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What the Rite of Baptism Tells Us About Limbo

©Heidi Bratton Photography 2011

©Heidi Bratton Photography 2011

As the father of eleven who also knows the heartache of miscarriage, I was moved by a recent post by blogger Stacy Trasancos titled “The Spiritual Abortion Called Limbo,” exhorting even those who accept the longstanding theological opinion of the “limbo of the infants” to please pray for those innocent young souls who die before Baptism. This theological opinion asserts that such souls spend eternity not in Heaven, enjoying the Beatific Vision, but rather remain eternally in a state of “natural” happiness in this “limbo” or “edge” of hell itself. They do not suffer the pains of hell and are naturally happy but are not supernaturally seeing God “face to face.” While this opinion may still be held by faithful Catholics, it is not the only possible solution to the theological dilemma.

I’m also a deacon of the Church who has been privileged to be the minister of infant Baptism. The beautiful Rite of Baptism can actually tell us something important, I think, about the centuries and centuries of speculation regarding what happens to a soul who dies without Baptism but innocent of any personal sin, such as those innocents in the womb who die resulting from miscarriage or procured abortion. I’d like to share this insight and then propose a theological speculation that I happen to find much more satisfying than the “limbo” proposal.

What does the Church’s celebration of Baptism have to do with “limbo”? Well, if you’ve been to a Baptism before, you know that the priest or deacon will ask the parents for the name of the child and then ask “What do you ask of God’s Church for your child?” The parents respond, “Baptism.” The celebrant then asks again whether the parents “clearly understand” what it means to ask to have their child baptized and the parents say “We do.” Then the celebrant welcomes the child on behalf of the “Christian community” and says “I claim you for Christ our Savior by the sign of the cross,” which is traced on the child’s forehead. Then, after the Liturgy of the Word and the Litany of the Saints, the celebrant administers the “Prayer of Exorcism and Anointing Before Baptism.”

At this point the celebrant says to the child, “We anoint you with the oil of salvation in the name of Christ our Savior; may he strengthen you with his power, who lives for ever and ever.”

Then he anoints the child with the Oil of the Catechumens.

Full stop.

What just happened? Remembering that this is all before the actual baptism, let’s review: The Rite of Baptism gives the parents (and godparents) the opportunity to express their desire for baptism for the child, who is then claimed for Christ and ultimately anointed with the Oil of the Catechumens.

The infant to be baptized is acknowledged in the Rite to be a “catechumen” based not on the child’s own desire for baptism, but based on the parents’ desire for the child’s baptism.

So, where would this child spend eternity if at that moment some catastrophe struck, killing the baby before the actual Baptism could take place? The Church has always taught that catechumens who die before baptism can still experience the Beatific Vision. The infant catchumen would go to Heaven despite having missed the opportunity for baptism.

Thus the Rite of Baptism shows us clearly that the parents’ desire for the child’s baptism suffices as the “desire for baptism” that effectively makes the infant a “catechumen.”

How does this work?

The parents (and godparents) are acknowledged to have a sort of spiritual “jurisdiction” over the child. And this is not a result of a merely biological connection between child and parents—rather, this “jurisdiction” is associated with anyone (e.g., adoptive parents, etc.) who has taken on the responsibility of caring for the child.

So, the Rite of Baptism would seem to make clear that: The “desire for baptism” that is expressed by the persons with spiritual “jurisdiction” over the child is sufficient to allow us to consider the child to be a “catechumen.”

Based upon this connection so clearly expressed in the Rite of Baptism itself, I would further assert that any parent who possesses the clear “desire for baptism” for their child effectively gives their child the status of “catechumen,” meaning that, if (God forbid) the child dies before baptism, the parent can trust that their child is experiencing the Beatific Vision in Heaven, just as the Church teaches regarding other catechumens.

While I remind readers that this is my personal speculation and interpretation, I would also suggest that this is an equally permissible view to take regarding the ultimate destiny of these young souls. And I view this opinion as infinitely more consoling than the “limbo of the infants.”

But wait, one may interject, this view might console parents who desire baptism for their child, but what about all the children—such as those who die from abortion—whose parents have no desire for baptism for their child? Don’t we still need to resolve this question before parting ways with the “limbo of the infants”?

