There are a number of conservative Catholic authors who promote an exceedingly harsh version salvation theology (soteriology) that excludes all unbaptized prenatals, infants, and little children from Heaven. Dr. Taylor Marshall’s approach is criticized in this article because his is one of the more prominent versions of this theological position. But other thinkers on the far right express similar ideas.
The first error that Dr. Marshall makes is in misinterpreting the infallible teachings of two Ecumenical Councils, Florence and Lyons II. Here’s his quote from Florence (Lyons II says much the same thing).
“The souls of those who depart this life in actual mortal sin, or in original sin alone, go down straightaway in infernum to be punished, but with unequal pains.”
Why is “in infernum” in Latin while the rest of the text is in English? It is to obscure the meaning of what these Councils taught. The translation of “infernum” in Denzinger and other sources is “hell”. Marshall’s approach is to broaden the meaning of Hell to any place in the afterlife that is not Heaven. He even refers to the limbo of the Fathers as “the limbo of hell”.
While there is some room in faithful Catholic theology for differences in terminology, the Lord Jesus in the Gospels and the teachings of the Magisterium have always taught that Hell, properly so called, is a place of eternal punishment. In Scripture, there are passages using a broad term for the abode of the death (the underworld, or hell in a broad sense), that can be taken to include Purgatory and the limbo of the Fathers.
However, the Councils of Florence and Lyons II are manifestly excluding places other than Hell itself when they say “actual mortal sin” and “original sin alone” and “to be punished, but with unequal pains.” The Church teaches that the limbo of the Fathers is not a place of punishment and that the souls there died in a state of grace, not a state of unrepented actual mortal sin or original sin alone. Moreover, no one interprets these two Councils as saying that the souls of anyone who dies in actual mortal sin or original sin alone go to Purgatory. So they must mean Hell itself, not a broader term for various abodes of the dead.
As for the idea of Limbo as a place of natural happiness, these two Councils cannot be referring to such a place, since they teach that those who die in actual mortal sin and those who die in original sin alone are all sent to the same place, and they all are punished. Their “pains” are unequal, but they are all suffering punishment or pain. (Those who die in original sin alone have no active punishments, no literal pains, but only the punishment or “pain” of deprivation.)
In truth, those who die in original sin alone suffer only the punishment of the deprivation of the Beatific Vision of God, that is to say, eternal separation from God, as Pope Innocent III teaches:
“The punishment of original sin is the deprivation of the vision of God, but the punishment of actual sin is the torments of everlasting hell….” [Pope Innocent III, Denzinger, n. 410.]
Again, the Magisterium teaches that these souls are punished. And the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which is so often ignored in treatises on this topic by authors on the far right, clearly teaches that eternal separation from God is the “chief punishment” of Hell.
“The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs.” [Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1035]
So the souls who die in original sin alone are punished with the chief punishment of Hell. They are not in a state of sanctifying grace. They will never have the Beatific Vision of God, “in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs.” Therefore, they cannot be happy, even on a natural level.
Dr. Taylor Marshall first errs by broadening in the term “in infernum” beyond the place of eternal punishment clearly stated by these two Councils. Then he openly contradicts this infallible teaching by speaking as if the souls who die in original sin alone are not punished at all, but are happy. He ignores the teaching of the CCC that we can only be happy in God, and that eternal separation from God is the principle punishment of Hell. No one can be eternally happy, even on a merely natural level, while being eternally punished in Hell with the chief punishment of Hell, eternal separation from God.
The most recent teachings of the Magisterium on salvation make Dr. Marshall’s interpretation of these Conciliar teachings untenable. The fact that St. Thomas held a certain theological opinion over 700 years ago does not imply that we may hold the same position today. For we cannot ignore 700 years of magisterial teaching since the time of St. Thomas. Or do you imagine that if St. Thomas were alive today, he would ignore all the recent teaching of the Magisterium and hold the same position on every question?
Both the teachings of Lyons II and the teachings of Florence were issued AFTER the death of Saint Thomas. So his salvation theology does not take account of those teachings. I don’t believe St. Thomas would have held that unbaptized infants in the limbo of Hell are naturally happy, if those infallible teachings — that those who die in original sin are punished in Hell — had been issued in his lifetime.
