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Saturday, January 23, 2016

Babies Do Not Go to Limbo (And Neither Does Anyone Else)

Limbo? For Me? Mom, get me baptized!

But What Happens to the Souls of Unbaptized Infants, including Those Killed by Abortion?

by Phoebe Wise

Limbo is nowhere mentioned in the Catholic Catechism, and it is not part of the doctrine of the Catholic Church. It is simply a theological opinion that has been hotly contested for centuries, but never defined as a dogma. Some people confuse limbo with Purgatory, which is an official teaching that all Catholics must believe. What’s the difference? Christians who die in God’s friendship, but still have some attachment to sin, must pass through purification before they see God. That’s Purgatory.

Limbo, on the other hand, is a word that has mostly fallen out of use in the Church. Since the Second Vatican Council it has been, well, in limbo—a state of being that is neither here nor there, but something in between—a no man’s land. Since Baptism is absolutely necessary for salvation, the concept arose in the Middle Ages as an answer to the question of what happens to the souls of unbaptized infants.

Babies could not have committed any personal sin before death, but still they could not enter Heaven without Baptism. Original Sin still clung to them. Therefore, some medieval theologians reasoned that there must be a state of natural
happiness (as opposed to supernatural happiness) where they could spend eternity. They used the Latin word limbus to designate this state. It means “on the line” or “on the border” of hell. Their eternal destination is not known. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says the Church entrusts children who have died without Baptism, “to the mercy of God.” (CCC 1261)

To say that limbo was never an official doctrine does not mean that it never had a great influence on Catholic practice. It did: unbaptized infants were not given funeral rites and typically were not buried in consecrated ground. Where did that leave the mourners? In limbo. They could not have felt very reassured about the hope of seeing their little ones again in heaven.
What changed after Vatican II? In 1969 Pope Paul VI approved funeral rites for deceased children, both baptized and unbaptized, and the words were very consoling, offering the parents hope that they would meet their child again in Heaven. Hope—not certainty. But still, it seemed clear that the tide had turned against limbo.

And we must remember the words of the Council itself. One of the Vatican II documents,
Gaudium et Spes, holds out hope of salvation for all people, including those outside the Church:

“Since Christ died for all, and since all men are in fact called to one and the same destiny, which is divine, we must hold that the Holy Spirit offers to all the possibility of being made partakers, in a way known to God, of the Paschal mystery.”
(Gaudium et Spes 22 5) 

Paragraph 1260 of the Catechism comments on this passage: "Every man who is ignorant of the Gospel of Christ and of his Church, but seeks the truth and does the will of God in accordance with his understanding of it, can be saved. It may be supposed that such persons would have desired Baptism explicitly if they had known its necessity.”

Since Vatican II and the Catechism teach us to hope for salvation for all, we can ask yet again: what happens to the souls of unbaptized infants, including those killed by abortion? 

In the midst of the culture of death, millions and millions of innocent babies have been slaughtered. The crushing weight of these crimes against children causes us to cry out in anguish for their redemption. We hunger and thirst for righteousness on their behalf. Holy Mother Church, tell us they are in Heaven!

I had assumed until recently that all faithful Catholics would want to envision these innocent souls in heaven; surely that limbo nonsense went out the window after Vatican II. It turns out I was mistaken. I was listening to one of my favorite pro-life shows on EWTN radio. [Open Line Tuesday 12-29-2015] I admire the host very much, and usually find myself in agreement with everything she says. This time was different. Someone e-mailed the show to express his disagreement with pro-lifers who believe that aborted babies automatically go to heaven, as opposed to limbo. And the host agreed with the caller; she reasoned, quite faultily, that aborted babies must necessarily go to limbo, or else it would have to be said that their abortionists were their benefactors.

I was astounded at their crooked thinking. By their logic, the Islamic terrorist who inflicts a martyr’s death on a Christian would also be considered a benefactor. But we know that the unintended result of sending the Christian straight to Heaven does nothing to excuse the terrorist from the guilt of his action. It does nothing to negate the value of the human life that that he destroys, or the injustice of depriving the victim of the opportunity to live out his life to its natural end.

I won’t go into all the details of the pro-limbo argument

expressed on the show, but I got the feeling that both the host and the caller were concerned about preserving faith in the necessity of the Sacrament of Baptism and the reality of its saving power. Not a bad thing to be zealous about, to be sure. But their insistence on the necessity of limbo roused an immediate negative reaction in me -- it was almost revulsion.

