Fate of Unbaptized Infants: ITC's 2007 Document

Several recent threads suggest many Catholics struggle with this topic. So, let’s discuss the actual text from “The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptised” (April 19, 2007), published with Pontifical approval by the International Theological Commission (ITC). Here are some interesting excerpts:

7…While the necessity of Baptism is de fide, the tradition and the documents of the magisterium which have reaffirmed this necessity need to be interpreted. While it is true that the universal salvific will of God is not opposed to the necessity of Baptism, it is also true that infants, for their part, do not place any personal obstacle in the way of redemptive grace. On the other hand, Baptism is administered to infants, who are free from personal sins, not only in order to free them from original sin, but also to insert them into the communion of salvation which is the Church, by means of communion in the death and resurrection of Christ (cf. Rom 6:1-7). Grace is totally free, because it is always a pure gift of God. Damnation, however, is deserved, because it is the consequence of free human choice.[10] The infant who dies with Baptism is saved by the grace of Christ and through the intercession of the Church, even without his or her cooperation. It can be asked whether the infant who dies without Baptism, but for whom the Church in its prayer expresses the desire for salvation, can be deprived of the vision of God even without his or her cooperation.

  1. There seems to be a tension between two of the biblical doctrines just mentioned: the universal salvific will of God on the one side, and the necessity of sacramental Baptism on the other. The latter seems to limit the extension of God’s universal salvific will. Hence a hermeneutical reflection is needed about how the witnesses of tradition (Church Fathers, the magisterium, theologians) read and used biblical texts and doctrines with respect to the problem being dealt with. More specifically, one has to clarify what kind of ‘necessity’ is claimed with respect to the sacrament of Baptism in order to avoid a mistaken understanding. The necessity of sacramental Baptism is a necessity of the second order compared to the absolute necessity of God’s saving act through Jesus Christ for the final salvation of every human being. Sacramental Baptism is necessary because it is the ordinary means through which a person shares the beneficial effects of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
  1. …On the other hand, when the Jansenist Synod of Pistoia (1786) denounced the medieval theory of “Limbo”, Pius VI defended the right of the Catholic Schools to teach that those who died with the guilt of original sin alone are punished with the lack of the Beatific Vision (“punishment of loss”), but not sensible pains (the punishment of “fire”). In the bull “Auctorem Fidei” (1794), the Pope condemned as “false, rash, injurious to the Catholic schools” the Jansenist teaching “which rejects as a Pelagian fable [fabula pelagiana] that place in the lower regions (which the faithful call the ‘Limbo of Children’) in which the souls of those departing with the sole guilt of original sin are punished with the punishment of the condemned, without the punishment of fire, just as if whoever removes the punishment of fire thereby introduces that middle place and state free of guilt and of punishment between the Kingdom of God and eternal damnation of which the Pelagians idly talk”.[53] Papal interventions during this period, then, protected the freedom of the Catholic schools to wrestle with this question. They did not endorse the theory of Limbo as a doctrine of faith. Limbo, however, was the common Catholic teaching until the mid-20th century.

I have to now defer to the ITC and be willing to call the theory of limbo a “common teaching” but not a doctrine of faith



  1. In the Church’s tradition, the affirmation that children who died unbaptised are deprived of the beatific vision has for a long time been “common doctrine”. This common doctrine followed upon a certain way of reconciling the received principles of revelation, but it did not possess the certitude of a statement of faith, or the same certitude as other affirmations whose rejection would entail the denial of a divinely revealed dogma or of a teaching proclaimed by a definitive act of the magisterium. The study of the history of the Church’s reflection on this subject shows that it is necessary to make distinctions. In this summary we distinguish first, statements of faith and what pertains to the faith; second, common doctrine; and third, theological opinion.

38…By maintaining the freedom of the Catholic Schools to propose different solutions to the problem of the fate of unbaptised infants, the Holy See defended the common teaching as an acceptable and legitimate option, without endorsing it.

