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What the Church Has Said About Children Who Die Without Baptism

12/16/2004 - 6:00 AM PST

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Father Peter Gumpel Gives an Overview

VATICAN CITY, DEC. 16, 2004 (Zenit) - What happens to the souls of children who die before birth, or shortly after birth, or are aborted?

Questions of this nature are ever more frequent, to the point that John Paul II himself, on Oct. 7, asked the International Theological Commission to study the matter more profoundly.

To better understand the matter at stake, we interviewed Father Peter Gumpel, a theologian and historian who has studied the matter since the 1950s.

"The fate in the hereafter of souls that have not been baptized seems to be a marginal problem, but in reality it is at the heart of some dogmatic theses," Father Gumpel said.

"According to Catholic doctrine, all are born with original sin; no one can enjoy the beatific vision without overcoming original sin. The normal way is to be baptized; it is an infallible means to ensure full happiness in the beatific vision," the theologian explained.

Q: But, what happens to those who die without baptism?

Father Gumpel: Although in history there have been different opinions, the supreme magisterium of the Church offers very precise documents and affirmations.

In particular, in the struggle between St. Augustine and Pelagius, the latter denied original sin, while Augustine, Doctor of the Church, asserted its existence. In St. Augustine's time, the doctrine existed according to which outside the Church there was no salvation, so the belief was that those who were not baptized, whether adults or newborns, could not enjoy the salvific vision.

In this context, St. Augustine speaks about children dying without baptism and thinks that hell is their destiny, saying that they are subject to the flames of hell, although adding that they are "very mitigated flames." Given this very harsh consideration, the question arises if St. Augustine ever considered a substitution to baptism by water, for example, baptism by desire.

Catechumens who had shown a willingness to enter the Church, through baptism, perhaps could be saved. Also catechumens not baptized with water, but who suffered martyrdom for their faith in Christ, could undoubtedly be saved. In this case, the concept of baptism of blood is introduced.

St. Augustine did not consider the question of persons who wish to enter the Church.

Q: St. Thomas Aquinas proposes a view that is different from that of St. Augustine. In what way does it change?

Father Gumpel: Indeed. St. Thomas and the Scholastics abandon St. Augustine's theory that children who are not baptized go to hell, even if the latter is in a mitigated form, and construct an intermediate form, known as "limbo." It is a theological construction, to explain the situation of human beings who die and are not in heaven.

Q: Has this theory of limbo ever been presented by the Church as a matter of faith?

Father Gumpel: In 1954 I carried out an exhaustive study, in which I examined all the arguments in favor of the thesis expressed by the infallible magisterium done with authority. I studied all the ecumenical councils, and I came to the conclusion that "limbo" is not an obligatory answer.

It is an opinion that has been repeated in the course of time, without carrying out a critical historical examination of the ecumenical councils.

Prior to Vatican II, a schema was prepared, entitled "To Save in Its Purity the Deposit of Faith." In a special way, by the determination of the Faculty of Theology of Naples, the 11th chapter was included in the document, which formally condemned those who attacked "limbo."

When the plan reached the General Preparatory Commission, the most important commission for the preparation of the council, there were such objections, on the part of cardinals and other bishops, that it was decided to cancel this chapter. The commission referred explicitly to the study I had done, which was later published.

Q: What does the Catechism of the Catholic Church say on this subject?

Father Gumpel: The Catechism of the Catholic Church, published in 1992, dedicates No. 1261 to children who die without Baptism, and one reads that one can hope that they will attain the beatific vision.

It is an element of the greatest importance, which opens the way to a broader point of view, and it is a pronouncement of the ordinary magisterium of the Church. We cannot say with certainty that they will be saved.

We can hope, and the fact that we can hope, as the Catechism says, is an interpretative key. No one hopes or can hope legitimately for something one is certain is impossible.

Q: What is the basis of this hope?

Father Gumpel: The first consideration that must be made is that, every human being, even if he ...

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1 - 1 of 1 Comments

  1. Tom Ulrich
    5 years ago

    This article does not answer anything. There should be a straight up or down answer. We tried to secretly baptize a grandchild (parent acquiesced to partner's Baptist faith). My confessor said not to do such a thing and to leave the child unbaptized so that,if she dies, her soul would be eligible to receive Divine Mercy.

    Would denying her soul Sanctifying Grace be justified in these cases? I live in constant terror that my grandchildren will suffer and early, un-baptized demise.
    Why is there not a solid answer to this situation?

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