Glad You Asked: Do Catholics believe in limbo?

On this episode of the podcast, Claretian Father Paul Keller talks about the concept of limbo, where the idea originated, and what the church teaches about it today.

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Suppose a person were able to time-travel back 800 years and visit Catholic Europe. Despite the common notion that Catholicism remained fixed and unchanging prior to the Second Vatican Council, a theoretical time traveler would find many Catholic beliefs and practices that would seem strange. Some traditions Catholics imagine were deeply rooted in history are relatively recent and weren’t around during the golden age of Christendom. Whereas other traditions that once were common have been repudiated by the institutional church or faded into disuse.

One tradition that a time-traveler would likely encounter among educated medieval Catholics is belief in limbo—that is, a kind of in-between afterlife zone for unbaptized babies and virtuous non-Christians. Belief in limbo was so common that Dante depicted it in his theological afterlife epic The Divine Comedy.

But do Catholics still believe in limbo? Where did the idea come from? Was it an official magisterial teaching and, if so, why do we rarely hear about it today? 

On this episode of the podcast, Claretian Father Paul Keller talks to the hosts about the concept of limbo, how it is different from purgatory, where the idea originated, and what the church actually teaches about the unbaptized and the afterlife today. Keller is the provincial superior of the Claretian Missionaries of the United States-Canada Province, and a frequent contributor to U.S. Catholic on issues relating to pastoral ministry, public policy, theology, and ethics. 

You can learn more about this topic in the links below.

The following is a transcript of this episode of Glad You Asked:

Rebecca: Welcome to Glad You Asked, the podcast where we answer the questions about Catholicism that are easy to ask but not so easy to answer. I’m Rebecca Bratten Weiss, digital editor at U.S. Catholic.

Emily: I’m Emily Sanna, managing editor at U.S. Catholic. Today, we’ll be discussing a question which might have had a different answer 800 years ago. Do Catholics believe in limbo?

Rebecca: Once, it was far more common for Catholics to believe that people who had not been baptized, or who had lived prior to Jesus, went to a kind of in-between zone, neither heaven nor hell – a neutral space. But do Catholics still believe this?

Emily: Our guest today is going to help us figure out the complex strands of thought surrounding this tradition. Claretian Father Paul Keller is a frequent contributor to U.S. Catholic on issues relating to pastoral ministry, public policy, theology, and ethics.

Emily: Paul, thank you so much for joining us on Glad You Asked.

Paul: Oh, I’m happy to be here. It’s always nice to spend a little time visiting with you.

Rebecca: So to begin, could you talk to us about what limbo is exactly?

Paul: I can, yes, limbo is a theological notion related primarily for us in this context to unbaptized infants who die. And so it was considered a place of what was referred to as natural happiness, so that unbaptized infants weren’t in the presence of God with what we refer to as the beatific vision, in God’s presence and really a supernatural happiness. But because they didn’t have any personal sin, they were not being punished with any pain or suffering, but they were in a place of natural happiness. So they did not have the vision of God in God’s presence, but they also weren’t experiencing suffering apart from not having God’s presence, you know, made to them right there in that moment. That was the notion of what limbo is. There’s older notions, for example, like when we say Jesus descended into hell and then rose again, that Jesus was going to a holding place for people who had died before Jesus’s coming in the incarnation and that they were then brought into heaven. But that’s mostly not what people refer to now when they make a reference to limbo.

Emily: So speaking of those older kinds of understandings, can you talk a little bit about where and how our current idea of limbo originated?

Paul: In the Middle Ages, it was a cause of theological speculation. The question was, there were two notions really at odds. One is the necessity of baptism and being cleansed of original sin in order to have the beatific vision, in order to go to heaven, in order to be in God’s presence. So that was on the one side. On the other side was the universal salvific will of God. And that’s referring to God wanting all people to be saved. And if God wants all people to be saved, God is going to make that possible in some way so that people will have the means to this salvation. Certainly also the notion of Jesus’s ministry, Jesus’s calling to people, Jesus’s saying, you know, let the children come unto me. So, you had this notion that, well, there’s got to be unbaptized infants who have no personal sin. They can’t be going to hell. You know, they can’t be punished because they’ve never done anything wrong. And so theologians of the Middle Ages were trying to put together, well, how do we have something that’s not sounding horrific, but that is still doing justice to the necessity of baptism and being cleansed of original sin? So maybe there’s this place of natural happiness where these unbaptized infants are not being punished, they’re not suffering, but at the same time they’re not going to heaven because they do still have the effects of original sin that hasn’t been washed away in baptism. So it was trying to come up with a compromise solution in some way, and that’s where it originated. It was the common understanding in the Catholic Church for a long time but was never a matter of defined doctrine that you had to believe, you had to accept. It was a theological opinion, a speculation, a possibility.

