Friday, November 25, 2011

Second Thoughts on Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized

I wrote on this subject on November 5; see my original post here.
At the New Theological Movement blog, an excellent post by Fr. Ryan Erlenbush has caused me to think some more about this delicate topic, and re-think some of my own conclusions. Fr. Erlenbush asks, “Ought we to pray for young children who have died?” He has some important comments to make on the subject, and he makes his points very well. Please read his entire post.
Fr. Erlenbush makes the following points:
·         If the child is baptized, he has no need of our prayers (as he is already in Heaven)

·         No children can possibly be in purgatory (because young children are incapable of actual sin, and purgatory is for the temporal punishment of our actual sins)

·         If the child is non-baptized, our prayers are of no use (because the child cannot be admitted into Heaven)

He has very good reasons for making these points (again, see his article for a well-reasoned and articulate explanation of each); and while the first two points are probably pretty easy for most of us to accept, the third one is the sticking point. It’s the point where we want to protest, “But how could God NOT admit even a non-baptized child into His presences?!” Recognizing this, Fr. Erlenbush includes this compassionate statement:
To ease the heart, I will say…that young children who have died (even without baptism) are most certainly in a state of perfect happiness and they know and love God while knowing that he loves them infinitely - but whether this is a natural or supernatural happiness, I do not know.
He explains a little later:
However, because it is not heaven and because the children do not enjoy the beatific vision, it is technically a part of hell – the very “edge” (limbus) of hell. But, if there is a limbo, the children there are very happy; and they love God and know that God loves them, but they do not know that God is the Trinity.
The children in limbo, if there is a limbo, will never be admitted into heaven – limbo is eternal. Thus, there would be no reason to pray for these children, and neither could they pray for us. But we should be comforted by the fact that they will exist forever, and will eternally be perfectly happy (according to human nature). Perfect natural happiness and joy, it is not such a bad place! [Emphasis added]
From a theological viewpoint, I am convinced by Fr. Erlenbush’s presentation, and I agree with him that we cannot really pray for the souls of these unbaptized babies in the same way that we pray for the holy souls in purgatory. But from a “pastoral” viewpoint, it is still a difficult, delicate issue (and it is clear that Fr. Erlenbush recognizes this).
Frankly, I cannot imagine the depths of the anguish that must be caused by the death of one’s own child. What excruciating grief, beyond the loss of their baby, must be caused to parents who are told that their child cannot be in Heaven! Virtually all parents want what is best for their children – and Heaven is, of course, infinitely better than even an eternal existence in perfect natural happiness and joy (as Fr.Erlenbush notes). Those of us who have not lost a child of our own can still feel something of the pain associated with the thought of the death of unbaptized babies, and I am sure this is what prompts us to pray for those little souls.
But, if we follow Fr. Erlenbush’s thinking (which reflects sound theology, as far as I can tell, and he’s the expert here), then it doesn’t really make sense to pray for the souls of unbaptized infants (born or unborn) who have died.  
Being Catholic isn’t easy. There is Truth here, and there are times when the Church asks us to believe by faith, even if the Truth makes us uncomfortable, or even angry. For example, many people are uncomfortable with the Church’s teaching on artificial contraception, and they claim the right to act counter to that teaching based on the fact that “I’ve prayed about it”.  This doesn’t change Church teaching; properly understood, Church teaching isn’t something that simply reflects someone’s opinion, or a popular vote.
I believe Fr. Erlenbush has accurately described Church teaching in this area, and he has drawn reasonable and logical conclusions. It is possible to disagree with some of his statements and still be within the teaching of the Church, but he offers convincing evidence for his conclusions. Those who want to say, “Well, I choose to believe otherwise,” would be well-advised to examine their motives and their own evidence for saying so. It’s not really enough to say, “I just feel that way.”
That said, I don’t think that the Church says it is necessarily wrong for parents, for instance, to pray for the soul of their stillborn baby. Even if their prayers for their baby to be in Heaven cannot be granted, as they cry out to God in their grief, He surely will understand their need, and will comfort them in some way. As I think of parents praying out of this need, the saying from Scripture, “the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away” (Matthew 11:12) comes to mind. To be perfectly honest, I have always wondered what this passage really means, but it is often used in situations like this. Can we “force” God to change His mind?! Well, Jacob did wrestle with God, and Abraham argued with God to prevent the destruction of Sodom. And most of us have probably pleaded with God and tried to bargain with Him at one time or another.
Still, Fr. Erlenbush points out that it may not be correct to pray in this way. He says:
But can we pray that they might not be in limbo, but instead be in heaven? If we have some “hope” that they have gone to heaven, can we pray for this intention?
The simple answer is, “no”. We cannot pray that God have created the universe in one way or another – he has already created it as he willed, and our prayers ought not to seek to change that structure. If he created limbo, then it exists and holds these children. If God did not create limbo, then the children are in heaven. But our prayers would have no power to change the structure of God’s creation.
Perhaps a caring and prayerful pastor may be able to guide grieving parents, over time, toward the understanding outlined by Fr. Erlenbush.
I think it is important to keep in mind that the notion that unbaptized infants who die may not be in Heaven is not something that should cause us to lose hope. For one thing, no prayers are “wasted”. The grace gained by prayer will be applied somewhere, even if not in the place intended by the one praying. So if we pray for the salvation of a soul that is already in heaven or already in hell, the grace gained by those prayers, while not useful for that particular intention, will be used elsewhere.
In addition, we maintain our hope by remembering that God always wills what is best for us – even if that means some babies do not obtain the Beatific Vision. We must trust Him.
And finally, our hope is founded on the knowledge that God’s mercy is infinite! He will do what He wants, and despite our best theological conjectures, He might just have all those babies with Him in Heaven right now! We simply cannot know for sure.
Again, from a theological viewpoint, at least, it would appear that the worst case scenario for those babies is perfect happiness and joy. (I think it is good to repeat this point over and over. We need to realize that these unbaptized infants are not being punished.)
The “hard sayings” of the Church can lead us to a more mature understanding of God and our relationship to him; the harder the teaching is to understand, the more we are forced to rely on God to give us the grace to accept it. And while the Church does not say that there is a limbo, the possibility of its existence does follow logically when we consider what the Church does teach.
So, if we are horrified by the idea that there might be a limbo for deceased unbaptized babies, it is better to ask what we should do if that is true, rather than to deny the possibility out of our own emotional reaction. We should perhaps consider changing the focus of our prayers. At the risk of being accused of offering a simplistic panacea, I offer the following suggestions:
1.      If we want to make sure no aborted babies end up in limbo (just in case there is a limbo), then we must pray and work to end abortion. We can certainly be assured that prayers for the safety of unborn babies will be heard by God!