This is NOT Our Father! 
A lingering belief in limbo could be damaging to the pro-life cause. Though I’m certain the host and her caller didn’t intend this effect, the notion that God deprives innocent unbaptized babies of the Beatific Vision helps to trivialize the sin of abortion. After all, if God doesn’t consider the souls of these little ones to be human enough or important enough to gather to Himself, then why the big fuss when they are aborted? Just as bad, the doctrine of limbo also works against the gift of the Holy Spirit known as piety. Piety is the filial devotion we should feel toward God—the sense that He is truly our Merciful Father and we are his beloved sons and daughters. What kind of father would put a fence around the souls of little babies to keep them out of heaven, just because they had not received the sacrament of baptism? A pretty nasty and un-fatherly father, I would say. 

That limbo thing has got to go. We need to drive the last vestiges of it out of the Church. Expunge it from respectable dialogue, just as we did with the idea that Mary could have had original sin on her soul. Long live the Immaculate Conception! Long live All Babies Go to Heaven!

And then I heard another talk show that gave me pause. Not about limbo—I still think we need to drive a stake through the heart of that mistaken notion. But the dialogue on the show made me understand why the Church has been so slow—centuries slow—to declare that all babies automatically go to heaven. Or to express the matter better, why the Church has never explicitly defined what is God’s plan for the innocent unbaptized.

Catholic Answers hosted a show [Jan 18,2016] that invited anyone who was pro-abortion to call in and give their reasons. One caller said she was old enough to have been born before abortion was legal, and that her mother would have aborted her if she had had the choice. The caller said she would have preferred to have been aborted, because her mother was mentally ill and had abused her terribly. She reasoned that if she had been aborted, she would have gone straight to heaven to be with God, and that would have been infinitely preferable to living through her childhood. The woman was a non-Catholic Christian, a sincere believer. It was difficult to think of a good argument to counter her logic and her lived experience. In fact, I don’t think the Catholic Answers people came up with anything very convincing by comparison. Sure, she admitted that she valued her life as an adult, and had found some measure of happiness, but insisted that, on balance, it would have been better to go straight home to God.

Honestly, haven’t most of us had the same thought for ourselves at times? Doesn’t Job express the same thing in the midst of his suffering?

“Why was I not as a hidden untimely birth, 
as infants that never see the light?
There the wicked cease from troubling,
And there the weary are at rest.” (Job 3:16-17)

After hearing this woman’s argument, I could see why the host on the other talk show was anxious to defend the doctrine of limbo. She was trying to counter precisely this argument: if being aborted sends a baby straight to the arms of a loving Heavenly Father, then perhaps it is not quite the tragedy that the Church is claiming. 

To be sure, it could still be considered a sin for the abortionist and the mother to take an innocent life, but from the baby’s standpoint, it might be a gain, maybe even a blessing. And so the host felt driven to support the idea that an unbaptized infant would receive, not a blessing, but the curse of being separated from the Beatific Vision for all eternity. No doubt she thought that limbo would be an argument against the trivialization of abortion; instead of being an “angel maker”, the abortionist prevents babies from going to Heaven and condemns them to be second-class citizens in the after-life.

I would not want to grant abortionists that kind of power. No, God is the only one who decides our eternal destiny. And we have been assured that He wills the salvation of all.

In her anxiety to defend limbo and prevent the trivialization of abortion, the host missed the deeper question raised by the woman on Catholic Answers who would rather have been aborted. In trying to counter her logic we run straight into the greatest obstacle to belief in a loving God, namely, the problem of suffering. If a baby has to endure great suffering, then what is the value of his living out his earthly life? Would it not be better for him to be aborted and go straight to heaven?

And of course the question does not apply just to babies. Since suffering is inevitably part of the experience of any person who lives in this fallen world, what is the point of earthly existence?

The Church is the only institution that insists absolutely on the value of every human life, no matter what sufferings and frailty it must endure. What was God’s answer to Job when he wished he had never been born? He did not tell him he was right. Rather, God let Job know that although he was not capable of understanding the divine plan for each human life, there was a plan. Job was eventually able to accept the mystery of his suffering, saying that he knew he had a redeemer. At the end of the story, he was restored to happiness and fellowship with God.

