Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Ought we to pray for young children who have died?

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.


Father S. said...


I think that the area here which is difficult is not the theology, but the individual. Certainly, a child of one or two years who has been validly baptized and has died is in Heaven. The difficulty is how we set the age of reason. The age of seven is our benchmark, but difficulties arise when one has a particularly precocious child or one who seems to develop more quickly. This is becoming more of an issue as children develop faster, too. You don't have to look too far to see that children of today are physically more developed at an earlier age than children of a century ago. I am pretty ignorant of medicine, but I presume that this affects the mind, too.

I am interested to read what you would say to the parents of a child of six years who had not yet made their first Confession but seemed very capable of sin. While we would use white vestments for the funeral, would you still counsel parents against praying for their child? I know ho I would answer this question, but I am curious about how you would answer it.

Kind regards,
Father S.

Marko Ivančičević said...

What about aborted children? Can we consider them some sort of martyrs?

Also, what about if parents wanted to baptize the child? Could it be counted as baptism of desire since all children are baptized on behalf of their parent's faith?

dominic1955 said...

Thank you, Father, for discussing this and the related topics (i.e. Limbo) in such a coherently orthodox way. Though not dogmatic, it seems to me that so much of our traditional theology can be seen, in a microcosm of sorts, to hinge on this subject.

I've read the 2006 ITC paper and various modern apologia for the rejection of the limbus puerorum and find them all patently unconvincing, precisely because they have so very little support in the theological tradition of the Church.

Basically, at least from what I've read, the rejection of Limbo boils down to nouvelle theologie fuzzy theology (which should itself be anathematized and cast into the outer darkness, but I digress...) and plain old emotionalism.

Again, thank you Father for taking this issue on.

CM7 said...

Fr. Ryan,

If, for instance, a child is aborted before birth with no sacramental baptism, what would be the victory for Satan if the child attained Heaven, or even limbo? It seems like abortion is prevalent because of evil, so if this heinous act did not result in the spiritual death of the child, then Satan would gain nothing by actively pushing it into our societies. Can you comment a little on this?

Pax Christi

Kuba said...

Would it then make sense to baptise children in the womb to ensure they go straight to heaven in case of miscarriage or still birth?
What about those that are miscarried in a very early stages of pregnancy before the mother even realises she conceived?

Mick Jagger Gathers No Mosque said...

Excellent, Father. That cleared-up a dilemma for me when I, wrongly, wrote to another that I would pray for his young one who died before being Baptised.

I was so moved when I read his story that seemed a natural response; which is why Holy Mother Church is so vital and necessary - because our natural reason/emotions often need correction by Catholic Doctrine.

Your explanation is so clear that it is a real act of compassion towards your readers.

P.S. Why hasn't the Magisterium appointed you to be on the CDF?

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Father S,
Yes, the question of "age of reason" is very difficult -- personally, I prefer to speak of child who have not yet "attained to the use of reason"; rather than of children "under the age of reason"; so as to avoid the tendency of thinking of 7 years as "magical".

I do agree with you that, for many children, reason comes before the age of 7 -- perhaps often around 6 or (rarely) even 5.
Still, I have had a number of first confessions (for kids about 7 years old) wherein it was not entirely clear that they had yet attained to the use of reason -- at least not sufficiently enough to sin and be contrite.

Regarding your particular example ... I am thinking that I would indeed use white vestments, and celebrate the Funeral of a baptized child (rather than that of an adult).
I probably would recommend praying for the child as well ... since, it seems at least reasonably possible that he may have committed some sin (since he may indeed have already attained to the use of reason).

In case of a real doubt, better to presume purgatory and offer prayers. (What do you think?)

Peace to you! +

Fr Michael said...

There is an interesting article in the November 2011 Homiletic & Pastoral Review by Professor Stephen Hildebrand at Steubenville, entitled "An Argument for hope: On the Salvation of Children who Die without Baptism".

