Limbo: Not Where But Why?


Angela Mannila

Chances are that if one grew up Catholic during the early 1960s, or sometime before, they can remember the urgency there was to get new babies baptized. Reverend Kurt Stasiak wrote, “I dare say that every Catholic educated before Vatican Council II was taught that an unbaptized child would spend eternity in that state known as 'limbo'” (Stasiak 6). This urgency to baptize was a result of -- not the documented teachings -- but the “common teachings” of the Catholic Church. As a result of Vatican II many changes took place in the teachings of the Catholic Church. One of the teachings that underwent change was infant baptism. It is no longer implied that un-baptized infants are sentenced to spend eternity in a place called limbo. Often people wonder where limbo is, but perhaps the question to ask is why limbo is.

As Gerald M. Fagin of The Catholic Weekly magazine writes, “Nowhere in the current catechism is there any treatment of a belief that was part of the church for over 700 years” (Fagin n.p.). After sending their dead, un-baptized infants to Limbo for over seven hundred years the Church decided to abandon their belief in limbo. When did they decide to change this common teaching and why did they decide this? Where are the babies currently residing that were sent to Limbo during the past seven hundred years? What happens to babies who die now without baptism? Who gave the Church the authority to make (and seven hundred years later break) this teaching? Why did the Church not explain its reasons for changing this common teaching? The change the Roman Catholic Church made to its teachings about infant baptism raises questions of authority in the Church.

The basis for the Catholic Church's belief in limbo was derived from two teachings. One is fact that in the Catholic Church it is believed that each of us is born with original sin. The second is the belief in the necessity of baptism in order to enter Heaven. This raises a serious dilemma for the Roman Catholic Church: If the soul is not baptized when the body dies, where do the souls of un-baptized infants go, if not to Heaven? Thus lies the 'creation' of a 'new' place; limbo.

The Catholic Encyclopedia says that original sin is the result of the first sin committed by Adam, the first man, and as his descendants we are born with it. One belief of the Catholic Church is that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was born without the stain of original sin (“Differences” n.p.). It is thought by some that the doctrine of original sin was created by Saint Augustine of Hippo, as there is much about the subject in his writings, but there were eleven “fathers” who wrote of original sin before him. Saint Augustine wrote, “The deliberate sin of the first man is the cause of original sin" (“Original Sin” n.p.). It is because of original sin that not so long ago it was extremely important to baptize one's child as soon as possible. It was believed that if this sin had not been washed away by baptism the infant's soul would not be able to enter heaven. It is still believed by the Catholic Church that baptism washes away the original sin that we all inherit from Adam.

According to the New Catholic Encyclopedia, the word limbo comes from the Latin word limbus, which means “hem or border.” Limbo never appears in Scripture, but is the name given by theologians to the place where the souls of un-baptized infants go upon death, in the exception of limbo of the fathers, which is inhabited by “those who led a righteous life before Jesus' earthly existence and death” (“Limbo.” 590). Jesus had not yet died for their forgiveness, so “They could not enter heaven even though righteous because of Adam and Eve's sin” (“Limbo.” 590).

It was thought by Saint Augustine that because un-baptized infants had never been cleansed of original sin that the infants could not enter heaven and were sent to hell, but he granted that “the pains of hell were in some way diminished for them” (“Limbo.” 590). In other words, limbo of the children was contrived as a less painful afterlife for those who did not really deserve to go to hell, because they had no sin of their own. Gerald M. Fagin wrote, “Though limbo was never officially defined in any church council or document, it became…a part of the common teaching and almost universal catechesis of the church” (Fagin n.p.).

