What happens to children who die without Baptism?

In my previous post, I explored why the Catholic Church baptizes infants and young children.  In other posts here and here I discussed why the Church believes that Baptism is necessary for salvation, although we quite clearly do not try to box God in about that.  But the question that may remain is what happens to children who die without being baptized?

The Catechism says this — 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,” allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have 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.  (CCC1261)

If you are a Catholic of a certain age, you were probably taught that children who die without Baptism are not in heaven, but in Limbo.  Limbo was described as a state of perfect natural happiness, but not the supernatural happiness we will experience in heaven.  But was this view accurate?

This leads to a discussion of how official Church teaching is both defined and categorized.  The highest level of teaching is called the Extraordinary teaching of the Church, which are those dogmas that have been infallibly defined by the Magisterium.  (Magisterium is the teaching authority of the Church composed of the Pope and the bishops who are in communion with him).  This would refer to dogmas such as the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Hypostatic union, the teachings on the Sacraments, and the Marian dogmas as some examples.  These are dogmas that have been defined either by an ex-cathedra statement by the Pope, or by the collective of bishops in an ecumenical council that was accepted by the Pope. 

An extension to that teaching is what is referred to as the Ordinary teaching of the Church.  This is the collective teaching of the Magisterium as defined in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.  While not everything in the Catechism has been infallibly defined, everything in the Catechism constitutes the teaching of the Church and is to be adhered to by the faithful with “religious assent.”  (CCC892) Our universal Catechism is an example of the Ordinary teaching, as would be something like a papal encyclical. 

And then, there is what is known as “theological opinion.”  Even some of the greatest works of the Church, like the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas in its entirely falls under the category of theological opinion.  Of course, it and other works may be the sources that the bishops draw from when they define official teaching, but the work itself is not considered to be authoritative.  This also includes the multitude of other catechisms that have been put forth by various groups or individuals over the years, and the countless books offered by theologians.  As an example, I would offer Pope Benedict’s book “Jesus of Nazareth.”  It was published after he became Pope, but in the introduction he says this – “It goes without saying that this book is in no way an exercise of the magisterium, but is soley an expression of my personal search ‘for the face of the Lord’ (cf.  Ps 27:8).”  He makes it clear that it is being offered as the work of a theologian, not in his official Magisterial capacity.  Thus, it is open for discussion.

I say all of that to help us understand that the teaching that children who die without Baptism go to Limbo was theological opinion and nothing more.  It has never been defined by the Magisterium of the Church, even though it permeated at least the US Church during the time of my childhood.  But that was certainly not something I understood at the time, and most likely the people who were teaching that did not understand that either.  So when the Catechism offers the above view, people want to profess that the Church changed her teaching.  In reality the Church did not; the Catechism clarified for us that particular popular theological opinion was not an accurate reflection of the teaching of the Church.

In today’s circle of theological opinion, we often see an understanding that parents can have a Baptism of desire for their child who has died without Baptism.  This makes a great deal of sense to me, and I believe is consistent with the Catechism’s view of entrusting them to the mercy of God.  Parents can certainly express this desire and commit their children to God, trusting in His perfect will and love for them. 

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