Does the Catholic Church believe that innocent babies that have not been baptized yet will go to limbo and not to Heaven upon their deaths?
— Anonymous in the diocese
The Lord Jesus makes it clear that baptism is necessary for salvation. He makes this clear when he says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). This is why the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us that “The Church does not know of any means other than Baptism that assures entry into eternal beatitude; this is why she takes care not to neglect the mission she has received from the Lord to see that all who can be baptized are ‘reborn of water and the Spirit’” (1257).
Although frequently taught in former days, limbo was never an official teaching of the church. Rather, limbo was a theological opinion held by theologians who sought to balance God’s love with his justice. Because baptism is necessary for salvation, it would seem to go against God’s justice if he allowed the unbaptized to enter into Heaven. But we also know that some people do not receive baptism through no fault of their own; thus, it would seem to go against God’s love if he denied Heaven to those innocently unbaptized. The way to reconcile this dilemma was the theological opinion of limbo, a place of happiness but not the blessed vision of the Most Holy Trinity.
What happens, then, to children who die without the grace of baptism? We do not know with certainty. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states:
“… 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 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. All the more urgent is the Church’s call not to prevent little children coming to Christ through the gift of holy Baptism” (1261).
We entrust those children who died without baptism into the merciful hand of God, trusting that, while we are bound to the sacraments, he is not.
For a fuller and more detailed exploration of this question, you might consider reading the document from the Pontifical Theological Commission approved by Pope Benedict XVI in 2007, The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized.
Father Daren Zehnle is pastor at St. Augustine Parish in Ashland and St. Peter Parish in Petersburg and is the director for the Office of Divine Worship and the Catechumenate for the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois.