It was a common belief in the 1940’s and 1950’s that the fate of unbaptized babies who die is that they go to a place called Limbo; a place of natural happiness, but yet excluded from the beatific vision of God for all eternity because they still bear the stain of original sin not washed away through baptism.
Proponents of the belief in Limbo cite the 2nd ecumenical council of Lyons in 1274 as the infallible teaching of the Church.
There are 2 seemingly contradictory ideas that cause consternation in many people regarding the salvation of unbaptized infants:
- God desires all to be saved.
- No one has a natural right to the beatific vision without being born again (Jn 3:5)
I think that Limbo was a theological attempt to harmonize these ideas.
Denzinger’s The Sources of Catholic Dogma *(Enchiridion Symbolorum) and *Dr. Ludwig Ott: Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, Tan Books, both mention Limbo.
Under Denzinger, there are 2 passages that form the basis of the theological opinion of Limbo.
The first one is D 464, from the 2nd Council of Lyons in 1274 in which it says that "souls who die in the state of mortal sin or with original sin only immediately descend into hell, yet to be punished with different punishments.”
Ott states that this teaching is de fide, meaning that it is an infallible and irrevocable dogma of the Catholic Church. (Ott page 113-114, 4th edition, 1960)
The different punishments are for those who die in objective mortal sin who have freely rejected God’s grace and offer of salvation of their own free will, and those who have committed no personal sin, but are tainted by the sin of Adam, thus losing their original inheritance. Those in original sin only have no natural right to heaven. Only through the merits of Christ applied to them in Baptism is their soul regenerated.
The other Denzinger citation is D 1526 in which Pius VI (1775-1799) condemns the errors of the Synod of Pistoia. In it, Pius holds to the opinion of the existence of Limbo in condemning those who reject that original sin deprives us of the beatific vision.
Here Pius VI is not making an infallible declaration (not everything the pope says is infallible).
Ott, states that this dogma from the council of II Lyons finds its foundations in the words of Christ in Jn 3:5, “Unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God.”
He (Ott) then goes on to explain various theological opinions.
- In it he says that the spiritual re-birth of young infants can be achieved in an extra-sacramental manner through baptism of blood.
- Other emergency means of baptism for children dying without sacramental baptism such as prayer and the desire of the parents or the Church (vicarious baptism as described by Cajetan), or the attainment of the use of reason in the moment of death so that the dying child can make a decision for or against God (baptism of desire, H. Klee) or the suffering and death of the child as a quasi-sacrament (baptism of suffering, H Schell).
In these, Ott says that these are indeed possible, but cannot be proved from Revelation.