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The Church has never formally defined the existence of Limbo. Most faithful Catholic theologians today doubt that it ever had actual existence as an abode of the dead.
Before Jesus’ Final Sacrifice opened heaven, Hebrew Scripture referred often to Sheol. Since Hebrew Scripture is inspired by God, we know as part of Christian revelation that Sheol had real existence. Jesus revealed to us that Sheol was divided into an area for the blessed souls and an area for the damned souls. Lk 16:22 “The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried …in Hades.” New Advent’s article on Limbo shows that the Church Fathers speculated on the possibility of Limbo as an abode of the dead. St. Thomas Aquinas showed that Limbo has always been only a theological speculation in his Summa Theologica, Supplementum Tertia Partis, Question 69, “Matters concerning the resurrection, and first of the place where souls are after death.” However, the Christian theological speculations generally do not match well with the rabbinic speculations on Sheol.
In our own time, the Church has moved away from Limbo even as a theological speculation. The Catechism of the Catholic Church § 631-637, on the statement from the Apostles Creed, “He descended into hell. On the third day He rose again,” says nothing about Limbo. Pope John Paul II, in his Catechesis on the Creed, January 11, 1989, on the same subject, also says nothing about Limbo. Avery Cardinal Dulles, in a letter to the editor of First Things, March 2007, p. 5, summarized, “… in his Catechesis on the Creed, John Paul explains that Christ did not go to the hell of the damned but that his soul entered the beatific vision from the very moment of his death.”
It is an article of the Catholic faith, defined at the ecumenical councils of Florence and Trent, that those who die without baptism, and whose need for baptism has not been supplied in some other way, cannot enter heaven. Jesus told us, Jn 3:5 “…unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” However, the Catechism of the Catholic Church § 1260, explains how the need for baptism is supplied in some other way, through baptism by desire: “Every man who is ignorant of the Gospel of Christ and of his Church, but seeks the truth and does the will of God in accordance with his understanding of it, can be saved. It may be supposed that such persons would have desired Baptism explicitly if they had known its necessity.” Of course, “every man” refers to any human soul from conception to natural death. § 1261 specifically addresses children: “As regards children who have died without Baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God, as she does in her funeral rites for them. Indeed, the great mercy of God who desires that all men should be saved, and Jesus' tenderness toward children which caused him to say: ‘Let the children come to me, do not hinder them,’ allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without Baptism.”
Baptism by desire is an implicit desire for baptism of water by a person who makes an act of perfect love of God, based on faith and with a sincere sorrow for his sins. Baptism of desire is not a sacrament; it does not imprint the baptismal character or enable a person to receive the other sacraments, but it does confer sanctifying grace. Acts 10:44 “While Peter was still saying this, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. And the believers from among the circumcised who came with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter declared, ‘Can any one forbid water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’”
In the end, Holy Mother Church speaks of Four
Last Things. Only four.
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