Heresy on the Limbo of Hell

Fr. Ryan Erlenbush teaches the heresy that perhaps those who die in original sin alone will be “very happy and perfectly fulfilled” in the Limbo of Hell. He explicitly says that if there is a Limbo of Hell, “there is no punishment” in that place. And so he thereby openly rejects the definitive teaching of the Church that those who die in original sin are sent to Hell to be punished.

Explanation

The word ‘Limbo’ means ‘fringe’. The Limbo of Hell is considered to be a fringe of Hell where those persons go who die in a state of original sin only. (This is not the more common use of the term Limbo, which refers to the idea of a third final destination that is neither Heaven, nor Hell, nor Purgatory.)

On the blog, New Theological Movement (NTM), formerly posting under the name ‘Reginaldus’, Fr. Ryan Erlenbush writes this about the Limbo of Hell:

Fr. Ryan: “Briefly, regarding Limbo: If it exists, it is part of hell (though there is no punishment). Limbo would be the state of perfect natural happiness, and no supernatural happiness [but the souls there would not know that they are missing out on anything, so they would be very very happy and perfectly fulfilled (naturally)]. If Limbo does exists, those in Limbo will remain there for all eternity — it is part of hell. Thus, Limbo would continue to exist forever in hell and none of the souls there would ever go to heaven. [in this respect, Limbo is very different from Purgatory]”
(Can children commit mortal sins? A reflection on first confessions, from the comment dated: April 1, 2011 11:17 AM)

In a later post, he expounds upon this false teaching:

Fr. Ryan also claims: “the children in limbo would not even know that they were missing out on heaven (nor that they were condemned to hell), but would be perfectly happy on a natural level; though, of course, without any shred of supernatural happiness. These children would know and love God with a natural knowledge and a natural love. The children would be entirely ignorant of the mysteries of salvation and, unlike the souls condemned to hell for actual mortal sin, these would suffer no existential pains from the lack of the beatific vision (for they would not know that they were missing this supernatural happiness, and would instead be very happy and perfectly fulfilled on the level of nature).” (The Nativity of St. John the Baptist and the limbo of the children)

Fr. Ryan also adds, in the comments to the second of the above quoted posts, this claim:

“It is not possible for adults to die in original sin only. At the very least, they commit a sin of omission by failing to turn to God with their whole heart, mind, and strength. This is a mortal sin in them, and for it they are condemned to Hell. Hence, there cannot be any who have reached the age of reason who have only original sin (or even only venial sin) on their souls …”

So his set of claims states or implies all of the following: that the limbo of Hell contains only little children; that they are in Hell but there is no punishment there; that they know and love God, but have no grace; that they are very happy and perfectly fulfilled, even though they are separated from God forever, separated from all their adult family members forever, and are still afflicted by original sin.

This set of claims is absurd, contrary to reason, contrary to the justice and mercy of God, and contrary to the infallible teachings of the Catholic Faith.

First, let me assure the reader that the Catholic Church has NEVER definitively taught that ANY prenatals, infants, or little children are sent to Hell, even if they die without formal Baptism. The Church does teach that anyone who dies in a state of original sin is sent to Hell. But the Church has not decided the question as to whether any prenatals, infants, or little children die in the state of original sin. For the Church teaches that there are three types of Baptism, which can remove original sin:

1. the formal Sacrament of Baptism, with water and words
2. a baptism of desire
3. a baptism of blood

Each of these forms of baptism takes away original sin and confers sanctifying grace. And any one of these forms of baptism is sufficient for eternal life in Heaven, and to avoid eternal punishment in Hell. The recent document from the ITC (International Theological Commission), called ‘The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized’, considers it possible for prenatals, infants, and little children, who do not have a formal Baptism, to receive either a baptism of blood (since they die at such a young age) or a baptism of desire (this would especially apply to children beyond infancy, who have some use of reason).

