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The existence of Limbo: a common doctrine from which it would be rash to depart

"And what, My children, are We going to do with all the aborted babies?  Oh My child, I know you feel as I do, for I can see the great distress on your face.  What are We going to do, My child?  Do you understand when they come to Us, they must go to Limbo?  They are in Heaven, a happy place, but they cannot see God.  I know you cannot understand fully this, My child, and I know it hurts you to the heart; but it is the ways of the Eternal Father to know just how a soul shall ascend or descend.” – Our Lady of the Roses, October 2, 1987 

Much of the article below is taken from the book, Limbo: Unsettled Question, by George J. Dyer, S.T.D.



According to Fr. Dyer, “Limbo stands on the two dogmatic pillars of original sin and the necessity of baptism.” A traditional explanation of limbo is given by Fr. Dyer: “Theologians usually conclude to the existence of limbo from several facts: (1) Baptism, by martyrdom, by water or by desire is necessary for salvation in the present dispensation. (2) But it would seem that an infant is incapable of placing an act of desire, and hence baptism of desire is ruled out, leaving the infant in original sin. (3) The infant who dies in original sin, but without personal sin, will suffer the loss of the Beatific Vision, but not suffer any positive sufferings in addition to that.” [1] 

Limbo is a simple idea compounded of two different elements: (1) the exclusion of unbaptized infants from heaven, and (2) the absence in their case of the torment of hell—the pain of sense and sorrow over their exile. [2] “Since infants who die unbaptized have committed no sin,” writes Bishop Morrow, “they live in a place of natural happiness called ‘limbo.’” [3]  Fathers McHugh and Callan explain that “Infants who die without Baptism are not held guilty of neglecting the Sacraments, but lack of it deprives them of the supernatural bliss promised by Christ. Only Baptism confers regeneration, and only the regenerated are capable of the vision of God.” [4] It should be noted that many heretics, including Martin Luther, have denied any middle ground between heaven and hell to unbaptized children. [5]  

Conviction of the Church through the centuries 

“But infants since they are not capable of this desire are excluded, faith teaches us, from the kingdom of heaven … if they die unregenerated by baptism.”
- Roman Catechism, part 2, chapter 2, n. 24


Fr. Dyer notes that it has been “the apparent conviction of the Church through the centuries that a child must be baptized in this life if it is to enter the kingdom of Heaven. This idea is not a dogma of the Church; it has never been the object of a definition. But it is a persuasion that seems to have accompanied the thinking of the Church over the centuries.” [6]  Many statements by Popes and Church councils seem to indicate the reality of limbo. In fact, the Roman Catechism, promulgated after the Council of Trent emphasized that the law of baptism “extends not only to adults but also to infants and children, and that the Church has received this from Apostolic tradition, is conformed by the unaminous teaching and authority of the Fathers.” The Roman Catechism also states: “But infants since they are not capable of this desire are excluded, faith teaches us, from the kingdom of heaven … if they die unregenerated by baptism.” [7]  

In 1954, the English Jesuit Bernard Leeming wrote a hopeful explanation of the reunion of an unbaptized child and its baptized parents. Fr. Leeming  

“suggested the possibility of a reunion in eternity of a child and its parents. The parents would enjoy the beatific vision and the child would not, but this would not prevent a free association between them….  Fr. Leeming’s theory is perhaps best appreciated in the illustration he offers. Let us suppose that a mother and her small son are walking through an art museum. As they walk along hand-in-hand, the youngster is obviously delighted with the shiny marble floors, the brightly lighted rooms, the splashes of color and, most of all, his mother. On the other hand, the mother appreciates all this and much more too. Because of her maturity and her education, she can glimpse in the paintings a whole world of ideas that is closed to the child. Mother and child are in identical surroundings, but with quite a different effect.” [8]

St. Thomas Aquinas on Limbo  

St. Thomas Aquinas, perhaps the greatest of theologians, grew in his understanding of limbo over the years. In 1255 St. Thomas said that children are aware of their lost destiny but feel no regret. In 1265 he said they feel no regret because they have no idea of what they have lost: 

