The Catholic Church has often solemnly determined that some person or another is in heaven. The canonization of a saint – a formal declaration that someone does in fact enjoy the vision of God – is one of the few instances in which the Pope exercises his charism of infallibility. However, the Church has never made any formal affirmation that any one particular human being is in fact in hell. The Church has never even said that Judas Iscariot is among the damned– even though Jesus himself had said it would have been better had he not been born. While acknowledging the existence of hell and the possibility of an individual’s damnation, the Church has always hoped that, because of the power of God’s Divine Mercy, hell may be found empty.
This unwillingness to consign anyone to the fires of hell is what gave rise among medieval theologians to the hypothesis of the “Limbo of Infants” understood as a resting place for infants who died without the sanctifying grace of Baptism. Although this theological hypothesis never was formally accepted as an article of faith or a dogma to be definitively held, it did enjoyed wide favor in the Church even to recent times. All human beings have inherited original sin and are therefore in need of the salvation that comes from Christ. To the difficult question of the destiny of unbaptized children, the idea of Limbo offered to these theologians a plausible reconciliation between their understanding of God’s justice and his mercy. Thus the medieval scholastics held that while unbaptized babies are deprived of the vision of God, they do not feel any pain and they enjoy a full natural happiness through their union with God in all natural goods.
On April 20th, Pope Benedict XVI authorized the publication of the International Theological Commission’s report on the question of limbo. The Pope had solicited this report because the question of the destiny of such infants has been raised in recent years with new urgency. The secular media covered the issuance of this report as the “Vatican’s abolishing Limbo”. This was not a very well nuanced assessment of what the report actually said. What it did say, however, was that the theological hypothesis of “limbo” appeared to be based on an unduly restrictive view of salvation. As the Second Vatican Council stressed: “…since Christ died for all, and since all are in fact called to one and the same destiny, which is divine, we must hold that the Holy Spirit offers to all the possibility of being made partners, in a way known to God, in the paschal mystery”. (Gaudium et Spes 22)
No one is saved apart from Christ and the grace of the Holy Spirit in their lives. And while we affirm the necessity of baptism – for ordinarily our configuration into Christ takes place through sacramental baptism – we cannot undermine the gratuity of God whereby he could fulfill his desire that all men obtain the vision of God. To paraphrase St. Augustine, while we need the sacraments to be saved, God does not need them to save us.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains: 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.” (CCC 1261)