Oh, so the Pope abolished Limbo, did he?

 1st June, 2007

There’s been a bit of a controversy, recently, on the subject of Limbo. One of my friends claimed, in his blog, somewhat simplistically, that the Pope had abolished it. I’ve also thought Limbo a fascinating subject, probably because I’ve very often desperately wanted to be in Limbo myself. And, after all, Limbo is a subject that should be of concern to everyone,because ending up there is something that happens rather easily.

I replied to this friend that the Pope hadn’t abolished Limbo. If nothing else, this is because although belief in Limbo is common, the Roman Catholic church has never formally proclaimed its existence as a dogma in which its membership must believe. It’s true that the Pope had expressed positions about the subject, in a personal capacity, before he was elected to the papacy, in 1984, when he was Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith 1. The views then expressed, however you interpret them, in any event aren’t binding on the Church, nor on the Pope that he subsequently became.

More recently, however, the Pope did authorize publication of a report that expresses, in line with the 1992 Cathechism 2, the hope that children aged under seven who die unbaptized—and thus marked by original sin, yet are too young to have committed mortal sin, might not merely remain in a state of happiness compatible with their lack of personal guilt, though confined at the very edge of Paradise, full access to the latter being reserved for those who acquired a state of grace through baptism and subsequently maintained or recovered that status:

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’s tenderness toward children, which caused him to say, Let the children come to me, do not hinder them (Mark 10:14, cf. 1 Tim. 2:4), 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.

Publications of the Holy See . II-1 VI. The Necessity of Baptism, 1261. Cathechism of the Catholic Church

Although this is obviously off-topic, one could express the same hope regarding anyone qualifying for what Dante called the Limbo of the Fathers3.

Conversely, when a child under seven years of age dies baptized, bells are rung and white ornaments are used for the funeral, since in this case one is absolutely certain that Heaven has just received a new angel in its bosom, which is a cause for celebration, rather than mourning, for anyone who holds that belief. This does not, however, mean that unbaptized children, if a similar tragedy were to be visited upon their families, or even virtuous pagans, to use a traditional term that has regained relevance in recent times owing to the spread of religious indifferentism, will be confined to Limbo, or worse, rather than Heaven.

The sacraments were instituted by God as a means of attaining salvation, but He is not bound by His sacraments. God is respectful of man’s personal freedom, which is inseparable from the dignity that He impressed on him when creating him in His own image, together with the ability to distinguish and choose between good and evil. Yet He remains almighty in this respect as in all others. It is therefore legitimate to express, as the Pope did, a hope that those who did not benefit from the sacraments, especially if it was not through personal choice, will not be penalised as a result.

My friend and I, however, being over seven years of age, will no doubt be glad that we have been baptized. Had we died before reaching the age of reason, we would have been certain of Heaven, rather as if our parents had taken out comprehensive insurance, but we continue to benefit from this in the event that we re in a state of mortal sin. reading my friend’s blog, I suspect this may very well be his case, as it is mine, and we should probably both hasten to carry out the necessary formalities in such situations.

  1. The book-interview wherein the then-Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith made his decisive declaration on Limbo was conducted by Italian journalist Vittorio Messori. It was originally published in Italian under the title Rapporto sulla Fede (Report on the Faith) in 1985. Ignatius Press translated it to English under the title The Ratzinger Report. Comparing both the Italian and English editions, however, the English translation reveals a small imprecision in the principal affirmation by the then Cardinal Ratzinger on Limbo. The original Italian words were: Si lasci pure cadere il concetto di limbo se è necessario. Although the sense remains the same in the Ignatius Press translation, what the Cardinal actually said in Italian translates better to English as: Just let the concept of limbo drop if need be, rather than: One should not hesitate to give up the idea of limbo, as shown below. ↩︎

  2. St Thomas Aquinas was the first major theologian to speculate about the existence of a place called limbo. Its name is derived from the Latin limbus which means hem or edge. There, on the edge of heaven, the unbaptised would exist in a state of what he described as natural happiness. In 1905, Pope Pius X made a definitive declaration confirming the existence of Limbo. However, this was not an infallible statement by the Pope: Children who die without baptism go into limbo, where they do not enjoy God, but they do not suffer either, because having Original Sin, and only that, they do not deserve paradise, but neither hell or purgatory. ↩︎

  3. This is not mentioned in the Bible, but is believed to be a state or place for the souls of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and other believers who died before Christ’s ascension. They may have qualified for Heaven on the basis of their holiness during life, or on the basis of attaining holiness through painful discipline in Purgatory. They must, however, wait in this Limbo until the time of the Final Judgment, when they will be admitted to Heaven. Meanwhile, they are generally believed to be in a state of happiness. Limbo is the same location as that mentioned in the Apostles’ Creed where Jesus is said to have stayed during the period between His death and resurrection. ↩︎