The Book of Job is considered one of the wisdom books of the Bible, and it still has the best answer to the problem of suffering that we are ever going to get here below: life is precious, in spite of our suffering, and we must trust in God’s plan and cling to the hope that happiness will be restored to us in the end.

From listening to the dialogue on these shows I have learned that the question of what happens to the souls of aborted babies touches on more areas of concern than I had first considered. The idea of limbo—sending innocent babies to a place forever distanced from God and the people who have gone to heaven—still fills me with revulsion. It implies an unloving God not worthy of our devotion. And it offers little hope and consolation to repentant post-abortive parents, and certainly not to parents who have suffered a miscarriage. Must they always carry the burden of knowing they have condemned or lost their children to second-class status in the afterlife?

On the other hand, I can see the danger of thinking that being sent straight home to God at the hands of an abortionist is some sort of blessing. This only throws gasoline of the fire of the culture of death that is raging amongst us. I remember talking to a lady outside a Planned Parenthood facility, who told me that she had four angels in heaven. She explained that since she hadn’t felt able to raise them, she was at peace with sending them to God. This attitude ignores the reality of all the tiny mangled bodies and the unimaginable pain they endure while being aborted. It ignores the impact on the woman’s health and all the social costs brought to the world by its millions of missing people. It is a lie of the devil.

What is the value of human life? What point is there in allowing unwanted or disabled babies to enter a world of suffering? For that matter, what point is there in allowing severely disabled adults or the elderly or terminally ill persons to suffer? Why not put them out of their misery?

Sometimes the best answer is not a perfectly presented logical argument, but a picture. Or a story. Or even better, a story with pictures. Namely, a movie. I would like to recommend a movie to the lady who wished she had been aborted. It is called The Drop Box, and it shows how Christian love can transform suffering. Not eliminate it, but transform it and make life meaningful. 

The movie is a documentary about a pastor in South Korea who installed a drop box in his home where mothers could leave babies they could not care for, rather than abandoning them on the streets where they often die of cold. 

The pastor had two biological children, one of whom was severely disabled. It was his disabled son who gave him his motivation to help other children. He and his wife have adopted fifteen disabled children left in the drop box, children who were not wanted by anyone else.

At the end of the movie Pastor Lee says that his disabled children were sent by God to be his teachers, and he has come to understand through them that each human life is more precious than the entire world and everything in it. After watching the film, I believe he is a saint. Saints are God’s answers to the hard questions. 

The saints who live among us, such as Pastor Lee and Mother Teresa’s nuns, can give us God’s answers to hard questions. But I also found myself wanting to understand more about the history of the Church’s speculations on the fate of unbaptized babies. In order to reassure myself that limbo is no longer a part of official church doctrine, I looked at what the Catechism of the Catholic Church has to say about the matter. Limbo is nowhere mentioned in it, but paragraph 1261 gives a positive reason to hope for the salvation of these babies:

“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 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.”

The preceding sections of the Catechism, dealing with the necessity of baptism for salvation, cite the following doctrine: “God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments.” (CCC 1257) In other words, the faithful are under the obligation to use the ordinary means that God has given us, through the Church, to obtain our salvation, and woe to us if we understand the necessity of Baptism and do not avail ourselves of it.

But God can use means outside the sacraments to save his people. Since earliest times the Church has recognized that those who desire baptism, but die before they receive it and are welcomed to Heaven nonetheless. The same is true for those unbaptized who die as martyrs to the faith. These means of salvation are called the Baptism of desire and the Baptism by blood, respectively. We must also remember that the early Church honored the Holy Innocents killed by Herod as martyrs, and we still celebrate their feast within the Octave of Christmas, since they gave their lives for the Infant Savior. Even St. Augustine recognized them as saints.

I say even Augustine, because it was his quarrel with the
St . Augustine weeping over the fate of unbaptized 

heretic Pelagius that led to the doctrine that we know as limbo. In the early 400s Pelagius was denying that human beings contract original sin from their parents, and so believed there was no necessity to baptize infants. In countering his arguments, St. Augustine went a bit far in the opposite direction and said that all the unbaptized must go to hell, though innocent children would suffer only the “mitissima poena,” or “the lightest punishment of all.” 

