Can children, and notably infants, go to hell?
It seems that St. Augustine (354-430 AD) and some of the early fathers of the Church thought so and for this reason they mandated infant baptism. While they were not guilty of personal sin, they still suffered from the effects of unremitted original sin. St. Augustine’s opinions held sway at the Council of Carthage (418 AD) which rejected even a limbo existence or place of happiness for unbaptized children. The Catholic Encyclopedia states: “St. Augustine thought that unbaptized infants went to hell, although he conceded that, due to their lack of personal responsibility and guilt for original sin, the pains of hell were in some way diminished for them” (vol. 8, p. 590). St. Anselm (1033-1109) sided with St. Augustine on the matter of “positive suffering” in hell for unbaptized children. Origin challenged the notion. But the problem was Jesus commanded that unless we were born again of water and the Spirit we could have no part of him.
A sentiment for infant damnation has been revisited in some of the Protestant churches, especially those with a Calvinistic flavor. We recall that Thomas Hardy’s TESS in literature was turned down by an Anglican clergyman when she begged for her child to have a Christian burial. Similarly, the Puritan Johnathan Edwards in his fiery sermons and Sir Isaac Wattes’ in song declared that “the floor of hell is paved with the skulls of unbaptized children.”
After the fathers, as the Church continued her reflection on this matter, the scholastics detailed their own theory of a LIMBO PUERORUM. St. Thomas Aquinas (1226-1274) conjectured that this limbo was a middle state of perfect natural happiness; however, they would be deprived of the Beatific Vision. Italian Jansenists would return to St. Augustine’s view at the Synod of Pistola (1786) and argue as revealed doctrine that unbaptized children are damned to the eternal fires of hell. Pope Pius VI came out with Auctorem Fidei (1794) siding with the more moderate scholastics and condemned the view that unbaptized infants suffer hell fire.
Those of us who cherished and memorized our Baltimore Catechism, remember limbo, from the Latin “limbus” meaning hem or border, as a teaching that preserved the necessity of baptism while excluding unbaptized babies from the full severity of God’s justice, since they had committed no personal sin. The universal catechism today says nothing about limbo. Rather, it states: “As regards children who have died without Baptism, 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’ (Mark 10:4), allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who haved 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” [CCC 1261].
The subject of LIMBO is in the news with a new report from the Vatican’s International Theological Commission. Like so much else, it is being misreported. Various news organizations are saying that the Pope and the Vatican are officially nixing Limbo and yet the Holy Father is simply signing off with allowing the commission to publish its findings after years of investigation. Further, the commission does not totally close the door to the long-held theory, only that it is unlikely and seems an overly “restrictive view of salvation”. The commission contended that there are good reasons to hope that babies who die without the benefit of baptism (might) go to heaven.
John Thavis of the CATHOLIC NEWS SERVICE reports:
In a document published April 20, the commission said the traditional concept of limbo — as a place where unbaptized infants spend eternity but without communion with God — seemed to reflect an “unduly restrictive view of salvation.”
The church continues to teach that, because of original sin, baptism is the ordinary way of salvation for all people and urges parents to baptize infants, the document said.
But there is greater theological awareness today that God is merciful and “wants all human beings to be saved,” it said. Grace has priority over sin, and the exclusion of innocent babies from heaven does not seem to reflect Christ’s special love for “the little ones,” it said.
“Our conclusion is that the many factors that we have considered … give serious theological and liturgical grounds for hope that unbaptized infants who die will be saved and enjoy the beatific vision,” the document said.
“We emphasize that these are reasons for prayerful hope, rather than grounds for sure knowledge,” it added.
The document is not very large, only 41 pages and is entitled, THE HOPE OF SALVATION FOR INFANTS WHO DIE WITHOUT BEING BAPTIZED. Thirty experts from around the world sit on the international commission. It only has an advisory role and such documents do not represent “authoritative” teaching that mandates assent.
The question is increasingly important given that more and more couples are laxed or dismissive of baptism and because of the holocaust of abortion. Limbo was never defined Church teaching but was a highly regarded theory taught in old catechisms. It is not in the official Catechism of the Catholic Church.
The CNS article states:
The Church’s hope for these infants’ salvation reflects a growing awareness of God’s mercy, the commission said. But the issue is not simple, because appreciation for divine mercy must be reconciled with fundamental Church teachings about original sin and about the necessity of baptism for salvation, it said.
The document traced the development of church thinking about the fate of unbaptized children, noting that there is “no explicit answer” from Scripture or tradition.
“God can…give the grace of baptism without the sacrament being conferred, and this fact should particularly be recalled when the conferring of baptism would be impossible,” it said.
In this and other situations, the need for the sacrament of baptism is not absolute and is secondary to God’s desire for the salvation of every person, it said.
This does not deny that all salvation comes through Christ and in some way through the Church, it said, but it requires a more careful understanding of how this may work.
How might unbaptized babies be united to Christ?
- A “saving conformity to Christ in his own death” by infants who themselves suffer and die.