  1. In summary: the affirmation that infants who die without Baptism suffer the privation of the beatific vision has long been the common doctrine of the Church, which must be distinguished from the faith of the Church. As for the theory that the privation of the beatific vision is their sole punishment, to the exclusion of any other pain, this is a theological opinion, despite its long acceptance in the West. The particular theological thesis concerning a “natural happiness” sometimes ascribed to these infants likewise constitutes a theological opinion.
  1. Therefore, besides the theory of Limbo (which remains a possible theological opinion), there can be other ways to integrate and safeguard the principles of the faith grounded in Scripture: the creation of the human being in Christ and his vocation to communion with God; the universal salvific will of God; the transmission and the consequences of original sin; the necessity of grace in order to enter into the Kingdom of God and attain the vision of God; the uniqueness and universality of the saving mediation of Christ Jesus; and the necessity of Baptism for salvation. These other ways are not achieved by modifying the principles of the faith, or by elaborating hypothetical theories; rather, they seek an integration and coherent reconciliation of the principles of the faith under the guidance of the ecclesial magisterium, by giving more weight to God’s universal salvific will and to solidarity in Christ (cf. GS 22) in order to account for the hope that infants dying without Baptism could enjoy eternal life in the beatific vision.
  1. The Letter of the Holy Office to the Archbishop of Boston (1949) offers further specifications. “To gain eternal salvation, it is not always required that a person be incorporated in reality (reapse) as a member of the Church, but it is necessary that one belong to it at least in desire and longing (voto et desiderio). It is not always necessary that this desire be explicit as it is with catechumens. When one is invincibly ignorant, God also accepts an implicit desire, so called because it is contained in the good disposition of soul by which a person wants his or her will to be conformed to God’s will”.

Letter of the Holy Office to the Archbishop of Boston, DS 3870; ND 855.

66….While considering sacramental Baptism necessary inasmuch as it is the ordinary way established by Jesus Christ to configure human beings to himself, the Church has never taught the “absolute necessity” of sacramental Baptism for salvation; there are other avenues whereby the configuration with Christ can be realized. Already in the early Christian community, it was accepted that martyrdom, the “Baptism of blood”, was a substitute for sacramental Baptism. Furthermore, there was the acknowledgement of the Baptism of desire. In this regard, the words of Thomas Aquinas are pertinent: “The sacrament of Baptism may be wanting to someone in two ways. First, both in reality and in desire; as is the case with those who neither are baptised, nor wish to be baptised…Secondly, the sacrament of Baptism may be wanting to anyone in reality but not in desire…Such a man can obtain salvation without being actually baptised on account of his desire for Baptism”.[95] The Council of Trent acknowledges “Baptism of desire” as a way whereby one can be justified without the actual reception of the sacrament of Baptism: “After the promulgation of the Gospel, this transition [from sin to justice] cannot take place without the bath of regeneration or the desire for it for as it is written: ‘Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, one cannot enter the kingdom of God (Jn 3:5)’”.[96]

  1. It must be clearly acknowledged that the Church does not have sure knowledge about the salvation of unbaptised infants who die. She knows and celebrates the glory of the Holy Innocents, but the destiny of the generality of infants who die without Baptism has not been revealed to us, and the Church teaches and judges only with regard to what has been revealed. What we do positively know of God, Christ and the Church gives us grounds to hope for their salvation, as must now be explained.
  1. c) It is also possible that God simply acts to give the gift of salvation to unbaptised infants by analogy with the gift of salvation given sacramentally to baptized infants.[118]We may perhaps compare this to God’s unmerited gift to Mary at her Immaculate Conception, by which he simply acted to give her in advance the grace of salvation in Christ.
  1. What has been revealed to us is that the ordinary way of salvation is by the sacrament of Baptism. None of the above considerations should be taken as qualifying the necessity of Baptism or justifying delay in administering the sacrament.[135] Rather, as we want to reaffirm in conclusion, they provide strong grounds for hope that God will save infants when we have not been able to do for them what we would have wished to do, namely, to baptize them into the faith and life of the Church.