Some of his key points which argue for hope for unbaptized infants are these:

Two premises:
-- God offers salvation to unbaptized infants, a direct implication of God's universal salvific will; and
-- The Church has the ability to desire on behalf of an infant.

-- The key question in the salvation of unbaptized infants is whether or not God offers them salvation. If we are confident that he does, then we can be confident of our ability to accept the offer on behalf of the child. In infant baptism, God offers salvation and the Church accepts it on their behalf....If God wants every single human person to be saved (1 Tim 2:4), then it stands to reason that he would offer salvation to every single human person. In the case of the unbaptized child, the Church can supply the acceptance.
"When Christian parents pray for the gift of baptism for their child, born or unborn, they are giving voice in themselves both to their faith in God's love of their child, and to the Church's desire for a saving baptism for her. They pray to him who commanded, 'let the children come to me' that he will let their child come to him."

Thanks, Fr Michael

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

It is possible that the children who die without sacramental baptism do go to heaven ... The great Thomist, Cardinal Cajetan held that they received a baptism of desire by virtue of their parents' desire.

Personally, I think that the case for a parent who wants to have their child baptized is stronger than the case of children who die from abortion -- but it is an open question.
On the whole, I lean toward the idea of limbo.

Still, the real point here is that these children cannot be in purgatory (one way or the other) ... hence, we do not pray for them.

Hope that is clearer.
Peace to you! +

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

I agree with your assessment of the current situation of theology.
Let us pray for a renewal! +

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Some did once advocate baptisms in the womb ... but the Church does not favor of this practice.
St. Thomas was against it: (ST III, q.68, a.11)
His basic answer is that they are not yet "in the world" so as to be subjects of the sacraments ... however, I'm not so sure that I am comfortable with that reasoning (especially given the tendency of modern society to deny the humanity of the unborn).

Regarding miscarried children ... I would say that they are in the same situation as others who die before baptism.
Perhaps the parents have a "habitual" desire to baptize which could suffice for a baptism of desire. I, however, am not convinced and would tend to think that limbo is more likely.

Still, what I want to emphasize is that these children are perfectly happy for all eternity (either in heaven or in limbo [with perfect natural happiness]) ... they cannot be in purgatory, and do not need our prayers.

Great question! I hope that the article from St. Thomas is clear enough. +

Chatto said...

Another excellent post Father.

Regarding the sainthood of the deceased baptised child, I'm wondering whether this means they can be honoured as a saint? I suppose what I'm imagining would be a small 'saintly' image in the iconographic style, and the bereaved family invoking their blessed family member after a family Rosary or something. I'm not talking about churches being dedicated to them!

I only ask because I've never heard of this being done, but it seems reasonable enough to me, at least in the domestic sketch above. What do you think?

Tammy said...

I am a nurse who specialized in Perinatal Death (death just before or after birth) and I am also a practicing Catholic, so I have a very practical interest in this topic.

I have baptized more babies than I can remember and of those, the number who survived is zero. In the hospital, it is considered bad form to even bring up baptism unless a death is imminent (it is feared parents will thing we gave up on their child). Please know that baptisms by MDs & RNs are RARE in secular hospitals and I've seen plenty of Hospital Chaplains leave it fully unmentioned. Im a bit of an oddball in that I bring up baptism and am willing to do it.

Catholic parents need to keep in mind that they may be their child's ONLY advocate in getting baptized and we need to properly teach adults to baptize in cases of imminent death. Every year 25,000 babies born alive will die, most in the first 28 days of life, so this is not a wild rare event. My Church has started including content on emergency baptism in Marriage prep.

One wonderful Priest in our Diocese teaches about this topic every year at the celebration of the Baptism of the Lord. He even uses a doll to demonstrate I would LOVE to see more Priests do that!. He told me once he was thinking of stopping this practice and I begged him not to stop.

I have known of Catholic babies who died unbaptized because the Catholic grandma was waiting for the Priest to arrive...we need to know our faith well enough to know not to wait.

