Limbo: It Hasn’t Gone Away, You Know

An article I read this week led me to think about the fate of unbaptised babies from the point of view of the Catholic religion. In a very moving article in the Irish Times, Anthony Jordan told of his decades-long search to find both the grave and evidence of baptism of Antonia, his daughter who died three days after being born. In Mr Jordan’s case, the hospital (Roman Catholic to its core, as most hospitals were and are in Ireland) “took care of things” in a manner as efficient and secretive as any Soprano-like garbage contractor normally associated with the phrase. The baby died on July 21, 1970 and was baptised and buried by the hospital, but it was only a number of years later, when Mr Jordan enquired as to the whereabouts of his daughter’s remains that he was given the location of an unmarked, mass grave. It took many more years for him receive confirmation that she had been baptised.

Why was Mr Jordan so worried about his daughter’s baptismal status? The answer to this, in a word, is limbo. To quote from the International Theological Commission’s document “The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptised”, limbo can be “understood as a state which includes the souls of infants who die subject to original sin and without baptism” and is a “possible theological hypothesis”. According to the Catholic Church, if a baby dies without being baptised it is still marked by original sin and the place its immortal soul may go is limbo. Up until the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s, the existence of limbo was, certainly in the minds of the Church’s foot soldiers, unquestionable. With the loosening of the top-down theocracy of the Church post Vatican II and a more open approach to the discussion of dogma, concepts such as limbo began to be questioned and their hypothetical nature more freely admitted.

Whereas for my parent’s generation of Catholics, brought up in the 1940s and 50s the concept of limbo was concrete and unquestionable, for my own and subsequent generations, born after Vatican II, limbo was a more wishy-washy concept. A vox pop of my friends this week revealed that most of us believe the Church did away with limbo in the era of flares and flower power. This is not true. While the theory of limbo is not mentioned in 1992’s Catechism of the Catholic Church it hasn’t gone away, you know. 2007’s “The Hope of Salvation . . . “, commissioned by Pope John Paul II, speaks of “the necessity of baptism for salvation; the universal action of grace in relation to the sacraments; the link between original sin and the deprivation of the beatific vision”.

In a way the theologians of the Catholic Church have painted themselves into a corner on limbo. It seems barbaric to the modern mind that a baby who dies before being baptised is punished by being barred from heaven. On the other hand, if you are a Christian you must believe in the concept of original sin and the need for baptism to cleanse you of this. Therefore the unbaptised have to face some sort of penalty for their lesser status in terms of shining-white soul cleanliness. A facile analogy would be that of not being allowed into the country club if you haven’t paid the fees.

So limbo still exists? Yes, the possibility of a limbo still exists. It’s not as black and white as Tridentine times but official word is limbo may exist. I leave you with the conclusions from “The Hope of Salvation . . . “:

The conclusion of this study is that there are theological and liturgical reasons to hope that infants who die without baptism may be saved and brought into eternal happiness, even if there is not an explicit teaching on this question found in Revelation. However, none of the considerations proposed in this text to motivate a new approach to the question may be used to negate the necessity of baptism, nor to delay the conferral of the sacrament. Rather, there are reasons to hope that God will save these infants precisely because it was not possible to do for them that what would have been most desirable— to baptize them in the faith of the Church and incorporate them visibly into the Body of Christ.


About ucronin

Microbiologist, brewer, writer, fan of James Joyce, guitar player and gardener, U. Cronin was born in the county town of Ennis, Co. Clare. He's spent much of his adult years moving country — between Spain and Ireland — and at present he is to be found back in his native town. Author of five novels and working on a sixth, U. is back in the lab and engaging his passion for looking for bugs using very bright lasers. Let's hope it turns out well!
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