What Is Limbo?
Limbo, (Late Latin limbus) a word of Teutonic derivation, meaning literally “hem” or “border,” as of a garment, or anything joined on (cf. Italian lembo or English limb).
In theological usage the name is applied to (a) the temporary place or state of the souls of the just who, although purified from sin, were excluded from the beatific vision until Christ’s triumphant ascension into Heaven (the “limbus patrum”); or (b) to the permanent place or state of those unbaptized children and others who, dying without grievous personal sin, are excluded from the beatific vision on account of original sin alone (the “limbus infantium” or “puerorum”).
In literary usage the name is sometimes applied in a wider and more general sense to any place or state of restraint, confinement, or exclusion, and is practically equivalent to “prison” (see, e.g., Milton, “Paradise Lost,” III, 495; Butler, “Hudibras,” part II, canto i, and other English classics). The not unnatural transition from the theological to the literary usage is exemplified in Shakespeare, “Henry VIII,” act v, sc. 3. In this article we shall deal only with the theological meaning and connotation of the word.
Though it can hardly be claimed, on the evidence of extant literature, that a definite and consistent belief in the limbus patrum of Christian tradition was universal among the Jews, it cannot on the other hand be denied that, more especially in the extra-canonical writings of the second or first centuries B.C., some such belief finds repeated expression; and New Testament references to the subject remove all doubt as to the current Jewish belief in the time of Christ. Whatever name may be used in apocryphal Jewish literature to designate the abode of the departed just, the implication generally is
- that their condition is one of happiness,
- that it is temporary, and
- that it is to be replaced by a condition of final and permanent bliss when the Messianic Kingdom is established.
In the New Testament, Christ refers by various names and figures to the place or state which Catholic tradition has agreed to call the limbus patrum. In Matthew 8:11, it is spoken of under the figure of a banquet “with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of Heaven” (cf. Luke 8:29; 14:15), and in Matthew 25:10 under the figure of a marriage feast to which the prudent virgins are admitted, while in the parable of Lazarus and Dives it is called “Abraham’s bosom” (Luke 16:22) and in Christ’s words to the penitent thief on Calvary the name paradise is used (Luke 23:43). St. Paul teaches (Ephesians 4:9) that before ascending into Heaven Christ “also descended first into the lower parts of the earth,” and St. Peter still more explicitly teaches that “being put to death indeed, in the flesh, but enlivened in the spirit,” Christ went and “preached to those souls that were in prison, which had been some time incredulous, when they waited for the patience of God in the days of Noah” (1 Peter 3:18-20).
It is principally on the strength of these Scriptural texts, harmonized with the general doctrine of the Fall and Redemption of mankind, that Catholic tradition has defended the existence of the limbus patrum as a temporary state or place of happiness distinct from Purgatory. As a result of the Fall, Heaven was closed against men. Actual possession of the beatific vision was postponed, even for those already purified from sin, until the Redemption should have been historically completed by Christ’s visible ascendancy into Heaven. Consequently, the just who had lived under the Old Dispensation, and who, either at death or after a course of purgatorial discipline, had attained the perfect holiness required for entrance into glory, were obliged to await the coming of the Incarnate Son of God and the full accomplishment of His visible earthly mission. Meanwhile they were “in prison,” as St. Peter says; but, as Christ’sown words to the penitent thief and in the parable of Lazarus clearly imply, their condition was one of happiness, notwithstanding the postponement of the higher bliss to which they looked forward. And this, substantially, is all that Catholic tradition teaches regarding the limbus patrum.
