Limbo No More – the myth of permanent perfect natural happiness

Limbo as a permanent place of perfect natural happiness is no longer a tenable theological opinion. The combination of past definitive teachings of the Magisterium and recent non-infallible teachings makes that idea contrary to Church teaching. It is not an heretical idea, and the Magisterium has not decided the fate of unbaptized children with an infallible teaching specific to the question. But it is false to claim that Catholics are free to hold this idea as a pious opinion. This article will explain why, briefly; but for the full explanation, see my book: Forgiveness and Salvation for Everyone

There are a few different proposed types of Limbo.

The Limbo of the Fathers is a temporary place where the Old Testament fathers awaited salvation by Christ. After Christ opened the gates of Heaven by His sacrifice on the Cross, they entered Heaven. However, the Old Testament fathers are not the only ones to receive this benefit. They are simply the strongest case for salvation before Christ. Human persons before the time of Christ could be saved in the same way, by a baptism of desire. And since we are speaking of the time before the formal Sacrament of Baptism, theirs must be an implicit baptism of desire.

[1 Corinthians 10]
{10:1} For I do not want you to be ignorant, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and they all went across the sea.
{10:2} And in Moses, they all were baptized, in the cloud and in the sea.
{10:3} And they all ate of the same spiritual food.
{10:4} And they all drank of the same spiritual drink. And so, they all were drinking of the spiritual rock seeking to obtain them; and that rock was Christ.

We can reasonably conclude from the teaching of Scripture and the Magisterium on baptism of desire that even a non-Jew in the time before Christ could receive this type of baptism.

The word limbo means “fringe”. So I would conceptualize this Limbo as a fringe of Purgatory. The souls saved before the time of Christ probably needed purification in Purgatory more so than a Catholic today. For we have access to 7 Sacraments and to indulgences to help us avoid Purgatory, or at least spend less time there. So the Old Testament fathers would generally go to Purgatory, and then, when their temporal punishment for sin was completed, would await Christ in the Limbo of Purgatory.

The Limbo of Hell is that portion of Hell where those souls are sent who die in a state of “original sin alone”. They did not commit any actual mortal sins in their life, but they did not obtain any form of baptism (water, desire, blood) in order to wipe away original sin from their soul and enter the state of grace.

The Council of Florence: “But the souls of those who depart this life in actual mortal sin, or in original sin alone, go down straightaway to hell to be punished, but with unequal pains.”

The Second Council of Lyons: “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.”

The souls in the limbo (fringe) of Hell are punished, though less than those who died unrepentant from actual mortal sin. This teaching of two Ecumenical Councils is infallible. And their teaching is clear: “punished”, “pains”, “punishments”. The claim that the limbo of Hell is a place of permanent perfect natural happiness is incompatible with this infallible teaching.

Now some commentators claim that “punishment” is compatible with perfect natural happiness, since the punishment is merely the deprivation of the Beatific Vision of God (and all the other joys of Heaven). But this position is untenable.

Pope Innocent III: “The punishment of original sin is deprivation of the vision of God, but the punishment of actual sin is the torments of everlasting Hell….” [Denzinger, n. 410]

Pope Pius VI: “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….” [Auctorem Fidei, n. 26]

Two Popes state clearly that those who die in original sin alone are punished. They are deprived of the Beatific Vision of God, and their punishments is “the punishment of the condemned”, but without the torments. Those who die unrepentant from actual mortal sin are tormented by those sins in the worm of conscience and some are given sensible pains. Those who die in original sin alone are punished with the figurative “pain” of deprivation of the Vision of God.

Furthermore, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

“The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs.” [CCC 1035]

So those who die in a state of original sin alone are “punished with the punishment of the condemned”, which is the deprivation of eternal separation from God. The Catechism of the Catholic Church calls this punishment the “chief punishment of hell”. So it is entirely untenable for theologians and the faithful to hold the opinion that the souls in the limbo of Hell have perfect natural happiness. The souls in the limbo of Purgatory, i.e. the limbo of the fathers, had something like a perfect natural happiness, temporarily not permanently. But the souls in any part of Hell are punished with the punishment of condemned souls which is the chief punishment of Hell.

So the claim that the souls in the limbo of Hell have permanent perfect natural happiness is contrary to magisterial teaching.

Then there is the idea of Limbo as a third final destination, which is neither Heaven nor Hell. This version of limbo is not a fringe of Hell. It would be a separate place of natural happiness. But similar problems arise with this idea.

