The Catechism is right, we do not need limbo

Christ's Descent into Limbo by Andrea Mantegna (Wikimedia Commons)

The recent article “Abandoning limbo would leave a serious gap in Church teaching” makes too strong a claim about the Church’s relationship to the theory of limbo. Far from an indispensable teaching, limbo is one proposal to a theological problem, and far from a necessary one.

The author writes that “some would argue that limbo is, to all intents and purposes, a dogma,” but cites little support for this position. The closest he comes is to say that an argument against limbo “seems hard to reconcile with the Council of Florence’s solemn teaching that ‘the only remedy available’ to infants ‘is the sacrament of baptism.’” And while Ludgwig Ott’s venerable Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma does list as de fide (dogma) the proposition that “souls who depart this life in the state of original sin are excluded from the Beatific Vision of God,” this quotation only begs the question: does this teaching necessarily apply to the case of an infant or unborn child who dies without baptism? Clearly not for Ott, as he writes that “theologians usually assume that there is a special place or state for children dying without baptism which they call limbus puerorum (children’s Limbo)” (emphasis added). Are assumptions the stuff of dogma?

On the contrary, then, the theory of limbo is hardly dogmatic. The Catechism states that the Church defines a dogma “when it proposes, in a form obliging the Christian people to an irrevocable adherence of faith, truths contained in divine Revelation or also when it proposes, in a definitive way, truths having a necessary connection with these.” The Church has never defined a dogma of the limbo of infants—indeed, as the author acknowledges, it has been mentioned only once in authoritative Church documents. The mere fact that there is legitimate diversity of opinion on the subject, as the author acknowledges, proves that the notion is hardly dogmatic. Does the Church allow such diversity on any other dogma?

The title of the article thus claims that without the limbo of infants a “serious gap” is left in Church teaching. Yet a gap would only exist if no other solution were proposed to the question that the proposal of limbo attempts to answer; but this is not the case. An answer is given in the Catechism in paragraph 1261 (to which the index entry for “limbo” points):

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. Indeed, the great mercy of God who desires that all men should be saved, and Jesus’ tenderness toward children which caused him to say: ‘Let the children come to me, do not hinder them,’ allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without Baptism.

Thus the Church proposes that our knowledge of God’s love, mercy, and salvific power gives us sufficient reason to believe that children who die without Baptism can be saved. If there is any gap, it is only a lack of description of the exact method or mechanism by which God would do this, but surely “through His merciful, salvific love” is adequate to make the idea intelligible. Is it really better to propose a middle state that puts these children outside of God’s love, simply for the sake of our being able to add a few more theoretical details?

Likewise, we must remember the axiom of Peter Lombard, who wrote that God is the author of the sacraments, but He Himself is not bound by them. God doesn’t tie His own hands by His gift of the sacraments to us.

The problem is essentially an epistemological one: we are presented with a question without an explicit answer from Revelation, so we form hypotheses based upon what we do know. Both sides of the debate here posit a theory. The limbo theorists propose a middle state where the soul experiences neither the pains of damnation nor the bliss of the Beatific Vision. Sources such as the Catechism or the International Theological Commission’s study propose that the love and mercy of God can provide the means by which these souls are brought into the joy of heaven. Neither side can claim Divine Revelation or dogmatic definition as support. Both sides simply say, “We do not know how this would work, so we propose X.”

To add one more opinion to the debate, it seems more fitting that the God who in the person of His Son bade the children to come to Him would provide the means to bring the countless of children who, through no fault of their own, did not reach the baptismal font to enter into their Father’s house.