Although the Council of Carthage of 418 condemned the teaching of Pelagius, it did not officially adopt St. Augustine’s very harsh view of the fate of unbaptized infants. “So great was Augustine's authority in the West, however, that the Latin Fathers (e.g., Jerome, Fulgentius, Avitus of Vienne, and Gregory the Great) did adopt his opinion.” This quote is from a Vatican document published by the International Theological Commission (ITC). The document, entitled “The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized,” was published in 2007 with the approval of Pope Benedict XVI. Anyone interested in a thorough review of this question in Church history, its current status, and the direction that future development of doctrine might take, can read it on the Vatican’s website.

The notion that God’s Divine Justice meant that innocent babies had to suffer some sort of pains in hell, however mild, naturally did not seem reasonable to all theologians. Later medieval authors, including St. Thomas Aquinas and Blessed Duns Scotus, held that the babies would not suffer but would instead enjoy a place of purely natural happiness, which somehow still fell short of the Beatific Vision of Heaven, a term which Christians use to describe complete union with God. The term that came to be used for this dwelling place for second-class souls was limbo.

I would have thought that these statements from Vatican II and the Catechism about the possibility of salvation being open to all men would have dispelled the notion of limbo  once and for all. But no. It seems the controversy over unbaptized infants stirred up by Pelagius in the fourth century continues today. It is still not a matter of settled doctrine; the comments I heard on the Catholic talk show still represent the view of some faithful Catholics. Limbo has been described as a theological opinion, and evidently it is still licit, if not fashionable, to hold this opinion.

What reason can I give for thinking that limbo for unbaptized babies is still in play in the Church, apart from one radio talk show? After all, Saint Pope John Paul II dealt with this issue in Evangelium Vitae, The Gospel of Life. Here is the sentence he addresses to those who have lost a child from abortion in section 99 of his encyclical:

“You will come to understand that nothing is definitively lost and
Pope Saint John Paul II 
you will also be able to ask forgiveness from your child, who is now living in the Lord.”

The pope published the encyclical on 25 March, the Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord, in 1995. For this Marian pope, there could not be a more appropriate feast on which to proclaim the Gospel of Life than the one that celebrates the day that God became a human being in Mary’s womb. Surely he meant exactly what he said: aborted babies are living in the Lord. And yet, according to what I’ve read, the theologians at the Vatican changed his words because they did not like the implication that aborted babies were in Heaven.

What? Vatican theologians can change the words in the encyclical of a sainted pope? And get away with it? I had never heard of such a thing. This rocked my world.

Sure enough, when I looked up section 99 of Evangelium Vitae on the Vatican website, the passage quoted above did not appear. In its stead, I found these words:

“To the same Father and his mercy you can with sure hope entrust your child.”

Whatever “Vatican theologian” penned these words has drained most of the warmth and consolation that were in the original statement written by our beloved John Paul II.

That is what Theresa Bonopartis seemed to think as well when she wrote about this matter on the Aleteia blog on November 1, 2014:

I remember the first time I heard those words “nothing is definitively lost,” it stirred up in me a hope of one day being with my child. We are made for heaven, for eternal life with the Lord. Our time here is limited and thanks to His mercy we can reconcile ourselves to Him and to our children.

Years later, someone at the Vatican changed the sentence in no. 99 of The Gospel of Life – the one that had given so much consolation to women grieving over the loss of an unbaptized child, whether through miscarriage, stillbirth or abortion. It seems that theologians thought John Paul had gone too far in stating that unbaptized children were “living in the Lord,” implying that they were in heaven.

This sentence was replaced by one that speaks of God’s mercy and yet leaves open the possibility that unbaptized infants may not be with the Lord: “To the same Father and his mercy you can with sure hope entrust your child.” It’s no small thing to hope in the Father’s mercy, of course, but the thought of even the possibility of eternal separation from one’s child is more than many mothers can bear.

Thankfully, in 2007, Pope Benedict XVI approved a statement by the International Theological Commission (ITC) titled “The Hope of Salvation for Infants who Die without Being Baptized.” Although its endnote no. 98 approves the revised language in The Gospel of Life, the “Hope of Salvation” presents numerous reasons, drawn from Scripture and Tradition, why it is reasonable to hope these children are “living in the Lord.” 

Francis A. Sullivan, S.J. has given us a good summary of this issue in his article, “The Development of Doctrine About Infants Who Die Unbaptized,” (Theological Studies, 72, (2011)) He also raises the question of whether JPII knew about the change or approved it.