Satan won a skirmish when he tricked so many people into believing that infant baptism is not necessary because "they didnt hurt anybody". While I think that is a nice idea, as you well describe, it doesnt hold theological water. Even though I know those babies dont go to Hell, Im sure that baptized babies that die are blessed by our obedience to do as we were told.

As for Baptism of desire, I believe that an ardent sincere intention to baptize prevented only by death before birth or logistics is blessed & acknowledged by God.

I would love to give classes to Priests/Seminarians / Deacons in my diocese, Ive got years and years of experience in this area and their flock will be very needy. So far my attempts to communicate to Diocesean Educators have been ignored.

A mom said...

I believe God is not bound by our sacraments. If a baby is born and the parents plan to get him baptized, but he dies suddenly, I don't believe God would not allow that baby into heaven because of some technicality. And what a horrible thing to tell the parents!

yan said...

Hi Fr.,

Your main assertion is that infants cannot be in purgatory because purgatory is only to purify from actual sins. Is there a reason theological or biblical to preclude the notion that purgatory exists primarily to purify, and that therefore it could also be a purpose of purgatory to cleanse souls of original sin? If that could be established, it would seem that unbaptized infants could go to purgatory.


Bridget said...

Satan doesn't love abortion because the babies go to Hell. Satan loves abortion because it turns mothers into murderers, and doctors into assassins.

Marko Ivančičević said...

Thank you Father.

Much clearer now.

Anonymous said...

My 3.5 year old son died tragically 6/8/2007 in a sail boating accident followed by 15 days it took to find him and recover him from the bottom of the lake where he and I were sailing.

(the absence of a childs love I believe is very similar to the absence of Gods love, or what we call hell).

My wife was 5 months pregnant with Thomas J. Dorchak at the time of Joshua's death.

Joshua was found the instant my Priest Fr. Robert Morey blessed the waters of lake Jocassee. It was a miracale as they were to give up looking that morning.

The Mass of the Angels was said for my Joshua. The first fully Latin Mass of the Angels said in 40years in SC. There were actually 4 Masses of the Angels said. I hear there is no limit.
My then Bishop Robert Baker (now in Birmingham AL.) and no less then 6 Priests told me that since Joshua was baptized and innocent, that he is considered by The Church an INSTANT Saint, in heaven sitting beside Christ's right hand.
I know Joshua is in Heaven,(the Church has told me unerringly that he is in heaven) so therefore I ask for him to pray for us! Especially for those little babys who were aborted, and for lost children and their parents.
God gave me Joshua as a gift. God took Joshua from me as a gift. It is not for me to know or wonder why, just to have faith that Jesus knows what is best for me and you. I think God knows what he is doing.

Saint Joshua pray for us!

To you an your families: Happy thanks giving. We all have much for which to be thankful

Jim Dorchak
Boiling Springs South Carolina

Jay said...

This is a very thought-provoking post, especially since I wrote on the subject myself recently - thank you. I think I will read and think some more about this issue...

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

I've wondered about this myself ... we are theologically certain that they are in heaven, after all.

Well, I can see one reason, at least, why we do not canonize baptized children who have died: They did not (were not able to) live lives of heroic virtue, and hence are not really examples for us.

Further, it would seem that they would not have a strong intercessory power for the Church militant generally, since they did not (could not) merit any increase in grace or glory, and would therefore not be one of the great intercessors in heaven - though, I believe, they can certainly intercede for their immediate family at least.

Peace! +

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Praise be to God for your work!

Don't be discouraged if others (even if they be priests or bishops) are not overtly supportive ... you are doing the right thing, and God will bless you abundantly! +

ps. If you were in my diocese, I would want to have you come and talk at my parish. :-)

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@A mom,
just a point to think about: What happens then if the baby is born to a muslim family and then dies young without baptism? The parents didn't "plan to get him baptized" -- why are you more comfortable saying that that baby goes to hell?
(at least, the example you used could apply only to "christian" parents ... if the sacrament of baptism is only a "technicality", surely christianity would only be a "technicality" as well ... no?)