Rebecca: So non-Catholic Christians and some Catholics as well may be uncertain about the differences between the idea of limbo and the teaching of purgatory. Could you talk to us about that as well?

Paul: Yeah, there’s two very different notions. So for Catholics, our understanding of purgatory, or a purgation, a preparation, a purification is for any of us who have died and we have some element of sinfulness to our life. In order to enter into God’s presence, there’s a purification, or as the name purgatory would indicate, a purgation.

So anyone who’s in purgatory, although it’s really more a state, it’s not a place, anyone who’s in purgatory is going to heaven. And so there’s a purification, a purgation of the person’s soul, a cleansing in order to enter fully into God’s presence. Limbo, if you were in limbo, you’re not getting to heaven. You’re in limbo for eternity.

Emily: Is there a strict Catholic teaching about limbo today?

Paul: No, there’s not really. It’s a matter of theological opinion and speculation. So if someone wants to believe in limbo, if someone wants to believe that there is this state of natural happiness for unbaptized infants, they may choose to believe that. You’re not forbidden to believe it as Catholics, but you’re also not required to believe it. There was a particular reflection by the International Theological Commission in 2007, and they were specifically tasked with reflecting on, as the document is titled, the hope of salvation for infants who die without being baptized. So most of my reflections are really taken from that. I went through it pretty carefully to get the state of the question. And so the current teaching put forward by the church is that there are serious, quoting from the document, serious theological and liturgical grounds for hope that unbaptized infants who die will be saved and enjoy the beatific vision. That was the conclusion of the theological commission’s reflection. That was approved by Cardinal William LaVeda at the time, who was at that time the prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith, and that was signed on by Pope Benedict XVI. Additionally, in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, there is no reference anywhere to limbo. Concerning children who die without baptism, the Catechism says, 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 should be saved and Jesus’s tenderness towards children, which caused him to say, let the children come to me, do not hinder them and allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without baptism. So that’s the current status. Now, I don’t know if the two of you were aware, and the last podcast I did with you, you know, if you remember was related to communion. Should a priest ever not give communion to Catholics in some circumstance? And I joked with you, thanks for giving me the most controversial issue on the very first podcast. And then I was assured, well, the next podcast will be less controversial. And so, okay, we’re going to talk about limbo. Well, in the meantime, there was an article by the Religious News Service on limbo. And then there was a response to it by some theologians vehemently defending the teaching of limbo. And then there was an explosion on Catholic Twitter debating limbo. And it’s like, how in the world does this become a controversial topic again? But my point would be with that is to go with the church’s mature, serious reflection upon the issue today.

And again, there can be theologians, priests, other Catholics who choose to believe in limbo. On the personal level, I hope that those priests and people are never in pastoral ministry because it strikes me as this, what Pope Francis has always talked about, we want to have these very clean and tidy theological systems that don’t make sense of people’s real lives. And when you’re really dealing with people in the midst of these situations and in their grief, I think what you present to them is the mature reflection of the church as it is today, which is that we have sound reason to hope that your children are in heaven with God.

Emily: Well, that’s what I kept thinking about as you’re talking is the pastoral response. How do you tell parents that like, you’re not even going to see your baby in heaven, that your baby is always going to exist somewhere alone without a parent? I just think that that’s a really hard pastoral thing to navigate.

Paul: Yeah, I mean, on the personal level too, you’ve got this, as I said, the medieval theologians trying to come up with something that made God look less horrific and unjust. And so it’s curious, you know, the reflection upon it is the church has never said that sacramental baptism is absolutely necessary, because we also have the notions that are related to this, which is the baptism of blood, those who die for the faith or who suffer in some way, but they’ve never actually received sacramental baptism and even more applicably, a baptism of desire, which were for those who desired baptism, but it was not available, a sacramental baptism wasn’t able to happen prior to that. So the church has consistently said, those people can attain salvation. The question then becomes for infants, what is the nature of their desire? Prior to the age of reason, what is it that they can understandably long for? Or can the desire be on the part of the church, desiring, either the church and the parents in the church desiring baptism for the children? And I think that’s one of what the theological commission references to, merciful remedies, is pointing towards that. 