Despite the vexed history of this problem, which has puzzled theologians since the fourth century, we can always hope that it may someday be resolved with a clear teaching. Thanks to John Henry Newman, we can appreciate that the Church has always watched over the progress of theological understanding with her slow development of doctrine. For example, Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus appear to have been of the same mind on the fate of unbaptized infants, favoring some natural state of happiness such as limbo. But they were opposed to each other on the subject of the Immaculate Conception. The topic continued to be debated for centuries until Scotus’s view finally prevailed with the dogma’s proclamation in 1854. 

The Church moves slowly to protect the integrity of her teaching; her purpose is to make sure that there are no contradictions contained in it. This is a blessing for the faithful, a gift from God. But surely, in this age when human life in the womb is threatened as never before, we need a clear teaching on the fate of these millions of souls. To know with the certainty of revealed dogma that they are with God in the Beatific Vision, and not languishing in some second-class place, however “naturally” happy, would only strengthen their value in our estimation, not lessen it, as some seem to fear. Rather than trivializing abortion, it would highlight all the more the gravity of the abortionist’s sin; we could confidently proclaim that they are sending to their deaths little persons whose destiny is fully equal to that of other human beings.

I believe that the notion of limbo—a destination for souls that are not ready for primetime—cheapens the value of the unborn, and falsely appears to lesson the gravity of what the abortionist is doing. It is not really honest to say that the

abortionist is the one who is depriving them of heaven and sending them to a place of inferior happiness, i.e., limbo. No, the abortionist is merely killing their bodies, just as any murderer would kill the body of a fully mature victim. It is the theologian, or rather God, who is sending their souls to limbo -- if one holds this view. What a terrible accusation to make against God!

There is no consolation for the mother in this view, either. I would bet that most repentant post-abortive mothers would choose limbo over the Beatific Vision, just for a chance to ask forgiveness from their child, and to be with them again.

We must not forget the parents of miscarried and stillborn infants, who are also looking for the consolation of being re-united with the babies they never had a chance to know. Are they supposed to look forward to Heaven if it means gazing with longing across some chasm that separates them from their child for eternity?

Why is it so difficult for these “Vatican theologians” to understand this? Why can they not give this matter greater attention?

I do understand that the Pelagian controversy holds much more at stake than the fate of unbaptized infants, important as that question is. The doctrine of original sin and the means necessary for salvation (Baptism) are central to the meaning and mission of the Church. These broader issues have been contested down through the centuries, and still have great consequences for Christians of the present day.

Luther and Calvin carried Augustine’s doctrine on Original Sin to extremes that led to the Reformation and the doctrine of double predestination, the odious notion that God creates some people  in order to send them to hell. (Double predestination a la Calvin is not too far from the Catholic doctrine of limbo, if you think about it.) Luther’s teachings about salvation by faith alone led, ultimately, to the Baptist denomination’s (very ironic) position that baptism is not really necessary for salvation; it’s more of a formality, with the sinner’s prayer doing the heavy lifting of getting you into Heaven.

More prevalent today than Calvin’s exaggerations of St. Augustine’s doctrine of Original Sin is the modern Pelagian belief that most people are basically good and will go to Heaven by default. You would have to do something on the level of a Hitler or Stalin, in fact, to avoid going there. Pelagians are much more likely to trivialize both the sin of the abortionist and the consequence for the baby he murders. If the baby ends up going to Heaven anyway, (or being re-incarnated, as a syncretist Pelagian might believe), then where is the real harm done by abortion?

It is understandable that the Church is jealous of guarding her teaching on the necessity of baptism for salvation, (all the while acknowledging that God is not bound by the sacrament and can use other means to save us). From a pastoral viewpoint, her ministers have always had to contend with persons who wanted to delay baptism for misguided or trivial reasons, such as using baptism on one’s deathbed as a get-out-of-jail free card (popular in antiquity) or because the parents want to wait to baptize the baby till everyone can be there for the party (common practice in modern times).

I can understand that too much emphasis on the possibility for salvation for all would lead to a tendency to devalue baptism or forgo it altogether—a disastrous consequence for those doing the forgoing. The Church is God’s ordinary means of offering us salvation, and if we knowingly reject the grace of baptism, we do so at our peril.

The fundamental problem of Pelagianism is the failure to appreciate the wonder that is the Church.