“Thomas, it is clear, ruled out the pain of sense as a punishment for original sin. But the pain of sense is not the greatest torment of the damned. By divine decree the children in limbo are eternally exiled from the vision of God. Do they chafe under their misfortune? Do they rebel against the providence that banished them? St. Thomas had a more difficult problem here than he did in dealing with the pain of sense. Augustine and John Chrysostom alike had insisted that the loss of heaven was a far greater torment than the fire of hell. And surely this loss would be felt far more keenly by one who was innocent of any personal guilt! How, then, could children help resenting their exile, and the providence that had decreed it? Thomas gave two answers to the question over a period of some ten years; and in doing so he shifted ground remarkably.
     “In the year 1255 Thomas completed his commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard. At that time he remarked that no one regrets the lack of something which he is totally unequipped to have. A man may regret the loss of his home, his family, his good name; but no reasonable man permits himself to be distressed over his inability to fly like a swallow. The analogy holds good in the case of the child in limbo. The child will know that he was meant for the beatific vision; he will know, too, why he lost his chance to enjoy it, but it won’t distress him. He will see too clearly that he has no natural ability to enjoy the beatific vision. The intuitive vision of the divine nature is farther beyond his reach than flying is beyond the corner butcher’s. It is conceivable, of course, that there are people who get upset over their inability to fly like birds; but such people are confined to institutions. We don’t find them in the reasonable world of limbo. (II Sent. d. 33, q. 2, a. 2)
     “Some ten years later St. Thomas had a second thought on this problem. (De Malo, q. 5, a. 3)  Children, he finally decided, will not be disturbed over their loss simply because they will not know what they have lost. They will go through eternity unaware of their supernatural destiny, never dreaming of the sin that put it beyond their reach. They will, of course, reason to the fact that they were meant to possess God. Since they have not the knowledge of faith, they will never guess the divine decree that would admit man to the vision of God; and what they don’t know won’t hurt them. They will spend eternity contemplating God so far as their nature permits, never dreaming that they were destined for something immeasurably more glorious.
     “St. Thomas had shown that children were not unhappy in limbo. Still another question remained: were the children happy? The difference between these two states of mind is not especially subtle. We may ask our neighbor how he is feeling and have him reply that at least his ulcer isn’t bothering him. The answer tells us little aside from the absence of an obvious torment; it is one thing not to be unhappy, and quite another to be happy. Did the green meadow and the glistening river of Dante’s poem speak of a natural happiness? Most theologians would say that the question is to some extent an unreal one. Man was meant to spend his eternity enjoying the vision of God. That is the final purpose of our lives; in it we find our God. That is the final purpose of our lives; in it we find our fulfillment or ‘beatitude’, as theologians would say. Deprived of this fulfillment, could any human being find real happiness?
     “St. Thomas says that the children of limbo can be happy, in spite of their exclusion from heaven. It is true that they are separated from God insofar as they do not enjoy the beatific vision, but they are united to God by their native ability to know and to love him; and in this they find their happiness.”

The Franciscans: St. Bonaventure and Duns Scotus 

According to Fr. Dyer, “We can find no theologian of the thirteenth century who thought that infants suffered the pain of sense in punishment for original sin. There seemed to be widespread agreement, too, that infants would suffer no distress over their separation from the kingdom of God [Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure, Alexander of Hales, Peter of Tartentaise, Richard Middleton, Giles of Rome, Guido of Orchellis, Peter Olivi].” [10]  

St. Bonaventure, sometimes called the second founder of the Franciscan Order, believed that those in limbo felt no grief, no physical pain. “Children in limbo, he said, enjoy a perfect balance between their knowledge and their desires, thanks to the good offices of their Creator. Since grief would imply a lack of balance, it can have no part in the lives of these children. These children stand midway between the blessed and the damned, and so they share something of each state of life. Like the damned they are exiles from heaven; like the blessed, they know no grief. (II Sent., d. 33, a. 3, q. 2)" [11] 

Duns Scotus, the theologian credited with correctly explaining the theological subtleties of Our Lady’s Immaculate Conception, also believed that the children in limbo were happy:  

“Duns Scotus, another remarkable Franciscan, was a bit more subtle in his approach to the problem. Children, he said, die in a state of personal innocence; by divine decree they will remain so for eternity.  Were they to grieve over their loss of heaven, they would lose their innocence either by murmuring against God or by sinking into despair. This is clearly impossible. Since they died without personal fault they will remain so for eternity. Therefore there can be no unhappiness among them over what they are or what they have lost.” (II Sent., d. 33, q. 1) [12]   

Popes on the necessity of baptism 

 “The Church, as far as all evidence shows, from the second to the seventh century universally believed it is to be revealed that an infant dying before any use of reason, and unbaptized, cannot attain to the beatific vision.”

