The Fate of Unbaptized Infants: Christian Hope and Christian Realism

As we approach All Souls’ day, we pause and pray for all of our faithful departed, beseeching God to give them kind admittance into heaven. Prayer for the dead is an ancient practice of Christianity, taken over from later Judaism as recounted in the books of Maccabees. Some of the most ancient prayers in our liturgy come from the Requiem Mass of the early Church. Indeed, prayers for the dead and visits to cemeteries, which mark so many Catholic cultures, is an act of the highest charity. At the same time, the observance of All Souls leads us to ask some hard and sometimes uncomfortable questions about those for whom we pray.

Though it has been an issue throughout the history of the Church, the fate of unbaptized infants has acquired a terrible urgency with the rise of voluntary abortions. For hundreds of years saints and theologians have debated the problem, and the Church has made many dogmatic decisions around the subject, while never directly addressing it. We must be aware of those decisions before we can come to an informed opinion about the possibility for the salvation of such infants, a question of tremendous moment for those in the prolife movement.

Several things have to be established at the outset. The Western Church in particular has been sensitive to the development of the doctrine of Original Sin (what G. K. Chesterton once termed “the only self-evident dogma”). Beginning with St. Augustine – following St. Paul – we have recognized that “All have sinned, and fallen short of the glory of God” (Rm 3:23). As a result of Adam’s sin, all humans come into this life in a condition that is deprived of the sanctifying grace of God. Because of this, it is impossible that anyone having original sin on their souls be admitted to heaven, a dogma reaffirmed by several ecumenical councils. While the child in the womb is certainly innocent vis-à-vis human society (which is why abortion is direct intentional murder) that does not mean that the child is innocent (or more properly, righteous) before God.

This leads to the second dogma critical to understanding this question, which is the necessity of Baptism. Christ Himself made baptism irreducibly necessary for salvation, “Unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Spirit, he shall not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Jn 3:5). So Baptism is a necessity of means to enter into glory. It was for this reason that the Church, both east and west, began sternly to insist on the baptism of newborn infants. That said, water baptism is not essential; only that a person be baptized in some way. The Church recognizes three types of baptism: the Sacramental Baptism of water, baptism of blood acquired by an act of martyrdom, and baptism of desire. This baptism of desire may be either explicit, as in the case of a Catechumen dying before baptism, or implicit, as in the case of invincible ignorance, whereby a person is given the grace to make an act of faith in a provident God.

These dogmas, which come from Christ Himself, have made an answer to our problem intractable. Infants dying before baptism have not achieved the laver of regeneration, have not given their lives for confessing Christ’s name, nor have they attained the age of reason necessary to make even an implicit act of faith. Here is the important thing to stress before we go any further: Sacred Revelation tells us nothing about the fate of unbaptized infants. Other than the dogmas mentioned above, we cannot say anything for certain about their fate.

This has led to legitimate theological speculation. The most famous example of this is the theological opinion known as the “Limbo of the infants.” There are two types of punishment in hell: the penalty of separation, and the pain of sense. A person innocent of actual sin (like a baby) will not be punished with the pain of sense, for that would be unjust – the punishment must fit the crime. An unbaptized infant would suffer only the penalty of separation, which need not exclude a purely natural happiness. This is the origin of the opinion of limbo, a place of natural happiness which is excluded from the beatific vision.

In 2007, the International Theological Commission released one of their periodic studies, this time on the fate of children dying without baptism. As so often happens, this was misinterpreted by the media and was trumpeted in sound bites such as the “abolition of limbo.” It was no such thing. First of all, this is not a magisterial document, but rather the opinions of theologians. Second, the document itself maintains that limbo is an acceptable opinion, with a long theological tradition behind it. Third, I personally find the argumentation of the document very weak, with unwarranted equivalencies between modern theologians and the authority of Augustine and Thomas, not to mention being quite haphazard and unsystematic, seeming to downplay nearly the whole liturgical and theological tradition of the Latin Church. So with that said, Limbo remains simply an opinion, but a good one. What the document did accomplish was to point to our common Christian hope, and faith in a merciful and provident God. We commend these infants to the God Who is all-Merciful, and to Christ whose superabundant merits are sufficient to save the whole world. Yet at the end of the day we are still left with the infallible data of revelation, given by that selfsame God to us.

Theologians have attempted to reach a deeper understanding of this reality throughout history. I wish particularly to point out an opinion of the great Cardinal Cajetan (1469-1534), which should give us great hope. He proposed that the miscarried children of Catholic couples could be considered to be baptized by the baptism of desire, since their parents had every intention of baptizing them upon birth. This is a very comforting opinion, one not opposed to the dogmas of revelation, while at the same time offering substantive hope to grieving parents.