These are the excerpts I found most compelling. Feel free to check out the full text at vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/cti_documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_20070419_un-baptised-infants_en.html

There is much in the above that we could discuss…


This is bothering:

"Limbo, however, was the common Catholic teaching until the mid-20th century. "

That being so, why is it no longer that ?

If it not true - why was it taught to many generations as Catholic teaching ? They were, it seems, being taught an untruth.

If it is true - how can it not continue to be taught, as true ? If it is not - what other fictions, errors, & rubbish are we being taught, not in the past, but *now *? And if the Church can unsay its teaching like this, why should anyone believe a syllable it says ? And what about an apology to the tens of thousands of parents whose unbaptised children have been buried in unconsecrated ground in accordance with the 1917 Code of Canon Law? It is nothing but child-abuse to deny their infants a Christian burial on the ground of a doctrine which is now being denied; it’s contemptible :mad:

And how is this document to be reconciled with the teaching of the “Doctrinal Commentary on the Concluding Formula of the Professio Fidei” accompanying “Ad Tuendam Fidem” ? To quote:
*]10. The third proposition of the Professio fidei states: “Moreover, I adhere with religious submission of will and intellect to the teachings which either the Roman Pontiff or the College of Bishops enunciate when they exercise their authentic Magisterium, even if they do not intend to proclaim these teachings by a definitive act.”[/LIST][LIST]
*]To this paragraph belong all those teachings – on faith and morals – presented as true or at least as sure, even if they have not been defined with a solemn judgment or proposed as definitive by the ordinary and universal Magisterium. Such teachings are, however, an authentic expression of the ordinary Magisterium of the Roman Pontiff or of the College of Bishops and therefore require religious submission of will and intellect. They are set forth in order to arrive at a deeper understanding of revelation, or to recall the conformity of a teaching with the truths of faith, or lastly to warn against ideas incompatible with these truths or against dangerous opinions that can lead to error.[/LIST][LIST]
*]A proposition contrary to these doctrines can be qualified as erroneous or, in the case of teachings of the prudential order, as rash or dangerous and therefore `tuto doceri non potest.’

[Skip seven paragraphs ][/LIST][LIST]
*]As examples of doctrines belonging to the third paragraph, one can point in general to teachings set forth by the authentic ordinary Magisterium in a non-definitive way, which require degrees of adherence differentiated according to the mind and the will manifested; this is shown especially by the nature of the documents, by the frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or by the tenor of the verbal expression.[/LIST]emphasis mine]

The document gets rid of one difficulty, only to raise a host of others. :eek: :frowning: :eek:

For the whole Doctrinal Commentary on the Concluding Formula of the Professio **fidei: **ncronline.org/NCR_Online/documents/ratz.htm - it makes mincemeat of the ITC document on Limbo

Limbo has never been a doctrine of the Church and we have never been obliged to believe it.

Part of the difficulty is grasping the terminology employed by the ITC document.

It recognizes that “limbo” was mere “theological opinion”, but also acknowledges that it effectively became “common doctrine” WITHOUT becoming official doctrine–that is, something actually, posivitely taught by the Church’s Magisterium.

Thus, when it uses the term “common doctrine”, it does so precisely to distinguish it from “magisterial teaching”.

“Common doctrine” implies it was believed and even protected by the Magisterium as a theological opinion, but never officially taught through the Magisterium.


Well because for the last 40 years we have been casting aside many common Catholic teachings and practices and de-emphasizing many others. We have been digging ourselves into a deep ecumenical-catechetical hole and after evaluating our situation decided to simply keep digging, in hopes of digging ourselves out!

Uh…no we haven’t…

The Magisterium is incapable of digging itself into a catechetical “hole”. It universally teaches only the truth.