2.      Similarly, if we want to make sure no miscarried babies end up in limbo, then we must increase our prayers for the successful outcome of every pregnancy. We must pray that every baby is carried to term (and then baptized), even if the baby is only barely alive at birth. It seems inevitable that there will be miscarriages, but in that case, I think Fr. Erlenbush’s assessment of the state of the baby’s soul is comforting: that soul will experience God’s love, and will know perfect (natural) happiness and joy. We must pray for pastors to be able to reflect God’s love and mercy as they help bereaved parents through these heart-wrenching times.

3.      Parents must be encouraged to have their babies baptized as soon as possible after birth. I think that too many parents – especially those who are lukewarm Catholics, or cafeteria Catholics – do not believe that baptism is necessary for salvation. If the reality of Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory were preached more often, perhaps some necessary catechesis could occur.
The best prayer to pray, in my humble opinion, is “God’s will be done.”


  1. What? A Catholic priest is still teaching the authentic Faith concerning Original Sin? Amazing.

  2. This is not a small issue as approx 900,000 pregnancies end (of natural causes) between conception and 20 weeks gestation each year in the US; 25,000 babies die (of natural causes) between 20 weeks and 40 weeks gestation and over 25,000 babies born alive will die in the first 28 days of life. More babies die in the first year of life than all deaths from ages 1-19 COMBINED.

    Catholic parents need to be well informed on this topic and prepared to do an emergency baptism themselves. Getting staff to do an emergency baptism would be easy in a Catholic hospital but tricky in a secular hospital. I have done many many baptisms in my 26 years of nursing but I changed my practice about 6 years ago and I now coach fathers (or other family) through doing it if possible - I hope that the dad gets and keeps a sense of accomplishment for giving this gift to his child.

    You dont mention the Baptism of Desire. If a Catholic parent had every intention of baptism (and God knows their heart) yet the baby died just before birth, I cant imagine God would keep that baby out of heaven. We didnt invent Baptism of Desire as a modern loophole, it has been part of the Church for a long time.

  3. This article by Raymond Taouk makes some interesting points, among them that St. Thomas Aquinas affirms the same as he points out “It belongs to the excellence of Christ power, that He (Christ) could bestow the sacramental effect without conferring the exterior sacrament.”

    I once bought a book called "Theology for Beginners" and couldnt even get through the first 2 chapters, so Im certain that never be a theologian. I am reluctant to even try to swim in these deep waters, but as a nurse who regularly meets newborns who have just died or are actively dying, If St Thomas Aquinas said it, I feel comfortable taking that into mothers rooms with me.

  4. Rick - LOL! Yes, Fr. Erlenbush seems to have his (orthodox) act together, doesn't he?!

    Tammy - I saw your comments on Fr. Erlenbush's post as well. What an amazing ministry you have. Those statistics are staggering. Thanks also for the references.

