QUESTION: In the Easter season, I hear so much about baptism and eternal life. While I am sure it fills most people with joy, it causes me pain because I lost a baby a few years ago. The baby died in the womb and was never baptized. If baptism truly makes the difference, what happened to my baby?
ANSWER: Over the centuries the church has wrestled with the question posed above. Debate regarding the fate of infants who die before baptism dates back at least to the fourth century. The points of contention appear to be centered on the reality of original sin and the consistent teaching on the necessity of baptism.
Some early theologians reasoned that unbaptized infants do not experience “punishment,” but an absence from the presence of God. This kind of “limbo” then became a possible answer to this difficult question. That notion of limbo took hold and became a frequent response to this challenging question. That position was never officially proclaimed by the magisterium (the church’s teaching office). Catholics were free to hold varying opinions on this matter.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church does not mention limbo. It does state that “The church can only entrust them (unbaptized infants) to the mercy of God.” The Order of Christian Funerals contains a special section of rites for children who die before baptism with a prayer that says, “The soul of this child is entrusted to the abundant mercy of God; may this beloved child find a home in his kingdom.”
One of the most recent teachings on this matter is found in a document produced by the International Theological Commission (whom the pope chooses to research, discuss and advise him on important areas of theology).
The document was published with papal approval on April 19, 2007. It is titled “The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized.” There, it notes that revelation (the word of God) says nothing specific on this matter. While not denying the necessity of baptism, it offers reasons to hope that God may provide a way of salvation to those little ones whose lives ended before baptism was possible.
It goes on to say that “While knowing that the normal way to achieve salvation in Christ is by baptism, the church hopes that there may be other ways to achieve the same end. Because, by his incarnation, the Son of God ‘in a certain way united himself’ with every human being, and because Christ died for all and all are in fact ‘called to one and the same destiny, which is divine,’ the church believes that the Holy Spirit offers to all the possibility of being made partners, in a way known to God, in the paschal mystery.”
Our hope then for these infants is rooted in the divine mercy that we recall in a special way on this first Sunday after Easter. Specifically, to parents who love these children so much, the church commends their salvation to God, who loves them even more intensely.
Father Bober is pastor of St. Kilian Parish in Adams and Cranberry townships.