In any case, I understand your sensitivity. I too have grieved at the death of young children (both with and without baptism) ... it is a very sad thing. +

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

You do ask a good question.
The answer is that original sin is more like mortal sin than venial sin ... if any die with original sin alone on their soul, they are condemned to hell (i.e. limbo) -- this is the official teaching of the Church [you can look at my other articles on limbo for further explanation].

The soul in original sin lacks the theological virtue of charity ... and this means that it cannot go to heaven (or even purgatory).

Thus, those in purgatory have neither original sin, nor mortal sin, but rather venial sin (which no baby could possibly have).

Hope that his clearer now. Excellent question. +

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...


Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Fr. Michael,
I too saw the article ... I'm not at all convinced.

However, the point here isn't really about whether there is a limbo ... the point is whether these children could possibly be in purgatory (since only those in purgatory need or have use of our prayers).

Now, there is no way that these children are in purgatory -- therefore, we ought not to pray for them.

Thank you for your priestly ministry! +

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@I am not Spartacus,
Thank you for your kind comment, please do keep me in prayer that I may always remain faithful to the tradition of faith! +

DMJSD said...


Anyone who performs an abortion or procures one commits a grave sin and distances his/herself from God. Additionally, the child is deprived from a life where he/she could love and serve the Lord. Is that not bad enough that you must also condemn the child, the VICTIM, to hell (as opposed to limbo)? Does the child have a choice to whether he's born, miscarried, or aborted? Then why should the aborted child be punished for the sins of others? That's the same logic that causes people to promote the abortion of children conceived in rape...punishing the child for the sin of the father.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

While I agree with Bridget below -- that abortion need not necessarily lead to the spiritual death of the child -- I do see something of your point.
I will add, however, that Satan does bring about the martyrdom of the saints, which leads to their glory -- he does this because he hates them, even though it ultimately hurts himself.

Still, I do believe that the denial of baptism to these children is the worst part of abortion.
When it happens by miscarriage, there is no sin (obviously). But when a child dies unbaptized either because of the laziness of the parents or because of the sin of abortion - then we have a very serious sin.
Now, it is possible that these children would be in heaven - but I am one who believes more in limbo (which is technically part of hell).

Still, in abortion counseling (for a woman who is sorry), I would emphasize most of all that the parents gave their child the most fundamental gift: Existence. That this existence will continue forever. That the child is in perfect (natural) happiness, for all eternity. That, on the last day, the child will receive his body risen from the dead (though probably not glorified) and will live for all eternity (a natural life, in limbo).
Thus, I emphasize the good side of limbo -- and I generally don't mention the bad side (which is that it is part of hell, supernatural death, and a complete loss of the glory of heaven).

It is such a sensitive issue ... and we must be very careful.

Thank you for your comment, it was very insightful! +

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

I think the main point of confusion here is that MichaelP was using very technical (and accurate) language ... which may surprise people at first.

Limbo is part of hell, it is supernatural death.
However, I would emphasize more the positive side of limbo -- eternal natural happiness, perfect natural joy, love and knowledge of God as the Creator and even Father who loves us, resuscitation of the body, etc.

Certainly, the child is not "punished" for the abortion [though there is a sense in which he is "punished" for original sin, but this is not subjectively considered punishment at all (by the child)]

In any case, it is possible that the child could be in heaven even (though I think it doubtful).
But, even limbo - properly understood - should be pretty consoling to families (at least, this has been my experience) ... but we must present it very carefully and with great gentleness.

So, really, you and MichaelP are not so much in disagreement ... at least, not as I see it. You are just speaking in different ways, and emphasizing different points.