  5. If Limbo is truly one of the Four Last Things, then why does it NOT appear in either the Catechism of the Council of Trent nor the Catechism of the Catholic Church?

    Death, Judgment, Heaven, Hell.... Limbo does not number among them. It is not mentioned in either catechism. It does not number among the pronouncements of any ecumenical council.

    It is remarkable that what is alleged to be an eternal destiny be so little spoken of, so roundly ignored, by the Church in all of her teachings. It's almost as if Limbo doesn't really or necessarily exist, isn't it?

  6. Steve: Well, limbo is technically a part of hell, so it does number among the last things in that sense. But the concept of limbo is not something Catholics are required to believe. I think there are plenty of other ideas that are not mentioned in the Catechism - that's theology. Good theology, I think, takes into consideration the Church's teaching and tradition.
    I highly recommend that you take a look at the several posts on the New Theological Movement blog that Fr. Erlenbush has posted. He is much better at explaining the whole concept than I am! (, see the document I mentioned in the first post on this subject; it explains quite a bit about the history of the conceptof limbo.

  7. The Catholic Church teaches - Baptism by water, Baptism by desire, Baptism by blood.

    It saddens me that you forget to mention the obvious - Baptism by desire

  8. "The John" - I didn't forget; I left it out because Fr. Erlenbush covered it well in his article, and if it "holds" then there is no need to pray for those babies. But I'm not confident about this type of baptism, especially for victims of abortion. It seems to be intended by the Church mainly for adult catechumens. See Fr.Erlenbush's posts for more.

  9. The word 'desire' doesn't appear in the article at all, though it is plentifully discussed in the comments (also by him).

    Father wrote that he wasn't sure: "It is possible that the children who die without sacramental baptism do go to heaven," citing Cardinal Cajetan. He just thinks it's more improbable than not.

    I think it makes a lot of sense to believe that God judges unbaptized children before the age of reason based on the children's desire to accept him or reject him (even in utero). The Catechism teaches that all man are conceived with the ten commandments emblazoned on their soul.

    It accords more with justice than other theories.

    Also, holding that babies must go to hell, makes humans the potential final arbiter of salvation for some souls. Can an aborting human make sure his/her child goes to heaven or Limbo? Is God powerless, as long as he permits the parent that free will, as per normal? Seems dubious.

    God certainly has the power to manifest himself at the moment before death to any soul. Additionally, God has the power to do so anywhere, even in the womb. Additionally, God has the power to communicate with another soul in a way in which it can understand. Baptism of Desire for unborn infants therefore certainly has no physical limitation. Just a question of likelihood.

    We all deserve death, even the unborn infant, for original sin. Yet, God has mercy on us, knowing our weakness, out of his abundant Love. He sent Christ to save the whole world, why would he stop this mission of love at the 'accidents' associated with human gestation and development?

    Some people, not you, say that "Outside the Church there is no salvation" or words to that effect, even citing to papal bulls. But the Catechism teaches (p.847) that "This affirmation is not aimed at "[t]hose who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience - those too may achieve eternal salvation."

    Nothing is certain. As Fr. Erlenbush concedes the possibility of baptism of desire for the infant dying before age of reason, so I concede the possibility of the Limbo of the Infants. However, his analysis of the probability is much wanting, relying mostly on traditional belief, and hardly at all on the intrinsic merits of the argument. The quote from the Catechism above would have been rejected by older era Catholic authorities. Many would have laughed at Benedict's and John Paul's stance on the death penalty. Same for current Catholic thought on authentic feminism, theology of the body, role of the laity, etc. Just because a role is Traditional or not doesn't seem to be a solid foundation for argumentation. With due respect, I strongly disagree with Father as to likelihood.

  10. Who knows the mind of God? Who gives him counsel?

    Psalm 139:13 For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb.

    Sometimes being a theologian prevents you from seeing the forest from the trees.

    It's so simple... God loves humans so much that he became a zygote Himself. Our Lord is besides himself with love for human babies... and I am confident that our Father is surrounded by billions of babies that offer him eternal praise, honor and glory.

    And if you have living faith, hope and trust... you bypass purgatory and go straight to heaven... Because He said so.

  11. David: I'm not a theologian by a long shot, but I do think it is imprudent to presume that "it's so simple". Your reasoning sounds more Protestant than Catholic, and I don't think it accurately reflects the fullness of the Truth, nor is it scripturally accurate. For one thing, "Living faith, hope, and trust" is all well and good, but don't forget that "faith without works is dead". And God is a God of order; if Jesus instituted sacraments, than those sacraments exist for a reason. They are not meaningless. Your reasoning seems almost to make them so.


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