And the Catechism of the Catholic Church says that children who die without baptism are entrusted to the Mercy of God:

Catechism of the Catholic Church: “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. All the more urgent is the Church’s call not to prevent little children coming to Christ through the gift of holy Baptism.” (CCC 1261)

But Fr. Ryan is convinced that the Mercy of God cannot save innocent prenatals, infants, or little children from Hell. Especially for prenatals who die in the womb, his theological position implies that they were predestined for Hell. For they cannot possibly receive a formal Baptism while in the womb. And he inexplicably denies them a baptism of desire or of blood. There was, in his view, never any way to save them from Hell. The idea of predestination to Hell is a heresy, as is the claim that the Church, the Ark of Salvation, is entirely unable to save certain persons, no matter what anyone does.

Is Fr. Ryan’s teaching on the Limbo of Hell a heresy against the true Catholic Faith? Yes, it is.

Fr. Ryan claims that the souls of those who die in ‘original sin alone’ do not suffer punishment in Hell, but instead are very happy and perfectly fulfilled, on a natural level. This claim — “it is part of hell (though there is no punishment)” — directly contradicts the infallible teaching of the Ecumenical Councils of Lyons II and of Florence, that those who die in ‘original sin alone’ are punished. Pope Innocent III and Pope Pius VI also taught that such souls are punished:

The Council of Lyons II: “The souls of those who die in mortal sin, or with original sin only, however, immediately descend to hell, yet to be punished with different punishments.” (Denz. 464)

The Council of Florence: “But the souls of those who depart this life in actual mortal sin, or in original sin alone, go down straightaway to hell to be punished, but with unequal pains.” (Sixth Session, 6 July 1439, Pope Eugenius presiding; Denz. 693)

Pope Innocent III: “The punishment of original sin is deprivation of the vision of God, but the punishment of actual sin is the torments of everlasting Hell….” (Denzinger, n. 410)

Pope Pius VI: “that place of the lower regions (which the faithful generally designate by the name of the limbo of children) in which the souls of those departing with the sole guilt of original sin are punished with the punishment of the condemned, exclusive of the punishment of fire” (Auctorem Fidei)

It is a required belief of the holy Catholic Faith that the souls of all those who die in a state of ‘original sin alone’ are punished. The claim that those who die in original sin alone are not punished at all, and the claim that anyone at all in Hell is happy, are heretical claims. No one can be very happy and perfectly fulfilled in Hell. For Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture and the Magisterium have always taught that Hell is a place of eternal punishment and of eternal unhappiness. The claim of happiness in Hell without any punishment, even if this is termed ‘the limbo of Hell’, is directly contrary to the universal teaching of the Magisterium, the explicit teaching of Jesus in the Gospels, and the teaching of the Holy Spirit throughout Sacred Scripture, that Hell is a place of eternal punishment.

When did Jesus say that unbaptized children are sent to Hell? NEVER. To the contrary, Jesus said, even about adults: “Amen I say to you, unless you change and become like little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.”

When did Jesus say that some persons could be “very happy and perfectly fulfilled” in Hell? NEVER. To the contrary, Jesus said: “Depart from me, you accursed ones, into the eternal fire, which was prepared for the devil and his angels…. And these shall go into eternal punishment, but the just shall go into eternal life.” (Mt 25:41, 46).

The faithful may hold that the limbo of Hell exists as a part of Hell that has lesser punishments for those who die in a state of original sin alone. But they may NOT hold that those who die in original sin alone are not punished, nor may they hold that anyone in Hell is happy. Each of these claims is heretical. The former is contrary to the infallible teachings of Lyons II and Florence. The latter is contrary to the infallible teaching of Tradition, Scripture, and the ordinary and universal Magisterium.

Does Fr. Ryan avoid committing the sin of teaching heresy by saying that perhaps the Limbo of Hell does not exist? No, he does not.

Heresy is the obstinate denial or obstinate doubt of any important truth on a matter of faith and morals that is infallibly taught by the Church. So even if a persons says “perhaps, perhaps not” about an heretical claim, he is still in obstinate doubt. And so his sin is still the sin of heresy. Worse still is the sin of teaching heresy.

