to the definitive teachings of the Church on salvation.

The advantage of the proposed solution in this article (and in the article, Treatise on Mystical Baptism) is that the teaching of Tradition about limbo is retained and its place in salvation is clarified, while still refuting the idea of limbo as a third final resting place.

Is Limbo a Teaching of the Magisterium?

Certainly, the idea of limbo as a third final resting place is refuted. Perhaps it was taught, at times, by some individual Bishops under the ordinary non-infallible Magisterium. However, as discussed above, Pope Pius VI condemned the idea as false, rash, and injurious to Catholic education.

The limbo of Hell was taught by the same Pope, not infallibly, but under the ordinary Magisterium. The Council of Florence also taught this idea (without using the word limbo):
“Also, the souls of those who have incurred no stain of sin whatsoever after baptism, as well as souls who after incurring the stain of sin have been cleansed whether in their bodies or outside their bodies, as was stated above, are straightaway received into heaven and clearly behold the triune God as he is, yet one person more perfectly than another according to the difference of their merits. But the souls of those who depart this life in actual mortal sin, or in original sin alone, go down straightaway to hell to be punished, but with unequal pains.” (Florence, Session 6, July 6th, 1439).
The Council correctly taught that those who die in original sin alone, that is, with the only sin on their conscience that they, like useless servants, failed to find sanctifying grace in their lives (through mystical or formal Baptism), go to Hell forever, but are punished less than those who had sanctifying grace, lost it by committing evil acts, and failed to repent before death. This idea of a part of Hell with lesser punishments for those who die in original sin only is the limbo of Hell (sometimes incorrectly called 'the limbo of infants' or of children).

Now many theologians have incorrectly concluded, from the Church's teaching on the necessity of Baptism and the guilt of original sin, that prenatals, infants, and young children must also go to at least an upper level of Hell, the limbo of Hell. The unwarranted assumption in this conclusion is that these young souls are unable to be baptized, so as to remove the guilt of original sin before death.

The proposed solution of mystical Baptism refutes this incorrect conclusion. Nowhere in the teaching of the Church is it said that prenatals, infants, or young children who have not received a formal Baptism must go to a limbo of Hell. This was a conclusion drawn by many a Pharisaic theologian, unwilling to lift a finger (by putting pen to paper) to explain how these young souls could be saved.

I am sure that many Bishops have, at various times, taught the existence of limbo. Pope Pius VI taught the existence of a limbo of Hell, as did the Council of Florence. Now all these teachings together do not seem to rise to the level of an infallible teaching, even under the ordinary universal Magisterium. But neither can it be claimed by those who wish to do away with the idea of limbo altogether, that the limbo of Hell has never been taught by the Magisterium under its ordinary teaching authority.

The limbo of the fathers (i.e. the limbo of Purgatory) has also been taught by the Ordinary Magisterium of the Church. It was mentioned, during a general audience, by Pope John Paul II (20 June 2001), who finds the idea to be supported by Scripture:
“The triumphal scene, described by the Psalm in the third poetic picture, has been applied by the Christian liturgy of the East and of the West to the victorious Descent of Christ to the Limbo of the fathers, spoken of in the First Letter of Peter (cf. 1 Pet 3:19)....”
The Pope said that the liturgy of the Church, in both the East and West, applies Psalm 23 [24] to the descend of Christ into the limbo of the fathers, and that this descent to limbo is spoken of in Scripture. Therefore, the Ordinary Magisterium of the Church has taught the existence of limbo in some form.

It is intellectually dishonest to take any idea that has fallen out of favor, and claim that the Magisterium never really taught the idea. In truth, the Magisterium in its ordinary teaching sometimes teaches ideas that are in need of further development, or that might be incorrect on particular points not essential to salvation. Those who try to deify the Magisterium by denying that any mistakes are ever made even in ordinary teachings are committing the sin of idolatry; they are not defending truth. The Magisterium itself does not teach that it is always infallible or inerrant, but only when certain conditions are met. The doctrine of limbo has not been taught infallibly, but it has been taught non-infallibly; it is a generally true doctrine, in need of further development, refinement, and pruing.