The New Testament contains no definite statement of a positive kind regarding the lot of those who die in original sin without being burdened with grievous personal guilt. But, by insisting on the absolute necessity of being “born again of water and the Holy Ghost” (John 3:5) for entry into the kingdom of Heaven (see BAPTISM, subtitle Necessity of Baptism), Christ clearly enough implies that men are born into this world in a state of sin, and St. Paul’s teaching to the same effect is quite explicit (Romans 5:12 sqq.). On the other hand, it is clear from Scripture and Catholic tradition that the means of regeneration provided for this life do not remain available after death, so that those dying unregenerate are eternally excluded from the supernatural happiness of the beatific vision (John 9:4, Luke 12:40, 16:19 sqq., 2 Corinthians 5:10; see also APOCATASTASIS). The question therefore arises as to what, in the absence of a clear positive revelation on the subject, we ought in conformity with Catholic principles to believe regarding the eternal lot of such persons. Now it may confidently be said that, as the result of centuries of speculation on the subject, we ought to believe that these souls enjoy and will eternally enjoy a state of perfect natural happiness; and this is what Catholics usually mean when they speak of the limbus infantium, the “children’s limbo.”
The best way of justifying the above statement is to give a brief sketch of the history of Catholic opinion on the subject. We shall try to do so by selecting the particular and pertinent facts from the general history of Catholic speculation regarding the Fall and original sin, but it is only right to observe that a fairly full knowledge of this general history is required for a proper appreciation of these facts.
There is no evidence to prove that any Greek or Latin Father before St. Augustine ever taught that original sin of itself involved any severer penalty after death than exclusion from the beatific vision, and this, by the Greek Fathers at least, was always regarded as being strictly supernatural. Explicit references to the subject are rare, but for the Greek Fathers generally the statement of St. Gregory of Nazianzus may be taken as representative:
It will happen, I believe . . . that those last mentioned [infants dying without baptism] will neither be admitted by the just judge to the glory of Heaven nor condemned to suffer punishment, since, though unsealed [by baptism], they are not wicked. . . . For from the fact that one does not merit punishment it does not follow that one is worthy of being honored, any more than it follows that one who is not worthy of a certain honor deserves on that account to be punished. [Oration 40, no. 23]
Thus, according to Gregory, for children dying without baptism, and excluded for want of the “seal” from the “honor” or gratuitous favor of seeing God face to face, an intermediate or neutral state is admissible, which, unlike that of the personally wicked, is free from positive punishment. And, for the West, Tertullian opposes infant baptism on the ground that infants are innocent, while St. Ambrose explains that original sin is rather an inclination to evil than guilt in the strict sense, and that it need occasion no fear at the day of judgement; and the Ambrosiaster teaches that the “second death,” which means condemnation to the hell of torment of the damned, is not incurred by Adam’s sin, but by our own. This was undoubtedly the general tradition before St. Augustine’s time.
Teaching of St. Augustine
In his earlier writings St. Augustine himself agrees with the common tradition. Thus in De libero arbitrio III, written several years before the Pelagian controversy, discussing the fate of unbaptized infants after death, he writes: “It is superfluous to inquire about the merits of one who has not any merits. For one need not hesitate to hold that life may be neutral as between good conduct and sin, and that as between reward and punishment there may be a neutral sentence of the judge.” But even before the outbreak of the Pelagian controversy St. Augustine had already abandoned the lenient traditional view, and in the course of the controversy he himself condemned, and persuaded the Council of Carthage (418) to condemn, the substantially identical Pelagian teaching affirming the existence of “an intermediate place, or of any place anywhere at all (ullus alicubi locus), in which children who pass out of this life unbaptized live in happiness” (Denzinger 102). This means that St. Augustine and the African Fathers believed that unbaptized infants share in the common positive misery of the damned, and the very most that St. Augustine concedes is that their punishment is the mildest of all, so mild indeed that one may not say that for them non-existence would be preferable to existence in such a state (Of Sin and Merit I.21; Contra Jul. V, 44; etc.). But this Augustinian teaching was an innovation in its day, and the history of subsequent Catholic speculation on this subject is taken up chiefly with the reaction which has ended in a return to the pre-Augustinian tradition.
