In this article we enter upon a very sensitive question – Ought we (or even, Can we) pray for the young children who have died before attaining to the use of reason? Thus, we consider miscarried, aborted, and still-born children; as well as those who have died after birth but before growing up. Additionally, we must consider what difference the sacrament of baptism would make in regard to our praying or not praying for these children. Further, we note that those who have never had use of reason but have grown past the age of childhood (i.e. the severely mentally disabled) are, for our purposes, included in the notion of “young child” insofar as they have not attained to the use of reason.
In this article, we will discuss certain points about the traditional doctrine of limbo (which is not binding on any Catholic). I know that this will be a very sensitive subject - please recognize that, in spite of the great many possible theological opinions on limbo and other subjects, there are still some things we can say with great certainty regarding young children who have died. To ease the heart, I will say here at the beginning of the article that young children who have died (even without baptism) are most certainly in a state of perfect happiness and they know and love God while knowing that he loves them infinitely - but whether this is a natural or supernatural happiness, I do not know.
We pray for the souls in purgatory, not for those in heaven or in hell
We must first point out what should be obvious: When we pray for the dead, we are praying for the poor souls in purgatory. We cannot pray for the souls in heaven or in hell – those in heaven have no need of our prayers (but, rather, they pray for us), and those in hell can gain no benefit from our prayers (for they are eternally damned).
Thus it is that, on All Saints’ day, we do not pray on behalf of the saints, but we ask them to pray for us. It would be quite absurd to offer a Mass for St. Philomena – she is already in heaven, what need has she of a Mass offered in her behalf?! However, on All Souls’ day, we do not ask the poor souls to pray for us, but we pray for the poor souls. They are those in purgatory, and they have great need of our prayers.
Hence, we ought not to pray for any whom we know to be in heaven (i.e. the canonized saints). Speaking more generally, we must not pray for any whom we know are not in purgatory (hence, we pray neither for St. Michael in heaven, nor for Satan in hell).
If the child is baptized, he has no need of our prayers
It is a theological certainty that any baptized child who dies goes directly to heaven. St. Thomas expresses this point very well in his Catechism: “Those who die immediately after Baptism are admitted to the glory of God without delay.” Now, a child under the age of reason cannot commit any sin; therefore, if he is baptized and dies before attaining to reason, he most certainly is immediately admitted to paradise.
The funeral rites of the Church make this teaching explicit – there is no prayer for the baptized child who has died, but rather the Church affirms that the child is already in heaven: “Comfort us with the knowledge that [this child] lives now in your loving embrace” and again, “Our firm belief is that [this child], because he was baptized, has already entered this new life.”
Further, according to an ancient tradition, the Church always uses white vestments when celebrating the funeral liturgy of a baptized child – indicating that he is already among the saints. [yet another reason why priests should use black for all other funerals]
The baptized child who dies is certainly in heaven, and therefore has no need of our prayers.
No children can possibly be in purgatory
Quite simply, because purgatory is a temporal punishment for actual sin which has been forgiven, and because the young child cannot commit any actual sins (even if a child is “naughty”, he does not truly sin), there is no possibility that any children who die before attaining to the use of reason are in purgatory.
When a young child dies, he either has original sin or he has been freed from original sin (and, for this, baptism is the only ordinary means of which we know). If the child has original sin, he is condemned immediately to hell – and by “hell”, we mean limbo. If the child does not have original sin, he goes directly to heaven.
Most certainly, the child would not go to purgatory to suffer temporal punishments – he has not committed any sins! Why would he be punished?!
Thus, it is clear that we cannot pray for any young children who have died, since we can only pray for the souls in purgatory, and none of these children could possibly be in purgatory.
A non-baptized child and the question of limbo
I have written many times on the question of limbo [see this article for an overview], and I do not intend to enter into the debate here. However, it is good to point out that limbo would not be (subjectively) a bad place at all – the souls there would suffer no sensible punishments, but would enjoy perfect natural happiness. Limbo, in itself, is a wonderful and completely fulfilling place.
However, because it is not heaven and because the children do not enjoy the beatific vision, it is technically a part of hell – the very “edge” (limbus) of hell. But, if there is a limbo, the children there are very happy; and they love God and know that God loves them, but they do not know that God is the Trinity.
The children in limbo, if there is a limbo, will never be admitted into heaven – limbo is eternal. Thus, there would be no reason to pray for these children, and neither could they pray for us. But we should be comforted by the fact that they will exist forever, and will eternally be perfectly happy (according to human nature). Perfect natural happiness and joy, it is not such a bad place!
[obviously, heaven is infinitely greater, hence the importance of baptizing children soon after birth]
If the child is non-baptized, our prayers are of no use
It is theoretically possible that those children who die before receiving a sacramental baptism may yet receive some sort of spiritual baptism – many in the Church are seeking to understand this, but personally I am not convinced. Thus, there are two places where these children could be: either, they are in heaven, or they are in limbo. If they are in limbo then our prayers are of no use, if they are in heaven then they have no need of our prayers.
But can we pray that they might not be in limbo, but instead be in heaven? If we have some “hope” that they have gone to heaven, can we pray for this intention?
The simple answer is, “no”. We cannot pray that God have created the universe in one way or another – he has already created it as he willed, and our prayers ought not to seek to change that structure. If he created limbo, then it exists and holds these children. If God did not create limbo, then the children are in heaven. But our prayers would have no power to change the structure of God’s creation.
It is one thing to pray for the conversion of another, it is quite something else to pray that the heavens and the earth be created in another manner than they have in fact been created.
Further, the funeral liturgy for a non-baptized child does not pray for the soul of the child, but for the consolation of the family. The liturgy states: We “commend this child to the Lord’s merciful keeping” and “we pray that [God] give him happiness for ever” (and this is worded to include both the notion of natural happiness in limbo and of supernatural happiness in heaven, without deciding on one or the other). There is no real prayer for the salvation of the child, but only prayers leading us to trust in God’s love and mercy.
The non-baptized child is either in heaven or in limbo, but our prayers can do nothing for him. Simply put, the Church does not pray for the souls of young children who have died. These children cannot be in purgatory, and therefore they either have no need or no use for our prayers - they are in a state of perfect happiness (either natural or supernatural), what need have they of prayers?
[n.b. The “rite of committal” in the Novus Ordo is very sloppy, praying both for the baptized child and for the non-baptized child. This contradicts not only the tradition, but also the rest of the funeral rites!]
Can we ask the children to pray for us?
When it comes to the baptized children, we can certainly ask them to pray for us – for we know by faith that they are in heaven already. In regard to the non-baptized children, we really do not know whether or not they are in heaven – hence it is not so clear whether we should ask them to pray for us.
If there is a limbo, the children there cannot pray for us (for they know nothing at all about us and, further, they are not supernaturally united to God). However, there is some reason to “hope” that the children who die before baptism are given some extra-sacramental “baptism” which frees them from original sin and allows them to attain to heaven. If this is the case, then they can certainly pray for us.
However, the thought of these children being in heaven is highly speculative and not particularly well rooted in the tradition. While it is possible, it does not seem (to me at least) to be certain enough for us to have a habit of asking their intercession. At least this much is clear: The Church does not ask the non-baptized infants to intercede for the living.
Hence, the safest answer is to say that we can ask for the prayers of the baptized children who have died, but we generally do not to request the prayers of the non-baptized.