Throughout my research there was never mention of limbo in any of the Post Conciliar documents or in the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church. The only recording of limbo is in the Baltimore Catechism. In an interview with Father Joel Hastings of Saint Joseph's Catholic Church in Gilbert, Minnesota, he stated that “Limbo has never been an actual dogma” (Hastings n.p.). Although there is much evidence that limbo was never really documented, it was still very much a part of the common teachings and was clearly believed and practiced by many, as written of by Fagin; “This teaching…led to an urgency to baptize infants who died at birth or were in danger of death. Nurses, doctors and ordinary Christians were instructed to baptize in these circumstances to ensure the infants' entrance into heaven” (Fagin n.p.). Then there are those who did not have a chance to be baptized before death – stillborns, miscarriages, abortions, etc. It seems the unborn souls of these children did not stand a chance in the eyes of the Church. How is one supposed to baptize an unborn child? Fagin wrote of a Jesuit friend whose mother gave birth to a stillborn baby and how “distraught” he was at age seven when the pastor said that the baby was “not in heaven, but in limbo” (Fagin n.p.). It is appropriate to question something that has shaped the lives of so many for so long and is not recognized as part of the documented teachings.

As previously stated, this common teaching is one of many things that changed after the Second Vatican Council. The current Catechism of the Catholic Church says:

“As regards to 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” (Apostolic Constitution n.p.).

This is the Catholic Church's way of changing the un-documented teachings about limbo. As Father Anthony Ruff of Saint John's Abbey wrote, “The post-Vatican II Catechism, by not mentioning it and by expressing the hope that the un-baptized are saved, pretty much buries the idea (in effect)” (Father Anthony Ruff n.p.), but it also states, “All the more urgent is the Church's call not to prevent little children coming to Christ through the gift of holy Baptism,” which seems contradictory. If un-baptized infants are no longer sent to limbo, is there still the same urgency to have them baptized, or is this a different urgency? What is the motivation now?

By doing away with limbo, which was never actually documented in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, they indirectly address it in the post Vatican II Catechism. I feel that since the Second Vatican Council did not clearly address limbo, they did not state their position. It seems as though the Church agrees that the so-called 'common teachings' must have had a great effect on the people of the Church if they felt the need to indirectly address something that was not documented. I use “indirectly” because the Second Vatican Council does not specifically address the teaching of limbo. It might as well have been documented for the way that it was practiced and for the strength of the belief with which it was held.

To your everyday Roman Catholic who is reading the Catechism of the Catholic Church they will not find anything directly stating that the teachings about limbo have changed. Is the grandmother of a child being baptized today who grew up with the popular understanding of limbo going to know that the baptism is not needed to “limbo-proof” (Stasiak 3) the child? If they are truly going to change their position regarding limbo perhaps they should address it directly in the Catechism to avoid confusion. In an article entitled “Infant Baptism: An Endangered Species” Reverend Kurt Stasiak wrote,

“Most theologians today regard limbo as a once-popular but now inert theological opinion, but some parishioners are uncomfortable with this approach. For example, ministers and catechists may come across the occasional article which alleges limbo to be a matter of Church doctrine and divine revelation, while parents and godparents (who usually care somewhat less about the nuances of theological discourse) want to know why they should not worry when their infant daughter dies unbaptized. And what often complicates the discussion for pastors and parents alike is how to relate this 'inert theological opinion' with the defined teachings of the Church on original sin and the necessity of baptism for salvation” (Stasiak).

Of course the parent is going to wonder “why they should not worry” about the child being un-baptized – they grew up being taught that they should! Now the church has changed the common teaching of limbo and left the previous generations with no explanation as to why it has changed. Withdrawing the teachings does not address the dilemma of what does happen to infants who die without baptism.

Stasiak wrote of the current catechesis: “…there is more – much more – to baptism than the remission of original sin. Yet, in the minds of some parents the relationship between baptism and original sin retains its fearful power” (Stasiak 5). Stasiak wrote that the “fearful power” is made obvious to first year seminary students while teaching them of baptism. He shows them a copy of the arrangement of the cemetery of the Catholic parish.