It’s important to understand too that there’s no clear revelation. Like there’s no, everyone talking about the issue, there’s no clear statement in sacred scripture on this matter. There’s no clear statement from the beginning days of the church on this matter. And that has to be conceded. The theological commission also makes reference to the Greek church, to the Eastern Church, who is apophatic on the matter. What that means, apophatic, is when we say, we don’t know. You know, this is beyond, we should not speak definitively about something that we do not know definitively. So we can’t give a precise, absolute answer. But what we can say is, there looks like there’s some really good reason to hope this, you know, that it just doesn’t seem like God would would be denying salvation to children who bear no personal guilt. And so the way I like to think about it is that, and when I baptize infants, I’ll often talk to the parents and I’ll say, does your baby have a relationship with you? And they’ll say, most definitely. I’ll say, does your baby recognize you? Absolutely, our baby recognizes us, the baby knows the mother that knows the father. And this is before the baby is rational and can reflect and speak about that relationship. And how can it be possible that this infant can have a relationship with the infant’s mother or father and not also have a relationship with God, who is the creator of all that exists? So for me personally, I believe that there is an ability that is developmentally appropriate for an infant to be desiring to be with God, even if that’s not something that they would be able to write pieces about.

The last thing, I’m going on a little bit, so I’ll let you jump in with the questions. One of the things that I thought was very curious in this reflection by the theological commission was they made reference to the Immaculate Conception of Mary. And so, with Mary’s Immaculate Conception, this was just God choosing to keep Mary free from the stain of original sin based upon the grace of Christ that was to come chronologically later. But for God, chronology and time is not how we experience it. So God simply chose to do this. And so the notion that certainly God can freely choose to do what God wishes to do. I have a principle in ministry that if we’re ever making an argument and the argument seems to imply that God’s hands are tied, you know, as if God is saying, ‘You know, rules are rules, I’m sorry, there’s nothing I can do. You know, you got to have sacramental baptism before you can enter into heaven. I’m sorry, that’s just the rule. There’s nothing I can do about it.’ If we’re implying that that’s God’s position, we’re probably wrong. God’s hands are not tied. And I think we have a firm foundation to believe that unbaptized infants are in heaven. God can do what God wants to do. And it would be, as I say, a horrific God, foreign to our notion of God as revealed to us in Christ, that would be having unbaptized infants not in heaven.

Rebecca: So it seems like the church’s view has shifted to be much more open to the possibility of unbaptized souls reaching heaven. When and why did the church’s view on this start to change?

Paul: I think there was a more mature reflection really after the Second Vatican Council. There were attempts at different times in the church’s history, including my understanding at the council, to define limbo and to make it the official teaching of the church. And at every juncture when that was proposed, it was rejected. The theological commission also takes seriously and references the sensus fidelium, the sense of the faithful, and the hesitancy to define this was, this is not what Catholics believe. This notion is just the sense of not only ordinary Catholics, but ordinary priests and bishops around the globe. This is not what they’re believing. This is not what we’re accepting. This is not our instinct about the nature of God and salvation. And so there was a great hesitancy to ever define it. And I can’t imagine that we will now. As I say, there’s no reference to it in the Catechism at all. And anything that’s come out more recently really is, no, this is, if you wanna choose to believe it, go ahead. But we think there’s a better approach. And we think that there’s sound liturgical and theological reasons to believe in salvation. But it was really kind of the default position for a long time in the church, I would say after the Second Vatican Council there was either a distancing through silence, or more recently, through more proactive faith. 

Emily: Well, thank you so much for being our guest on today’s episode. I learned a lot about limbo that I didn’t know before. So this has been really great. Thank you.

Paul: Sure. And I would point to this statement, which is readily available online, the hope of salvation for infants who die without being baptized. The language really is not overly technical. It’s pretty accessible, I think, for anyone who would want to read more about that.

Emily: Yeah, we’ll add a link to the show notes so that people can read it.

Paul: Wonderful.

Glad You Asked is sponsored by the Claretian Missionaries.