Yes we do. And I think God in His mercy has provided us with the solution. My additional speculation is that there is indeed another who has both the necessary spiritual “jurisdiction” over a specific soul and an unwavering desire for that soul’s baptism from the very moment of conception. Who else might be able to make a “catechumen” out of an unbaptized soul? Our Guardian Angel.

Think about it. Our Guardian Angel, like a parent or godparent, has unique spiritual jurisdiction over a specific soul, has the intellect and will to unwaveringly desire baptism for the soul, and accompanies the soul in crossing the threshold from time into eternity—what Guardian Angel would not “claim for Christ” a dying soul who has no chance for baptism? What Guardian Angel would not seek to ensure that such a soul is a catechumen?

These are my speculations—I believe these opinions comport fully with the “mind of the Church” and resolve the clear dogmatic “tensions” that produced the theological opinion of the “limbo of the infants.”

While I remain open to correction regarding any potential error in reasoning I may have made, I also remain hopeful that these theological opinions can bring comfort to parents and families grieving the loss of any loved one who died without personal sin and without baptism. May we all trust both in God’s justice and in His mercy!


Deacon Jim Russell is a lifelong St. Louis resident, "cradle" Catholic, husband, father of eleven, and grandfather of two. Ordained to the Diaconate in 2002, Deacon Russell serves as Director of Liturgy for Immaculate Conception Parish in Dardenne Prairie, Missouri, the second-largest parish in the Archdiocese of St. Louis. He remains an active supporter of Catholic radio and the Catholic blogosphere and writes for Catholic Stand. Deacon Russell’s theological interests include the sanctity of marriage and the work of Blessed Pope John Paul II, particularly his “Catecheses on Human Love” (Theology of the Body). Follow Deacon Russell on Twitter at @MarriageSTL.
  • Lee

    We can only hope that aborted children are in limbo or heaven, however their has come to light recently that these children could very possibly even be somewhere much much worse. For this possible reason alone we need to pray for conversions and do everything we can to make sure children are saved from abortion and also that children are baptized asap. It is a real possibility that these children are not in a good place. God have mercy on us all

    • http://stacytrasancos.com/ Stacy Trasancos

      Lee, I don’t know where you got that. Do you have a link. I don’t think that’s right, but I’d like to read the reasoning anyway. Much, much worse? Why?

      • Lee

        I don’t understand why or know why, it is something I don’t wish to forward or actually discuss, it could have something to do with the ” mystery of iniquity. ” I believe absolutely in Gods ocean of mercy, but we have to remember, sin has consequences, and coupled with Gods mercy, is His justice. We can hope, yes, but do not presume. No one knows for sure Stacy where these children go, especially aborted babies or the unbaptized, whose parents willingly or neglectfully refuse or delay baptism. We don’t know for sure , period. However, recently my wife and I heard something that horrified us, it sent chills down our spines and still does. Pray, pray, pray…………….Please God, have mercy on us all.

      • Lee

        One Fathers of the Church named St Fulgentius also spoke on this matter specifically, if you you wish , you can look it up. It is sobering to say the least and I pray he is wrong. We need more fasting and prayer in this age of epicurianism for which I myself am guilty at many times. Please also pray for the conversion of mothers and fathers seeking or considering abortions. We have a true genocide taking place right in our own backyards. Genocide that is encouraged by our ” civilized ” world and so- called first world countries. Besides, If abortion was a quick road to heaven, why not encourage it, you get to bypass this existance for the beatific vision, with that reasoning it would be encouraged, think about it.

        • Ben Dehler

          Keep in mind that all those in Heaven have freely chosen the Beatific Vision. The age of the body does not matter. Infant souls still have to exercise their free will. I think all souls get there choice. Aborted babies will be required to forgive their parents for killing them.

        • http://stacytrasancos.com/ Stacy Trasancos

          I do pray. I do hope. My purpose for commenting on this issue is to get other people to think harder about it because some of the language is unhelpful, even harmful, not to mention illogical to anyone trying to step through it.

          Medical research indicates that possibly as many as 70% of conceived children die before birth, most in early miscarriage in the womb. You can’t tell mothers trying to be open to life that chances are the child will die unbaptized and most likely go to hell.

