A Conversation on Limbo

Over at First Things I got involved in a discussion on Catholic conjectures about Limbo, a state of being proposed by some theologians as a state of perfect natural happiness that unbaptized infants go to after death.  Normally I do not get involved in internet debates–they tend to bring out the worst in me, but a friend requested that I get involved, so I did.  The following is a set of posts from different interlocutors and my responses to them.  Text in green are comments from one interlocutor; text in blue are from another interlocutor; text in black are my comments.

Mr. Hamilton,

I am only human, and I may have once again misrepresented myself in some way in any of the numerous posts that have appeared in this comment box. Given the misunderstandings that have arisen, I can see why you would be able to attribute to me the position that baptism can be applied after death in the time period following Christ’ death and resurrection. After all, in my last post I wrote: “It is fairly clear, then, that I recognize that infants who have died without baptism by water may receive baptism of some other kind.” I confess I did not put enough thought into that particular sentence. But the sentence immediately following that one is more detailed and, I think, places that sentence in its proper context: “My position is simply that one needs some form of baptism to be healed of original sin, and that if one has not received any form of baptism and then dies in original sin, that the teaching of the Council of Florence then applies to that person.”

Now, I can see where a misunderstanding would arise from a reading of those two sentences one after another, and, as I said above, I apologize for not being precisely clear. I also realize that no man’s patience is eternal, and it is not my intention to exasperate anyone.

So, to avoid any further misunderstandings of my position (all of which have arisen from my own fault), I offer the following formulation for your analysis. If I err at any step please correct me so that I can arrive at the truth.

Baptism is necessary for salvation, according to canon five of the seventh session of the Council of Trent in the section on baptism. There are many forms of baptism besides baptism by water, such as baptism by blood, and by implicit or explicit desire. According to the Council of Florence, anyone who dies in original sin alone is sent to hell to be tortured, though with unequal pains when compared to others found in hell. So, if an infant dies without receiving any form of baptism, he dies in original sin alone, and so, following the Council of Florence, is sent to hell. Paragraph 1056 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which cannot be said to be ignorant of the limbo of the fathers, says that “eternal death” is also called “hell.” Death is not a place but a state of being. So, eternal death is an eternal state. If “eternal death” is also called “hell,” then “hell” is also called “eternal death.” So, hell is an eternal state. The Council of Florence also says that those sent to hell are punished with unequal pains, and the Catechism, paragraph 1057, says that the principal punishment of hell is eternal separation from God. So, I conclude that, if an infant dies without any form of baptism that he dies in original sin, and so, according to the Council of Florence, is sent to hell, which is eternal death, and is punished with eternal separation from God.

Thanks for that formulation. Let’s take a small sample of what you said.

1) Baptism is necessary for salvation.
2) Those who die in original sin alone are sent ad infernum; those who do not receive any form of baptism go to hell.
3) Hell is eternal separation from God.

On each of these appoints, we agree, although on some we agree only verbally. We seem to agree on 1). Baptism is necessary for salvation, and baptism is understood in both its ordinary form, i.e. by water, and in certain extraordinary forms, such as by desire, by blood, and implicit desire. From this it logically follows that the group of people who have not received formal baptism is not the same as the group of people who die in original sin; this is because some people who die without formal baptism do not die in original sin, i.e. those who receive some extraordinary form of baptism. We also agree on 3), that those who are sent to hell are in eternal separation from God.

On 2) we also agree, to this extent: per Florence, those who die without any sort of baptism are in hell eternally because they are still in original sin. But we have already established that to die in original sin is not the same as to die without formal baptism. There are extraordinary forms of baptism which do not involve water. While we can determine that infants who die soon after formal baptism go to heaven, it is not necessarily known to man who receives extraordinary baptism; for example only God can determine who has the implicit desire to receive baptism and who doesn’t. The point of dispute among theologians is how flexibly the criteria for extraordinary baptism are to be interpreted.

The point in 2) on which we may disagree is the meaning of ‘infernum.’ Yes, every time we say hell, we translate it infernum; but it is not true that every time we say ‘infernum’ we translate it as hell. The counter-example repeatedly used in this thread is the limbo of the Fathers, which Christ harrowed after his death. It therefore does not logically follow that what the Catechism says of hell proper is true of every sense of the word ‘infernum’.

Hell, according to the Catechism, is “the state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed, reserved for those who refuse by their own free choice to believe and be converted from sin, even to the end of their lives” (CCC 1033; also, see the entry for ‘hell’ in the glossary). Now it is in no way clear how the ‘infernum’ discussed at Florence for those who die in original sin alone is the same as hell proper (from this point forward, assume that whenever we speak of Florence’s infernum we add the qualification “insofar as infants are concerned”). For it is in no way clear that infants who die are capable of exercising free choice prior to their deaths. Thus one of the criterion for entrance into hell proper is not met, and since hell and Florence’s infernum have different properties, they cannot be the same thing. Therefore, to say something about the permanence of hell is not to say anything about the permanence or lack thereof of Florence’s infernum. And this ties into one of Dr. Liccione’s suggestions, that infants may remain in a non-permanent infernum for a time, perhaps until the general resurrection before going permanently to heaven or hell. Furthermore in denying the permanence of the infernum mentioned at Florence, Dr. Liccione is not trapped into saying that hell proper is a temporary state.