– Fr. Bernard Leeming, “Is Their Baptism Really Necessary?” The Clergy Review (1954), p. 84.

A letter attributed to Pope Siricius that was later sent to Pepin and Charlemagne, indicated the practice of the Church at his time. This letter implied that anyone “who died without the sacred font would lose both the Kingdom and eternal life.” (PL 13, c. 1135) [13] 

Pope St. Leo the Great in his letter to the bishops of Sicily wrote that baptism was usually conferred at Easter and Pentecost but added that in danger of death, it must be conferred at any time, since no one must be denied this “singular remedy.” (PL 54, c. 701) [14] 

According to Fr. Dyer, “In the eighth century Pope Gregory II made more explicit the directives of Leo the Great. Baptism, he said, must be administered at Easter and Pentecost. In cases where there was a danger of death, however, the sacrament was to be administered at once ‘lest [souls] perish in eternity.’” (PL 89, c. 503) [15] 

Pope Innocent III was one of the Popes that is often cited in the limbo debate:

“Fifty years before St. Thomas arrived in Paris, Pope Innocent wrote a letter to the Archbishop of Arles, replying to a difficulty that had been proposed. In the course of his letter Innocent spoke of the punishment appropriate to actual and to original sin. Actual sin, said Innocent, is punished by the endless torment of hell; but original sin is punished by the loss of the vision of God.” (“Majores Ecclesiae,” DB, n. 410) [16]


Councils and provincial councils of the Church 

“The Second Council of Lyons was called in 1274 in hopes of healing the Eastern Schism…. Among the doctrines thus defined by the council we find the following: ‘However, the souls of those who die in mortal sin, or with original sin alone, shortly go down to hell, to be punished with different punishments however.’” [17] 

The Council of Florence: “The Council of Florence in its Decree for the Jacobites, February 1442, declared that baptism must not be put off for forty or eighty days, as some people were accustomed to do. The reason given by the council was ‘the danger of death, which can often happen, for there is no other remedy available to these [infants] except the sacrament of baptism, which delivers them from the powers of the demon and makes them adopted sons of God.’  Two questions must be answered in evaluating a statement of this sort: What is its exact meaning? What is its precise dogmatic weight? Although we have here a text taken from an ecumenical council duly approved by Pope Eugene IV, the statement itself is not part of a dogmatic definition, but rather accessory to it; and since the statement was not endorsed by the highest degree of the Church’s teaching authority, it is not infallible. Charles Journet, one of the ‘conservative’ theologians, agrees that Florence’s declaration is not a dogmatic definition, but concludes that it certainly has a high degree of doctrinal value.” [18] 

The provincial Council of Carthage (418): “This fifth-century council declared quite clearly that ‘without baptism they cannot enter the kingdom of heaven which is eternal life.’” [19] 

The provincial Council of Cologne: “Faith teaches us that infants, since they are not capable of this desire, are excluded from the kingdom of heaven if they die [unbaptized].” (Collectio Lacensis, V. 320) [20] 


The Jesuit theologian Francisco Suarez 

The Jesuits have made a significant contribution to the limbo discussion. “In the three centuries that followed the council of Trent the limbo controversy constantly simmered and sometimes boiled over. Augustinians and Jansenists denied the existence of limbo; Jesuits defended it. The Jansenists detested the Jesuits, the Jesuits reciprocated, and the Augustinians disliked them both. The air was charged with suspicion and at times with libel. The Jesuits were denounced as Pelagians; the Augustinians as Jansenists; and the Jansenists, rightly enough, as heretics." [21] 

Fr. Dyer believes that limbo theology reached its ultimate development in the Jesuit theologian, Francisco Suarez [22]: 

“In God’s providence, says Suarez, a moment will come when Christ will be acknowledged by all men as Prince and Judge of the world. Since even unbaptized infants must pay him this homage, they will have their part to play both in the resurrection of the dead and in the final judgment of mankind.
     “They died as infants, but they will rise as adults possessing not only the use of their reason but full physical maturity as well. As young adults they will stand before the tribunal of Christ to see there for the first time the divine pattern into which their lives had been woven. * Children will all be present at the final judgment to see and honor the majesty of Christ, says Suarez, because the glory of Christ demands that he be adored and acknowledged by all as the Prince, the supreme Judge of the world. They could hardly pay proper tribute to Christ, however, if they were unaware of what was being done at this mighty tribunal. When they see the sentence of damnation passed upon the wicked as well as the joy of the just, they will recognize the justice of God. Their own destiny too, fixing them as it does on a middle ground between damnation and glory, will stand revealed as another manifestation of God’s perfect justice.”