Commentary on the Position in the Catechism

The Catechism of the Catholic Church is an excellent resource, but it does not contain every teaching of the Church, nor is it without occasional flaws and errors.
1257 The Lord himself affirms that Baptism is necessary for salvation. He also commands his disciples to proclaim the Gospel to all nations and to baptize them. 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. The Church does not know of any means other than Baptism that assures entry into eternal beatitude; this is why she takes care not to neglect the mission she has received from the Lord to see that all who can be baptized are “reborn of water and the Spirit.” God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments.
This passage is deeply flawed. First, it suggests that Baptism is only necessary for those who have had the possibility of asking for this Sacrament. To the contrary, Baptism, either formal or mystical, is entirely necessary and essential for the salvation for everyone conceived with original sin. Also, persons who have had the possibility of asking for this Sacrament, but who have failed to do so, might not have failed with the culpability of an actual mortal sin, therefore the possibility of a mystical Baptism is still open to them. Second, the passage claims that the Church 'does not know of' any means other than Baptism, wrongly suggesting that some might be saved without any Baptism at all. Third, the passage goes on to say, correctly, that God has bound salvation to the Sacrament of Baptism, but then it immediately refutes its own assertion by saying that God is not bound to give salvation only through Baptism. Since salvation is only from God, and salvation is bound to Baptism, then God has bound himself to save those who are in a state of original sin through some form of Baptism.
1258 The Church 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.
The flaw in this paragraph is that even a Baptism of desire or of blood is truly the Sacrament of Baptism, though in mystical form, not ceremonial form. The idea that there can be a Baptism that is not a Sacrament is absurd; a Baptism that is not a Sacrament is not a Baptism; Baptism is intrinsically, in and of itself, a Sacrament, even when it is mystical and not formal.
1259 For catechumens who die before their Baptism, their explicit desire to receive it, together with repentance for their sins, and charity, assures them the salvation that they were not able to receive through the sacrament.
Again, a mystical Baptism is spoken of as if it were not a true Sacrament. Also, the Baptism of desire is presented here in a fairly narrow form, requiring not only desire for the Sacrament, but repentance for sins and true selfless love. In my view, the true selfless desire for a formal Baptism, interrupted by an unexpected death (even if not a martyrdom), is a type of mystical Baptism. Even if such an individual does not repent from mortal sins explicitly, the selfless desire for Baptism, interrupted by death, gives them a mystical Baptism, with the forgiveness for all sins that every Baptism offers, including, in this case, an implicit repentance from mortal sin. But it should be noted that some catechumens who die prior to Baptism, and not by martyrdom, might not have a true selfless desire for Baptism, but might be motivated by the selfish desire to do what others are doing, in which case a mystical Baptism would not occur.
1260 “Since Christ died for all, and since all men are in fact called to one and the same destiny, which is divine, we must hold that the Holy Spirit offers to all the possibility of being made partakers, in a way known to God, of the Paschal mystery.” Every man who is ignorant of the Gospel of Christ and of his Church, but seeks the truth and does the will of God in accordance with his understanding of it, can be saved. It may be supposed that such persons would have desired Baptism explicitly if they had known its necessity.
This passage begins well, and seems to move toward the idea of a mystical Baptism. But it is too limited, in that it only applies itself to those who are ignorant of the Gospel, unnecessarily excluding those who knowingly reject the Gospel explicitly, but not to the extent of an actual mortal sin, and who obtain a mystical Baptism by following some teaching of the Gospel, perhaps without realizing it (like the good sheep of Matthew 25).

Also, the explanation that these ones are saved by a desire for Baptism which they would have had if they had only known about the necessity of Baptism is a false idea. No one can possibly be saved by a desire that they would have had, just as no one can be saved by a good deed that they would have done, and just as no one can be condemned by an evil deed that they would have done. Some have even suggested that prenatals are saved by invincible ignorance, in that they would have desired Baptism, if they had known of it. Again, this is absurd. If the human race can be saved by what they would have desired or would have done, then Christ need not have died for us at all; we would be saved merely by what would have happened but did not. Nor can any young souls be saved merely by their parents' desire for their Baptism, for no one is condemned or saved by the desires of others.