“The graves, with the names of the deceased faithful, are arranged in neat rows. And then there is something peculiar: something that catches the…seminarians by surprise; something that elicits a knowing nod and a sympathetic smile from the older generation. Outside the boundary of the cemetery – immediately adjacent to it, but clearly outside the fence – is a space reserved for 'unbaptized babies.' This picture is worth a thousand words, for this diagram explains the concept of limbo quite clearly: those babies who died without baptism, i.e., with original sin still on their souls, were not really a part of the Church” (Stasiak 5).

How can something that is undocumented, a mere “common” teaching, be so acted upon by the Church? Why was something made up by theologians put into such absolute practice? It was clearly a prominent teaching.

And so they changed it; now what? The Church has left many questions unanswered. Why was this common Church practice in the first place if it was just something that theologians made up why were people told by the Church that their un-baptized child went to limbo, a place where they would never be in the presence of God, instead of to Heaven? Does this change imply that other changes could be made to teachings in the future? Gerald Fagin raises the question: “Was the church simply mistaken, not about a defined dogma, but about a teaching that profoundly touched the lives of many Christians” (Fagin n.p.)? I feel that all of these questions bring to view the issue of authority in the Catholic Church.

In an article for the Toronto Sun it was written that the Pope still “muses” over limbo and has asked theologians to come up with “a more coherent and enlightened way of describing the fate of such innocents” (Reuters n.p.) Is the Catholic Church getting rid of limbo only to call it something else? Why even bother? Why does the Pope believe that he has the power to construct ideas such as this? And if it was really only a common teaching why are they putting so much thought and time into it? Father J. Mahoney raised a thought-provoking question when he asked, “Why is there so much of a focus on figuring things out for God” (“Reflections of an Elderly Italian.” n.p.)?

I found while doing my research that many Roman Catholic churches are still teaching that you cannot enter Heaven without baptism. This is inconsistent with their new documented teaching in which one is allowed “to hope” that there is salvation for the un-baptized infants. The churches are still motivating parents to baptize their infant quickly. “All the more urgent is the Church's call not to prevent …the gift of holy Baptism” (Apostolic Constitution n.p.), which could lead one to believe that perhaps limbo is not being used as a word anymore, but as a concept.

Baptism has often been defined as avoiding something negative, rather than what it is really is, embracing something positive. The idea behind the Catholic sacrament of Baptism is of a need of the soul to be cleansed by the Holy Spirit. It is believed that this cleansing washes away the sin one inherits from Adam and the sin is replaced by the forgiveness and acceptance of Jesus. The cleansing aspect of Baptism has come to be perceived as a process of repairing something broken, rather than an addition to the soul, a permanent link between the infant and Jesus.

Limbo, like other teachings of the Catholic Church, does not have scriptural origin. Some others seem to be far more departed from actual biblical teachings, such as the three categories of liquids for baptizing: “those that are certainly valid, those that are doubtfully valid, and those that are certainly invalid” (“Quick Questions” n.p.). The certainly valid waters are your typical waters from lakes, rivers, etc. Liquids that are doubtfully valid are made of water and another substance, “such as beer, soda, light tea, thin soup or broth, and artificially scented water such as rose water.” The list of those which are certainly invalid “includes oil, urine, grease, phlegm, shoe polish, and milk” (“Quick Questions” n.p.). I can say with a great deal of certainty that there is no biblical reference stating not to use shoe polish for baptizing. Some other teachings of the Catholic Catechism, like the teaching of limbo, have at best a vague scriptural origin, which brings to light the question of how the Catholic Church has the authority and the right to contrive these teachings.