After badly misinterpreting Conciliar teaching, Dr. Marshall next errs by assuming that unbaptized prenatals, infants, and little children (before the age of reason) die in original sin alone. He says:
“Two Councils infallibly teach that unbaptized babies with original sin alone do not received the Beatific Vision of God because such a state requires sanctifying grace. It’s in black and white letters for everyone to see.”
I’ve read the full teaching of both Councils closely, and it absolutely does NOT mention “unbaptized babies,” nor any equivalent term, in the teaching on original sin alone. It is a plainly false statement to say “It’s in black and white letters for everyone to see.” The Councils refer to those who die in “original sin alone”. This infallible teaching NOWHERE equates unbaptized little children to the term “original sin alone”.
Elsewhere, Dr. Marshall argues that unbaptized little children die in original sin alone. But no infallible teaching of the Magisterium makes such a statement. Moreover, Marshall ignores the clear statement in the CCC:
“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.” [CCC 1261]
In fact, I can find no citation or quotation from this point in the CCC anywhere on his blog, despite several lengthy posts explaining to his readers that unbaptized little children must be sent to the limbo of Hell. He also ignores the teaching of the CCC that eternal separation from God is the chief punishment of Hell and that man can only find happiness in God. Why does Marshall ignore the CCC on salvation theology? because his theological position falls apart in the light of recent magisterial teaching.
Strangely, Dr. Marshall repeatedly cites and quotes a document of the International Theological Commission, which he correctly notes does not exercise the Magisterium. He knows that the ITC document is not of the Magisterium, but it is the only recent document on salvation theology that he mentions. In one post, he refers to Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Redemptoris Missio, which contains relevant teachings on salvation — but he ignores all of the content on salvation. He is aware of the CCC and Redemptoris Missio, but he chooses to disregard these magisterial sources because they undermine his position.
The teachings of the far right in Catholic thinking on salvation cannot withstand the recent teachings of the Magisterium, and so the approach they use is to utterly ignore that teaching. They speak as if the theological opinions of Saint Thomas cannot err, while ignoring magisterial teachings to the contrary.
Let’s take a closer look at Dr. Taylor Marshall’s argument that unbaptized little children go to Limbo. His position is mainly found in two posts: Limbo Part I and Limbo Part III. In his view, the Limbo to which unbaptized little children are sent is an “edge of hell”. The word limbo means “fringe”, so while some authors propose Limbo as a third final destination, a separate place that is neither Heaven nor Hell, Marshall proposes that both the limbo of children and the limbo of the fathers are a fringe of Hell.
In addition to misinterpreting the infallible teachings of Florence and Lyons II, and ignoring the teachings on salvation of Pope John Paul II and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Marshall errs by failing to distinguish between infallible teachings, non-infallible teachings, and theological opinion. At best, he puts all three on the same level. At worst, he ignores magisterial teaching and exalts the opinions of Saint Thomas above the Magisterium. These sources are not all in agreement on the question, so they can only be reconciled by misinterpretation. But the result in Marshall’s work is that the infallible teachings are badly misinterpreted, the non-infallible teachings are not weighed and interpreted in the light of the most recent Magisterium decisions, and the opinion of Saint Thomas is accepted uncritically.
He cites the Catechism of Pope Saint Pius X as saying:
Question 100 – Where do infants go who die without Baptism?
Answer – Infants who die without Baptism go to Limbo where they do not enjoy the sight of God, but also do no suffer. This is because having original sin, and it alone, they do not merit heaven, but neither do they merit purgatory or hell.
This non-infallible teaching is incompatible with Marshall’s position, since he holds that Limbo is a fringe of Hell, not a separate place that is neither Heaven, or Hell, nor Purgatory. This Q and A from the Catechism of Pope Saint Pius X is referring to the idea of Limbo as a third final destination. However, that answer is at best a non-infallible teaching which is contradicted by later teachings, including the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Why does Marshall ignore the CCC on salvation theology, and yet cite earlier Catechisms?
The most recent teachings of the Magisterium are that man cannot be happy without God, and that perhaps infants may die in a state of grace, so that they can receive the Beatific Vision of God in Heaven. The CCC and all the most recent magisterial documents on salvation, from the Second Vatican Council to Pope John Paul II, have set aside that past non-infallible teaching on Limbo as a third final destination.
If we weigh the many teachings of the Magisterium on this topic, we find that the Answer in Q 100 of the Catechism of Pius X is incompatible with more recent teachings on the subject. The development of doctrine allows the Church to deepen its understanding of the truths of Divine Revelation on faith and morals. But the theology of the far right allows no room for any development of doctrine.