The proper understanding of the implicit desire for Baptism is not what one would have desired if one had known about it. Rather, it is an actual desire, in response to God's grace, for truth and selfless love and mercy, which are a reflection of Christ and His saving death on the Cross. This implicit desire for Baptism is an actual cooperation with God's grace, to a full extent, often in response to the needs of one's neighbor and often resulting in external acts, such as feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, teaching the ignorant, etc.
1261 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 coming to Christ through the gift of holy Baptism.
If you do not understand the Faith well enough to know with certainty that all prenatals, infants, and young children without exception are saved by Christ, then you should not be writing a paragraph in the Catechism on this subject. This passage also errs by claiming that the Church does not know if they are saved, when in fact we do know that they are saved, for we know that God is merciful and omnipotent. And as to how they are saved, the teaching of the Church does contain the answers to these questions, implicit within Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture, as noted above.


Mystical baptism solves the problem of those adults who were not baptized, but who do not deserve Hell, because they have done substantially selfless acts of love and mercy in their lives. And mystical Baptism solves the problem of how prenatals, infants, and young children can go to Heaven if they have not been formally baptized; they receive sanctifying grace, at least in the last moment of life, because their death unites them with Christ's salvific death on the Cross.

Mystical Baptism solves the problem of the dictum that outside the Church there is no salvation. For all those who have received a mystical Baptism are inside the Church, though they might not realize it.

Mystical Baptism does away with the apparent need for a third final resting place for those who do not deserve Hell, but have not received a formal Baptism so as to enter Heaven. Their mystical Baptism allows them entrance into Heaven, that they would otherwise rightly be denied.

But as for those useless servants who live well into their adult years and never do anything truly good and selfless for their fellow human beings, they are like the servant in Matthew 25, who will be thrown out into the darkness, where they will be weeping and gnashing of teeth forever.

God's grace is continually encouraging everyone to do good deeds for reasons that are pure and selfless. When someone who is not baptized, not only performs an external good deed, but also does so with full or wholehearted (but not necessarily flawless) cooperation with God's grace, such that the deed is done from an inner motive of selfless love and mercy for their neighbor, in imitation (even unknowingly) of Christ, in that very cooperation with grace, that individual is given a mystical Baptism by Christ himself, by virtue of Christ's selfless act of love and mercy on the Cross of our salvation.

Therefore, all persons who ever reach Heaven, even those who died before Christ, are saved only through Christ and only through Baptism, for Christ is the Son of God, and God the Father has ordained that all human persons be saved through the Baptism that comes from His Son.

by Ronald L. Conte Jr.
October 16, 2006
updated October 24, 2006


Lefebvrian said...

This is a very long article!

It seems clear to me that the limbo of the infants is a doctrine of the faith, as I have said before. This is based on the writings of the saints, doctors, and theologians of the Church, the writings and teachings of the popes throughout history, and two ecumenical councils. It is also based on the belief in Original Sin, as the Church has always understood it and taught.

Catholicism is not about creating new ideas and doctrines, but adhering to the doctrines handed down to us. This is one of those doctrines. It may my be pleasant to our "modern sensibilities," but our sensibilities have no impact on objective reality.

gobshite said...

Much ado about nothing.

Anonymous said...

whenever I think about this subject, I cant get past the apparent paradox created between God's mercy and justice in this case. One the one hand, we might be inclined to beleive God's mercy would provide a means of salvation for those infants who die before baptism. On the other hand, if its the case that unbaptised babies can gain salvation through losing their whole life, then why isnt it better for them to die right away in their innocence rather than mature to an age where they are able to reject God's mercy?

Jacob said...

Limbo is taught at my traditional parish, and believed by all with no problem. It makes sense.

James said...

I'm no theologian, but ... [Fr. Z would cut me off at this point!] the author's criticisms of CCC 1261 seem misplaced, since it is evidently looking for for a similar kind of compromise to that provided by the idea of mystical baptism.