After enjoying several centuries of undisputed supremacy, St. Augustine’s teaching on original sin was first successfully challenged by St. Anselm (d. 1109), who maintained that it was not concupiscence, but the privation of original justice, that constituted the essence of the inherited sin (De conceptu virginali). On the special question, however, of the punishment of original sin after death, St. Anselm was at one with St. Augustine in holding that unbaptized children share in the positive sufferings of the damned; and Abelard was the first to rebel against the severity of the Augustinian tradition on this point. According to him there was no guilt (culpa), but only punishment (poena), in the proper notion of original sin; and although this doctrine was rightly condemned by the Council of Soissons in 1140, his teaching, which rejected material torment (poena sensus) and retained only the pain of loss (poena damni) as the eternal punishment of original sin (Comm. in Rom.), was not only not condemned but was generally accepted and improved upon by the Scholastics. Peter Lombard, the Master of the Sentences, popularized it (Sent. II, xxxiii, 5), and it acquired a certain degree of official authority from the letter of Innocent III to the Archbishop of Arles, which soon found its way into the “Corpus Juris”. Pope Innocent’s teaching is to the effect that those dying with only original sin on their souls will suffer “no other pain, whether from material fire or from the worm of conscience, except the pain of being deprived forever of the vision of God” (Corp. Juris, Decret. l. III, tit. xlii, c. iii — Majores). It should be noted, however, that this poena damni incurred for original sin implied, with Abelard and most of the early Scholastics, a certain degree of spiritual torment, and that St. Thomas was the first great teacher who broke away completely from the Augustinian tradition on this subject, and relying on the principle, derived through the Pseudo-Dionysius from the Greek Fathers, that human nature as such with all its powers and rights was unaffected by the Fall (quod naturalia manent integra), maintained, at least virtually, what the great majority of later Catholic theologians have expressly taught, that the limbus infantium is a place or state of perfect natural happiness.
No reason can be given — so argued the Angelic Doctor — for exempting unbaptized children from the material torments of Hell (poena sensus) that does not hold good, even a fortiori, for exempting them also from internal spiritual suffering (poena damni in the subjective sense), since the latter in reality is the more grievous penalty, and is more opposed to the mitissima poena which St. Augustine was willing to admit (De Malo, V, art. iii). Hence he expressly denies that they suffer from any “interior affliction”, in other words that they experience any pain of loss (nihil omnino dolebunt de carentia visionis divinae — “In Sent.”, II, 33, q. ii, a. 2). At first (“In Sent.”, loc. cit.), St. Thomas held this absence of subjective suffering to be compatible with a consciousness of objective loss or privation, the resignation of such souls to the ways of God’s providence being so perfect that a knowledge of what they had lost through no fault of their own does not interfere with the full enjoyment of the natural goods they possess. Afterwards, however, he adopted the much simpler psychological explanation which denies that these souls have any knowledge of the supernatural destiny they have missed, this knowledge being itself supernatural, and as such not included in what is naturally due to the separated soul (De Malo loc. cit.). It should be added that in St. Thomas’ view the limbus infantium is not a mere negative state of immunity from suffering and sorrow, but a state of positive happiness in which the soul is united to God by a knowledge and love of him proportionate to nature’s capacity.
The teaching of St. Thomas was received in the schools, almost without opposition, down to the Reformation period. The very few theologians who, with Gregory of Rimini, stood out for the severe Augustinian view, were commonly designated by the opprobrious name of tortores infantium. Some writers, like Savonarola (De triumpho crucis, III, 9) and Catharinus (De statu parvulorum sine bapt. decedentium), added certain details to the current teaching — for example that the souls of unbaptized children will be united to glorious bodies at the Resurrection, and that the renovated earth of which St. Peter speaks (2 Peter 3:13) will be their happy dwelling place for eternity. At the Reformation, Protestants generally, but more especially the Calvinists, in reviving Augustinian teaching, added to its original harshness, and the Jansenists followed on the same lines. This reacted in two ways on Catholic opinion, first by compelling attention to the true historical situation, which the Scholastics had understood very imperfectly, and second by stimulating an all-round opposition to Augustinian severity regarding the effects of original sin; and the immediate result was to set up two Catholic parties, one of whom either rejected St. Thomas to follow the authority of St. Augustine or vainly try to reconcile the two, while the other remained faithful to the Greek Fathers and St. Thomas. The latter party, after a fairly prolonged struggle, has certainly the balance of success on its side.