If you will recall, I mentioned earlier that I never found any reference to limbo of the Post Conciliar documents or in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. I also mentioned that Father Joel said that Limbo has “never been a dogma” (Hastings n.p.). His reply when I asked about the Baltimore Catechism was that it has been “a little problematic” (Hastings n.p.). This catechism was, as Paul Boudreau, a priest of the Diocese of Norwich wrote, “used by clergy to instruct the faithful” (“What is The Baltimore Catechism?” n.p.). The Baltimore Catechism says, with its “usual air of certainty” (Fagin n.p.), “Persons, such as infants, who have not committed actual sin and who, through no fault of theirs, die without baptism, cannot enter heaven; but it is the common belief they will go to some place similar to Limbo, where they will be free from suffering, though deprived of the happiness of heaven” (Fagin n.p.). This is “problematic” because limbo is supposed to be an undocumented teaching, a common teaching, and yet it is clearly documented in the Baltimore Catechism.

My father grew up reading the Baltimore Catechism. Teachings, documented or not, cannot be changed on whims without the expectation that it will affect people. Pastor Kristin Foster of Messiah Lutheran Church in Mountain Iron, Minnesota said people have come to her in preparation for a baptism believing that baptism is a way of saving the infant from limbo. As she said, “The teachings of limbo are so widespread that they have affected many Christians, not just Roman Catholics” (Foster n.p.). If the Church has the authority to make and break their teachings, they should also have the authority to explain them and get the word out that limbo is no longer a common teaching.

If the teaching of limbo is actually part of a Catechism, even if it is just the Baltimore Catechism and not the Catechism of the entire Catholic Church, why wouldn't a practicing Catholic think anything other than that the teachings are something to put faith and practice into? Is that not what Catechisms are for? Even if it is not documented, but the Church is still practicing it, are not the parishioners going to do the same? As Fagin wrote, “Most Catholics, of course, made no distinction between defined doctrines and what appeared in the catechism. It was all church teaching, to be accepted without question” (Fagin n.p.). I am questioning it; I am questioning where the authority comes from.

When an infant is baptized it is unaware of what is happening and unable to make choices for itself. That is why the parents or the godparents respond for the infant to the priest's questions. If the child is unaware that it is being baptized, how can it accept what is being given to it and reject limbo? Does the Catholic Church have the authority over God to say that the child is not accepted in Heaven? When in limbo “the child, while enjoying complete natural bliss would be forever deprived of the beatific vision” (Stasiak 6). This is contradicting; God is love, so how can limbo be “eternal bliss” when the inhabitants are separated from love?

The changes that the Roman Catholic Church made to its teachings on infant baptism left many questions unanswered: Where do un-baptized infants go now, if not to limbo? Why did they change a common a teaching which had been in place for over seven hundred years? Why did they fail to directly address such a popular understanding when it is clear that the teaching of limbo needs a more explaining? These questions bring to view the issue of authority in the Roman Catholic Church. The Church needs to thoroughly and directly address and explain its teachings on infant baptism and make sure that they get adequately disseminated in order to avoid misinterpretations and inconsistent teachings. If they do not do so, they will be left with another generation left “in limbo.”

Works Cited

“Differences between Roman Catholicism and Conservative Protestantism.” B.A. Robinson. 21 Mar. 2005. 9 Apr 2005

Fagin, Gerald M. “Whatever Happened to Limbo?” America 18 Mar. 2002. 1 Feb. 2005.

Foster, Pastor Kristin. Telephone Interview. 9 Apr. 2005.

Hastings, Father Joe. Telephone Interview. 15 Mar. 2005.

“Limbo.” New Catholic Encyclopedia. 2002 ed.

“Original Sin.” Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 11. 2003. The Catholic Encyclopedia. 14 Mar. 2005.

“Reflections by an Elderly Italian.” Trauma and Chaplaincy. 9 Apr 2005

Reuters. “Pope Puts Theologians in Limbo.” The Toronto Sun. 8 Oct. 2004. final ed.: news, 53.

Ruff, Father Anthony, O.S.B. E-mail Interview. 11 Mar. 2005.

Stasiak, Reverend Kurt, O.S.B. “Infant Baptism: An Endangered Species.” 8 Apr. 2005.

“What Is the Baltimore Catechism?” U.S. Catholic. May. 2003. 10 Apr 2005

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