Both are infinitely preferable to the kind of formulation found in older catechisms (e.g. Pius X), where unbaptized children are definitively deprived of eternal salvation.

Fr. Allan J. McDonald said...

Gobshite, this would be true of all religious matters and of God Himself, so religion is much to do about nothing, so let's all hold hands and sing kumbaya to the earth and the limited time we have and make the most of it, no need for justice, mercy, peace or anything else, individualism and self as god or gabshite will do.

Lefebvrian said...

The key to understanding this doctrine is to first set aside the erroneous idea that man is somehow entitled to the beatific vision. If one is to uphold the doctrines on original sin, one cannot set aside lightly the doctrine of the limbo of the infants.

Also, one should bear in mind that this doctrine actually balances God's mercy and His justice as the place of natural happiness to which the unbaptized infants descend is not one of torment.

Jacob is correct -- this doctrine is taught and believed by those Catholics at traditional parishes with no problem.

gobshyte said...

Wow....did I say all of that?

John Nolan said...

All theology is speculative. St Thomas Aquinas towards the end of his life admitted that his writings did not matter a whit.

As Catholics we believe what is revealed by God in the Church which He founded and seek to follow her teachings in our lives. Yes, we often fall short.

Apart from that, we worship Him in a fitting way through the liturgy which is not merely our own work, and which we see as a foretaste of the heavenly liturgy.

All will become clear in a very short time for us mortals.

Rood Screen said...

Limbo is alive and well. We had it in my parish last year during the fall festival!

gobshyte said...

Fr. McD,I was only talking about one thing...Limbo. I said nothing about "all religious matters", "God Himself" or "justice...mercy...peace...self as God...

Could you be plugging in...tacking on some of your own personal doubts and questions?

Kneeling Catholic said...


Thank you for this post!

St. Corbinian's Bear Blog got into the limbo discussion last week...

your article does seem to clarify a lot. I think--not to pick on protestants-- that it is certainly the protestantizing influence of Luther-Calvin-and then Balthasar which has wanted to 'simplify' everything and flatten out both heaven and hell. and then just to eliminate hell altogether....

Fr. Michael J. Kavanaugh said...

Lefeb - Humans were created in the image and likeness of God. We were created to know Him, to love Him, to serve Him, in this world and to be happy with Him forever in Heaven.

In our pre-fall state, we were, indeed, entitled to heaven. Not by our own merit, but by being made in God's image.

Through sin, we lost the entitlement. As a result of the "first sin," all humans are subject to God's wrath. The life, death, and resurrection have broken the power of sin and death, restoring us to our status as adopted children of God.

The "place" of natural happiness is insufficient for one who is made to spend eternity in heaven. Natural happiness is not the beatific vision and, apart from that, a being created to share the beatific vision is not happy. Separation from God is not a happy state in which to exist.

One of the major errors of the Lefebvrites is the belief that doctrine does not develop. Of course, that applies only to the developed doctrines they disapprove of, not to the ones they like.

Doctrine always has and always will develop. This is because our knowledge and understanding of God's revelation is not static, nor is it ever complete.

Lefebvrian said...

Since, as you say, we lost entitlement to the beatific vision through original sin, how can it be said that one with original sin has that entitlement, which is your conclusion?

Lefebvrian said...

With regard to the idea that the "Lefebvrites" reject the development of doctrine, you are incorrect.

In fact, the doctrine of the limbo of the infants is an interesting example of the development of doctrine, as the history of the doctrine indicates.

It would be contrary to the Catholic understanding of doctrinal development for one to hold that the limbo of the infants was at one time a doctrine and is now no longer a doctrine. Either something exists or it does not. The limbo of the infants is merely a description of an objectively existent reality, which is not subject to clarification to the extent that clarification renders it "non-existent."

Contrariwise, it is the case that the doctrine of the limbo of the infants developed organically from the Church's understanding of the doctrine of original sin and the theology of the Sacrament of Baptism, among other things.

George said...