St. Therese of Lisieux said, “I wish to find an elevator which would raise me to Jesus, for I am too small to climb the rough stairway of perfection.” What elevator did she find? The arms of Jesus, along with her famous “Little Way” of doing small things with great love. Yet we must not forget that St. Therese was imbedded in the heart of the Church. Without its sacraments, its prayers, the Carmelite way of life, she would not have had such easy access to that “elevator.” It is the Church itself which is the true elevator, the easy way that leads to God. To those outside, it may look like a needlessly thorny path, one that is bound up in rules and traditions. How is it easy, you may ask? It is easy by comparison with the chaos of the world, which always tries to make us rebel against the loving way laid out for us by God.

To balance the viewpoint of Augustine and Pelagius, we must look for a middle way between the extreme views of Calvinists, who think most people are going to hell, and of liberal Christians, who don’t believe anyone is going to hell. The middle way is the Catholic way; we need a greater appreciation of the Church and her sacraments, especially baptism. To increase our appreciation does not necessarily mean that we will completely understand or dispel all difficulties, but we can deepen our awe before the mystery.

For Baptism is a great mystery, as are all the sacraments. Meditating on the mystery of this sacrament can perhaps find a path that the logic of the theologians has missed. I believe we need to keep working on the development of the doctrine of salvation for unbaptized infants, until it can be defined as dogma. There are millions suffering from losing babies to abortion and miscarriage; they are so in need of that hope that Vatican II and the Catechism have held out for us.

Very often poetry can be an aid to meditation. Our culture devalues it, but poetry has its own logic. St. Ephraem of Syria, who shared the fourth century with Pelagius and St. Augustine, wrote mystical hymns of great beauty, and two of them had baptism as a theme. One sang of the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan, and the other celebrated the joy of all baptized Christians. These poems are eminently worth reading and reviving today; they take us beyond the mundane definitions of the sacrament in textbooks to a little foretaste of Heaven.

Modern authors also write eloquently of the Sacrament of Baptism; they have not forgotten the traditions of the ancient Church. Here is Deacon Keith Fournier’s commentary on the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord from his website The Catholic Way:

“From antiquity, the Church has found a deeper meaning in this Baptism in the River Jordan. Symbolically, all water is sanctified when God the Son is immersed into it. Just as the Spirit hovered over the waters of the original creation, the Spirit now hovers over these waters wherein the Son, through whom the entire universe was made, is immersed. This is the reason why, in the East, when this feast is celebrated, waters are blessed. In fact, in the Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches, the clergy often lead the faithful to rivers and entire rivers are blessed!” (The Baptism of Jesus: Immersed in God)

The Church constantly reminds us that the Creator of all waters has sanctified them with his Baptism in order that they may be used for our sanctification: we bless the baptismal

waters at Easter with the dipping of the Easter candle, signifying Christ’s baptism, we keep holy water at the doors of our churches to remind us of our own baptism, and all over the world Catholics can seek the miraculous, healing waters of springs and other water sources that are associated with Mary and the saints.

The Church has always taught that the sacraments are visible signs of invisible grace, and that God employs both matter and the word to confer grace upon our souls and bodies. Of the various commentaries on the sacraments that I have read, it is Father Frederick Faber who seems best able to express the inexpressible wonder we should feel at contemplating these marvelous creations of God. Perhaps it is his place in the Victorian era, when people first began to see the vast possibilities of learning new things about the secrets of the material universe opening up to them, that gave him his unique perspective. In his book The Precious Blood, he says:

“Their [the sacraments] use of matter seems to point to a philosophy of matter and spirit far deeper than any which has yet been taught. It awakens trains of thought which carry us rapidly into speculations which are too high for us, yet which give us now and then unsystematic glances into the secrets of creation.”

Nearly a century and a half after he wrote those words (in 1860), we can see coming into focus much more of what he was straining after in his speculations. Fr. Robert Spitzer’s book, New Proofs for the Existence of God, has laid out and explained the discoveries of modern physics in a way that allows us to see God’s infinite care in creating this anthropic universe to nurture human life. The study of DNA has proven that all living humans belong to one species, one human family, just as the Church has always taught. [Pope Pius XII Humani Generis] This may seem self-evident now, but it was far from universally accepted as late as the 1950’s. (The notion that some races were inferior or sub-human was an essential element of Hitler’s pseudo-science and provided his justification for the eugenic slaughter in the concentration camps.) We have learned even more wonderful things through the study of embryology—researchers had discovered in the late 19th century that a mother harbors fetal cells from every baby she has ever carried in her own body. Now we are beginning to learn about the positive role these fetal cells can play in protecting her health. We now have learned that the relationship is two-way: children also have cells from the bodies of their older siblings, and of their grandmothers and great-grandmothers. Talk about a family tree! 

