The Fate of Unbaptized Babies: Matthew Plese…Please Distinguish

The Triumph of the Innocents, by William Holman Hunt, ca. 1883 wikipedia - public domain

Over at OnePeterFive, columnist Matthew Plese, who, according to his by-line, is a Third Order Dominican and an official catechist, claims as Church dogma that unbaptized infants cannot enter heaven, and, hence, are doomed to hell. It may be not be the ‘hell’ of suffering, but rather the state of ‘limbo’, which, as its etymology implies, is on the threshold of hell, without pain, but also without the beatific vision.

This has been a controversial issue since at least the time of Saint Augustine, who concurs with this fate of sacramentally unredeemed infants. The state of such children, however, has never been explicitly defined by the Church (regardless of the various sources Mr. Plese cites, as he refers to his own blog in his article). For a thorough examination of this topic, the reader may peruse the 2007 reflection from the International Theological Commission, with the rather literal title, The Hope of Salvation of Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized.

We know that at least some unbaptized infants have gone to heaven, for the Holy Innocents – the multitude of Jewish children murdered by order of Herod – have been canonized, and we celebrate their feast three days after Christmas. And what of all of those children lived before the sacraments had even been instituted? As well, what of the untold number of peoples who lived before Christ and the institution of Baptism? Or those after Christ who lived outside of Christendom, with no opportunity of being baptized? To limit salvation to sacramental Baptism would be to fall into a quasi-Feeneyism, condemned by the Church.

Au contraire. The Catechism is clear that”God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments” (1257). The visible and tangible sacraments are there for our benefit, not God’s, and He can save people without them. What we do believe as Catholics is that no one can enter heaven without the effects of Baptism, that is, being washed clean of sin, and in a state of grace, which is to say, in friendship with God and sharing His very life.

Although we know not the fate of the millions of aborted babies, we can live in hope that, like the Innocents before them, they may see the face of God. Pope Saint John Paul II says this in his 1995 Evangelium Vitae to mothers who have had an abortion:

Try rather to understand what happened and face it honestly. If you have not already done so, give yourselves over with humility and trust to repentance. The Father of mercies is ready to give you his forgiveness and his peace in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. To the same Father and his mercy you can with sure hope entrust your child. 

He’s not canonizing unborn children, but he’s not sending them to the outskirts of hell, either. Sure hope is hope, and in that we all may live, and hope.