Limbo is a theory developed by Medieval theologians as the place where unbaptized persons go when they die. Limbo is not an official doctrine of the Catholic Church, but it has not been officially rejected by the Church.
The quandary goes something like this. If we are born with original sin and an infant dies before baptism, will he or she go to hell?
This is an interesting quandary. We know that we are born with original sin. We also know that baptism is necessary for salvation. St. Peter says, “Baptism now saves you” (1 Peter 3:21). Through baptism the stain of original sin is removed and we are made children of God. Yet, if an infant with original sin dies, does he or she go to hell? A person who dies in a state of sin and without the graces of baptism may not enter heaven. However, infants are not guilty of sin. After all, they have not committed personal sin. Original sin is inherited, it is not a choice made by the infant to turn away from God. Infants do not have the capability to choose to sin. Is it possible that God would send these innocent children to hell? And if not, without the graces of baptism, can they go to heaven?
History of the Theory of Limbo
In response to Pelagius (d. 425), who taught that the heresy that baptism is not necessary for salvation (called Pelagianism), St. Augustine (d. 430) contended that unbaptized children who die are condemned to hell. They do not suffer all its pains because they are not guilty of personal sin, but because baptism is necessary for salvation, they will not enter heaven.
Later theologians, in the Middle Ages, posited the existence of limbo as a way to soften the harshness of St. Augustine’s position. Unlike the state of quasi-hell posited by St. Augustine, these theologians defined limbo as a quasi-heaven. Limbo was considered to be a place or state of where unbaptized persons enjoy a natural state of happiness. These people experience every natural happiness, but they remain excluded from the Beatific Vision of God in heaven. Some incorrectly identify this limbo with the hell of the Apostle’s Creed where, according to tradition, Christ spent the interval between Good Friday and Easter Sunday.
The Theological Problems with Limbo
Limbo’s theological foundations are shaky at best. The Catholic Church teaches that God wants all people to be saved. God wills for all people to join him in heaven. We also know that God is merciful and that people can get to heaven who have not known Jesus through no fault of their own.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church expresses well the Catholic Church’s teaching on how we can reconcile the necessity of baptism with the belief that God wills the salvation of all people:
Since Christ died for all, and since all men 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 partakers, in a way known to God, of the Paschal mystery. Every man who is ignorant of the Gospel of Christ and of His church but seeks the truth and does the will of God in accordance with his understanding of it, can be saved. It may be supposed that such persons would have desired baptism explicitly if they had known its necessity (CCC 1260).
To put this passage in simpler language, Jesus died for everyone. Therefore, we all have the same destiny: heavenly joy. Not everyone gets a chance to hear the good news of Jesus and choose to be baptized. We may hope for salvation for those who seek the truth and act ethically in accordance with how they understand morality. An unbaptized baby is not old enough to seek the truth and choose to behave in an ethical way, but neither has the unbaptized baby rejected truth or moral behavior. We have certainty that a baptized baby who dies will end up in heaven, but we have good grounds for hope that babies who die without baptism will also experience the joy of eternal life in the presence of God.
Therefore, the belief that unbaptized babies are denied the beatific vision and sent to a place that’s not quite heaven and not quite hell does not seem to agree with the Church’s current understanding of God’s universal salvific will and mercy.
The Current View of Limbo
The Church does not accept or officially condemn the theory of Limbo because it is a theological theory. Theological theories usually don’t result in official responses by the Church unless it becomes clear that these theories are either excellent ways of explaining doctrine or that they explicitly go against such doctrine. The Church may also reject some theories as heretical if it becomes clear that they are not in accord with the truth found in Scripture and Tradition.
The theory of Limbo is not heretical because Scripture and Tradition do not explicitly say what happens to unbaptized babies. However, due to the problems with the theory of Limbo, this theory plays almost no role in current Catholic theology. Instead, modern theology and church practice stress the fundamental solidarity of redeemed humanity and God’s will that all may be saved.