Peace to you! +

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Dr. Boyd,
Actually, I read that article on your blog!
While, as you can see, I did not agree with the conclusion ... I don't think that we are necessarily so far off.

Would you agree with me that these children cannot be in purgatory? (whether or not there is limbo, they at least are not in purgatory)
Therefore, would you agree that we do not "pray for them" in the ordinary sense of praying for the dead?

To other readers ... consider checking out "Philothea on Phire", Jay Boyd's blog (I found it through Stacy Trasancos, so it has to be good!) ...

CM7 said...

I would like to make clear that I do not advocate one position over another. I hope, pray, petition or beg, (whatever one want's to call it) that all unborn children do not go to hell (real hell; not limbo) since being unbaptized. One of the comments mentioned "Baptism of Desire" and I see no reason why this would not apply to unborn children. This may actually be the answer that I was searching for when there is a miscarriage.

However, if a "Christian" father or mother aborts their child, I doubt they had the intention of baptizing the same child before aborting him or her. In this case Baptism of Desire goes out the window.

My question was asked because there seems to be a very BIG reason why Satan wants to have our children aborted and I personally don't think that it is simply to get us to commit murder when he can garnish the same end results if he can get us to watch pornography, commit adultery or even deliberately and knowingly miss Sunday Mass.

Again, there just seems to be more to it then just an act of murder (mortal sin) on the part of the participants.

God bless.

Jay said...

Fr. Erlenbush,

Thank you so much for your kind comments about my blog.
Yes, I agree with you that these children cannot be in purgatory, and so your conclusion that we do not pray for them in the same way that we pray for the dead makes perfect sense. I hadn't thought about it that way. Your post is very clear and coherent and logical. I have been thinking about it all day! I am starting to write a follow-up post now, but it may take me a day or two!
You also point out the sensitivity of the issue, and how carefully it must be handled with grieving parents and mothers who are remorseful about having procured abortions. This is the hardest part, I think!
At any rate, I will be posting about it again soon. I very much appreciate your post and your blog!

yan said...

Hi Fr.,

Thanks as always for your response. You say:

"... if any die with original sin alone on their soul, they are condemned to hell (i.e. limbo) -- this is the official teaching of the Church."

Is that really correct? I thought that was the point of contention, at least in regard to infants. If there is no special recourse of God's grace for infants unbaptized, then certainly this discussion is cut and dried, and unbaptized infants must go to limbo, i.e. hell.

Second point: if your analysis is correct, then is the justice of God in refusing unbaptized infants the opportunity to enjoy eternal beatitude best characterized as an instance of the lesson that God does not owe eternal beatitude to anyone?


Captain Peabody said...

I wonder if perhaps we might pray for the souls of unbaptized infants in this sense: namely, given that God is in fact able (given the Immaculate Conception, the sanctification of John the Baptist, and many other instances and authorities) to give the gift of sanctifying grace to an infant in the womb, by whatever means or agency, and that this gift would be an unmerited grace, and not something given to every person, we could pray that God would have given this grace to the infant in question, thus allowing them to come to heaven. This would be analogous to the way in which we might pray for the soul of a man about whom we had no sure knowledge of the state of their soul at death, praying that they would have repented of their sin and been in a state of sanctifying grace at their death. Obviously, this is not at all the same way we would pray for the soul of someone in Purgatory, but it is still prayer for them, just of a very different sort.

Of course, this is all predicated on the assumption that our prayers after the fact can affect the action of God in the past, a proposition which, although I have seen it defended and employed by Catholics, I am not sure of the Scriptural or Traditional grounding of; but given God's divine providence and perfect knowledge of the future, this seems to me to be a very reasonable proposition. I would be curious to see what you think of the matter.

In any event, I suppose we might at the least pray for the souls of the babies currently in the womb whom we suspect will die or whom we know will be aborted or miscarried, that God might give to them the grace of baptismal regeneration and salvation. Do you think this type of prayer would be useful or viable, and in accord with Scripture and Tradition? All of this is rather speculative, and I would very much appreciate your judgment on the matter.

