Saturday, November 5, 2011

On Infants (and Unborn Babies) Who Die Without Being Baptized

It’s November: all through this month, the Church encourages us to remember and pray for the dead.
That means unbaptized babies, too: infants who die in the womb or shortly after birth; unborn babies killed by abortion; “embryos” in a petri dish (yes, they are babies – with souls – too!) destroyed during the IVF process.
I’m always a little uncomfortable when people speak of unbaptized babies as already being in Heaven – just as I am uncomfortable with funerals that become premature canonization ceremonies for the deceased. I’m afraid we won’t pray as hard as we should because we just know that these deceased infants are in the arms of God. [Be sure to also see Stacy Trasanco’s post on limbo at Accepting Abundance. If it's not there yet, keep checking! :-)]

At the same time, it is hard to imagine that unbaptized babies are not in Heaven! They are sweet and pure and innocent, incapable of having committed personal sin! But the fact remains, they do bear the stain of original sin. That is, after all, one of the primary reasons why we baptize infants.
In 2007, a document entitled The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized was released by the International Theological Commission. (I believe this is an “opinion” paper and not a magisterial pronouncement of any sort.) I’ll start with their conclusion, because I think it brings peace of mind to all of us. After addressing the tradition of “limbo” and the theological concerns underlying it, the Commission states:
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. 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. (§103; emphasis added)
That’s a relief!
Still, I think it’s worth examining some of the background and some of the points made in the document.
First, where did the idea of limbo come from? Consider: Baptism is required for salvation. Unborn babies who die cannot receive baptism. Therefore, are unborn babies who die sent to hell? Or is there some dispensation that allows them to have eternal life with God? It might seem ludicrous to assign little babies to hell; they are not capable of personal sin. But we believe in original sin; we are conceived with it, and that’s why baptism is required. If we say that unbaptized babies can still be in Heaven, then we in some sense negate the impact of original sin.
These questions led to the concept of “limbo”, which has traditionally been understood
…as a state which includes the souls of infants who die subject to original sin and without baptism, and who, therefore, neither merit the beatific vision, nor yet are subjected to any punishment, because they are not guilty of any personal sin. (first paragraph, unnumbered)
The document gives a fascinating summary of the history of theological thinking on limbo; I highly recommend reading it! But I hope from my brief synopsis here, you can see the basic problem: how do we underscore and affirm our belief in the necessity of baptism for salvation, and at the same time hold out hope for the salvation of souls we know absolutely cannot have received that saving sacrament?
We have to acknowledge the teachings of the Church – that baptism is required for salvation – but
From a theological point of view, the development of a theology of hope and an ecclesiology of communion, together with a recognition of the greatness of divine mercy, challenge an unduly restrictive view of salvation. In fact, the universal salvific will of God and the correspondingly universal mediation of Christ mean that all theological notions that ultimately call into question the very omnipotence of God, and his mercy in particular, are inadequate. (§2)
In other words, if the categorical denial of salvation for the unbaptized infant means that we restrict the extent of God’s mercy, then the view doesn’t make the theological cut.
The Church has traditionally provided for some “substitutions” for the sacrament of baptism by water: baptism by blood (martyrdom), and baptism by desire (explicitly longing for the sacrament of baptism). In recent times, some theologians have tried to apply this line of thinking to unbaptized infants, suggesting that there may be a kind of baptism by blood due to their suffering, or perhaps a baptism by some sort of unconscious desire, or the desire of the Church that they be baptized. There are some major problems with conceptualizing the situation this way, though, and so these solutions are not satisfactory.
The Commission, however, proposed some other ways by which unbaptized infants might be saved:
85. a) Broadly, we may discern in those infants who themselves suffer and die a saving conformity to Christ in his own death, and a companionship with him. Christ himself on the Cross bore the weight of all of humanity's sin and death, and all suffering and death thereafter is an engagement with his own enemy (cf. 1 Cor 15:26), a participation in his own battle, in the midst of which we can find him alongside us (cf. Dan 3:24-25 [91-92]; Rom 8:31-39; 2 Tim 4:17)….
86. b) Some of the infants who suffer and die do so as victims of violence. In their case, we may readily refer to the example of the Holy Innocents and discern an analogy in the case of these infants to the baptism of blood which brings salvation. Albeit unknowingly, the Holy Innocents suffered and died on account of Christ; their murderers were seeking to kill the infant Jesus. Just as those who took the lives of the Holy Innocents were motivated by fear and selfishness, so the lives particularly of unborn babies today are often endangered by the fear or selfishness of others. In that sense, they are in solidarity with the Holy Innocents. Moreover, they are in solidarity with the Christ who said: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Mt 25:40). How vital it is for the Church to proclaim the hope and generosity that are intrinsic to the Gospel and essential for the protection of life.
87. 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. 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.
And so, we may have hope for the salvation of unbaptized infants. That’s a good thing. Very, very good.
But let us continue to pray for their souls. There is merit in that for us as well as for them. That’s a good thing, too.


  1. It is sad to have to say this but one of the reasons why there is not more Christian activism against the horror of abortion is the notion that these unbaptized infants are saved. If they are in Heaven, so the logic goes, we might as well not put our lives or reputations at risk by getting too busy with the pro-life movement. We can deny this all we want, but that thinking is quite prevalent.

    Tragically, these infants are not going to see the Beatific Vision. That is simply because, dogmatically speaking, the stain or original sin has not been washed from their souls. They are innocent, of course, and will not suffer torments, but they can only expect an eternity in a state of natural happiness, which we know as Limbo (despite some ridiculos attempts by some Vatican personages to quietly sweep that umder the rug, to their everlasting shame), but without being able to have, as said, the Beatific Vision. That is one of the true horrors of abortion, perhaps the worst of them all.

    Some want to fall back upon the theories of "baptism of blood" or "baptism of desire", but as plausible or comforting as these may sound they are not dogmatic definitions and, as such, being only theories, can not be used as a basis for hope, as that terrible 2007 document tries to do. That document has done more to cool the prolife enthusiasm than any other sentimental Vatican "pronouncement" of the past four decades.

    If God has changed His mind about these things, He certainly has not told anyone about it so we must stick with what we know is the truth, as revealed by God to His Divinely-ordained Church. And that truth is that only by Baptism can the stain of Original Sin be removed and that applies to all: infants, Jews, Moslems, pagans, etc.....anyone who has not received this Sacrament.

    Let us keep in mind, therefore, the real tragedy of abortion.

  2. I agree with your first paragraph; I think the idea that "they're already in heaven" certainly is deters prayers and perhaps even activism. But I'm not so sure it's an "awful" document. It does say the baptism of desire is probably not a valid argument for these infants being saved.
    I think the document gives a good history of the thinking on the whole topic, and it does not "abolish" limbo in any way, shape, or form. We have the "quick sound byte" media to thank for that. A careful reading of it suggests that there are no hard-and-fast answers, and that while there is hope for the salvation of these babies, we must never stop praying for them.
    Thanks for taking the time to comment!


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