A version of this essay originally appeared on Beliefnet in 2006.
The death of a baby is always difficult. Additionally, in recent years there has been an increased awareness of the number of pregnancies that end in miscarriage and a greater openness in allowing parents to grieve for their stillborn or miscarried offspring. When a baptized infant dies before reaching the age of reason, the Catholic Church can comfort the parents with the assurance that the merits of Jesus Christ have won their child eternal beatitude in heaven. However, no such promise can be made with respect to unbaptized children. Thankfully, practices such as the burial of unbaptized children in unconsecrated ground (a distinction shared with suicides) have been discontinued, but the Catechism of the Catholic Church can say no more than:
"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."
The scandal of the millions of unborn babies killed through abortion also challenges the church in a manner not dissimilar to the way in which the discovery of new and unevangelized countries during the age of exploration challenged the church to meditate on the prospects of salvation for those who have never had the chance of hearing the gospel.
The situation that the church finds itself in is that she can only pronounce authoritatively on the fate of the unbaptized, in a manner consistent with the divinely revealed truths about original sin and the necessity of baptism for salvation.
The church teaches that due to the disobedience of our first parents, the default condition of human beings from their conception is that of a certain estrangement from God. The state of original sin demands some remedy before the one afflicted can see God.
St. Augustine devoted a great deal of attention to the question of the fate of unbaptized infants. He argues with great vehemence that these children are condemned to hell, albeit ‘under the mildest condemnation of all.’ He adduces numerous scriptural and theological arguments for this thesis and, distasteful as we may find his conclusion, it must be admitted that many of his arguments still have force today.
It is a central truth of the faith that all human beings are in need of Christ’s salvation. Deny the doctrine of original sin, and one denies the salvific work of Christ. Indeed, some modern reformulations of the doctrine which re-propose original sin in terms of ‘structures of sin’ and so on, rather than in terms of an inherited defect in human nature, seem to offer hope of self-salvation or rather salvation by means of purely human activity in overturning these structures.
Notwithstanding the weight of St. Augustine’s arguments, the notion of little children suffering in hell seems at odds with the mercy and goodness of God, and a variety of theological positions were developed over the centuries which mitigated the severity of his position. In particular, it was seen that the distinction between exclusion from the beatific vision—God himself—and the material or sensible suffering of hell could afford a certain tempering of Augustine's position by suggesting that those infants might suffer the former only. The scholastics' proposition that a state of purely natural happiness (limbo) might not be incompatible with separation from the beatific vision can therefore be seen as a merciful solution to a thorny theological problem.
The idea of limbo did receive broad popular acceptance until relatively recent times, but has not been authoritatively taught by the church as dogma.
Attempts have been made in more recent times to consider the question in terms of God’s universal salvific will. While sacramental baptism is the ordinary means of salvation made known to us by Christ, the church humbly acknowledges that God is not bound to confine himself to her sacraments. and we therefore cannot exclude extraordinary means of salvation. Most commonly recognized among these is that of the baptism of desire baptism by the blood of the unbaptized martyr. Among the latter, the most extraordinary case is that of the Holy Innocents who are venerated as saints and martyrs despite not being killed for adherence to the gospel; rather an accident of time and space meant that they were slaughtered out of Herod’s hatred for Christ. Among the possible solutions to our dilemma is the suffering and death of the child as a quasi-baptism (one immediately thinks of abortion). I also note that St. Thomas Aquinas says:
"Children while in the mother's womb have not yet come forth into the world to live among other men. Consequently they cannot be subject to the action of man, so as to receive the sacrament, at the hands of man, unto salvation. They can, however, be subject to the action of God, in whose sight they live, so as, by a kind of privilege, to receive the grace of sanctification."
It is worth reflecting briefly on the particular context in which the question of limbo is being considered. There seems to be a declining belief in the reality of damnation and a move towards a de facto universalism. In such a context, the previously merciful teaching of limbo becomes an abomination. However, if the decision is taken to "abolish limbo" (i.e., forbid it as a permissible theological position) do we not run the risk of sliding into universalism and denying the general necessity of sacramental baptism by presumptuously relying on "extraordinary means" about which the Lord has not chosen within the deposit of revelation?
With all due respect to Augustine, I would suggest that we might more accurately say, not that infants who die before baptism are condemned, but that infants before baptism are under condemnation by being under original sin. Beyond that, I think that we can prudently affirm no more than the sober optimism of the Catechism.