I very much appreciate this post and your blog, Father. Even when I disagree with your opinions, I always find myself edified and challenged by the Scripture and Tradition you present. Thank you.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

If they were to die with original sin, the Church teaches that they would be condemned to hell (i.e. limbo) - because the soul in original sin lacks supernatural charity, is not in the state of grace.
This is the very wording of the Ecumenical Council of Florence.

Those who want to argue that the children are saved must argue that they are forgiven original sin extra-sacramentally (hence, they invoke baptism of desire and of blood).

It is theoretically possible (though I don't see how) that the children could be forgiven original sin ... and then they would not go to limbo, but to heaven.
But they certainly cannot be in heaven with original sin.

Hope that is clearer now! +

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

The general tradition is that we ought not to suppose that any have received such special graces (as given to our Lady, John the Baptist, and Jeremiah), hence I'm not convinced that we can pray for the children in this way.

However, perhaps we could pray for a "baptism of desire" ... though that really doesn't seem to make a lot of sense to me -- either there is such a thing or there isn't.

This is what I don't think we can do: Pray that God created the sacramental order in a way other than that in which he did create it ... hence, there is some difference between asking for a death-bed conversion for an adult and asking for a baptism of desire for an infant (the one we know is possible, the other is really beyond our [and the child's] scope).

Peace to you! +

Tammy said...

I lept at reading this blog as well as the one it was based on because this topic is not often-enough discussed in our society.

I am honestly a bit befuddles that with all that has been written about Baptism of Desire in the entire history of the Church that you guys dont seem to have a consensus. I have had Priests visit my families and get all wound up not sure what to say and when I mention the Baptism of Desire, they respond something to the effect of "Oh well then, there is that".

If the baby had been born pink and screaming, it isnt as if the baby would have been consulted prior to their Baptism, it would have been the intent and actions of the parents who would have made steps to securing the Sacrament for their child or not.

I actually do agree with the original premise that praying for them is pointless...they are either in heaven or they are not.

I hope that this exchange has been for readers more than an academic exercise because it isnt an academic exercise for the 6000 Catholic families who will suffer stillbirth each year (24% of the 25,000 stillbirths).

While I respect the prerogative of theologians in ivory towers to bat this around like a wiffleball until the cows come home, if someone is a Parish Priest who has pastoral responsibility for his flock and gets called for deaths and crisis, you dont really have the luxury of not being able to have a cogent pastoral discussion on this topic.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

To be clear, there really isn't much confusion on this topic when we consider the tradition ... it is virtually unanimous: Children who die without baptism go to limbo (which is the edge of hell).

However, in the past 40 years it has become popular for theologians to challenge the 2000 + year tradition (since its roots are in Judaism).

Finally, if you think that this discussion is for me nothing more than an "academic exercise" you are quite wrong -- even just this morning I was discussing this issue with a person who is struggling with a related problem.
There is great danger when so many priests and lay people completely ignore the tradition and just say "Well the children HAVE to be in heaven" -- that is simply not the case, they could very well be in hell (limbo).
I'm not saying one or the other is certain, but the Church doesn't have the "luxury" of allowing emotions to drive her theology -- hence, a pastoral approach must be rooted in the teaching of Christ (who said baptism is necessary for salvation), in the tradition of the Church (where we read that all children who die in original sin are sent to hell [limbo]), and in the work of theologians.

As I said above in one of the comments: If sacramental baptism is a mere "technicality", then Christianity is only a technicality as well -- if sacramental baptism doesn't really make a difference, then neither does Christ's death make a difference.

Still, I'm not coming down on one side or the other of the limbo-issue; I am saying that you ought not dismiss the whole discussion as playing with "wiffleballs".

Tammy said...

Im sorry, I didn't mean to be disrespectful.