Besides the professed advocates of Augustinianism, the principal theologians who belonged to the first party were Bellarmine, Petavius, and Bossuet, and the chief ground of their opposition to the previously prevalent Scholastic view was that its acceptance seemed to compromise the very principle of the authority of tradition. As students of history, they felt bound to admit that, in excluding unbaptized children from any place or state even of natural happiness and condemning them to the fire of Hell, St. Augustine, the Council of Carthage, and later African Fathers, like Fulgentius (De fide ad Petrum, 27), intended to teach no mere private opinion, but a doctrine of Catholic Faith; nor could they be satisfied with what Scholastics, like St. Bonaventure and Duns Scotus, said in reply to this difficulty, namely that St. Augustine had simply been guilty of exaggeration (“respondit Bonaventura dicens quod Augustinus excessive loquitur de illis poenis, sicut frequenter faciunt sancti” — Scots, In Sent., II, xxxiii, 2). Neither could they accept the explanation which even some modern theologians continue to repeat: that the Pelagian doctrine condemned by St. Augustine as a heresy (see e.g., On the Soul and its Origin II.17) consisted in claiming supernatural, as opposed to natural, happiness for those dying in original sin (see Bellarmine, De amiss. gratiae, vi, 1; Petavius, De Deo, IX, xi; De Rubeis, De Peccat. Orig., xxx, lxxii). Moreover, there was the teaching of the Council of Florence, that “the souls of those dying in actual mortal sin or in original sin alone go down at once (mox) into Hell, to be punished, however, with widely different penalties.”
It is clear that Bellarmine found the situation embarrassing, being unwilling, as he was, to admit that St. Thomas and the Schoolmen generally were in conflict with what St. Augustine and other Fathers considered to be de fide, and what the Council of Florence seemed to have taught definitively. Hence he names Catharinus and some others as revivers of the Pelagian error, as though their teaching differed in substance from the general teaching of the School, and tries in a milder way to refute what he concedes to be the view of St. Thomas (op. cit., vi-vii). He himself adopts a view which is substantially that of Abelard mentioned above; but he is obliged to do violence to the text of St. Augustine and other Fathers in his attempt to explain them in conformity with this view, and to contradict the principle he elsewhere insists upon that “original sin does not destroy the natural but only the supernatural order.” (op. cit., iv).
Petavius, on the other hand, did not try to explain away the obvious meaning of St. Augustine and his followers, but, in conformity with that teaching, condemned unbaptized children to the sensible pains of Hell, maintaining also that this was a doctrine of the Council of Florence.
Neither of these theologians, however, succeeded in winning a large following or in turning the current of Catholic opinion from the channel into which St. Thomas had directed it. Besides Natalis Alexander (De peccat. et virtut, I, i, 12), and Estius (In Sent., II, xxxv, 7), Bellarmine’s chief supporter was Bossuet, who vainly tried to induce Innocent XII to condemn certain propositions which he extracted from a posthumous work of Cardinal Sfrondati and in which the lenient scholastic view is affirmed. Only professed Augustinians like Noris and Berti, or out-and-out Jansenists like the Bishop of Pistoia, whose famous diocesan synod furnished eighty-five propositions for condemnation by Pius VI (1794), supported the harsh teaching of Petavius. The twenty-sixth of these propositions repudiated “as a Pelagian fable the existence of the place (usually called the children’s limbo) in which the souls of those dying in original sin are punished by the pain of loss without any pain of fire”; and this, taken to mean that by denying the pain of fire one thereby necessarily postulates a middle place or state, involving neither guilt nor penalty, between the Kingdom of God and eternal damnation, is condemned by the pope as being “false and rash and as slander of the Catholic schools” (Denz. 526).