God is merciful and likewise just -that we can agree on. Justice does not just pertain to those matters which are proscribed-to laws which we must observe and obey . It does not just pertain to punitive consequences of our wrongful actions. It does not by necessity render inevitable to a punitive conclusion a deficiency of merit and thereby exclusion to admittance to a certain state owing to a particular condition. In its essence, it's application seeks to bring everything to a proper, just, an fair resolution. Can we not allow that the Omnipotent God in His Divine Wisdom knows how to do that?

Anonymous said...

I admit it, I didn't read the article (I will, I will; give me a minute, I did skim it.) but the question burned in my mind: what, no limbo for dogs and cats and any other nice animals? Maybe they go to "Limbo as a Fringe of Heaven." That seems only fair. (I hope all of you know I'm kidding.) :-)

John Nolan said...


Well said. It is too easy for those who view development of doctrine (and liturgy, for that matter) as a rollercoaster ride which began with Vatican II to make cheap and uninformed jibes about the SSPX.

Fr. Allan J. McDonald said...

Yes, and the very unecumenical jab was from our diocesan ecumenist! I doubt he would have said such of the Muslims or Primitive Baptists.

Fr. Michael J. Kavanaugh said...

Lefeb - Please note that I said Lefebvrites reject the development of doctrine when it concerns developments they don't like.

Good Father - Once again you are confused about ecumenism. Ecumenism pertains to dialogue between Catholics and non-Catholic Christian religions. Lefebvrites are Catholics, though schismatic, so this is not a matter of ecumenical dialogue. Second, dialogue with Muslims is not ecumenical dialogue, but interreligious dialogue.

Your view that ecumenism is all about holding hands while singing Kumbaya is not shared by me or by any Catholic ecumenist I know.

You say, "I doubt he would have said such of the Muslims or Primitive Baptists." Well, let me enlighten you as to what I have said.

At a meeting of the Effingham County Ministerial Association in late 1999, a Baptist (not Primitive, Southern) minister gave a presentation on the coming Apocalypse that was known then as Y2K. He got lots of "Amens!" from the mostly Baptist and Methodist attendees.

At the end of his presentation I explained to him that his predictions were wrong precisely because his religious tradition misunderstood the Old Testament prophets due to their fundamentalist approach to Scripture.

The room fell silent as the mostly approving audience took in what I had said. Afterwards, the only two non-Fundamentalists present, both Lutheran pastors, thanked me for my intervention and heartily approved of my rebuttal to the Baptist minister.

(I regret that I did not ask the then president of the Ministerial Association, a Southern Baptist, to invite his brother Baptist back in the spring of 2000 to explain why his predictions had been so wrong. But I digress...)

In a gathering of Catholic ecumenists and interreligious officers in St. Augustine, Florida, a local imam described the Muslim approach to "interpreting" the Qur'an. I asked what he did when contemporary science showed that the Qur'an was incorrect, or that a literal reading of the Qur'an was incorrect. The Qur'an states that a human is formed in the womb of its mother from a "clot of blood." (Sura 23:12-14)

His angry reaction was to deny that the Qur'an was wrong and to assert that the science of embryology was incorrect.

So, you see, your concerns about what I might say to a Baptist or a Muslim are without merit.

Fr. Allan J. McDonald said...

Well then, all the more ammunition to wonder how in the name of God you became an ecumenist and interfaith leader in our diocese? Just wondering?

John Nolan said...

The fact remains, Fr Kavanaugh, that you are setting up a straw man, in this case 'Lefebvrites'. There are of course no such thing; Archbishop Lefebvre did not set up a sect which identified itself by following him - quite the opposite in fact.

I am prepared to cut you some slack in that since you were born in 1958 (the year of my first Communion and the year before I served Mass for the first time) your experience has been different from mine.

What disturbs me is that although I can discern where you are coming from, (your views on the liturgy, for example, are taken almost verbatim from a progressive Jesuit whose animadversions are freely accessible on the internet) you seem unable to understand valid and opposing arguments. So Latin is simply 'not needed' and the classic Roman Rite is irrelevant since it has been overtaken by events. There's no point putting forward contrary arguments because they fall on deaf ears.

