Hope for the salvation of infants who die without baptism

Editorial, August 2010

A constant theological problem, at least since the time of Augustine, is the question of the salvation of infants who die without baptism. Many solutions to the problem have been proposed, such as: they are in hell but not seriously punished (Augustine), they are in “limbo,” which is a state of natural happiness but no vision of God, or they go to heaven because of the prayers of the Church or the faith of their parents.

The most common answer to this problem since the time of St. Thomas Aquinas is that they go to Limbo, where they will be happy forever but do not enjoy the face-to-face vision of God. The existence of Limbo has been taught in Catholic schools for centuries and it has been included in many approved catechisms. Since the middle of the twentieth century, however, many doubts have been raised about the existence of Limbo. One result is that, in recent years, it is rarely mentioned.

The question about the eternal destiny of infants who die without baptism is a serious one, especially today, when there are tens of millions of abortion performed each year.

Any answer to this question that offers hope of salvation for these infants must be in accord with certain truths of the faith that are undisputed. They are: 1) the universality of original sin; 2) the absolute necessity of baptism (water, or blood, or desire); 3) no one can enter eternal life with sin on his soul—either original sin or personal mortal sin. So the question is: If these unbaptized infants attain eternal salvation without baptism, how can that be since baptism is absolutely necessary as a necessity of means? How are they cleansed of original sin? Is there some other way of salvation that has not been revealed to us by Jesus and the Holy Spirit?

In current theological thinking there is much hope for the salvation of these unbaptized infants; new reasons have been adduced to add to this hope. In this regard it is essential to note that the Church has never made an official pronouncement either for or against Limbo. Some papal documents have mentioned it, but only because Catholic theologians who defended Limbo were accused of Pelagian heresy by some Jansenists. Pope Pius VI rejected that charge and defended the right of Catholics to hold their opinion about Limbo.

Pope John Paul II suggested to the International Theological Commission that they study this question. They did and published a long document on it on January 19, 2007: “The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die without Being Baptized.” It was approved for publication by Benedict XVI, who said that it was a stimulus for further theological thinking and research.

The document expresses the “hope” that the infants attain salvation, but there is no certitude. What are the reasons for that hope? They offer the following reasons for hope: 1) the universal salvific will of God (1 Tim. 2:4); 2) the infinite mercy of God (now included in the liturgy for Mercy Sunday); 3) the Catechism of the Catholic Church recommends them to the mercy of God and expresses “hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without baptism” (1261); 4) the absolute gratuity of salvation and God’s actions are not limited by the sacraments; 5) the mysterious connection of Christ and his Church with every human being.

The document considers #5 very important as a way of salvation for the infants who somehow bypass baptism. This is a very weak point and one that needs more study. The document concludes by expressing the “hope” for the salvation of such infants, but they are not certain about this.

It is praiseworthy to hope for the salvation of these infants, but there are serious doctrinal obstacles. The existence of Limbo has been affirmed and taught in the Church, without censure, for more than seven hundred years. The reasons given for the salvation of these infants are not totally convincing.

There is a danger here also for pastoral practice. The theory of the “anonymous Christian” proposed fifty years ago had a negative influence on Catholic missionary activity. The hope-theory of extra-sacramental salvation for these infants could easily lead to a loss of urgency to baptize newborn babies as soon as possible, if Catholics think it is not necessary for their eternal salvation. The only certain way of salvation for infants is baptism. The hope-theory is mere theological speculation.

Fr. Kenneth Baker, SJ About Fr. Kenneth Baker, SJ

Fr. Kenneth Baker, SJ, is editor emeritus of HPR, having served as editor for over 30 years. He is the author of the best selling Fundamentals of Catholicism (three volumes) and of the popular introduction to the Scripture, Inside the Bible.