I am very sensitive to this issue as I know if my patients heard of their babies being at the edge of hell, they would have their guts ripped out through their hearts. THey wanted baptism and thier own bodies prevented access to the baby to perform it.

I am not one of those people who assumes that every deceased person is in heaven because a nice God wouldn't damn people..I understand that hell has to exist for people who choose to turn their backs on God.

If you asked me is the fate of a baptized infant who dies different than an unbaptized one, I would tell you yes, but if truth be known, maybe Im too much of a coward to even consider that they could be at the edge of hell.

And yet for Catholic families who suffer stillbirth, it still seems to me (in practice) that the capacity for pastoral discussions on the topic of baptism by desire is awkward and uncertain. Could we come up with a workable consensus on this particular topic?

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

I understand your frustration ... indeed, there is so much confusion.
Also, I hope that my previous comment was not too forceful ... I just want to be clear that theological discussion is important and not simply a game in the clouds -- I'm sure that you agree! :-)

As far as a practical pastoral solution, for a family who has just lost a child -- I emphasize that the child enjoys perfect happiness for all eternity, and that he will receive his body on the last day.
I do not explain that this happiness is only natural happiness, or that the body is not glorified. I most certainly do not explain that limbo is part of hell ... I don't believe that I even mention the word "limbo".
I stress that they gave their child the most fundamental gift: existence. I do not explain that the greatest gift (eternal life) is in question.

When speaking with people outside of the context of greiving the loss of a child, I emphasize that limbo is not a bad place subjectively (though, I do tell them it is not heaven and, objectively, lacks supernatural life).
I emphasize that the worst case scenario is perfect natural happiness for all eternity -- I say, "It's not heaven, but I don't think we could accuse God of not loving them either - even the worst case scenario is as good as we can possibly imagine (using human reason alone)!"

This should be consoling ... even the worst case is very good (subjectively especially). God most certainly does love these children - even if they are in limbo rather than heaven.
(and they could well be in heaven, though I think this is highly unlikely)

Finally, I do not get into the idea of "baptism of desire", because that is really not very applicable to such cases -- further, it obscures what baptism of desire really is, which is when a person (even implicitly) makes an act of faith in Christ while yet unable to receive baptism before death.
[hence, it is not really "baptism of desire" when we think of the desire of parents -- the desire (traditionally understood) is the wish of the individual]

Hope all is more clear now! Peace and blessings to you for a holy Advent. +

yan said...

Hi Fr.,

Blessed Advent to you.

I did not mean to assert that unbaptized infants could go to heaven with original sin. 'No sin in heaven' seems to me to be an unassailable assumption.

I did mean to question the scope of purgatory however, if to do so would not destroy the hierarchy of afterlife possibilities.

Basically, since we know so little about purgatory, and since purgatory is a place which cleanses souls from actual venial sin for certain, and since it does this [if I understand correctly] by virtue of the merits of the passion of Christ, I was wondering if there were an absolutely definitive theological or biblical reason why we might not extend the scope of purgatory to the case of purging unbaptized infants from original sin [since that also occurs by virtue of the merits of the passion of Christ, but through baptism ordinarily], or if there was some wiggle room to speculate that purgatory might be able to purge unbaptized infants of original sin [something it would not do in the case of unbaptized adults who also have mortal or even venial sins without some kind of baptism of desire being extant.]

Just asking if it would be ok to speculate about the limits of the scope of purgatory, in a nutshell. NOT asking if any sinner, of any kind, can get to heaven without antecedent purification.

Thanks again Fr. for your time.


Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Ok, now I see the question ... the answer is no, infants cannot be cleansed from original sin in purgatory -- the reason for this is because one who dies in original sin dies without grace, and without being in the state of grace there is no purification which will suffice (because the state of grace is not even present at all).

Hence, the council of Florence defines that all those who die in original sin alone are condemned straightaway to hell [by which we mean limbo].

However, the "hope" for salvation for these children is that they are somehow forgiven original sin before death; so that they die in the state of grace ... and then they would have no need of purgatory either (since they have no actual sin).

