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Question: My grandmother, who was taught the Faith from the Baltimore Catechism, told me that there is no way that a baby who dies without baptism can go to Heaven. She said that such a baby goes to a place called “limbo” where it is happy, but only in a natural way and not by seeing God in the beatific vision like the saints. But I read in the new Catechism that we can hope that there is a way that they can go to heaven. Has the Church changed?
Answer: Here’s what the Catechism says: “The Church does not know of any means other than baptism that assures entry into eternal beatitude. 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 . . the great mercy of God allows us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without baptism.” (CCC 1257-1261) This is not essentially different from the Baltimore Catechism your grandmother learned. In fact, the Roman Catechism of the Council of Trent did not even mention limbo or the question of the salvation of unbaptized infants, so the older catechisms in use when your grandmother was a child, and even the new Catechism, supplement Trent’s teaching on the issue of salvation and baptism.
There have been, since the time of St. Augustine, various attempts to explain theologically the fate of unbaptized infants. St. Thomas and his followers held and taught the classical explanation of limbo, which you were taught. At the time of the Council of Trent, Cardinal Cajetan held the view that the desire of the parents to have their child baptized would be sufficient in the case of the child’s death.
Although there are other explanations, here’s the traditional and very consoling interpretation of the doctrine of limbo. First, remember that limbo is a doctrine very well developed and supported by theologians down through the centuries who have, in the words of the Catechism, “hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without baptism” (CCC 1261). In his book (published in French in 1959) The Salvific Will of God Towards Infants and Small Children, the great Swiss Cardinal, Charles Journet (A.D. 1891-1975), one of the few men made a cardinal because of his theological expertise, explained the doctrine of limbo in terms of salvation. According to Journet, children in limbo share in salvation because of the resurrection of Christ, in which it is absolutely certain they will share. Thus along with the natural happiness which is theirs because of their innocence, they will have the gifts of immortality and a happy social life with the rest of the human race, in particular with their parents. The fact that they don’t share in the beatific vision does not deprive them of the other real and necessary elements of human happiness, or the happy association with those who do possess the beatific vision. Cardinal Journet says they will know and love Christ as the cause of their resurrection. Their resurrection will be their share in the salvation won by Christ for the human race of which they are a part. This view has the happy characteristics of being based only on dogmatic certainties: the resurrection of the dead, the necessity of baptism for supernatural life, and of emphasizing that our salvation consists not only in the supernatural beatific vision, even though this is its essential aspect, but also in the miraculous restoration of natural life, the survival of our person because of Christ’s triumph over death.
Question Answered by FR. HUGH BARBOUR, O.PRAEM