          You can’t tell mothers who have aborted their children that their babies are in hell forever with no hope of salvation. How can a woman seek forgiveness for that and truly believe it will be granted? She’d probably rather not be forgiven. That is not the way to convert hearts. You have to give these women hope.

          From Evangelium Vitae, 99, to women who have had abortions:

          “But do not give in to discouragement and do not lose hope. Try rather to understand what happened and face it honestly. If you have not already done so, give yourselves over with humility and trust to repentance. The Father of mercies is ready to give you his forgiveness and his peace in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. To the same Father and his mercy you can with sure hope entrust your child.”

          http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_25031995_evangelium-vitae_en.html

          If abortion were a quick road to Heaven? Doesn’t make any difference because I guarantee you that is NOT the reason women have abortions. If that argument held any weight whatsoever, parents would be killing their newborns right after Baptism since they would, in fact, be guaranteed the child would go to Heaven.

          Prayer and fasting are necessary, no argument there. I just wish people would be more careful about the things they say because sometimes, unintentionally, you can do a person harm. The message needs to be about hope. Big, huge, greater than life, hope.

          • Lee

            Once again , you can read the first sentence of my first post, I do hope and do pray that they are in heaven. The truth is we don’t know and the Church has really been quite silent on the issue in any sort of definitive way . Stacy, it is ok and an honest and humble thing to just say to these women ” I don’t know . ” Sentimentality is not charity, truth is. I care more for someones souls than their feelings. Don’t discount what a Father of the Church, St Fulgentius said though. That should be at least respected and taken into consideration. Sin has consequences.
            “”Be assured, and doubt not, that not only men who have attained the use of their reason, but also little children who have begun to live in their mothers’ womb and have there died, or who, having been just born, have passed away from the world without the sacrament of holy baptism, administered in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, must be punished by the eternal torture of undying fire; for although they have committed no sin by their own will, they have nevertheless drawn with them the condemnation of original sin, by their carnal conception and nativity.” (sec. 70.) —Bishop St. Fulgentius, 4th century

          • Lee

            I ” hope ” St Fulgentius is wrong I really do, so sincerely. I will continue to pray for conversions and baptisms and use charity , not fear to try and encourage conversions and baptisms. Because you asked and for a reference I have provided one for you Stacy. I was hesitant to do it, but it would be dishonest to withhold some of my reasoning and I don’t want to give the impression that it is my opinion that children are damned that are unbaptized or aborted. My hope is that they are indeed martyrs. I pray for this actually. But we really don’t know. in JMJ, Lee

          • http://stacytrasancos.com/ Stacy Trasancos

            Thank you. I asked, and you provided it. I shouldn’t have asked. I cannot even finish reading that. Sorry, not your fault. I’m done.

        • John Miner

          Just as a point of information, the Fulgentius to whom you refer is not a doctor of the Church. His writings on this topic are not a part of the deposit of faith, and are contrary to the most common view espoused by the bishops and the Catechism. Fulgentius of Ruspe (your reference) is confused with Fulgentius of Cartagena, who incidentally is only recognized as a Church Doctor in Spain and not by the Universal Church.

  • John Miner

    The Church has provided the answer already: “God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments.” (CCC 1257). If aborted babies and other innocents who die without benefit of Baptism, how are they any different than the Holy Innocents whom we honor as saints?

    • cfish

      Because the holy innocents were in the process of preparation for and had made an act of will to be baptized. They both had heard of and accepted ‘the name’ and so provably on some level had already received the grace to do so. It isn’t possible for human beings to know what happens to the souls of the unborn, can they accept Grace? Not in any way we know of because they, to our knowledge cannot make an act of will. So it would take a miracle ( aka an act of God outside the realm of human explanation) for the un-baptized to enter heaven. That isn’t to say he doesn’t grant that miracle, but only to say, we don’t know , what we don’t know.

      Also, if they are making an act of will and can accept grace , doesn’t that imply the ability also to reject grace? So the decision if it were to exist would be more like that of the angles, a single one time act, to either accept God or reject God. So some individuals could conceivably reject God. The whole thing is just a lot more complicated then all that to get to any meaningful answer. Have you read St. Augustine’s explanation of why anabaptized infants can’t enter heaven?
      His opinions aren’t condemned and go to show what the church does not claim to know because the opinion you hold is acceptable, although maybe not well developed because it leaves a lot of unanswered question, but St. Augustine’s opinion is also acceptable for Catholics to believe.