Hope it is clearer now ... peace to you! +

yan said...

Hi Fr.,

Thanks again. I believe the matter is now clear to me.

Since that is the way things stand, I think it would be right to assert that unbaptized infants do go to heaven by a special act of grace, since otherwise, the general will of God that all men be saved would be thwarted. You have made it clear in previous posts that God gives sufficient grace for all men to be saved, and that the only thing that prevents salvation is our lack of co-operation. Since infants do not have actual sins, that would seem to imply that they cannot NOT co-operate with the actual grace of God, by which He gives the ability for all men to be saved. Otherwise, they would be sinning by rejecting the actual grace of God, which is impossible given the present definition and understanding of sin as applied to infants.

The urgency of baptism in regard to unbaptized infants ought therefore to be developed and thought about in light of this understanding.

It seems to me that the only way to argue against this position would be to argue that infants do indeed have an ability to reject the actual grace of God. Perhaps they do. Many people have observed that infants can act in apparently selfish ways. But this would seem to require a new nuance in our understanding of sin in the context of human cooperation with grace. In any event, such an argument would seem to be a slender reed on which to rest a conclusion that unbaptized infants go to limbo. Considering the universal salvific will of God, the greater likelihood is that they go to heaven. In fact, in view of that Will, this seems a theological necessity.

Or am I missing something? Does the administration of actual graces only apply to the baptized? I thought it applied to all. Thanks as always for your thoughts.


Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

I just don't have time to explain the whole thing about limbo and the universal salvific will.

I will simply say that (very nearly) the entire tradition has affirmed limbo -- it was considered a near theological certainty that these children could not be in heaven.
Certainly, they cannot possibly co-operate with grace, since they lack the ability to exercise free will (not yet having use of reason).

God offers grace to all ... these children cannot benefit from it through their co-operation ... perhaps there is some other (mystical) way that they can benefit from these graces, but nearly everyone in the tradition says no ... thus, on the supposition of limbo, God gives them grace, but they cannot make use of it (because they are conceived in original sin and they lack the use of reason); thus they are sent to limbo.
Now, I'm only explaining the theory of limbo ... I'm not saying we have to believe it ... I AM SAYING that you cannot say it is impossible, because the Church herself still says it is a possibility (and nearly the whole tradition affirms it as an obvious fact).

In any case, if there is no limbo, then who was the Council of Florence speaking about when it said that those who die "in original sin alone" are sent to hell (i.e. limbo)?

Well ... it is a complicated issue, so there is no surprise that we (all of us) have difficulty understanding it!
If yo type "limbo" in the search engine on the left side-bar of NTM, you will find numerous articles where I talk about this subject.

With this comment, I will have to let my part in the discussion come to a close.
Thank you for the good discussion! :-)

Happy Advent! +

yan said...

Hi Fr.,

Thanks for enlightening me. If unbaptized infants cannot co-operate with actual grace, then my previous post is mistaken. However, because of my experience as a father, I find the assertion that infants do not have free will to be passing strange. Perhaps you can address what the church means by free will in some more detail at some other time.

Thanks again!


yan said...

Hi Fr.,

I hope this observation does not unnecessarily belabor the issue:

If God's offer of grace cannot be accepted, what kind of offer is it really? Doesn't the lack of a real offer contradict the universal salvific will, unless some other means of salvation [mystical, as you say] is available?


De Liliis said...

RE: the idea that: "God offers salvation to unbaptized infants, a direct implication of God's universal salvific will"

I have heard this expressed before, but there is no weight for it from history and tradition. A person who heard it once said I think, quite soundly, if it were offered then it could be rejected too and so then to the proper Hell itself.

Every potential parent should be properly instructed on how to perform an emergency baptism in the case of miscarriage.

One can pray for God's special intervention, but one's duty is to do what one can do as a parent sacramentally first.

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