Q: The teaching about limbo has me
perplexed because it casts into
doubt whether babies who die before
being baptized can be saved. Are they sent
to limbo? Are aborted babies doubly punished?
About 40 years ago during a novena at
our parish, a missionary preached that
God is a loving and forgiving God. The
priest urged us to ask God to love and
forgive us. Why then should so many souls
be sent to limbo?
A: On April 20, 2007, the 30-member International Theological
Commission (ITC) published,
with Pope Benedict XVI’s permission, a
41-page document entitled The Hope
of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without
Being Baptized. This is the result of a
study begun in 2004 by the ITC, whose
members are appointed by the pope
and work with the Congregation for
the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). This
ITC text is available at the CDF section
This document says that the traditional
concept of limbo as a place
where unbaptized infants spend eternity
but without communion with God
seems to reflect “an unduly restrictive
view of salvation.
“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 text adds, “We
emphasize that these are reasons for
prayerful hope, rather than grounds
for sure knowledge.”
This is not as authoritative a teaching
as a papal document, but the Catechism
of the Catholic Church never
mentions limbo. It teaches: “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” (#1261).
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope
Benedict XVI but then prefect of the
Congregation for the Doctrine of the
Faith, stated in 1984: “Limbo was never
a defined truth of faith. Personally—and here I am speaking more as a theologian
and not as prefect of the
Congregation—I would abandon it
since it was only a theological hypothesis.
It formed part of a secondary thesis
in support of a truth which is
absolutely of first significance for faith,
namely, the importance of Baptism”
(The Ratzinger Report, p. 147).
In the 11th century, St. Anselm of
Canterbury described theology as “faith
seeking understanding.” The ITC’s document
described above is an example
of such faith.
Many Catholics long ago came to
the same conclusion about limbo as
the ITC. Apparently, the mission
preacher whom you remember did.
Over the years, Father Norman Perry,
O.F.M., the previous author of the “Ask” column, and I have reflected this
view in our “Ask” replies.
Some people have thought that
limbo was necessary for unbaptized
infants because of Jesus’ teaching,
“Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can
see the kingdom of God without being
born from above” (John 3:3).
The concept of limbo arose in regard
to children who die without being baptized,
but the same reasoning was
applied to adults who lived after Jesus
but who died without Baptism. If that
were the case, the best that the majority
of adults who have ever lived could
hope for would be limbo.
In section four of the Declaration on
the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, the bishops at Vatican
II taught, “Together with the
prophets and that same apostle [Paul],
the Church awaits the day, known to
God alone, when all peoples will call on
God with one voice and ‘serve him
shoulder to shoulder’ (Zephaniah 3:9;
see also Isaiah 66:23; Psalms 65:4 and
The sacrament of Baptism remains
very important, but having received it
does not guarantee that someone will
necessarily be saved. Likewise, not having
received it does not mean that a
person cannot be saved. That is up to
Q: In your January 2007 answer to a
question about purgatory, you wrote: “Every sin has a life of its own, even
after it has been confessed and forgiven.
A lie that I tell on Tuesday and confess on
Saturday does not vanish. Its evil effects
continue until people are no longer interested
in repeating it. Believing otherwise is
Well, I guess that I must be naïve or
stupid. Are you saying that a sin is still a sin
after it is confessed? Just what happens in
Confession and what does it accomplish?
Why would I have to go to purgatory for
sins already confessed?
A: Yes, people need to confess their
sins and have them forgiven.
Such a sin, however, can continue to do
damage. Part of our repentance is trying
to minimize that damage. If I am
truly sorry for a lie that I told, I should
later tell the truth to at least one person
to whom I told the lie. That person
may or may not pass on this new information
because lies are often more
spicy than the truth.
In the case of theft, a person must be
willing to return what was stolen to its
rightful owner before that sin can be
forgiven. A person cannot be truly sorry
for a sin whose evil effects he or she will
not try to mitigate.
Perhaps an example outside Confession
can help here. Three Duke University
lacrosse players were accused
in March 2006 of raping a woman at a
party. It later turned out that the accusation
was false. On June 15, 2007, District
Attorney Michael Nifong admitted
that he had withheld evidence from
the players’ defense attorneys, had lied
to the court and state bar investigators,
and had made inflammatory comments
about the players. Three days
later he was disbarred in North Carolina.
Nifong tried to repair the damage
that his action caused. Did he repair it
fully? No, because it was impossible to
do so. Everyone who heard the false
allegation will not necessarily hear the
truth—or believe it. That’s one example
that “Every sin has a life of its own.”
In one sense, humanity’s “original
sin” is believing that our actions have
only the consequences that we want
them to have. Adam and Eve mistakenly
believed that. They expected to
become like God by disobeying one
What does sacramental Confession
accomplish? It offers forgiveness and
helps us for the future. In Confession,
Jesus urges us to live more consistently
as people made in God’s image. Absolution
also gives us strength to repair
the damage our sins have caused.
Your question is neither naïve nor
stupid. You simply seek understanding.
Please keep asking whatever questions
your growing faith may require.
Q: On the September 29th feast of
Archangels Michael, Gabriel and
Raphael, the Gospel is John 1:47-51. Jesus says
there that Nathanael is without guile. When the
future apostle confesses Jesus as the Son of
God, Jesus answers, “Do you believe because
I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You
will see greater things than this.” I don’t understand
what “than this” means here.
A: In the New Jerome Biblical Commentary,
Pheme Perkins writes
about verses 48 and 49, “A satisfactory
parallel for the reaction produced by
Jesus’ saying about ‘sitting under a fig
tree’ has not been found. The best suggestion
is that it may be related to a
later tradition that the rabbis studied
the law ‘under a fig tree’ (Midrash
Rabbah Ecclesiastes 5:11).”
Regarding the “greater things than
this” verse, she continues, “Some think
that the ‘greater things’ point forward
to the signs that show the disciples
Jesus’ glory (e.g., 2:11).” The water
turned into wine at the wedding feast
of Cana is the first of Jesus’ seven
“signs” (miracles) in the Gospel of
Q: In the Gospel for Monday of the 25th week in Ordinary Time (Luke
8:16-18), Jesus describes a light on a lampstand and then goes on
to talk about secret things coming to light. I don’t see the connection
between those verses and the next one: “Take care, then, how
you hear. To anyone who has, more will be given, and from the one
who has not, even what he seems to have will be taken away.”
A: In the New Jerome Biblical Commentary, Father Robert Karris,
O.F.M., explains verse 18 this way: “Hearing without understanding
the word, especially the understanding that originates in the effort
to communicate the word to others, leads to total loss of hearing.”
Just as light is meant to be shared, so the word of God is intended to
be spread to others—by word and example.
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