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The Sacramental Baptism of Infants

The anti-Catholics proposed that the Holy Catholic Church contradicted herself when stating that the Limbo of Infants is non-existant for it had been a long-time teaching of the Church. They based their allegations mainly on the news that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI did approve on April 22, 2007 the publication of a 41-page document released by the International Theological Commission concerning the “The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized.” As what the FoxNews wrote on its headline: POPE REVISES LIMBO, SAYS THERE IS HOPE FOR UNBAPTISED BABIES. But, what is really the truth behind the story of Limbo?

The Limbo of Infants (Limbus Infantium or Limbus Puerorum) is a hypothesis about the permanent status of the unbaptized who die in infancy, too young to have committed personal sins, but not having been freed from original sin. Limbo (Limbus), on the other hand, means the edge or boundary (referring to the “edge” of Hell) which is only a speculative idea about the afterlife condition of those who die in original sin without being assigned to the Hell of the Damned. Yet LIMBO is NOT an official doctrine or dogma of the Holy Catholic Church. There was no any single infallible definition done by a pope ex cathedra or by an excumenical council in the past 2000 years of Christian history.

However, the anti-Catholics would probably suggest that St. Augustine (354-430 AD), bishop of Hippo and Doctor of the Church, and other African bishops believed in the punishment of the unbaptized infants in hell like the damned. However, these critics just do not fully understand what would these earlier overseers want to convey. The truth is: St. Augustine himself convinced the Synod of Carthage (418 CE) to reject the concept of limbo “of any place… in which children who pass out of this life unbaptized live in happiness.” According to the Catholic Encyclopedia: “St. Augustine and the African Fathers believed that the unbaptized infants share in the common positive misery of the damned, and the very most that St. Augustine concedes is that their punishment is the MILDEST of all.” That is, they go to Hell for eternal punishment, but are not as badly treated as other inmates in accordance to what the book of Revelation (14:10) says: “the infants would be tortured in the presence of Jesus.”

Despite this Augustinian notion, the early Church Fathers before St. Augustine had no consensus ruling on this matter. St. Gregory of Nazianzus (A.D. ca. 329 – ca 390) commented in Orat., XL, 23 that infants dying without baptism “will neither be admitted by the just judge to the glory of Heaven nor condemned to suffer punishment, since, though unsealed [by baptism], they are not wicked.” This was the common view of the early Church Fathers. Moreover, Pope St. Siricius insisted on the baptism of infants as well as adults lest “each one of them on leaving the world, loses both [eternal] life and the kingdom.”

Below are the other opinions raised by early Christians regarding the fate of the unbaptized infants:

⚫ St. Anselm (1033 – 1109 CE) supported St. Augustine’s belief that “unbaptized children share in the positive sufferings of the damned [in Hell].”

⚫ Peter Abelard (1079 – 1142) deviated from St. Augustine by rejecting material torment (poena sensus) and retained only the pain of loss (poena damni) as the eternal punishment of unbaptized infants for their original sin.

⚫ St. Thomas Aquinas (1226-1274), a dominican theologian and Doctor of the Church, 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 his Duns Scotus, he said: “Because children below the age of reason did not commit actual sin, theologians came to the common view that these unbaptized children feel no pain at all or even that they enjoy a full, though only natural, happiness through their mediated union with God in all natural goods.”

⚫ The Second Council of Lyons (1274), Ecumenical XIV under Pope Gregory X: “The souls of those who die in mortal sin or with original sin only, however, immediately descend to hell, yet to be punished with different punishments.”

NOTE: This magisterial statement does not oblige Catholics to think that these infants necessarily die with original sin, so that there would be no way of salvation for them.

⚫ Pope John XXII’s issued an Epistle “Nequaquam sine dolore” to the Armenians in 1321 CE: “… teach that the souls of those who die in original sin … go down without delay into Hell’ where, however, they suffer ‘different punishments’ from those who die in actual mortal sin.”

NOTE: This magisterial statement does not oblige Catholics to think that these infants necessarily die with original sin, so that there would be no way of salvation for them.

⚫ 15th century writers like Griolamo Savonarola (1452 – 1498) and Ambrose Catharinus (16th century) believed that “the souls of unbaptized children will be united to glorious bodies at the Resurrection.”

⚫ The Council of Florence (1438-1445), Ecumenical XVII under Pope Eugenius IV: “Regarding children, indeed, because of danger of death, which can often take place, since no help can be brought to them by another remedy than through the sacrament of baptism, through which they are snatched from the domination of the devil and adopted among the sons of God, [the Church] advises that holy baptism ought not to be deferred for forty or eighty days, … but it should be conferred as soon as it can be done conveniently.”

NOTE that there was no intention by the Council Fathers to settle the issue since very few details were provided. The teaching on Limbo remained in a debatable status after the Council of Florence as well — that also is evidenced that the Council didn’t intend to fully settle and define that particular issue. On the other hand, the formula stated by the holy council that baptism is “the only remedy available to them” from the Church, is consistent with the assertions in the Catechism of the Catholic Church No.1257. To be “snatched away from the dominion of the devil and adopted as children of God” is equivalent to “salvation,” which is, of course, the overriding concern of the Church with regard to all human souls.