Caveats

The Magisterium has NEVER taught that little children who die without formal Baptism certainly die in original sin alone. The faithful may adhere to the pious opinion, based on faith in the Mercy of God, that these little children (prenatals, infants, young children, who die at that age) receive a baptism of blood or of desire in this life, so that they die in a state of grace. Thus their eternal and final destination will be Heaven, not Hell.

Concerning the idea of limbo as a third final destination (not a part of Hell, or Purgatory, or Heaven), some say it is merely a theological opinion; other say it has been taught by the ordinary non-infallible Magisterium. However, this idea of limbo does not claim that there is happiness in Hell; the suggestion was for a third final destination of only natural happiness. Neither does this idea claim that the souls there are without punishment; they are deprived of the Beatific Vision, and so they are not very happy and perfectly fulfilled.

Fr. Ryan is not talking about limbo as a third final destination, but rather the limbo of Hell. The limbo of Hell is a different concept; it is a part of Hell, and therefore must be held to be a place of eternal punishment, not a place of happiness or fulfillment.

Is limbo as a third final destination a tenable theological opinion at this point in the development of doctrine? No, it is not. The claim is incompatible with a proper understanding of the teaching of the Councils of Lyons and Florence and other teachings of the Magisterium. That the idea was held or taught subsequent to those Councils is unfortunate; but the infallible teaching of a Council is above reproach, above the opinion of any number of Saints, above even the teaching of the ordinary non-infallible Magisterium. Note that St. Thomas died just prior to the Council of Lyons (II), so his theological opinions do not take account of its decisions, nor of the later decisions at Florence.

A person might interpret the teachings of Lyons and Florence such that Hell is a broader term, including Purgatory (‘Christ descended to Hell’) and Hell and the hypothetical Limbo as a third final destination, as three separate places. But he would also have to hold that Hell is a place of eternal punishment; that the souls in Limbo are not in Hell, but another place; that the souls in Limbo are punished to some extent, by deprivation of the Beatific Vision, and therefore that they are not very happy and perfectly fulfilled — an expression that implies no punishment.

Happiness without Heaven?

However, more recent teachings from the Magisterium have taught (non-infallibly) that man can be happy only in Heaven, only with the Beatific Vision of God, thereby implying that a natural-only happiness is not possible:

“Human beings cannot completely fulfill themselves, they cannot be truly happy without God.” (Pope Benedict XVI)

“Without God, man cannot fully find himself, nor can he find his true happiness.” (Pope John Paul II)

Pope Benedict XVI and Pope John Paul II taught that human beings cannot be truly happy without God. The Catechism teaches that Hell is eternal separation from God (CCC, n. 1035). Therefore, no one can be happy in Hell, nor in the Limbo of Hell. The idea of Limbo as a third final destination is also refuted by the above quotes, for the souls there would not have the Beatific Vision or Beatific Union with God.

“It is a divine law that those only attain everlasting happiness who have by such faithful following reproduced in themselves the form of the patience and sanctity of Jesus Christ: ‘for whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be made conformable to the image of His Son; that He might be the first-born amongst many brethren’ (Romans viii., 29).” (Pope Pius X).

Pope Pius X taught that it is a Divine law of God that no one can attain everlasting happiness, except by being conformed to the image of Christ, having in themselves the sanctity of Christ. But this sanctity is only found in sanctifying grace by baptism. Therefore, souls who die without any form of baptism, even if in a state of original sin only, cannot have everlasting happiness in Hell, nor in any form of Limbo.

“But without Christ’s help, fallen man is incapable of directing himself to the supernatural goods which constitute his total fulfillment and salvation.” (Pope John Paul II).

Pope John Paul II taught that our total fulfillment can only occur by supernatural goods. Therefore, no one can be very happy and perfectly fulfilled solely on a natural level of happiness.

“Man can no more create for himself a life free from suffering and filled with all happiness that he can abrogate the decrees of his Divine Maker, who has willed that the consequences of original sin should be perpetual.” (Pope Leo XIII)

Original Sin Alone

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that only those persons go to Hell who die unrepentant from actual mortal sin. The CCC asserts that it is necessary to die with a mortal sin on one’s conscience in order to go to Hell:

“God predestines no one to go to hell; for this, a willful turning away from God (a mortal sin) is necessary, and persistence in it until the end.” (CCC 1037).

