According to a post-Christmas report from Rome (The New York Times, 12/27/05), the International Theological Commission, a Vatican-appointed committee of Catholic scholars, has in recent months been considering whether limbo exists.
In pre-Vatican II Catholicism, limbo was believed to be an eternal state of natural happiness reserved for unbaptized infants and young children who died before reaching the conventional “age of reason,” namely, 7.
For much of the history of the church, especially since the time of St. Augustine (d. 430), the prevailing view was that such young individuals were consigned to hell, even if their eternal punishment was substantially mitigated because of the absence of personal sins.
That view was based on two assumptions: First, everyone born into this world is born in a state of original sin, that is, without grace, which is an absolute condition for entrance into heaven; and, second, infants and children under the age of 7 who die without baptism cannot enter heaven because they were not in the state of grace at the time of death.
As theologians in the medieval period continued to reflect on the second assumption, they became more and more uneasy about it. It seemed to conflict with their understanding of the goodness and mercy of God. Why would such a God consign to eternal punishment, mitigated or not, infants and young children who had never committed any sins of their own?
These theologians, in effect, invented another eternal state of being. In addition to heaven, hell, and purgatory (an intermediate stage of purification between death and entrance into heaven), they created limbo as a place of natural happiness for those who die not only without grace, but also without any personal sins.
Belief in limbo remained fairly common in the Catholic Church until the time of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) when, as the late Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner put it, the council “tacitly buried” it.
When the new Catechism of the Catholic Church appeared in 1992, it contained not even a mention of limbo. But the Catechism did not simply ignore the topic. It specifically raised a question about the eternal destiny of unbaptized infants and young children.
However, instead of simply repeating the traditional view that such individuals are consigned to hell or the more recent medieval belief that God provides them with an eternal state of natural happiness in limbo, the Catechism of the Catholic Church indicated that unbaptized infants and young children are entrusted to “the great mercy of God who desires that all men should be saved.” Indeed, the Catechism assured us, we have reason “to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without Baptism” (n. 1261).
According to The New York Times, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and now Pope Benedict XVI, pointed out in a 1984 interview that limbo “has never been a definitive truth of faith” and that, as far as he was personally concerned, he would “let it drop, since it has always been only a theological hypothesis.”
The New York Times article speculates that the reason for the renewed interest in the question of limbo may be the Catholic Church’s deepening concern about aborted fetuses. In order to bring some measure of comfort to the mothers of such fetuses, the late Pope John Paul II wrote in his 1995 encyclical, Evangelium vitae (“Gospel of life”): “You will also be able to ask forgiveness of your child, who is now living in the Lord.” The expression, “living in the Lord,” ordinarily applies to heaven.
The same speculation has led various observers to predict that limbo will eventually disappear entirely from the Catholic scene, whether by an official edict or simply through a quiet slippage into theological oblivion.
To be sure, this belief was never of much comfort to mothers who had lost children in childbirth or through miscarriages. When their priest tried to assure them that their unbaptized child would enjoy an eternity of natural bliss, the bereaved mother would look up at the priest and say, “But what you’re saying, Father, is that I’ll never see my child again.” The priest could only shrug his shoulders.
The theological stakes are high because if limbo goes, so, too, does the traditional view of original sin. It may be that everyone is born in the state of grace, and that grace is ours to lose through mortal sin alone.
Otherwise, we are forced to return to Augustine’s view that unbaptized infants and young children go to hell. Without limbo, there is no alternative.
Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.