Neither Saved Nor Condemned

When I was a kid growing up in the Catholic Church, we were taught that it was necessary to be Catholic, and in the good graces of the Catholic Church, if we were to go to Heaven when we died. For this reason, the priests and nuns taught, it was imperative that we kept the teachings of Mother Church. We were to obey the Ten Commandments of God, the Six Precepts of the Church and everything else we were told the Church expected of us. Failure to meet all these obligations could mean that, should we die unconfessed and unabsolved by a priest, we would never attain to the Beatific Vision, which is a Catholic term for eternity in the presence of God. If not the Beatific Vision, then one could anticipate spending eternity in Hell. This fate awaited even those babies who died, in the womb or after delivery, unbaptized.

…The souls of those who die in mortal sin or with original sin only, however, immediately descend to hell, to be punished with different punishments…--Council of Lyons II (1274), Declaration Concerning the Procession of the Holy Spirit, promulgated by Pope Gregory X, with later endorsements by popes Innocent V, Hadrian V, John XX1, Nicholas III, Martin IV, Honorius IV, Nicholas IV and Celestine V. (Denzinger 464)

…Moreover, the souls of those who depart in actual mortal sin or in original sin only, descend immediately into hell but to undergo punishments of different kinds.—Council of Florence (1438-1445), Decree for the Greeks (from the Bull Laetentur coeli), promulgated by Pope Eugenius IV on July 6, 1430 (Denzinger 693)

Both the councils mentioned above, Lyons II and Florence, were ecumenical councils convened by reigning popes. They constituted the Extraordinary Magisterium and, in that the above citations constitute teachings on matters of faith and morals, their declarations are considered by Catholicism to be protected from teaching error by the Holy Spirit.

MAGISTERIUM. The Church's divinely appointed authority to teach the truths of religion, “Going therefore, teach ye all nations…teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you” (Matt. Xxviii, 19-20). This teaching is infallible: “And behold I am with you all days, even to the consummation of this world. (ibid.). The solemn Magisterium is that which is exercised only rarely by formal and authentic definitions of councils or popes. Its matter comprises dogmatic definitions of ecumenical councils or of the popes teaching ex cathedra, or of particular councils, if their decrees are universally accepted or approved in solemn form by the pope;…The ordinary Magisterium is continually exercised by the Church especially in her universal practices connected with the faith and morals, in the unanimous consent of the Fathers and theologians, in the decisions of Roman Congregations concerning faith and morals, in the common sense of the Faithful, and in various historical documents, in which the faith is declared. All these are founts of a teaching which as a whole is infallible. They have to be studied separately to determine how far and in what conditions each of them is an infallible source of truth.Donald Attwater, Gen. Ed., A Catholic Dictionary, © 1931 The MacMillan Company; Has Nihil Obstat & Imprimatur

Both of the above ecumenical councils taught that those who die in mortal sin or original sin only will descend into hell, where they will punished differently. The Baltimore Catechism was long the tool used to teach the Catholic faith in the Church's schools. From it we learn

185. Who are punished in hell?

Those are punished in hell who die in mortal sin; they are deprived of the vision of God and suffer dreadful torments, especially that of fire, for all eternity.The New Saint Joseph Baltimore Catechism, No. 2, Official Confraternity Version, © 1969-1962 Catholic Book Publishing Co. Has Nihil Obstat, Imprimi Potest & Imprimatur

Being kids, I believe it not surprising that some of us, not having been clearly taught about infallibility, questioned the either Heaven or Hell nature of eternity. One of the questions some of us raised had to do with babies who died before they had been baptized—since these conversations took place in the late 1940's no one thought to mention the preborn who died in the womb or during abortion.

The Church's response, delivered by the nuns and priests who were our teachers, was that unbaptized infants and preborn babies, together with unbaptized children who die before attaining to the age of discretion, cannot enter into the Beatific Vision. This conformed to the teaching of the Councils of Lyons II and Florence.

In that wonderful way with words that so typifies Catholic doctrine, “hell” doesn't always mean “Hell,” a place of punishment. Sometimes, “Hell” means “Limbo,” a place or state of rest.

95. What do we mean when we say in the Apostles' Creed that Christ descended into hell?

When we say that Christ descended into hell we mean that, after He died, the soul of Christ descended into a place or state of rest, called Limbo, where the souls of the just were waiting for Him.

The word “hell” simply means the place of the dead. Usually it refers to the place of the damned souls, but here in the Apostles' Creed it has its first meaning of the place of the dead. However, Christ did not go to all the dead, but only to the good souls, such as Abraham, Moses, David, St. Ann, St. John the Baptist, St. Joseph, and many others who had died before He did. — Ibid.

