Point-Counterpoint: The Doctrine of Limbo

In this month’s issue of the UK’s Catholic Herald, there’s a rather interesting point-counterpoint on a topic that is seldom discussed these days: limbo. In a pair of editorials, one author states that abandoning this longtime doctrine (as some theologians propose) would create a “serious gap in Church teaching”, while a second author responds reasoning why the current edition of the Catechism, by omitting reference to limbo, is accurate since we have no need for this doctrine.

Christ pulling Adam and Eve out of limbo on Holy Saturday – Chora Church, Istanbul

It could be an enriching read for anyone curious about this topic (which I am). After all, where do the souls of the unborn end up if they fall victim to the violence of abortion or agony of miscarriage? What about the children whose parents have just been lazy about getting them baptized? I’ve held that limbo makes sense (in my simple understanding of it). Furthermore, I don’t find the two views below to be at odds with one another (not that either author stated such). Cannot limbo exist while at the same time we pray in hope that those lost without being baptized (speaking of the “limbo of infants”) will find Heaven with the help of God’s mercy which is not bound by the gifts and limits He confers to us? Anyway, below are snippets of each:

POINT: Abandoning limbo would leave a serious gap in Church teaching

[N]ext month in Ramsgate, a theological colloquium, organised by the Dialogos Institute, will look again at the importance of limbo. A number of the distinguished speakers are likely to challenge the idea that limbo can be abandoned. Although the word “limbo” has only been used once in an authoritative document (in 1794), discarding it leaves a serious gap in Church teaching. Some would argue that limbo is, to all intents and purposes, a dogma.

The issue can be confused by differences of terminology. When we recite in the creed that Christ “descended into hell”, we are referring to what theologians have called “the limbo of the fathers”. In the Bible the place where the wicked are tormented after death is called Gehenna as distinct from Sheol or Hades a more general term for the place of the dead outside heaven. Confusingly, classic English translations of scripture translate both as “Hell”. […]

there is the limbo of the infants: the destination of babies who, though they cannot enter heaven because they have not been baptised, are guilty of no personal sin. As St Gregory Nazianzen put it, these infants “will neither be admitted by the just judge to the glory of Heaven nor condemned to suffer punishment.” That those who die in original sin only are confined to hell in this sense is not a theological opinion but a dogma of the Catholic Church solemnly defined by the seventeenth ecumenical council in 1438, which taught “the souls of those who depart this life in actual mortal sin, or in original sin alone, go down straightaway to hell to be punished, but with unequal pains.” […]

But although those who die in actual sin suffer in hell, neither the limbo of the infants nor the limbo of the fathers is a place distinguished by suffering (see Luke 16:19–31). Even if one takes the gloomy view of St Gregory the Great and St Augustine, who taught that infants undergo “the mildest condemnation of all”, one must bear in mind that this would be a quasi-paradisal condition unimaginably happier than the world in which we now live.

COUNTERPOINT: The Catechism is right, we do not need limbo

[…] Thus the Church proposes that our knowledge of God’s love, mercy, and salvific power gives us sufficient reason to believe that children who die without Baptism can be saved. If there is any gap, it is only a lack of description of the exact method or mechanism by which God would do this, but surely “through His merciful, salvific love” is adequate to make the idea intelligible. […]

[R]emember the axiom of Peter Lombard, who wrote that God is the author of the sacraments, but He Himself is not bound by them. God doesn’t tie His own hands by His gift of the sacraments to us. […]

To add one more opinion to the debate, it seems more fitting that the God who in the person of His Son bade the children to come to Him would provide the means to bring the countless of children who, through no fault of their own, did not reach the baptismal font to enter into their Father’s house.

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 caused 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.
CCC 1261

It seems like the past couple years have been so preoccupied with debates over already established dogmas and doctrines from dissenting Catholics that we forgot how to have mutually stimulating debates over doctrines where difference of opinion doesn’t mean dissent but, rather, [real] discussion. ☩

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