Actually, the reason your text from Ad Tuendam Fidem does not impact the ITC’s treatment of limbo is twofold:

  1. The belief in limbo was NOT taught by the unversal Magisterium of the Church.

  2. The ITC publication, while bearing the approval of Pope Benedict, is also non-Magisterial. Its work is consultatory.

That does not mean the ITC document is erroneous–in fact, it’s an excellent synthesis of this issue. It really establishes a very balanced view.


Why is it that some people really would get off more on Limbo being true than in Unbaptized children actually going to Heaven?

I think they’re trying to protect the teaching integrity of the Church (a good thing) and avoid tossing out doctrine that is no longer “popular” (a good thing also). Problem is, limbo was never doctrine, and even the very “rigid” Baltimore Catechism calls it no more than a “common belief”.

What I’m hoping for is a simple end to some Catholics stating uncomprimisingly that unBaptized infants must go directly to Heaven! It cannot be any other way, period, or my God is not a loving God! That Original Sin is simply an invention of the Church from the dark ages and children are born totally innocent!

Yes, I understand. To automatically save infants is as much a violation of their free will as to automatically damn them. I personally try to be very careful in how I state my position, which is that we may hope that God in some manner offers the means of salvation to those infants who die without water baptism.

But we know that two wrongs won’t make a right–getting “dogmatic” about “limbo” won’t solve people’s difficulties with original sin.

Our job is to get it all right–and to admit when we’re not sure.

That’s really what the Church has done in recent years–reaffirmed that we really don’t know and can hope that the mercy of God will provide what creation can’t provide for souls who die without baptism or its desire.

It’s okay to hope.

Equally, it appears “okay” to presume that unbaptized infants may go to limbo. The Church has “protected” the right to this view in the past, even if it has not directly taught it.

But, as Jerry-Jet put it–why would we want to when the Church says we can hope for something better for them?

Hoping doesn’t eradicate the reality of original sin–it just gives God His due as the One who decides this.


Not if they were being taught what they should have been, that it is a permissible theological opinion, and one that has great weight from the Doctors of the Church. If what they were being taught is that this is a dogmatic position of the Church that must be held by all the faithful, then you would be correct.

If it is true - how can it not continue to be taught, as true ? If it is not - what other fictions, errors, & rubbish are we being taught, not in the past, but *now *? And if the Church can unsay its teaching like this, why should anyone believe a syllable it says ?

It was always true and it is still true that it is a permissible theological opinion. I am sorry that you thought it was something more than this.

And what about an apology to the tens of thousands of parents whose unbaptised children have been buried in unconsecrated ground in accordance with the 1917 Code of Canon Law? It is nothing but child-abuse to deny their infants a Christian burial on the ground of a doctrine which is now being denied; it’s contemptible

Well, I can tell you are certainly angry about it. But I don’t see it as unreasonable that limbo as the prevailing theological opinion for hundreds of years influenced the decision to bury unbaptized children in unconsecrated ground. And you are incorrect that it is now a “doctrine” that is being denied. It still is what it always was, although now being questioned more intensely than in the past. It could still attain the status of dogma. Do you know what the consequences would be then of burying the unbaptized in consecrated ground?

For the whole Doctrinal Commentary on the Concluding Formula of the Professio **fidei: **ncronline.org/NCR_Online/documents/ratz.htm - it makes mincemeat of the ITC document on Limbo

I don’t think it has any application to the ITC document. It is based on your assumption that limbo was a dogma of the Church that required the assent of all the faithful.

What I heard was that because of original sin and free will unbaptized children would have a choice before God to accept or reject him, much like the fallen angels.

Yes! We simply don’t know, they could be in Limbo, but do hope that there might be a way.

What you heard is wrong.

It is so important to be precise in our words.

What should have been said is:

…that because of original sin and free will unbaptized children MIGHT have a choice before God to accept or reject him, much like the fallen angels.

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