      Which i suppose points to the fact that resolving the issue is unnecessary for a person to be themselves saved. Knowing the answer , or having it wrong, won’t get you to hell or heaven. So I’ve probably already spent too much time on it.

      • http://stacytrasancos.com/ Stacy Trasancos

        The Holy Innocents couldn’t have been preparing for baptism, they were killed only ~2 years after Christ was born.

        • cfish

          Sorry my mistake , I was thinking of a different Group. The holy innocents , would have gone to the limbo of the fathers as they died before Christ had been baptized or it was even possible to be baptized so they don’t really fit into the same category under discussion. On the other hand I think a fair assumption would be that all those who die in infancy and in utero would fit the category of those who never had a chance to request baptism out of ignorance and through no fault of their own. I guess whether or not you can say they fit the category of those who would have been baptized if given the chance is an interesting question.

          • John Miner

            The Church honors the Holy Innocents as saints and thus recognizes their status as among those enjoying the Beatific Vision.

            St. Augustine is a saint, but he wasn’t infallible.

            Resolving this question is not necessary for our salvation, but it is helpful for the consolation of many and the development of doctrine certainly is in favor of the salvation of sacramentally unbaptized innocents. It is clearly the favored view of the Magisterium.

  • Wendell Clanton

    An informative and thought provoking article. Your comments with regards to the role one’s guardian angel likely plays is especially interesting, and reasonable. John Miner’s point is one that also guides my thinking, though we must be careful to avoid drifting into the heresy of universalism. And so Lee’s cautionary note is entirely vital to the discussion.

  • cfish

    unfortunately you have left much of the original reason for developing the theory of Limbo unaddressed. Specifically Justice. In so much as there are those who will be greater or lesser in heaven based on the grace they were open to receive and those who will suffer more greatly in hell based on the grace they rejected , what place does someone have who was never able to make an act of will ( thus receiving or rejecting Grace merit)? Perhaps the soul can make an act of will before the body has reached a state of consciousness if granted a special favor by God? In any case it would seem sice they do not merit reward and do not merit punishment , that Justice would place them either in hell with no pain or in haven with no reward. ( which I think is basically the idea of limbo).

    I like the line of reasoning because it is focused on God’s Mercy , but it also needs to address the fact we are not owed salvation, and that every one of us , when conceived merits hell. ( this is also church teaching).

    So i think the current status of church teaching would lead one to believe that although it would take a miracle for an un-baptized child to go to heaven, there is ‘good reason to hope’ that our merciful God performs exactly that miracle.

    On the other hand, we can’t have certainty, we don’t know, and we should not presume to know. Quite possibly there are reasons God wants’ it that way.

    So get you children baptized as soon as possible, because then you have fulfilled the will of God.

    • http://stacytrasancos.com/ Stacy Trasancos

      Your last point is a good one for discussion. It confuses me.

      On one hand, we are told as parents to do just what you said — baptize as soon as possible.

      On the other hand we are told to schedule it with a priest within a few weeks of birth.

      Which is it? Knowing the consequences of not baptizing leads a parent like me to want to do it as soon as the child is born, right there in the delivery room. Yet, we are told not to do that unless there’s an emergency.

      • http://thebodyguardtob.wordpress.com/ Jim Russell

        Hi, Stacy–this very question is, I think, only understood in the larger context of what the Sacrament of Baptism means for *this* life, first, rather than the “next” life, so to speak.
        Not sure many people will also know that the Code of Canon Law makes it clear that a priest or deacon ought *not* baptize a child *unless* there exists a “well-founded hope” that the child will indeed be raised in the faith by the parents.
        That is, if the parents want Junior baptized because “Grandma” wants it, while the parents themselves are atheists, let’s say, who have no intention of raising the child in the faith, we cannot administer Baptism unless/until the parents demonstrate that “well-founded hope” that the child will indeed be raised in the faith.
        Indeed this is a very serious situation, but it demonstrates the intrinsic link between the “desire for baptism” as intrinsically connected to the parent’s willingness to instill the faith in the infant as he/she grows *and* the meaning of Baptism for *this* life (as the beginning of the life of grace and indwelling of the Holy Spirit, all of which is put in place to help us live rightly so we can eventually get to Heaven).
        So this creates the need for a certain balance between making *sure* a child gets baptized (as a remedy for original sin) while also not baptizing unless the parental faith/”desire for baptism” is genuinely present for the child’s sake in *this* life.
        Yet the Church remains clear that, whenever there may be danger of death, baptism is not to be delayed. So there is definitely a great concern on the part of the Church that all these little ones receive the Sacrament in danger of death and otherwise receive it once it’s clear the parents desire baptism for their child and understand that this desire means they are obliged to raise the childe in the faith.