As was previously quoted, the Roman Catechism explicitly stated that infants will be excluded from the kingdom of Heaven “if they die unregenerated by baptism”. Furthermore, Pope Pius XII made comments on this subject which some theologians believe has ended the limbo debate.  On December 20, 1951, Pope Pius XII gave the following allocution to the convention of Italian midwives: 

“All that we have said about the protection and care of natural life is with even greater reason true of the supernatural life, which the newborn child receives with baptism. In the present dispensation there is no other means of communicating this life to the child, who has not yet the use of reason. And yet the state of grace is absolutely necessary for salvation: without it supernatural happiness, the beatific vision of God, cannot be attained. In an adult an act of love may suffice to obtain him sanctifying grace and so supply for the lack of baptism; to the child still unborn, or newly born, this way is not open. If therefore we remember that charity towards our neighbor obliges us to assist him in case of necessity; that this obligation is graver and more urgent according to the greatness of the good to be procured or the evil to be avoided, and according to the inability of the needy one to help himself; then it is easy to understand the importance of providing for the baptism of a child, devoid of the use of reason and in grave danger or even certainty of death.” (Acta Apostolicae Sedis, December 20, 1951, p. 854)  [24] 

The conservative position insists that God’s salvific will finds its expression in the sacramental system. The sacrament of baptism is necessary for salvation, and since infants are incapable of baptism of desire, their need for the sacrament of baptism is absolute and unqualified. When such children die unbaptized, God’s salvific will ceases to operate for them, and they spend their eternity in limbo. [25] 

Fr. Dyer cites two theologians who believe that Pope Pius XII embraced the conservative position regarding limbo: “It is true that the Spanish theologians Lopez Martinez and Espeja feel that the pope terminated the present controversy by embracing the conservative position.” (Lopez Martinez, op. cit., p. 87; J. Espeja, “La suerte de los niños que mueren sin bautismo,” La Ciencia Tomista (1962), p. 594)  [26] 

Early Church teaching on this topic is also quite clear. Fr. Bernard Leeming writes: 

“The Church, as far as all evidence shows, from the second to the seventh century universally believed it is to be revealed that an infant dying before any use of reason, and unbaptized, cannot attain to the beatific vision.” (B. Leeming, “Is Their Baptism Really Necessary?” The Clergy Review (1954), p. 84)  [27]

Regarding the existence of limbo, the distinguished theologian Abbe Michel writes: “It is a virtually revealed truth,” said Michel, “a common doctrine from which it would be rash to depart.” (A. Michel, L’Ami du Clergé, 52, p. 660)  [28] 

"You must understand that none shall come to the Eternal Father except through My Son.  You ask, My child, of the thousands of lives upon earth, those who do not accept My Son, what has become and what will become of them?  If they have received the knowledge of My Son and reject Him wilfully, they cannot be saved.  Of course, My child, the Eternal Father is all merciful; We cannot condemn, He cannot condemn the innocent of heart.  However, there are rules of Heaven, too, justified rulings, that none shall see the Beatific Vision unless they come through My Son.” – Our Lady of the Roses, May 29, 1976



[1] George J. Dyer, S.T.D., Limbo: Unsettled Question, p. vi. 

[2] Ibid., p. 168.
[3] Most Rev. Louis La Ravoire Morrow, S.T.D., My Catholic Faith, p. 253.
[4] McHugh and Callan, Moral Theology, Vol. I, p. 129.
[5] Dyer, p. 82.
[6] Ibid., p. 131.
[7] Roman Catechism, part 2, chapter 2, n. 24.
[8] Dyer, p. 4.
[9] Ibid., pp. 49-50.
[10] Ibid., p. 52.
[11] Ibid., pp. 52-53.
[12] Ibid., p. 53.
[13] Ibid., p. 153.
[14] Ibid., p. 152.
[15] Ibid., p. 153.
[16] Ibid., p. 56.
[17] Ibid., pp. 58-59.
[18] Ibid., pp. 150-151.
[19] Ibid., p. 152.
[20] Ibid., p. 178.
[21] Ibid., p. 81.
[22] Ibid., p. 88.
[23] Ibid., pp. 64-65.
[24] Ibid., pp. 153-154.
[25] Ibid., p. 137.
[26] Ibid., p. 154-155.
[27] Ibid., p. 158-159.
[28] Ibid., p. 167.



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April 11, 2018