Catholic Theology contains many teachings about the afterlife. Perhaps, the most controversial aspect of these teachings is that of Limbo. Many comments, even jokes, over the years have been made about Limbo and Catholic Theology. The term “limbo” is derived from the Latin, limbus, meaning “hem” or “border”. The Catholic Education Resource Center asserts;
“Note that the Church has never officially defined the doctrine of Limbo. Rather, Limbo is a theological supposition that a popular way of dealing with a teaching of our Lord regarding the necessity of baptism for eternal salvation and what happens to the souls of individuals who die without being baptized.”
The main passage on which this teaching rests in is the Gospel of John; Jesus taught, “I solemnly assure you, no one can either into God’s kingdom without being begotten of water and Spirit”. (John 3:5)
In the development of the thought, two forms of Limbo emerged. Limbo Patrum refers to the temporary place and state of rest of the souls of the just who had died and were waiting the saving action of the Messiah. There are three circumstances that exist which are (I) that their condition is one of happiness, (2) that it is temporary, and (3) that it is to be replaced by a condition of final or permanent bliss when the Messianic Kingdom is established. Limbus Infantium refers to the “children’s limbo”, meaning the permanent place and state of the souls of those who have died without baptism and without mortal sin, particularly the souls of infants. These souls are denied eternal life in Heaven and the Beatific vision due solely to the effects of Original Sin. This understanding is denoted as “limbus infantium” or “limbus puerorum”.
The CERC concludes;
“Although we do not hear much of Limbo much these days, the very truths surrounding the discussion stand. The Catechism asserts, ‘ 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 cause 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. All the more urgent is the Church’s call not to prevent little children coming to Christ through the gift of holy Baptism (#1261)”.
The Church, under Pope Benedict XVI, finally put the issue to rest in 2007. The Church’s International Theological Commission said Limbo reflected an “unduly restrictive view of salvation”. Pope Benedict, himself a top theologian, who before his election in 2005 expressed doubts about limbo, authorized the publication of a document, called “The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized”.
The document was seen as most likely the final word since limbo was never part of Church doctrine, even though it was taught to Catholics well into the 20th century. In part it reads;
“The conclusion of this study is that there are theological and liturgical reasons to hope that infants who die without baptism may be saved and brought into eternal happiness even if there is not an explicit teaching on this question found in revelation. . . There are reasons to hope that God will save these infants precisely because it was not possible (to baptize them).”
The document stressed that its conclusions should not be interpreted as questioning original sin or “used to negate the necessity of baptism or delay the conferral of the sacrament. . . People find it increasingly difficult to accept that God is just and merciful if he excludes infants, who have no personal sins, from eternal happiness, whether they are Christian or non-Christian,” It said the study was made all the more pressing because “the number of non-baptized infants has grown considerably, and therefore the reflection on the possibility of salvation for these infants has become urgent”. The commission’s conclusions were very forceful. In writings before his election as Pope in 2005, the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger made it clear he believed the concept of limbo should be abandoned because it was “only a theological hypothesis” and “never a defined truth of faith”.
By dropping the teaching of Limbo, the Catholic, Universal, Church embraces all peoples. This act of embracing the non-baptized is based on the infinite mercy of God.