      • http://suscipesanctepater.blogspot.com/ Matt Roth

        Church law states that you are obligated to do it ASAP. I would say that’s as soon as the baby leaves the hospital, within two or three days of birth. We also forget that mothers didn’t generally attend the baptism for centuries. Instead they rested and then underwent churching. These rites can coincide now thanks to modern medicine and technology changing the way we live, but the point I think remains.

        • http://thebodyguardtob.wordpress.com/ Jim Russell

          As to the timing of Baptism, it’s not quite as simple as “asap” because of the other factors essential to the Sacrament. So, in the CDF’s 1980 “Instruction on Infant Baptism,” it says:

          ***As for the time of the actual celebration, the indications in the Ritual should be followed: “The first consideration is the welfare of the child, that it may not be deprived of the benefit of the sacrament; then the health of the mother must be considered, so that, as far as possible she too may be present. Then, as long as they do not interfere with the greater good of the child, there are pastoral considerations such as allowing sufficient time to prepare the parents and for planning the actual celebration to bring out its paschal character.” Accordingly, “if the child is in danger of death, it is to be baptized without delay”; otherwise, as a rule “an infant should be baptized within the first weeks after birth.”[39]***
          So the “official” window under normal circumstances is in the “first weeks after birth.”

          • http://suscipesanctepater.blogspot.com/ Matt Roth

            One of our priests in my diocese puts that on his bulletin. Otherwise parents fiddle-fart around after the baby’s born. He is available any Sunday to celebrate the sacrament. All priests should arrange it like this, or deacons too.

    • http://thebodyguardtob.wordpress.com/ Jim Russell

      Hi, cfish–thanks for your thoughts–part of my reflection in this post is to try to meet the demands of both doctrine and justice together while reconciling those demands with God’s mercy. On the doctrine/justice side of the equation is that the remedy for original sin is either baptism or the “desire for baptism.” And this is why I emphasized how the Rite of Baptism effectively places the parental “desire for baptism” for their child as the basis for seeing the infant as a “catechumen.” The “desire for baptism” associated with being a “catechumen” has always been seen by the Church as sufficient to bring that catechumen to heaven if he/she dies before Baptism.
      So on the “justice” side, we could reasonably speculate that the “desire for baptism” expressed by an infant’s parent would meet the demands of justice (and doctrine) such that this catechumenal desire for baptism opens the way to Heaven for such a soul who may die before baptism.
      In contrast, “limbo” addresses the demands of justice by merely precluded the soul’s capacity for the Beatific Vision because it’s not “owed” to anyone who is neither baptized nor has the desire for baptism. A lot of folks find this untenable because it doesn’t really leave much room for God’s mercy.
      More could be said, but in all this, your reminder of the necessity of baptism must always remain at the fore, since Christ’s command to us in this regard is crystal clear. Fulfilling the command to baptize is a fundamental requirement for all Christians…God bless, Deacon Jim R

  • Doctormom4

    I really like this article. The author has finally written what I have been thinking for a very long time. I have always understood baptism to be the parents choosing it for their children, so it never made sense to me that an unborn child would end up in “hell”.
    However, with the discussion of the holy innocents in the comments thread, I would like someone to address for me how these children if indeed in limbo are banned there for “eternity”. NONE of the Jews who died in the thousands of years before Christ were baptized and yet one of the major accomplishments of the Crucifixion was opening the gates of Heaven for them. They ALL died with original sin on their souls!! So why woud God suddenly change the rules and ban all babies to hell who never got the chance to be born?