The 1969 edition of the Baltimore Catechism is post-Vatican II. Mama Church doesn't appear eager to discuss Limbo these days, so I looked to an earlier catechism that teaches:

Chapter XI:

21 Q. How were the just who died before the time of Christ freed from original sin?

A. The just, who died before the time of Christ, were detained in Limbo until Christ redeemed them from original sin.

23 Q. What is Limbo?

A. Limbo is the name given by the early fathers of the church to the place or condition in which dwelt the souls of the just who died before the Redemption.

24 Q. Does the Bible speak of Limbo?

A. In the epistle of St. Peter (iii, 18) we read: “Christ being put to death indeed in the flesh, but enlived in the spirit…coming He preached to those spirits who were in prison…they waited for the patience of God in the days of Noah.”

Chapter XVII:

13 Q. What is Limbo called in the Apostles' Creed?

A. In the Apostles' Creed, Limbo is called Hell; it says: “He descended into Hell.”

14 Q. Was Limbo really Hell?

A. Limbo was not the Hell of the damned but a place or state of rest where the souls of the just were waiting for Redemption.-- Roderick MacEachen, The Complete Catechism of Christian Doctrine, Published by Ecclesiastical Authority by the Catholic Book Company (1911); with Nihil Obstat, Imprimi Potest & Imprimatur

Here's another interesting discussion of that Limbo that the “always the same” Roman Catholic Church wants to sweep under the carpet:

Limbo … According to the present teaching of the Church, it is a place adjoining hell, where the just who died in the grace of God before Christianity dwelled until they were liberated by Christ, and where babies who die without baptism dwell and remain forever.

Holy Scripture speaks of Abraham's bosom as sojourn of the just (Luke 16:22), but not of a place for babies who died without baptism. Tradition begins, especially with the Greek Fathers, to differentiate between adults who die with only personal sin and infants who die with only original sin, who cannot enter the heaven of the blessed and yet cannot share the fate of the damned in hell. In reacting against Pelagianism, which denied the transmission of original sin and its consequences, St. Augustine, endeavoring to defend this truth, held that babies who die without baptism will be subjected to the pain of fire, albeit very slight, on account of original sin. This opinion later on influenced some theologians, but did not hinder the course of the other more correct and benign opinion, according to which babies who die without baptism will suffer only privation of the beatific vision. This opinion was defended and developed by St. Thomas , and from then on prevailed in the schools. We find it in a letter of Innocent III to the archbishop of Arles, and in the Constitution Auctorem fidei with which Pius VI condemned the Synod of Pistoia (Denzinger 1526)

The babies in limbo will not enjoy the vision of God, but will not be unhappy on this score, since the beatific vision is a supernatural good of which they have no knowledge. Some theologians (Billot) think that limbo is the eternal residence not only of babies and abnormal adults who did not have the use of reason, but also of certain classes of men of low-grade civilization, who are comparable to babies in the lack of development of moral consciousness… -- Pietro Parente et. al., Trans. By Emmanuel Doronzo, Dictionary of Dogmatic Theology, The Bruce Publishing Company (1951), with Imprimi potest, Nihil obstat & Imprimatur, pp.164-65)

Another pre-Vatican II Catholic source has this to say about Limbo:

Baptism, in addition, removes any sin of which the soul is actually guilty through its own acts and also absolves it from the punishment it has merited. In the case of infants, of course, or those who have not attained the use of reason, this sin-remitting effect plays no part. And however parents may fondly like to imagine that if during the ceremony their baby is quiet, he shows his approval of what is being done, or if he winks he is making mental reservations, no one seriously thinks that he is any more aware of what is being done for him in Baptism than when he is being powdered.

The infant cannot have been guilty of actual sin, for sin requires both that knowledge and consent which he cannot give. But, on the other hand, a person having reached the age of reason (generally considered to be seven), who elects to receive the sacrament, is capable of having positively sinned, either at rare intervals or habitually. Through Baptism fruitfully received, that person's soul is freed of all its actual sins and their effects, whatever may have been their nature, gravity or frequency. It is made as stainless and as blameless as that of the infant.

