The End of Limbo

What happens to all the babies who used to be there?

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The Vatican announced on Friday the results of a papal investigation of the concept of limbo. Church doctrine now states that unbaptized babies can go to heaven instead of getting stuck somewhere between heaven and hell. If limbo doesn’t exist, what happened to everyone who was supposed to have been there already?

They’ve probably been in heaven all this time, but no one knows for sure. Until the recent announcement, the limbo crowd was thought to include anyone who hadn’t been baptized but would otherwise deserve to go to heaven—like infants (including aborted fetuses), virtuous pagans, and pre-Christian Jews. Those who had been baptized, on the other hand, either joined God in heaven, made up for their sins in purgatory, or suffered forever in hell.

If limbo never existed in the first place, you might assume that these souls passed straight through St. Peter’s gates. But the carefully worded document from the Vatican’s International Theological Commission stops short of certainty in this regard, arguing only that there are “serious theological and liturgical grounds for hope,” rather than “sure knowledge.”

The fate of unbaptized babies has confounded Catholic scholars for centuries. According to church catechisms, or teachings, babies that haven’t been splashed with holy water bear the original sin, which makes them ineligible for joining God in heaven. At the same time, as innocent beings, they surely don’t deserve eternal torment. St. Augustine concluded in the fourth century that the babies must be punished in the fire of hell, but only with the “mildest condemnation.” Eight centuries later, Thomas Aquinas thought infant souls wouldn’t go to heaven, but they wouldn’t suffer in the afterlife, either (and they wouldn’t even know what they were missing). Theologians eventually settled on limbo as a hypothetical compromise—a state of natural, though incomplete, happiness.

Dante depicted limbo in his Divine Comedy as a pastoral setting of forests with green meadows, flowing streams, and tall castles. Figures like Ovid, Homer, and Aristotle live in Dante’s limbo, as does a parade of characters from Greco-Roman mythology, and even some Muslims, like Saladin, who managed to fight the crusaders and gain their respect at the same time. *

Though the Vatican has effectively done an about-face, it won’t directly state that limbo never existed. Instead, it says that official church dogma never included the concept and that limbo remains a “possible theological hypothesis.” Why the hemming and hawing? An outright reversal would go against hundreds of years of theological interpretation. *

But the church has indeed changed its opinion on several matters. From the 13th century to the 16th century, the church went from opposing usury—the custom of charging interest on a loan—to accepting it. Theologians also debated the legitimacy of slavery for years before Pope Leo XIII condemned the practice in 1888. That same pope also declared that Protestants were in error and could not be granted religious freedom, a doctrine that wouldn’t be reversed until the Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican in the 1960s.

Bonus Explainer: Do Protestants have limbo? No. The most conservative groups in the Presbyterian, German and Dutch reformed traditions believe in predestination: A person who dies goes immediately to heaven or hell, even if he or she was never baptized. (Mainstream groups have softened their stance on this matter.) *On the other hand, some Lutherans, Anglicans, Episcopalians, and orthodox Christians hold that everybody remains in an “intermediate state” until the return of Jesus Christ on judgment day.

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Explainer thanks Chester Gillis of Georgetown University, Father Joseph Koterski of Fordham University, Father David Stagaman of Loyola University of Chicago, and Father Thomas Weinandy of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Correction s, April 25, 2007: The original version asserted that biblical figures like Noah and Moses live in Dante’s limbo. The work states that they were lifted from limbo to heaven by Jesus Christ. (Return to the corrected sentence.) The original version also said that Presbyterian, Baptist, and German and Dutch reformed traditions believe in predestination. Baptists do not; only the most conservative Presbyterians and German and Dutch reformed traditions do. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Correction, May 1, 2007: The original version said that the Roman Catholic Church can never be wrong. The doctrine of “infallibility” applies only in certain contexts. (Return to the corrected sentence.)