Other non-infallible teachings from the distant past are also cited by Marshal in support of his position. He cites the Catechism of the Council of Trent.
“The faithful are earnestly to be exhorted to take care that their children be brought to the church, as soon as it can be done with safety, to receive solemn Baptism. Since infant children have no other means of salvation except Baptism, we may easily understand how grievously those persons sin who permit them to remain without the grace of the Sacrament longer than necessity may require, particularly at an age so tender as to be exposed to numberless dangers of death.”
Note that this Catechism was NOT issued by the Council of Trent, and its assertions on this topic are non-infallible. The main point of this passage is that children should be baptized in infancy. True. As an aside, the passage asserts that there is no other means of salvation but baptism — which is true if we include all three forms of baptism (water, desire, blood). The passage also asserts that little children should not remain without the grace of the Sacrament for longer than necessary. True. But this passage does not state or imply that unbaptized little children go to the limbo of Hell. The passage might have been written on the assumption that unbaptized little children are excluded from Heaven. But the lack of a clear assertion should result in our giving precedence to the more recent Magisterium teachings that are much more specific on salvation theology — teachings ignored by Taylor Marshall.
Finally, Marshall quotes another non-infallible source, the papal bull of Pope Sixtus V (1588) on abortion: “Who will not detest such an abhorrent and evil act, by which are lost not only the bodies but also the souls?” [Note that the same document also unequivocally condemns abortifacient contraception.] From this question, Dr. Marshall draws the conclusion that the “loss” of these souls implies that these unbaptized little children go to the limbo of Hell. Perhaps the holy Pontiff was simply referring to the loss from this life of the whole person, body and soul. Abortionists might not acknowledge that these prenatals have souls at all; they are considered to be merely tissue. But even if the Pope intended to imply that these victims of abortion are lost from eternal life in Heaven, the implied assertion is not infallible, and might not even qualify to be called a non-infallible teaching of the Magisterium. For it is only an implication within a question. A teaching, even one that is non-infallible, must actually be taught, not merely suggested within a question. Again, Marshall ignores recent clear teachings of the Magisterium, in favor of assertions of lesser weight.
In the same post, Taylor Marshall then uses a straw-man argument. He juxtaposes the teaching of the Catechism of Pius X with the opinions of a New York Times article, of the theologians Karl Rahner and Hans Urs von Balthasar, and of a document of the ITC. He ignores all recent magisterial teachings on the same point. Then, of course, he finds that the Catechism of Pius X withstands the positions of the latter. He does not take sufficient account of the strongest positions for the salvation of little children.
Could unbaptized little children die in a state of grace due to a baptism of desire or of blood? Marshall first considers the possibility of a baptism of desire. I agree that these little souls lack the use of reason needed to desire baptism, even implicitly, and no one can substitute his own desire for that of these little ones. They cannot receive a baptism of desire.
But Marshall’s argument, that they also cannot receive a baptism of blood, is deeply flawed. First, he correctly states the classical example of a baptism of blood:
The Catholic Church also teaches that unbaptized martyrs will be saved through “baptism by blood”. In this case, a person is martyred for their Christian profession before the victim has received baptism.
Yes, an adult catechumenate who is martyred before he can be formally baptized is an example of a baptism of blood. But then Marshall uses another straw-man argument. He represents the only case for a baptism of blood for infants as equating the murder of prenatals by abortion with a type of martyrdom. Since being murdered is not sufficient to be called a martyr, he dismisses this argument. But that is not the strongest argument for a baptism of blood.
The Holy Innocents received a baptism of blood, and yet they do not meet the usual criteria for martyrs; they did not choose to die for Christ, rather than deny him. The Blessed Virgin Mary received sanctifying grace in her Immaculate Conception, despite no formal baptism with water and no prior desire for baptism. Since sanctifying grace is only received by baptism, her Immaculate Conception must include a baptism of blood. She was given sanctifying grace in view of the preeminent and primordial martyrdom of Christ, without having to die in the womb or in infancy. And, as a common theological opinion, John the Baptist and Saint Joseph were each sanctified in the womb, by the blood of Christ.