⚫ Thomas Cardinal Cajetan, O.P. (1469-1534) speculated that unbaptized newborns, fetuses, etc people may benefit from a “vicarious baptism of desire.” i.e. even though an actual baptism may not have occurred, it might have been desired by the parents, or the church or by someone else. A “desired baptism” which had never actually been conducted might have the same power as a real sacrament.

⚫ The late Pope Sixtus V declared in an apostolic constitution “Effrænatam” on 29 October 1588 that aborted fetuses do not attain the beatific vision in Heaven. From the content of his statement, it appears that newborns and infants who die before being baptized suffer the same fate.

NOTE that the main purpose of this document was to reinforce civil and canonical sanctions against those who carry out abortions and sterilizations in the papal states: it goes so far as to prescribe the death penalty for both these offences. Pope Sixtus V only meant to affirm here that the “exclusion” of such infants from Heaven is at least temporary, i.e., that he wasn’t rejecting here the possibility that Limbo is really only a kind of Purgatory for infants. This is certainly do not constitute an ex cathedra definition, and indeed, the Constitution itself is primarily a legislative act — an exercise of the Pope’s governing authority rather than his teaching authority.

⚫ The Ecumenical Council of Trent stated that justification includes the remission of original sin in infants as well as moral sin in adults. The holy council stated that: “If any one denies, that infants, newly born from their mothers’ wombs, even though they be sprung from baptized parents, are to be baptized; or says that they are baptized indeed for the remission of sins, but that they derive nothing of original sin from Adam, which has need of being expiated by the laver of regeneration for the obtaining life everlasting, — whence it follows as a consequence, that in them the form of baptism, for the remission of sins, is understood to be not true, but false, — let him be anathema.”

NOTE that since it has not been revealed what happens to infants who die without baptism, the Church is recommending baptism as the sole remedy it can offer for salvation (cf. CCC 1257). But the Catechism continues: “God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but He himself is not bound by His sacraments.” On this part of the doctrine, the Ecumenical Council of Trent is silent.

⚫ A group known as the Jansenists reverted to St. Augustine’s belief. They rejected the idea of Limbo in favor of eternal torture of unbaptized infants, etc. in Hell. In response, Pope Pius VI condemns the rejection of limbo by the Synod of Pistoia in the Constitution “Auctorem Fidei”, 1794 saying: “The doctrine which rejects as a Pelagian fable, that place of the lower regions (which the faithful generally designate by the name of the limbo of children) in which the souls of those departing with the sole guilt of original sin are punished with the punishment of the condemned, exclusive of the punishment of fire, just as if, by this very fact, that these who remove the punishment of fire introduced that middle place and state free of guilt and of punishment between the kingdom of God and eternal damnation, such as that about which the Pelagians idly talk, — false, rash, injurious to Catholic schools.”

NOTE that Pope Pius VI is rejecting not the Jansenists own severe view of the fate of unbaptized infants but only their denunciation of the accepted alternate view — Limbo — as being Pelagian and therefore unorthodox.

⚫ Theologian Heinrich Klee speculated that God might enlighten the infant at the instant of death and enable them to make a decision for or against God.

NO COMMON thought? Yes. But what does the Holy Catholic Church really taught? In the Catechism of the Church, it reads: “As regards to 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. All the more urgent is the Church’s call not to prevent little children coming to Christ through the gift of holy Baptism” (CCC 1261).

Notice the Church only taught of hope for the unbaptized infants be received in the glory of the Kingdom but never infallibly taught that they would be going to Limbo for natural hapiness or Hell for mildest punishment. In fact, the Church still stood on the necessity of the infant’s immediate reception of sacamental baptism.

Did the Church end the long-time debate on the existence of Limbus Infantium?

The answer is NO. Remember that the documents of the International Theological Commission are not considered official expressions of the magisterium, but the commission does help the Holy See to examine important doctrinal issues. In an interview with Inside the Vatican magazine, Sister Sarah Butler, a Missionary Servant of the Most Blessed Trinity who has served on the commission since 2004 and who teaches dogmatic theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, New York, says “the report concludes that limbo remains a ‘possible theological opinion.’ Anyone who wants to defend it is free to do so. This document, however, tries to give a theological rationale for hoping that unbaptized infants may be saved.”

The statement of the Commission simply says nothing new — it is simply trying to make explicit the theological grounding for this hope. The “Gaudium et Spes” (22), and “Lumen Gentium” (14 and 16), at the Second Vatican Council, opened the way for this development. Actually, some wanted the teaching on limbo be formally defined at the ecumenical council, but the topic was excluded from the agenda.

Nonetheless, while the Holy Catholic Church has a defined doctrine on original sin, it has none on the eternal fate of unbaptized infants, leaving theologians free to propose different theories, which Catholics are free to accept or reject. Limbo is one such theory — treated neither a doctrine nor a dogma but permissible to be held.

In this case, the truth simply tells:

We do not know what the destiny of these children is but we have grounds for hope.


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The so-common news article that the founder of a heretical sect Members Church of God International (MCGI), Eliseo Soriano, used in all his attacks against the existence of Limbo as shown in his TV program, Ang Dating Daan.

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