- A solidarity with Christ among infant victims of violence, born and unborn, who like the holy innocents killed by King Herod are endangered by the “fear or selfishness of others.”
- God may simply give the gift of salvation to unbaptized infants, corresponding to his sacramental gift of salvation to the baptized.
Later we read:
The findings of this report should not be used to “negate the necessity of baptism, nor to delay the conferral of the sacrament.”
“Rather, there are reasons to hope that God will save these infants precisely because it was not possible to do for them that what would have been most desirable — to baptize them in the faith of the church and incorporate them visibly into the body of Christ.”
“It must be clearly acknowledged that the church does not have sure knowledge about the salvation of unbaptized infants who die,” it said.
Catholic Belief by J. Faa Di Bruno, D.D.
ORIGINAL sin is distinguished from actual, or personal, sin in this — that actual or personal sin is the sin which we personally with our own free will commit whilst original sin is that which our human nature committed with the will of Adam, in whom all our human nature was included, and with whom our human nature is united as a branch to a root, as a child to a parent, as men who partake with Adam the same nature which we have derived from him, and as members of the same human family of which Adam was the head. The difference between original and personal sin is that the latter is committed with our own personal will, whilst original sin was committed with the will of another, and only morally our own, because it forms with that other (Adam, who is our head) one moral body — humanity.
If our hand strike a fellow-creature unjustly, though the hand have no will of its own, yet it is considered guilty, not indeed as viewed in itself, but inasmuch as it is united to the rest of the body, and to the soul, forming one human being; and thus sharing in the will of the soul with which it is connected.
In the same manner the sin committed inwardly by the human will, by a bad desire, belongs to the whole human being.
Of original sin, in which we are born, we are not personally guilty with our own personal will, but our nature is guilty by the will of Adam our head, with whom we form one moral body through the human nature which we derive from him.
It is a point of Catholic faith that original sin does not consist in what is called concupiscence, which is a propensity to evil of the inferior part of the human soul.
Sin, to be a sin in the strict sense of the word, must be within the sphere of morality, that is, must depend upon free will; and hence the noted principle in moral philosophy and theology, that there is no sin where there is no will.
Concupiscence, therefore, which is not will, but a blind, involuntary inclination of our lower nature (and therefore an irresponsible tendency to evil), is not of itself sinful unless it be consented to by the will, or rendered strong by bad and unrestricted habit.
Concupiscence is indeed sometimes called sin in Holy Scripture (Romans 7:7; Galatians 5:24), but it is called so as the holy Council of Trent explains, not in a strict, but in a wide sense, that is, inasmuch as it is a consequence of original sin, and an incentive to actual sin.
This concupiscence, or inclination to evil, still remains in those from whom the guilt and stain of original sin has been entirely washed away by the Sacrament of Baptism. Moreover, strictly speaking, no one is regarded as a sinner merely because he feels tempted to sin. This miserable propensity to evil excites the compassion rather than the anger of God; who said to Noah: “I will no more curse the earth for the sake of man; for the imagination and thought of man’s heart are prone to evil from his youth” (Genesis 8:21).
The Catholic Church teaches that Adam by his sin not only caused harm to himself, but to the whole human race; that by it he lost, the supernatural justice and holiness which he received gratuitously from God, and lost it, not only for himself, but also for all of us; and that he, having stained himself with the sin of disobedience, has transmitted not only death and other bodily pains and infirmities to the whole human race, but also sin, which is the death of the soul.
The teaching of the Council of Trent (Session 5) is confirmed by these words of St. Paul: “Wherefore as by one man sin entered into this world, and by sin death; and so death passed upon all men, in whom all have sinned” (Romans 5:12).
The Royal Psalmist (Psalm 1:7) says: “For behold I was conceived in iniquities and in sins did my mother conceive me.” (In the Hebrew text it ia in the singular, i.e., conceived me in sin.)
Upon this text St. Augustine says: “David was not born in adultery, for he was born from Jesse, a just man, and his wife. Why does he say that he was conceived in iniquity, unless because iniquity is derived from Adam?”
That the early Christians believed in original sin, can be gathered from what St. Augustine said to Pelagius: “I did not invent original sin, which Catholic faith holds from ancient time; but thou, who deniest it, thou without doubt, art a new heretic” (De Nuptiis, Book 11, Chapter 12).
It may be said that this belief is as old as the human race, for traces of this ancient tradition are spread among all nations, insomuch that Voltaire had to confess that “The fall of man is the base of the theology of nearly all ancient people” (Philosophie de l’Histoire, chapitre 17).
Besides the guilt of original sin, which is the habitual state of sinfulness in which we are born (because our human nature is justly considered to have consented in Adam to the rejection of original justice), there is also in man the stain of original sin, entailing in the human soul the privation of that supernatural luster which, had we been born in the state of original justice, we all should have had.
As neither Adam nor any of his offspring could repair the evil done by his sin, we should have always remained in the state of original sin and degradation in which we were born, and have been forever shut out from the beatific vision of God in heaven, had not God, in His infinite mercy, provided for us a Redeemer.