For a Catholic, this means that when we receive the Body of the Lord, we also receive the body of His most Holy Mother. We really are Mary’s children, and Jesus is our Brother -- just as the Church has always said. Here we can get some more of those unsystematic glances into the mystery of matter and spirit that Fr. Faber was talking about: what does it mean for unbaptized children when their mothers, who carry their babies cells in their own bodies, receive Holy Communion? What does it mean for the whole human family that some members have received the graces of Baptism and Communion? Can God extend these graces in some mysterious fashion to other family members who lack them? Every Sunday we say we believe in the Communion of the Saints. Can we presume to know precisely what that means? Or should we assume that a vast deal more is meant by it than we have ever dreamed?

Let us return for a moment to meditate on the Sacrament of Baptism. It is the one sacrament that may be administered by a non-Catholic, if there is an emergency. What is required is that the baptizer use the proper words—“I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit—and intend what the Church means by baptism, while pouring at least a small amount of water on the person’s head. Even a drop of water could suffice. A drop of water. What miraculous potency is contained in this tiny droplet of matter: to restore us to life as God’s children; to give us the sanctifying grace we need to enter Heaven when we die.

We can and should take at least a moment every day to praise and thank God for water; for the grace of our Baptism, yes, but also for the gift of water itself. Isn’t it a kind of natural thanksgiving for water when we feel the urge to sing in the

shower? Aren’t people always drawn naturally to water? They want to be near it, enjoy its beauty. They create music and poetry in its praise. The Bible speaks of it over and over.

Again, science has given us even more to wonder at it. We know that humans are mostly water and would die without it. All life requires water. But science has taught us that the water on earth is billions of years old and circulates continually. The Church tells us that Christ sanctified all of the waters with his Baptism in the Jordan. Given what we have learned about the water cycle, it could be literally true that all of us come into contact at some point in our life with at least some water molecules that have touched His Body.

Where am I going with these glimpses of the mysterious relationship between matter and spirit? Well, as Catholics we believe that people are both matter and spirit; we don’t ignore the body when caring for the soul. The very existence of the matter on earth and the life it nurtures is a kind of sacrament, a sign from God. And so we are free to meditate on these mysteries when we ask what happens to the souls of unbaptized babies. Can the human DNA that unites us all as one family and the God-touched water that keeps us all alive enable us to save each other?

Am I suggesting that we can baptize the dead, as the Mormons teach? By no means. But I am suggesting that we contemplate all this new knowledge with wonder and with hope; hope that God wants us all to come to Heaven; hope that He will offer a way to those who have not received baptism.

While this post was being edited on Jan. 22, 2016,  the Day of Prayer for the Legal Protection of Unborn Children, aka the day that the U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion in 1973 in the notorious Roe v Wade decision, my friend, Susan Fox went to Mass. And the sermon was about this very issue. Should mothers grieve the loss of their children's eternal salvation if they died by abortion or miscarriage before they could receive Baptism?
The priest said, "Definitely not!" He reminded the congregation at noon Mass that when Mary and Elizabeth met, the infant in the womb of St. Elizabeth (St. John the Baptist) was sanctified by the God-Infant in the Womb of Mary (Jesus Christ). God can bless and sanctify children in the womb before their birth. He can touch the heart of any human being at any time in their existence, and bring them close to Himself. 

We know that many theologians have wrestled with this problem of the unbaptized infant. They have written of the baptism of desire, the baptism of blood, the baptism of the Holy Innocents, and the promise of Paradise extended to the Good Thief from the cross. None of these received water baptism as the Church offers, but all received salvation.

We can hope that the sensus fidelium that helped lead the church to the dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and of the Assumption will also help lead to a stronger hope for the salvation of all the unbaptized, including infants. Is anything impossible with God? 

 When medieval theologians were trying to explain how Mary could be without sin -- if all were in need of redemption by Christ -- it was Duns Scotus who came up with the solution. Christ saved Mary from sin by preserving her from original sin at her conception. Because Christ is God, and God is not limited by time, the sequence of events was not relevant. "Potuit, decuit, ergo fecit" (He [i.e., God] could do it, it was appropriate, therefore He did it). May it be so again.

