Abandoning limbo would leave a serious gap in Church teaching

An icon in the Chora church, Istanbul, shows Christ on Holy Saturday pulling Adam and Eve out of the limbo of the fathers (Wikimedia)

Many Catholics today assume that limbo is, so to speak, a thing of the past. Limbo is a term invented in the Middle Ages to describe the destination of souls who (temporarily or permanently) cannot enter heaven but are not guilty of actual sin. Nowadays people assume that limbo is just a theological opinion and all those who die without mortal sin are saved. Even the non-magisterial Vatican consultative group the ITC tried to avoid the doctrine in a 2007 report.

But next month in Ramsgate, a theological colloquium, organised by the Dialogos Institute, will look again at the importance of limbo. A number of the distinguished speakers are likely to challenge the idea that limbo can be abandoned. Although the word “limbo” has only been used once in an authoritative document (in 1794), discarding it leaves a serious gap in Church teaching. Some would argue that limbo is, to all intents and purposes, a dogma.

The issue can be confused by differences of terminology. When we recite in the creed that Christ “descended into hell”, we are referring to what theologians have called “the limbo of the fathers”. In the Bible the place where the wicked are tormented after death is called Gehenna as distinct from Sheol or Hades a more general term for the place of the dead outside heaven. Confusingly, classic English translations of scripture translate both as “Hell”. But Lazarus, before the gates of heaven were opened on Holy Saturday, went to a place called “the Bosom of Abraham” (Lk 16:22-23). This is what the medievals meant by limbo.

The just of the Old Testament, though cleansed of original sin and actual sin by the coming Messiah, could not enter into the vision of God until Christ died and descended. As the Catechism explains, “In his human soul united to his divine person, the dead Christ went down to the realm of the dead. He opened heaven’s gates for the just who had gone before him” (CCC 637). This event is most famously depicted in the ancient Byzantine icon of the Resurrection (see above).

Limbo in this sense is only controversial to the followers of the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, whose peculiar views on Christ’s descent (that Christ suffered the torments of the damned) were happily ignored by the editors of the Catechism.

As well as the limbo of the fathers, there is the limbo of the infants: the destination of babies who, though they cannot enter heaven because they have not been baptised, are guilty of no personal sin. As St Gregory Nazianzen put it, these infants “will neither be admitted by the just judge to the glory of Heaven nor condemned to suffer punishment.” That those who die in original sin only are confined to hell in this sense is not a theological opinion but a dogma of the Catholic Church solemnly defined by the seventeenth ecumenical council in 1438, which taught “the souls of those who depart this life in actual mortal sin, or in original sin alone, go down straightaway to hell to be punished, but with unequal pains.”

This sense of limbo arouses controversy, because so many people have lost infants in the womb or shortly after childbirth and do not wish to renounce the prospect of ever being reunited with them in heaven. Here, approved Catholic theologians hold different views. Cardinal Cajetan suggested that the faith of Christian parents who cannot baptise a child in time would occasion a “vicarious baptism of desire”, so that they would indeed go to heaven. This opinion is officially tolerated, though it seems hard to reconcile with the Council of Florence’s solemn teaching that “the only remedy available” to infants “is the sacrament of baptism”.

A more plausible suggestion comes from the fierce 15th-century Dominican Girolamo Savonarola, who thought that, although denied the vision of God, the inhabitants of Limbo would dwell together with the blessed after the general resurrection. But some modern theologians dislike Limbo precisely because it allows for a relatively self-sufficient natural happiness.

But although those who die in actual sin suffer in hell, neither the limbo of the infants nor the limbo of the fathers is a place distinguished by suffering (see Luke 16:19–31). Even if one takes the gloomy view of St Gregory the Great and St Augustine, who taught that infants undergo “the mildest condemnation of all”, one must bear in mind that this would be a quasi-paradisal condition unimaginably happier than the world in which we now live.

Some try and avoid limbo entirely by saying that no one actually dies in original sin only. But this seems hardly more reasonable than a claim that no one dies in mortal sin. After all, Jesus is pretty clear that “few” are saved and “many” are lost.

Perhaps, after all, the only thing up for negotiation about the doctrine of limbo is the name.