What the Church Has Said About Children Who Die Without Baptism

Father Peter Gumpel Gives an Overview

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VATICAN CITY, DEC. 15, 2004 (Zenit.org).- 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, ZENIT 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 was an embryo or fetus in the womb, is part of the human family and, ontologically, in his being, has a relationship with all people and, therefore, also with Jesus Christ, who is the head of the new humanity, the new Adam.

From sacred Scripture, we know the salvific will of God. Christ is the redeemer of all and wants all to be saved. Moreover, Christ founded the Church, a visible body, and instituted the sacrament of baptism. And given that baptism is an infallible means, we must do everything possible to have people baptized.

But, what do we do with those who, without any one being at fault, cannot receive the baptism of water? There must be another means to maintain God's salvific plan.

We do not know what this means is. There are many theories. For example, will very small children continue to be so after death, or will they have a different state? Might they not receive a divine illumination with the possibility of choosing for or against God?

Others mention the desire of those parents, good Catholics, who have conceived a child and whom they would certainly have had baptized if it had been possible, and wonder if the parents' desire or that of the Church is not enough.

Of course, although we cannot indicate with certainty by what means they could be saved, the fact remains of their union with Christ and the universal salvific will. This is the central point.

Q: Why did the Pope ask the International Theological Commission to study the matter more profoundly?

Father Gumpel: Today the problem is more complex because, with laws that have legalized abortion, life is taken away from many children who might have desired baptism.

I don't know the Holy Father's intention in detail, but I don't think he wants to go back. The question is rather of a pastoral nature because, when I wrote those articles in 1954, there were few cases. But today, with the multiplication of the number of abortions and the attempts to manipulate fetuses, the number of human beings implicated has greatly increased.

Q: Finally, the question remains of the mystery of the soul and its destiny.

Father Gumpel: Yes. We take seriously a very small human being, just conceived, and call him a human person. If this is so, what will be his final state? Will he be a fetus? Will he grow? It is true that he is already separated from the body but if we say that he has a soul, how will this soul be? Will the soul remain in the state of the fetus, of the child, or will it develop?

As Christians we clearly reject any eugenic approach. Handicapped children, for example, do not remain with their limitation when they enter the beatific vision, because there is no longer a body, and the soul does not have handicaps.

The souls of these children do not have obstacles of the body, and can reach the full development of their mental faculties. Therefore, there are many reasons why it is worthwhile to have hope.