Another thing I've noticed - when people post examples of egregious liturgical abuse you fall silent. I would not expect you to defend them, but an admission that your own paradigm of liturgical development has been at least partly responsible for this would be welcome.

I could not help remarking that an earlier comment of yours to the effect that rearranging candles on the altar is equivalent to rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic presupposes that the barque of Peter is heading for an iceberg. If this be so, you can hardly blame Archbishop Lefebvre for it.

Fr. Michael J. Kavanaugh said...

It is your own misunderstanding of ecumenism and interreligious relations that leaves you wondering.

You think we stand around singing Kumbaya and holding hands and "making nice" with each other, but your understanding is wrong.

I'd be happy to help you come to a proper understanding of either or both any time.

Fr. Michael J. Kavanaugh said...

John - I don't defend terrible liturgical abuses because they are indefensible. We all know that, so what's the point?

When there are bad, very bad, performances of Handel's Messiah, no one starts shouting, "Oh, we must blame the composer for giving us a terrible piece of music!"

But when some priest does something absurd and meaningless in the NO mass, you and others start shouting, "Oh, we must blame Bugnini" or whoever else is the scapegoat-of-the-day.

No, the faults do not come from the NO mass. They come from priests who celebrate the NO mass badly.

"This never happened in an EF mass" some will say. I say, "Baloney." Priests skipped parts, priests babbled on in gibberish instead of the required Latin, priests skipped wearing a cincture or a maniple.

There is nothing inherently more reverent in an EF mass than in an OF mass.

Lefebvrites are followers of Lefebvre, whether Lefebvre intended it or not. Nothing "straw" here.

The arrangement of candles on an altar simply doesn't matter, anymore than rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic mattered after it had already hit an iceberg and was sinking.

Do I think the Church is sinking? Not for an instant. I don't give into the Chicken Little thinking. The Church will endure because the Church is protected by the Holy Spirit. I am far, far more optimistic and hopeful than you seem to think.

Anonymous said...

What puzzles me in the whole article is the perception that an infant who dies appears before the throne of God still an infant; as a wiggly baby with no intellect. Is this not a soul? Admittedly, I have little background in theology and was not any kind of whiz at philosophy, but in my estimation, who's to say the infant does not appear before God's throne just after death as a fully mature intellect with free will, as if he had lived a normal life span? And, given that maturity, at that moment he is infused with everything he would have known about Christ and also about the world, had he lived. And also at that moment, he is given a choice: does he choose Christ, or does he reject Him as his Savior?
Perhaps we'd say, well, given he is standing before God at that moment, who would be so foolish as to reject Him? But we believe Lucifer and many angels chose to rebel against God after they had full knowledge of Him. So why couldn't this be the case for infants and children, and even adults who had no opportunity to know Him in life?

And I suppose I would say, if at that moment they accept Christ, recognizing their original sinfulness and need of Him, then this "Mystical Baptism" is conferred on them.

But this raises another question for me: were the Apostles baptized? By whom?

John Nolan said...

Fr Kavanaugh

Since you are not old enough to remember the pre-Conciliar Mass your catalogue of 'abuses' must be based on anecdote. Priests would have entered junior seminary at age 12/13 and while not all were highly proficient Latinists they would have had more than enough Latin for the Mass and Office. Have you any evidence that they spouted 'gibberish'? As for the omission of amice, cincture and maniple, this came about with the introduction of the 'cassock alb' and the only priests who would have worn such a garment before the 1960s would have been on the very progressive wing of the Liturgical Movement.

Bugnini, he of 'I am the liturgical reform' may have been arrogant and even dishonest, but he was not the evil genius who singlehandedly subverted the liturgy of the Western Church. Nor is the rite which he and his cronies cobbled together the sole cause of the excessive creativity and lack of reverence which all too often accompany it.

George said...


John the Baptist told the people of Judea who came to him, 'I have baptized you with water'; but one was coming who "will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” Jesus Himself baptized others. Would Jesus not have baptized Apostles? Would He not also have baptized St Joseph and the Blessed Virgin? Which is the more untenable position? To expect that He certainly did do this? Or to claim or take the position that He did not?