Yet even if we assume for the sake of argument that the infernum of Florence is hell, Florence need not be interpreted as saying anything on the topic of extraordinary baptism. Florence says that those who die “in original sin” go ad infernum, so we can infer with certainty that any infant who dies without any sort of baptism goes to hell. We can also say with confidence that every person who is in a state of original sin is unbaptized; what is in dispute is the extent to which the extraordinary means of baptism are available to infants, and thus which infants count as unbaptized. The real question is what would be required of that infant actually to choose to go against God by its own free choice, and thus warrant eternal punishment for having rejected God and extraordinary baptism in the first place.

Florence, therefore, cannot be interpreted as saying anything definitive about infants in general after death beyond what the text *manifestly* says: any person who dies in original sin goes to hell. However, the text says nothing about how to determine who ultimately dies in original sin because it says nothing about how to determine who dies without some extraordinary form of baptism. Dr. Liccione and I think that God offers each infant some opportunity to choose extraordinary baptism after its death; others may disagree. But this discussion pertains to matters well beyond what was formalized at Florence and is assumed by both sides of the limbo debate.

In summary. Both of us can agree with your conclusion, though it is not clear that we interpret the words in the same way. While we both acknowledge the permanence of hell proper, it is unclear whether we both acknowledge that the infernum mentioned at Florence is the same thing as hell proper. And while we both agree that some form of baptism is necessary for salvation, it is not clear that a) we agree that Florence makes any definitive pronouncement against the position that Dr. Liccione and I defend, and b) we agree about how liberally we are to understand the phrase “extraordinary baptism.”

Paul Hamilton,

thanks.  I’m in agreement with much of what you’ve said, but I’m not sure you’ve answered the question I have re. the ITC’s statement I quoted.

That statement seems to be saying this: If Jack & Jill intend their baby Molly to be baptized, God will save Molly anyway if for some reason they are prevented from carrying this out. Well, let’s grant this arguendo, and call it baptism of (parental) desire. But consider the more interesting case not canvassed by the ITC, that Jack and Jill have no intention or desire whatsoever to baptise Molly, and she dies an infant. Does God save Molly anyway? If so, then why put in the words “when we have not been able to do for them what we would have wished to do” when they have no bearing on the case? God is apparently going to save Molly who dies as an infant regardless of parental intentions. Thus, baptism by us of Molly in any form ­ actual or by desire  is not, after all, necessary for her salvation. If on the other hand we give these words a function in the sentence and take it to mean that God may not save Molly in this second case, then where does she go in all justice, but into a state wherein she lacks the beatific vision, but where there is no punishment due to personal sin, and perfect natural happiness forever?

Here is a theologically possible scenario. Under the guidance of Providence, no souls die merely in a state of original sin. But if there had been any, they would indeed go to a place that corresponds to St Thomas’s doctrine of limbo.

How could it be that no souls actually die in a state of original sin alone?

1.) Infants who die in utero cannot be baptised, physically and theologically (says St Thomas  because, for starters, you can’t be “born again” if you’re not born a first time.) So baptism is not necessary for them: they are not yet subject to the action of men (St Thomas) and it’s impossible for them to undergo it. But as St Thomas says, it’s perfectly possible that those who are going to die in utero, who are subject to the action of God, “in whose sight they live”, could be sanctified in the womb  as (eg) John the Baptist was. (III Q68 Art 11).

2.) For those children like Molly in the second case above, who die in infancy and unbaptised by disinclined parents, it’s theologically possible that God chooses to send an angel or a saint to administer the sacrament before the moment of death.(III Q64 Art 7  Whether Angels can Administer Sacraments.)

(I have a lot of theological problems the idea of baptism or sanctification after death, suggested in posts above. For one thing, it compromises the fundamental Christian idea of the finality of death. Plus, on the principle of Occam’s Razor, it’s superfluous to requirements. If God could sanctify in an extraordinary way after the moment of death, surely He can just as easily do so before the moment of death. Etc)

3.) For pagan adults who have the requisite dispositions, similar provision could be made as in 2) (viz. the vision of Venerable Maria Agreda and the pagan indian in South America.)

On this scenario, baptism is necessary for salvation in the strict sense (ie, baptism by someone, even an angel or saint) and while limbo is a valid and reasonble theological hypothesis, it’s in fact empty.