So there is a basis for extending the criteria for a baptism of blood beyond martyrdom. Dr. Marshall does not consider this broadened basis for a baptism of blood. The CCC says that we may hope that unbaptized little children are saved by the mercy of God. But Dr. Marshall forestalls any such hope by keeping the definition of a baptism of blood exceedingly narrow, so narrow that it might exclude the Holy Innocents. (He includes the Holy Innocents under the baptism of blood, but in contradiction to his own definition.)
Marshall’s final consideration, and his worst treatment of opposing ideas, is quoted below:
“Theory #5: “God-works-in-mysterious-ways-and-He-is-merciful” Theory
This theory states that God redeems all unbaptized infants without exception simply because He is merciful. God is the God of the orphan and widow. Since dead infants are in a sense orphans, they receive a special act of grace and are regenerated by Holy Spirit. God’s desire to save all men entails that He extends the grace of new birth to those who are unable to make a decision on their own part. This theory is rather weak and appeals to sentimentalism. It also ignores the teaching of Christ in John 3:3-5 where our Lord teaches that the sacrament of baptism is absolutely necessary.”
Here, the mercy of God is equated with “sentimentalism” and the infallible teaching of the Magisterium on the universal salvific will of God is treated with disregard and contempt. Moreover, his claim that “the sacrament of baptism is absolutely necessary” is the heresy of Feeneyism. The Magisterium infallibly teaches — as Marshall elsewhere acknowledges — that baptism may be received formally in the Sacrament of Baptism with water, or non-formally by a baptism of desire or of blood. These latter two types of baptism are not the Sacrament itself. And so the claim that redemption for unbaptized little children somehow contradicts the teaching of Jesus “that the sacrament of baptism is absolutely necessary” is perplexing and foolish.
Now if unbaptized little children, especially those who die in the womb and therefore cannot receive a baptism of water or desire, all go to the limbo of Hell, they in effect were predestined to Hell. For they had no opportunity to be saved and enter Heaven. Such a harsh version of predestination is incompatible with Catholic teaching.
This post is already too long, so I’ll briefly summarize my position on salvation for unbaptized little children. See my previous posts and my book (Forgiveness and Salvation for Everyone) for a detailed exposition.
1. The universal salvific will of God implies that God makes salvation concretely available to all, in a way which is accommodated to their spiritual and material situation, even for those persons brought up in other religious traditions.
2. Since God wills all persons to be saved, he does not permit anyone at all, who is not guilty of deliberate sin, to suffer eternal punishments.
3. Those who die in original sin alone are guilty of the actual mortal sin of omission of never having found sanctifying grace in their lives, despite ample opportunity. They and they alone are punished in the limbo of Hell, which is a place of eternal punishment, not happiness.
4. All those persons and only those persons who die unrepentant from actual mortal sin are sent to Hell to suffer eternal punishment. All other persons die in a state of grace, due to the universal salvific will and mercy of God, by one of the three forms of baptism, and will have eternal life in Heaven (perhaps after a temporary stay in Purgatory).
5. No unbaptized little children have had ample opportunity to find sanctifying grace by a baptism of water or desire, and so they are given a baptism of blood, sometime prior to death.
6. Formally baptized infants, who die at that young age, go directly to Heaven after death and the particular judgment. Unbaptized little children are sent to the limbo of Purgatory (which is the same as the limbo of the Fathers), before going to Heaven. So the ancient theological opinion and later non-infallible teaching that unbaptized little children go to Limbo is developed further to the position that they go to the limbo of Purgatory, then to Heaven.
7. Eternal happiness is not possible anywhere but in Heaven. There is no place of eternal but merely natural happiness for mankind. We can only have true happiness with God in Heaven.
I can’t agree with the position of the far left in Catholic thinking, best represented by Fr. Robert Barron, that perhaps no one goes to Hell. But I also reject, even more adamantly, the hellish position that billions of prenatals, infants, and little children, who die without formal Baptism end up in the limbo of Hell. It is contrary to the infallible teaching of Florence and Lyons II to claim that the souls in the limbo of Hell are not punished. It is contrary to the teaching of the CCC to say that natural happiness and eternal separation from God are compatible. It is contrary to the Gospel teachings of Jesus to say that some persons in Hell are happy, or that innocent little children are condemned to Hell.
“Amen I say to you, unless you change and become like little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven…. whoever shall accept one such little child in my name, accepts me.” (Mt 18:3,5)
And whoever condemns innocent little children to any version of Hell, misusing the name of Jesus, sins against God.