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As for the most difficult question of those who have been aborted, we are presented with a terrible problem. It is not clear that their parents wished baptism for those for whom they did not even wish life, perhaps even having no concept of their babies as moral persons at all. Neither did these children have the moral maturity to make a personal act of faith (though some have proposed a singular moment of moral choice at the moment of death, a position I find theologically and philosophically implausible). Neither can one ascribe martyrdom to them without completely redefining the term. Meritorious martyrdom has to do with suffering death for the name of Christ. Merely suffering an unjust death (like being a murder victim) does not make one a martyr. The analogy of the Holy Infants of Bethlehem is not germane here either. Though they enjoy a universal cult in the Church 1) they died explicitly for the infant Christ, giving their lives for him and 2) they died before the inauguration of the New Dispensation, therefore one cannot compare the mechanism of their salvation to those who live after the accomplishment of the Paschal Mystery. Most expressly, those who die in abortion do not become “angels.” For they remain humans, according to their own proper nature, for all time.

This is not to counsel despair. I have a lively hope in the Providence of God who shall one day “wipe every tear from their eyes” (Rev 21:4). God’s mercy and the redemption wrought by Christ shall shatter any of our preconceived notions. As a theologian, however, my data is that of revelation. As a Catholic, I am bound by infallible doctrine. Christ Himself has revealed the dogmas of Sin and Baptism, the necessity of the Church, and of his own grace. I am not free to reject them so as to create an alternate route to salvation. I may not discard them to make more comfortable my living in a society that permits abortion. God is not bound in any way to rectify the terrible situation we have created for ourselves. Perhaps the greatest lesson here is to those of us who fight abortion. The fight is not only about earthly human life. No, indeed, the fight may very well be about the very possibility of eternal life with God. This should be a sobering and powerful consideration for our All Soul’s meditation.

Donald S. Prudlo is Associate Professor of Ancient and Medieval History at Jacksonville State University in Alabama. He is also Associate Professor of Theology and Church History at Christendom. His specialty is Saints and Sainthood in the Christian Tradition, and he is the author of The Martyred Inquisitor: The Life and Cult of Peter of Verona (+1252) (Ashgate, 2008) and has recently edited The Origin, Development, and Refinement of Medieval Religious Mendicancies (Brill, 2011).
Articles by Donald:

  • Ron Conte

    “These dogmas, which come from Christ Himself, have made an answer to our problem intractable.”

    It is your narrow interpretation of those dogmas that makes the problem intractable. The Church has never limited the baptism of blood so that it can only be “acquired by an act of martyrdom”. The classic example is the martyred catechumenate. But no teaching so far has excluded a broader baptism of blood. And since our justification is prevenient and a result of Christ’s merits on the Cross, it cannot be the case that the martyr earns or merits justification. So perhaps little children who die at such a young age are given a baptism of blood. If not, how do we explain the granting of sanctifying grace in the womb to Mary and to John the Baptist?

    • Jason

      Providential acts by God Himself to ready two necessary actors in the climax of Salvation History. More likely exceptions than the norm. In this case, all we can hope is for the mercy of God.

    • Michael

      “The most Blessed Virgin Mary at the first instant of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of Almighty God, in virtue of the merits of Christ Jesus, the Savior of the human race, was preserved immaculate from all stain of original sin.”
      — The Sources of Catholic Dogma. St. Louis, MO: B. Herder Book Co., 1954.

    • Sam

      Ron, if dogmas can be interpreted so loosely that they no longer mean what they say, then what is the point? Baptism is either necessary or it isn’t. Saying that baptism is necessary, and then redefining baptism so loosely that practically everyone is baptized makes the dogma meaningless.

      We are not the magisterium, and our interpretations of dogmas should be as strict and literal as they sound, unless the Church has given us good reason to believe otherwise.

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  • Michael

    As someone who has lost two children to miscarriage, I find some comfort here. What about the desire for baptism that many in the pro-life movement express for aborted children? Does this desire need to come from a parent? Why not a friend, grandparent, etc? What are your thoughts on this? Thank you.

  • VigilPray-er

    If a mis-carried child can be considered baptized by the desire of the parents (to baptize once the child is born), can those of us praying outside of abortion facilities pray specifically for the baptism of desire for all of those babies entering in their mothers’ wombs?

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  • Austin-Jessica Groves

    If you sir are an expert in the study and history of Saints, then you should have read the Diary of St Faustina. Jesus speaks to us through her. His Mercy is powerful and the limit is unknown! The Holy Innocents are in Heaven. The Holy Spirit spoke to me and I’ve been given that peace.

    None of the above negates need for sacraments and baptism. If God can save those who werent baptized before He came, God can save anyone. But I think His message speaks more to those who REJECT Christ at an age of maturity and full understanding. I do believe those Innocents who only have original sin and died before they committed personal sin, are in Heaven.

    Mark 10:14 — “such as these (children) have a place in His kingdom”. Ironically the disciples assumed they should prevent children from coming to Jesus just as you and others think unbaptized children aren’t in Heaven or are in limbo land, etc… If this verse doesn’t set the record straight nothing else can!

    Photos: the bodies of my three losses that had remains interred at a Catholic cemetery. Vivian age 9 weeks, Gabriel age 17 weeks, Samuel age 19 weeks. Resting together.