At the Tenth Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops last year, Archbishop George Pell of Sydney, Australia, noted:
"the considerable silence and some confusion [regarding] Christian hope especially as it touches the 'Last Things', death and judgment, Heaven and Hell. Limbo seems to have disappeared, Purgatory slipped into Limbo, Hell is left unmentioned, except for terrorists and infamous criminals, while Heaven is the final and universal human right; or perhaps just a consoling myth"
(L'Osservatore Romano, English edition, November 7, 2001)
Has Limbo really disappeared? Has the Catholic Church now definitively rejected the theological opinion held for centuries by an imposing array of eminent theologians (including St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Bonaventure, and St. Alphonsus Liguori) that there is a "Limbus puerorum"? They held that the "Limbo of infants" is the "state" or "place" where unbaptized babies and those who die in original sin are deprived of the Beatific Vision of God but share a perfect state of natural happiness. It is true that the existence of Limbo has never been a definitively defined doctrine of the Church and taught by the Magisterium of the Church as certain doctrine. Nevertheless, in recent centuries the teaching on Limbo was included in local catechisms (e.g., the 1949 Revised Edition of the Baltimore Catechism, n. 3).
A survey of literature reveals that various theologians continue to hold it as a certain theological conclusion and as the most reasonable explanation about the fate of unbaptized children that can be offered in the context of the Church's teaching on original sin. That Limbo does not appear in the recent Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) is not a compelling argument against the existence of Limbo. Limbo did not appear in the famous "Roman Catechism", commonly called "The Catechism of the Council of Trent". It is significant that Bishop Alessandro Maggiolini, who was on the original commission editing the 1992 "Catechism of the Catholic Church" (CCC), was reported to have refused to rule out the existence of Limbo.
The most recent official treatment of the issue of unbaptized infants, The Catechism of the Catholic Church, leaves the question unresolved. On the one hand, CCC n. 1261 and n. 1283 allow the faithful to hope that in the infinite mercy of God such infants may be admitted to the Beatific Vision, while n. 1257 recalls that we do not know that they are so saved, stating that:
"the Church does not know of any means other than Baptism that assures entry into eternal beatitude."
CCC n. 1261 adds:
"All the more urgent is the Church's call not to prevent little children coming to Christ through the gift of holy Baptism."
Debate over the existence of Limbo and concern for the fate of unbaptized children has dramatically accelerated with the massive murder of unborn children by abortion in our country and throughout the world. The opinion has now become widespread among Catholics (as we see in Catholic newspapers and periodicals) that the innocence of unbaptized children guarantees their right to Heaven and that it would be unjust for God to exclude unbaptized children from the Kingdom of Heaven because of original sin. The Church since Vatican II is alleged to have revised its traditional understanding of original sin as well as abandoned the theological concept of Limbo.
In the words of Fr. John Catoir, former head of the Christophers:
"It always bothered me that innocent babies were in some way ineligible to receive the fullness of God's love. Now I know better. Catholics today do not have to believe in Limbo. There is one place of eternal rest and that is Heaven"
(column, St. Louis Review, February 7, 1997)
It should be particularly noted that n. 99 in the 1995 encyclical "Evangelium Vitae" of Pope John Paul II has become widely quoted in pro-life literature to afford a measure of consolation to mothers who have aborted their children but need not fear that their unborn have been deprived of the supernatural happiness of Heaven. In the English translation of " Evangelium Vitae" that continues to circulate, one reads that the Pope gives "a special word to women who have had an abortion," adding:
"Certainly, what happened was and remains terribly wrong. But do not give in to discouragement and do not lose hope. Try rather to understand what happened and face it honestly. If you have not already done so, give yourself over with humility and trust in repentance. The Father of mercies is ready to give you His peace in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. You will come to understand that nothing is definitively lost, and you will be able to ask forgiveness from your child, who is now living in the Lord."
Unfortunately, for those eager to rely on the above words of the Pope as further proof that unbaptized children are assured of Heaven in the Church's present teaching, the above last sentence is absent from the official Latin text of the encyclical. In place of the last sentence quoted above is read: "You can entrust your infant to the same Father and to His mercy" ("Infantem autem vestrum potestis Eidem Patri Eiusque misericordiae cum spe committere") – with footnotes referring to "CCC" nn. 1257, 1261, 1287, and to the funeral liturgy for unbaptized children.
Doubtless, debate considering the existence of Limbo will continue, but it is foolish for some priests and laity to appear to know more than the Magisterium of the Church in pronouncing with certainty that in fact no discarded embryo or unbaptized infant goes to Limbo. The truth is that theologians and the faithful retain the same liberty that St. Thomas Aquinas and so many others have had in defending Limbo as a theological conclusion that conforms to Divine Revelation. As to those who cannot wait to "let Limbo go," the remark of the renowned Thomist philosopher Jacques Maritain can be recalled: "Limbo is scorned by so many of today's theologians who don't know what they are doing."
The Catholic Church teaches that:
"God has bound salvation to the Sacrament of Baptism, but He Himself is not bound by His sacraments."
(CCC n. 1257)
God can make whatever exceptions He wishes as regards unbaptized infants. Perhaps those unborn children killed by abortion "in odium fidei" (in real hatred of Christ and His teachings) may have the status of martyrs (like the Holy Innocents). It is true that Limbo cannot be taught as certain Catholic doctrine proposed by the Magisterium, but it has not been definitively rejected by the Magisterium either. It can be held by the faithful as a theological conclusion shared by great doctors and saints of the Church. It is significant that the classic work "Apologetics and Catholic Doctrine" by Archbishop Michael Sheehan has been splendidly revised by Fr. Peter M. Joseph (with the 2001 Imprimatur of Most Rev. William Brennan, bishop of Waga Waga, Australia, St. Austin Press), and specifically endorses the existence of Limbo.
Commenting on the theory proposed by various theologians that unbaptized infants "may receive an enlightenment before or upon death, enabling them to make a choice," this superb volume observes: "This theory is totally inadmissible, since it means they could be saved or damned. None such theories may be taught as a certainty, and no one may refuse or delay Baptism on the grounds of any such theory." "The Roman Catechism" cautions the celebrant at the funeral of an unbaptized baby, 'In catechesis, care must be taken that the doctrine about the necessity of Baptism not be obscured in the minds of the faithful.' "The Catechism of the Catholic Church" says only that we are permitted to hope that there be a way of salvation for such infants; it gives no assurances."
As regards the happiness of Limbo, the following is added:
"In that state, [souls in Limbo] are as fully happy on the natural level as human nature can be, a state akin to the happiness of Adam and Eve in Paradise. The souls in Limbo are not in an infantile state; they are fully mature, and immortal, as their bodies will be at the General Resurrection."
Thus, a Limbo for the unbaptized unborn and born infants continues to be held as worthy of belief in the Church, but in the mercy of God perhaps not all unbaptized infants go there.