Only those persons who commit an actual mortal sin and who persist unrepentant from that grave sin unto death (final impenitence), are sent to Hell.

The Compendium of the Catechism teaches similarly:

“Hell consists in the eternal damnation of those who die in mortal sin through their own free choice. The principal suffering of hell is eternal separation from God in whom alone we can have the life and happiness for which we were created and for which we long.” (Q. 212).

Jesus taught that ALL sins are forgiven by Him, EXCEPT blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (which is nothing other than final impenitence).

[Matthew]
{12:31} For this reason, I say to you: Every sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven men, but blasphemy against the Spirit shall not be forgiven.
{12:32} And anyone who will have spoken a word against the Son of man shall be forgiven. But whoever will have spoken against the Holy Spirit shall not be forgiven, neither in this age, nor in the future age.

But the Magisterium infallibly teaches that those who die in original sin alone are sent to Hell to be punished. Therefore, anyone who dies in a state of original sin alone must have committed some type of actual mortal sin and must also have died in final impenitence. But prenatals, infants, and little children are too young to have committed an actual mortal sin (they don’t have sufficient use of free will and intellect to sin with full knowledge and full deliberation). Therefore, they cannot possibly die in a state of original sin alone. To say otherwise is to reject the teaching of Jesus Christ on the forgiveness of ALL sins, except final impenitence.

Then what does it mean to die in a state of original sin alone?

Those persons only die in a state of original sin alone who die unrepentant from the actual mortal sin of omission of never having found sanctifying grace in their life, despite ample opportunity. This sin would not apply to unbaptized prenatals, infants, or children, since they would not have had ample opportunity to find sanctifying grace. This sin would apply only to adults who are culpable to the extent of an actual mortal sin for this omission, and who die unrepentant from that mortal sin (i.e. they die in final impenitence).

This explains why the CCC teaches that mortal sin is necessary for admittance into Hell, whereas the Council of Florence taught that those who die in original sin alone also go to Hell. This explains why Jesus would say that only final impenitence condemns a soul to Hell, even though anyone who dies in original sin alone goes to Hell.

Dying in a state of original sin alone necessarily implies that the person committed a certain type of actual mortal sin and remained unrepentant through the last moment of life. The Magisterium distinguishes this actual mortal sin from all others (by the phrase ‘original sin alone’) because this mortal sin of omission is the least offense that one can commit and be sentenced to eternal punishment in Hell.

The necessary conclusion, then, is that no prenatal, infant, or little child is ever sent to Hell. For none of these could possibly have committed the sin of final impenitence from actual mortal sin.

Summary

Fr. Ryan’s exaltation of the theological opinions of St. Thomas above the teachings of Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium is a grave theological error.

The teaching of the Church on salvation can be summed up in two assertions:
All those who die in a state of grace will have eternal happiness in Heaven.
All those who die in a state of unrepentant actual mortal sin, or in a state of original sin only, will have eternal unhappiness in Hell.

All those in Hell are suffering, principally due to separation from God in whom alone we can have happiness. No one in Hell can be happy, not even in the limbo of Hell.

Fr. Ryan’s grave doctrinal errors:

1. the claim that there is no punishment in the limbo of Hell
2. the claim that prenatals who die in the womb can only be sent to Hell (this implies predestination to Hell and it implies that the Church is entirely unable to save a large number of persons)
3. the claim that some souls are very happy and perfectly fulfilled in Hell
4. and, on a subject related to avoiding eternal punishment in Hell, he claims that the Sacrament of Reconciliation is not valid, unless the penitent resolves to do the particular penance assigned by his confessor.

Some, if not all, of these errors rise to the level of heresy. All of these errors are being taught to unsuspecting members of the faithful by Fr. Ryan over the internet.

[Titus]
{3:10} Avoid a man who is a heretic, after the first and second correction,
{3:11} knowing that one who is like this has been subverted, and that he offends; for he has been condemned by his own judgment.

by
Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and Biblical scholar

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