But this it’s impossible to say whether this scenario is wholly or partly the case. God in His wisdom has chosen never to reveal as definitive such information from us in the Church Militant, for reasons some of which are pretty obvious even to me. Therefore the thesis that limbo exists and is populated is equally possible, and is a valid, indeed I think compelling theological hypothesis, even if it does turn out to be unpopulated.

The only safe course for us is to desire and intend that our born children be baptized, and that everyone in the world is baptized or at least has it as their top priority in their hour of death. We must leave the rest to the infinitely merciful to God.

P.S. Limbo, hypothetically or actually existing, has had an unjustifiably bad press. I’m unable to see insuperable theological objections to the following possibilities for inhabitants of Limbo.

1.) That they commune and intermingle with the saints and angels in heaven, even though lacking their Beatific Vision. [After all, Jesus had the Beatific Vision while He interacted with us, sinners or otherwise,  on earth.]

2.) That they contemplate with restored preternatural gifts of knowledge the truths of the Faith which will unfold eternally for us all. [Even though the knowledge by which they will grasp these will not supernatural faith ­ after all, even “The devils believe and tremble.”]

3.) That they will meet know and enjoy an eternal relationship with Jesus Christ with all their (natural and possibly restored preternatural) powers. [Just as people with original sin on their souls encountered and befriended Jesus of Nazareth.] And possibly through Him, experience in some way with their heightened natural powers, the presence of the Father and the Holy Ghost. [As Abraham encountered the Trinity in the form of three angels.]

Naturally, I submit to the rulings of the magisterium on all of these points.

I was going to make my previous post my last, but you raise some interesting points that I would like to address.

a) If my account is correct (provided in detail in my previous post), the Molly in your example is still saved by baptism, even if she does receive baptism formally or by the desire of her parents. She is saved because she would be given an opportunity to choose to accept or reject God when, and through God’s power, she is capable of making such a choice–and this would be an extraordinary form of baptism. God does not save her “no matter what”, but by her desire for salvation, when in God’s time she becomes capable of desiring or not desiring God. It is also possible that she ultimately rejects God.

b) The possibilities you set forth about limbo are interesting, although I’m not sure that any of these states of affairs are equivalent to limbo as it is classically defined, i.e. as a state of perfect natural happiness. I don’t see how any of these scenarios matches that description–but that’s not due to any lack of interesting and creative thought on your part, but because a perfect state of nature independent of grace is probably impossible in the first place. But if we allow that children who die in original sin alone possibly spend their days in God’s grace, why not admit the possibility that they reach heaven?

c) Your point about the finality of death is interesting and worth addressing. However, there is no finality of death absolutely speaking; that is, there are ways in which death is said to be “not final” in a qualified sense, such as those who go to Purgatory prior to entering heaven, and the limbo of the Fathers. I say this not as a counter-example to your position (obviously because the people in these examples will ultimately have a final resting spot, and so their destinations really are final), but because it requires us to examine in exactly what way death is said to be final.

Death seems to be final in two ways: a) the desire for or aversion to God that we exhibit in this life is final, in that it determines b) our permanent destination after death–either heaven or hell. It is in both of these ways that our deaths are final.

Note that the destination of heaven or hell is not permanent due to any quality in the individual himself or just because God said so. They are permanent because the states of affairs are permanent. In Thomas Aquinas’ account, on earth we are capable of sinning because we do not know God with simple vision, and thus can choose to see God as just another good among goods. Yet when we reach heaven and see God with the simple vision of him as he is–as the highest good– we cannot but will him. Hell is permanent because the damned choose to live in a state of being without grace, and God in deference to their will sends them to a place without grace. Since without grace they can never make it to heaven, the state of the damned is permanent.

But it is unclear that the deaths of formally unbaptized children like Molly can be considered final in either of these ways. First, heaven or hell cannot be permanent for Molly because her situation is such that she does not have the credentials to belong to either. While original sin is sufficient to keep her out of heaven, having original sin alone is not sufficient to place her in hell proper, which the Catechism states is reserved for those who actively reject God. Nor can her choice or desire for or against God be considered final, since she never made a choice in the first place.

If limbo exists, it is unclear why it must be a permanent state of affairs. Its permanence cannot be explained by the abundant goodness and grace of God like heaven is; and if there is no such thing as a perfect state of nature lacking completely in grace–which theologians have given us no good reason to think exists–then its permanence cannot be explained in the same way as hell’s is. If limbo exists, then there doesn’t seem to be any clear reason to assert its permanence.

If my analysis is correct, I see no reason why we must assert that there is such a finality of death for infants that they cannot come to desire or reject God after their deaths in order that they might merit heaven or hell. Since they made no choice in this life–indeed, they were incapable of making a choice in this life– it is hard to see how the “choice” they made in this life was final.

Thanks for the references to St. Thomas on whether the angels can administer the Sacraments. I will enjoy reading them.

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One Comment on “A Conversation on Limbo”


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