Who would go to this third final destination? The answer is always those who die in original sin alone. Well, that contradicts the infallible teaching of two Ecumenical Councils, as explained above. And how would they be happy in this third place?

Pope Benedict XVI: “Human beings cannot completely fulfill themselves, they cannot be truly happy without God.” [Homily, Sunday, 24 May 2009]

Pope John Paul II: “Without God, man cannot fully find himself, nor can he find his true happiness.” [Homily, 9 November 1999]

Pope Pius XII: “Above all, the state of grace is absolutely necessary at the moment of death; without it, salvation and supernatural happiness — the beatific vision of God — are impossible.” [Address to Midwives, n. 21a.]

A human person simply cannot have salvation or supernatural happiness without the state of grace, and everyone who dies in a state of original sin alone certainly does not have that state. A human person cannot be truly happy without God, but everyone who lacks the state of grace, lacks God in a very real and full sense.

Should we say, then, that those who die in original sin alone lack God, lack the state of grace, lack the supernatural virtues of love, faith, and hope that accompany the state of grace, and yet are somehow saved or happy? It’s a self-contradictory position to hold. Once you understand that those who die in original sin alone lack all these things, you really cannot hold that they are saved or happy.

Then there is the infallible teaching of the Magisterium on the universal salvific will of God.

CDF: “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him’ (John 3:16-17). In the New Testament, the universal salvific will of God is closely connected to the sole mediation of Christ: ‘[God] desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and men, the man Jesus Christ, who gave himself as a ransom for all’ ” (1 Timothy 2:4-6). [Dominus Jesus, n. 13.]

God desires all human persons to be saved. Can we also hold that billions of prenatals, infants, and young children, who died without formal Baptism, are saved by being in the limbo of Hell or by being in a third final destination that is forever separated from God and all their baptized loved ones? Both versions of limbo are contrary to the universal salvific will of God.

It is no longer a tenable theological or pious opinion to hold that any place of permanent perfect natural happiness exists.

Should we hold then, the unpalatable opinion that little children who die without formal baptism suffer eternal punishment in Hell, rather than natural happiness?

Pope Pius IX, in the encyclical Quanto Conficiamur Moerore, taught that no one is punished eternally, unless they have committed a deliberate sin.

“Because God knows, searches and clearly understands the minds, hearts, thoughts, and nature of all, his supreme kindness and clemency do not permit anyone at all who is not guilty of deliberate sin to suffer eternal punishments.” [Quanto Conficiamur Moerore n. 7]

And original sin is not a deliberate sin:

Pope Innocent III: “For God forbid that all children, of whom daily so great a multitude die, would perish, but that also for these, the merciful God, who wishes no one to perish, has procured some remedy unto salvation…. We say that a distinction must be made, that sin is twofold: namely, original and actual: original, which is contracted without consent; an actual which is committed with consent. Original, therefore, which is committed without consent, is remitted without consent through the power of the sacrament; but actual, which is contracted with consent, is not mitigated in the slightest without consent….” [Denzinger, n. 410.]

A sin is committed with consent if it is deliberate. Only original sin is committed without consent. So the Magisterium already teaches that persons who are not guilty of deliberate sin do NOT suffer eternal punishments. And since every permanent form of limbo has the eternal punishment of eternal separation from God, we must conclude that there is a path of salvation for unbaptized prenatals, infants, and young children.

My theological opinion is that all prenatals, infants, and little children, who die at that age and without formal Baptism, are given a baptism of blood so that they enter the state of grace at least in the last moment of life (perhaps sooner). They may go to the limbo of Purgatory, temporarily, so that they will enter Heaven knowing and loving Christ explicitly. But they do not go to any place of punishment nor of permanent natural happiness.

Who then are those unfortunate souls punished with eternal separation from God in the limbo of Hell because they died in a state of “original sin alone”? They are adults who died unrepentant from the actual mortal sin of omission of never having found sanctifying grace in their life (by any of the three forms of baptism), despite ample opportunity.

The Magisterium has NEVER taught that little children die in a state of original sin alone. And based on current magisterial teaching, some of which is non-infallible, we should hold that all little children go to Heaven.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and
translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

Please take a look at this list of my books and booklets, and see if any topic interests you.

Gallery | This entry was posted in salvation. Bookmark the permalink.