What the Rite of Baptism Tells Us About Limbo

©Heidi Bratton Photography 2011

©Heidi Bratton Photography 2011

As the father of eleven who also knows the heartache of miscarriage, I was moved by a recent post by blogger Stacy Trasancos titled “The Spiritual Abortion Called Limbo,” exhorting even those who accept the longstanding theological opinion of the “limbo of the infants” to please pray for those innocent young souls who die before Baptism. This theological opinion asserts that such souls spend eternity not in Heaven, enjoying the Beatific Vision, but rather remain eternally in a state of “natural” happiness in this “limbo” or “edge” of hell itself. They do not suffer the pains of hell and are naturally happy but are not supernaturally seeing God “face to face.” While this opinion may still be held by faithful Catholics, it is not the only possible solution to the theological dilemma.

I’m also a deacon of the Church who has been privileged to be the minister of infant Baptism. The beautiful Rite of Baptism can actually tell us something important, I think, about the centuries and centuries of speculation regarding what happens to a soul who dies without Baptism but innocent of any personal sin, such as those innocents in the womb who die resulting from miscarriage or procured abortion. I’d like to share this insight and then propose a theological speculation that I happen to find much more satisfying than the “limbo” proposal.

What does the Church’s celebration of Baptism have to do with “limbo”? Well, if you’ve been to a Baptism before, you know that the priest or deacon will ask the parents for the name of the child and then ask “What do you ask of God’s Church for your child?” The parents respond, “Baptism.” The celebrant then asks again whether the parents “clearly understand” what it means to ask to have their child baptized and the parents say “We do.” Then the celebrant welcomes the child on behalf of the “Christian community” and says “I claim you for Christ our Savior by the sign of the cross,” which is traced on the child’s forehead. Then, after the Liturgy of the Word and the Litany of the Saints, the celebrant administers the “Prayer of Exorcism and Anointing Before Baptism.”

At this point the celebrant says to the child, “We anoint you with the oil of salvation in the name of Christ our Savior; may he strengthen you with his power, who lives for ever and ever.”

Then he anoints the child with the Oil of the Catechumens.

Full stop.

What just happened? Remembering that this is all before the actual baptism, let’s review: The Rite of Baptism gives the parents (and godparents) the opportunity to express their desire for baptism for the child, who is then claimed for Christ and ultimately anointed with the Oil of the Catechumens.

The infant to be baptized is acknowledged in the Rite to be a “catechumen” based not on the child’s own desire for baptism, but based on the parents’ desire for the child’s baptism.

So, where would this child spend eternity if at that moment some catastrophe struck, killing the baby before the actual Baptism could take place? The Church has always taught that catechumens who die before baptism can still experience the Beatific Vision. The infant catchumen would go to Heaven despite having missed the opportunity for baptism.

Thus the Rite of Baptism shows us clearly that the parents’ desire for the child’s baptism suffices as the “desire for baptism” that effectively makes the infant a “catechumen.”

How does this work?

The parents (and godparents) are acknowledged to have a sort of spiritual “jurisdiction” over the child. And this is not a result of a merely biological connection between child and parents—rather, this “jurisdiction” is associated with anyone (e.g., adoptive parents, etc.) who has taken on the responsibility of caring for the child.

So, the Rite of Baptism would seem to make clear that: The “desire for baptism” that is expressed by the persons with spiritual “jurisdiction” over the child is sufficient to allow us to consider the child to be a “catechumen.”

Based upon this connection so clearly expressed in the Rite of Baptism itself, I would further assert that any parent who possesses the clear “desire for baptism” for their child effectively gives their child the status of “catechumen,” meaning that, if (God forbid) the child dies before baptism, the parent can trust that their child is experiencing the Beatific Vision in Heaven, just as the Church teaches regarding other catechumens.

While I remind readers that this is my personal speculation and interpretation, I would also suggest that this is an equally permissible view to take regarding the ultimate destiny of these young souls. And I view this opinion as infinitely more consoling than the “limbo of the infants.”

But wait, one may interject, this view might console parents who desire baptism for their child, but what about all the children—such as those who die from abortion—whose parents have no desire for baptism for their child? Don’t we still need to resolve this question before parting ways with the “limbo of the infants”?

Yes we do. And I think God in His mercy has provided us with the solution. My additional speculation is that there is indeed another who has both the necessary spiritual “jurisdiction” over a specific soul and an unwavering desire for that soul’s baptism from the very moment of conception. Who else might be able to make a “catechumen” out of an unbaptized soul? Our Guardian Angel.

Think about it. Our Guardian Angel, like a parent or godparent, has unique spiritual jurisdiction over a specific soul, has the intellect and will to unwaveringly desire baptism for the soul, and accompanies the soul in crossing the threshold from time into eternity—what Guardian Angel would not “claim for Christ” a dying soul who has no chance for baptism? What Guardian Angel would not seek to ensure that such a soul is a catechumen?

These are my speculations—I believe these opinions comport fully with the “mind of the Church” and resolve the clear dogmatic “tensions” that produced the theological opinion of the “limbo of the infants.”

While I remain open to correction regarding any potential error in reasoning I may have made, I also remain hopeful that these theological opinions can bring comfort to parents and families grieving the loss of any loved one who died without personal sin and without baptism. May we all trust both in God’s justice and in His mercy!

Deacon Jim Russell is a lifelong St. Louis resident, "cradle" Catholic, husband, father of eleven, and grandfather of two. Ordained to the Diaconate in 2002, Deacon Russell serves as Director of Liturgy for Immaculate Conception Parish in Dardenne Prairie, Missouri, the second-largest parish in the Archdiocese of St. Louis. He remains an active supporter of Catholic radio and the Catholic blogosphere and writes for Catholic Stand. Deacon Russell’s theological interests include the sanctity of marriage and the work of Blessed Pope John Paul II, particularly his “Catecheses on Human Love” (Theology of the Body). Follow Deacon Russell on Twitter at @MarriageSTL.