Always and without qualification the Church has taught that Baptism –Baptism of water or of blood or of desire—is needed for salvation. She does not state that everyone who is denied eternal life in the presence of God is condemned, as the only alternative, to everlasting suffering. But for those who have attained the use of reason and personal responsibility, she firmly teaches that the only ultimate alternatives after death are heaven and hell. To escape the exterior darkness ruled over by Satan, those who cannot receive sacramental Baptism must have Baptism of desire. Infants who die without receiving the sacrament enter into an eternal state of natural happiness—a state which the Church designates as Limbo. The happiness enjoyed there is called natural to distinguish it from supernatural happiness—the enjoyment of the Vision of God.-- John Gilland Brunini, What Catholics Believe—and Why, Garden City Books (1952), with Introduction by Francis Cardinal Spellman, pp. 138-39

Don't you just love these old Catholic books? They remind me of the Roman Catholic Church that I grew up in; so different from the post-Vatican II RCC of today that, in its drive for ecumenical rapprochement with and ultimate hegemony over all world religions, almost seems ashamed of the way things used to be. Here's another example of what the RCC used to teach:


It is an article of the Creed that our Lord descended into Hell or Limbo, meaning that His first act after His death was to carry to the just souls imprisoned there the joyful news of their redemption. The just souls who died before Christ redeemed the world were there awaiting the time of their redemption. “He preached to those spirits that were in prison.” (I Peter iii, 18, 19.) Some such place was necessary since Heaven was closed for thousands of years by the sin of our first parents, and was first to be opened by Christ. (Heb. Ix, 6-8 ) His mission to the souls in Limbo was then to comfort them, to set them free for entrance into Heaven and to show forth His power and majesty even there in the lower regions. (Phil. ii, 10.)

Limbo is considered to have been a place of rest and joy, although the joy was necessarily imperfect in contrast with that of Heaven…

Limbo of the Infants

The Limbo of the Infants means that those who die without baptism, and in whose case baptism has not been supplied in some other way, cannot enter Heaven. This is plainly stated in the Council of Florence in the Decree of Union. But there is a natural repugnance to the belief that those who have committed no sin should be tortured in Hell, and this difficulty led theologians to adopt various theories to account for souls in this state…

The existence of Limbo for infants has never been defined by the Church, although it is a common belief within the Church. Those who scoffed at it have been censured. Pius VI thus condemned the Jansenists Council of Pistoia.-- C. F. Donovan, Our Faith and the Facts, Patrick L. Baine (1927), with Nihil obstat & Imprimatur, p. 319

Another pre-Vatican II source informs that Limbo is going to be around forever:

Besides heaven and hell, the limbo for unbaptized infants will exist for all eternity.

Limbo…is a state or place destined for those souls which, without personal sin, are excluded from heaven. We must distinguish between the limbo of the fathers, or Abraham's bosom (Luke 16:22), where the just who died before the coming of Christ awaited without punishment or suffering their entry into heaven; and the limbo of infants, the place or state in which mainly children dying without Baptism (and hence unworthy of heaven but not guilty of hell) are excluded from the sight of God for all eternity.-- Francis Spirago, trans. by Richard F. Clarke, revised by Anthony N. Fuerst, The Catechism Explained, Benziger Brothers, Inc., (1899, 1921, 1949, 1961), with Nihil obstat & Imprimatur, pp. 148-49

Though the word Limbo is not mentioned anywhere in the text, it has not been left entirely out of the new Catechism of the Catholic Church. In the index of the 2nd edition (1997), the entry for LIMBO points to paragraph 1261 and refers the reader to the index entries for Baptism and Funerals. Under those headings, the reader seeking information about Limbo is sent to paragraphs 1261 and 1283, which read as follows:

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,'[Mk 10 14 ; cf. 1 Tim 2:4 .] 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.”

1283 With respect to children who have died without Baptism, the liturgy of the Church invites us to trust in God's mercy and to pray for their salvation. -- Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd Edition, © 1994/1997 United States Catholic Conference, Inc

The astute reader will notice that Limbo is not mentioned in either of the above paragraphs, despite the fact that the index sends the reader seeking entries for Limbo to them. He will also note how differently Mother Church, who boasts of being always the same (Semper Idem), teaches concerning the fate of those who die with only original sin in these post Vatican II days as compared with her teachings before that 21st ecumenical council.

What will become of those children who die in the womb or before they attain to the age of reason? Will they be spared the torments of Hell? Will they be admitted into the presence of God? How I pray that will be the case. As much as I wish to know their fate, however; it appears that God has not included that information in His written revelation to mankind. Therefore, I agree with the current teaching of the Catholic Church that we must trust in God's mercy, and also pray for their salvation while yet they live.

Is it possible for those little ones who die in a state of original sin to be spared condemnation? With God, all things are possible. As He said to Moses:

And he said, I will make all my goodness pass before thee, and I will proclaim the name of the LORD before thee; and will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will shew mercy on whom I will shew mercy.-- Exodus 33:19

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