This condemnation was practically the death-knell of extreme Augustinianism, while the mitigate Augustinianism of Bellarmine and Bossuet had already been rejected by the bulk of Catholic theologians. Suarez, for example, ignoring Bellarmine’s protest, continued to teach what Catharinus had taught — that unbaptized children will not only enjoy perfect natural happiness, but that they will rise with immortal bodies at the last day and have the renovated earth for their happy abode (De vit. et penat., ix, sect. vi, n. 4); and, without insisting on such details, the great majority of Catholic theologians have continued to maintain the general doctrine that the children’s limbo is a state of perfect natural happiness, just the same as it would have been if God had not established the present supernatural order. It is true, on the other hand, that some Catholic theologians have stood out for some kind of compromise with Augustinianism, on the ground that nature itself was wounded and weakened, or, at least that certain natural rights (including the right to perfect felicity) were lost in consequence of the Fall. But these have granted for the most part that the children’s limbo implies exemption, not only from the pain of sense, but from any positive spiritual anguish for the loss of the beatific vision; and not a few have been willing to admit a certain degree of natural happiness in limbo. What has been chiefly in dispute is whether this happiness is as perfect and complete as it would have been in the hypothetical state of pure nature, and this is what the majority of Catholic theologians have affirmed.
As to the difficulties against this view which possessed such weight in the eyes of the eminent theologians we have mentioned, it is to be observed:
- we must not confound St. Augustine’s private authority with the infallible authority of the Catholic Church; and
- if allowance be made for the confusion introduced into the Pelagian controversy by the want of a clear and explicit conception of the distinction between the natural and the supernatural order one can easily understand why St. Augustine and the Council of Carthage were practically bound to condemn the locus medius of the Pelagians. St. Augustine himself was inclined to deny this distinction altogether, although the Greek Fathers had already developed it pretty fully, and although some of the Pelagians had a glimmering of it (see Coelestius in August., De Peccat. Orig., v), they based their claim to natural happiness for unbaptized children on a denial of the Fall and original sin, and identified this state of happiness with the “life eternal” of the New Testament.
- Moreover, even if one were to admit for the sake of argument that this canon of the Council of Carthage (the authenticity of which cannot be reasonably doubted) acquired the force of an ecumenical definition, one ought to interpret it in the light of what was understood to be at issue by both sides in the controversy, and therefore add to the simple locus medius the qualification which is added by Pius VI when, in the Constitution “Auctoreum Fidei”, he speaks of “locum illium et statum medium expertem culpae et poenae.”
- Finally, in regard to the teaching of the Council of Florence, it is incredible that the Fathers there assembled had any intention of defining a question so remote from the issue on which reunion with the Greeks depended, and one which was recognized at the time as being open to free discussion and continued to be so regarded by theologians for several centuries afterwards. What the council evidently intended to deny in the passage alleged was the postponement of final awards until the day of judgement. Those dying in original sin are said to descend into Hell, but this does not necessarily mean anything more than that they are excluded eternally from the vision of God. In this sense they are damned; they have failed to reach their supernatural destiny, and this viewed objectively is a true penalty. Thus the Council of Florence, however literally interpreted, does not deny the possibility of perfect subjective happiness for those dying in original sin, and this is all that is needed from the dogmatic viewpoint to justify the prevailing Catholic notion of the children’s limbo, while from the standpoint of reason, as St. Gregory of Nazianzus pointed out long ago, no harsher view can be reconciled with a worthy concept of God’s justice and other attributes.
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APA citation. (1910). Limbo. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved February 27, 2019 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09256a.htm
MLA citation. “Limbo.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 9. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. 27 Feb. 2019 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09256a.htm>.
Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Simon Parent.
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. October 1, 1910. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.