Did you enjoy this piece? There are more by this author. 
Enter The Lord's Gate: Our Lady of Knock

Author Phoebe Wise has a Master's Degree in Medieval
Languages from Harvard University


  1. Dear Phoebe-Thank you - so much work here; enlarge it and do a book ( - but don't hold your breath marketing the movie rights!). Much of what you say reminds me of St. Thomas Aquinas dealing with what humans see as the "problem of evil." He ends up saying, yes there is evil, we cannot understand it even if God permits it, but we do know that a good, just, loving, generous, caring God has a plan and a reason, which. althogh we cannot comporehend, we can accept in faith. Have a fullofwonder weekend. Guy McClung, San Antonio Texas USA

  2. I don't think the Church has ever pronounced anyone to be present in the Beatific Vision, other than the Saints. We wouldn't want to confuse the laity into thinking abortion is good because the baby goes to heaven. We also err when we apply one situation to another. And what is the difference between an unbaptized mother who aborts versus a baptized mother who aborts.

    We have a moral law, given by God to the Jews, then clarified by Christ. We should just follow it and remember we are not meant for this world, but Heaven, and God, being infinitely good, will work it out.

  3. I am not a theologian but I believe babies, especially the millions of babies that have been aborted throughout the world go straight to Heaven. Those babies are martyrs, they are innocent little ones who have not done anything wrong. They were conceived at the wrong time, by someone who thought he/she was an inconvenience to his/her parents. God gave that baby a soul at the time of conception and I am sure He will bring that innocent baby to be with Him in His Kingdom. Rebeca

  4. Thank you for your thoughtful and comforting words. What you have written here makes great sense. God bless you for caring.

  5. Denial of the doctrine of Limbo was addressed by Pope PIUS VI in his "Errors of the Synod of Pistoia", Condemned in the Constitution, “Auctorem fidei,” Aug. 28, 1794. Stated as condemned: "The Punishment of Those Who Die with Original Sin Only. [Baptism, sec. 3] 1526 [DS 2626] 26. 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..." DENZINGER, H. – RAHNER, K. (ed.), The sources of Catholic dogma (St. Louis, MO 1954) 370.
    *Your support of the schismatic, ID Theft Crew of Vatican II is an entire, multi-volume added discussion.

    1. Dear Merdy, the author Phoebe Wise has provided you with a couple of articles from the NCR about limbo.


      As Pope Benedict XVI has said, Catholics may licitly hold the opinion that limbo is the fate of the unbaptized, but it is not a part of revelation, and barring some further development of doctrine by the magisterium, it cannot be asserted definitively. We simply do not know what happens to the unbaptized. Purgatory itself is supported by scripture, and is a matter of dogma, but not limbo.-- Phoebe Wise

  6. Thanks for this amazing post. It's a troublesome theological issue and there must be some greater truth we don't yet understand, and limbo can't be it.

  7. I am currently reading Mirjana Soldo's book "My Heart Will Triumph" in which she tells the story of Medjugorje as seen through her eyes.
    Many of her companions in high school were have abortions and being blasè about them which troubled her greatly as did the fate of the unbaptised infants.
    On page 108 she says
    "I once heard that the souls of unbaptised infants and victims of abortion went to a place known as Limbo - a perpetual place of separation from God. But how could God, the Pure Love, exclude innocent babies from Heaven? During an apparition, I asked Our Lady, "Where do they go?"
    "They are with me in Heaven," she replied.
    I was present at a talk in 2004 when Mirjana also told us that Our Lady said that these children were with her but added "I cannot speak or say the same about their parents."

    Peace be with you.

  8. We cannot teach that aborted babies go straight to Jesus. Women would "choose" abortion thinking it the best and easiest way to ensure their child goes to Heaven. God is merciful and said "Let the children come to me." Surely a merciful and just God has provided for something between the Beatific Vision and Hell. An eternity of complete natural happiness is not Hell. And certainly, if these innocent children are not within the Trinity in the Beatific Vision, certainly Jesus, Mary, and the Angels and Saints can surely "visit" the children. The term Limbo may be an unfortunate English word but I am not convinced it is or was ever meant to be a negative. God bless.

  9. I saw a video on Youtube about a 10-year-old boy who was "dead" for about 40 minutes (not breathing)--but who miraculously recovered. He reported that while he was "dead," he visited heaven, and he saw a large number of babies there, who were being cared for by people. He wondered why he saw so many babies in heaven. He didn't have the answer; however, it is very possible that these were infants that had been aborted.