The Certainty of Salvation for Prenatals who die before birth

The Certainty of Salvation for Prenatals who die before birth

The claim is made that the Magisterium has not yet decided the question of salvation for prenatals who die in the womb. This article proposes that current and past magisterial teachings necessarily imply a definitive answer to that question.

The case of prenatals who die in the womb is of great interest because these human persons cannot be formally baptized with water. Unbaptized infants can always be baptized with water, as can toddlers and other little children. At some point in development, the older child becomes capable of obtaining a baptism of desire, though it is difficult to say when or how often this may happen. But prenatals who die before birth present the simplest case.

Background Facts

Unfortunately, very many human persons have died in the womb. The number of deaths from surgical abortions worldwide has been at a level of about 40 million per year for the last 20 years (1995 to 2014, inclusive). The total number of abortions since Roe v. Wade (a case decided in 1973) easily exceeds one billion human persons killed in the womb worldwide.

Chemical contraceptives are widely considered to function, some of the time, as an abortifacient [Evangelium Vitae 13]. Given the extremely widespread and longstanding use of abortifacient contraception in the world, the total number of human persons killed in the womb from abortifacient contraception alone could easily exceed one billion.

“Around half of all fertilized eggs die and are lost (aborted) spontaneously, usually before the woman knows she is pregnant. Among women who know they are pregnant, the miscarriage rate is about 15-20%.” [MedlinePlus, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health]

Approximately 208 million pregnancies occurred worldwide in 2008 [Source]. If half of all fertilized eggs die before the woman knows she is pregnant, then ~200 million fertilized eggs die and are not counted as known pregnancies. Of the ~200 million known pregnancies per year (in recent years) another 15 to 20% end in known miscarriages (30 to 40 million). Those figures are per year.

Therefore, over the last 5 years, over one billion prenatals (200 million x 5 years) died from miscarriage, in addition to those who died from abortion. The world population has risen in the last 5 years, but the birth rate has fallen. These numbers are very approximate.

How many human persons have died in the womb since the human race began? How many will die in the womb over the next few hundred years? When all is said and done, and the course of human history is complete, when all human souls have been judged by God and sent to their final destination, and when finally the general Resurrections occurs, how many human persons will have died in the womb? Perhaps hundreds of billions of human persons will have died in that state, with no chance of a formal baptism with water.

Has God chosen to give these billions of unborn human persons salvation? Or are they excluded from the possibility of salvation solely because they died prior to birth?

Magisterial Teaching

Some foolish persons say: “God doesn’t have to save anyone”. In the abstract, God certainly did not have to create the universe, or create the human race, or offer salvation to humanity once we were fallen. He did not have to do so, but in fact He freely chose to do so. Given that God has made the choice to offer salvation to everyone, He is now obligated (in a sense) by His own choice. For God cannot err, cannot change His mind, cannot fail to do what He has decided to do.

The Magisterium teaches that God offers salvation to all human persons. The offer is universal; it is termed the universal salvific will of God.

Cardinal Ratzinger: “In the New Testament, the universal salvific will of God is closely connected to the sole mediation of Christ: ‘[God] desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and men, the man Jesus Christ, who gave himself as a ransom for all’ (1 Tim 2:4-6)…. It must therefore be firmly believed as a truth of Catholic faith that the universal salvific will of the One and Triune God is offered and accomplished once for all in the mystery of the incarnation, death, and resurrection of the Son of God.” [Dominus Jesus, n. 13-14]

The offer of salvation to every human person comes from Christ on the Cross. Whosoever is saved unto eternal life is saved by Christ. However, this does not imply that only Christians are saved.

Pope Saint John Paul II: “The universality of salvation means that it is granted not only to those who explicitly believe in Christ and have entered the Church. Since salvation is offered to all, it must be made concretely available to all.” [Redemptoris Missio, n. 10]

The state of grace is needed at death for any person to be saved and reach eternal life in Heaven. This state of sanctifying grace is obtained only by some form of baptism:
1. the formal Sacrament of Baptism with water
2. a non-formal baptism of desire
3. a non-formal baptism of blood

Persons who are non-Christian can obtain a baptism of desire implicitly. By desiring love, truth, and other transcendent goods, they implicitly desire God, Christ, and baptism. By an act of selfless love of others, they can accept the state of grace freely offered by God, through Christ. See my post: A Primer on Roman Catholic Salvation Theology.

But notice what Pope Saint John Paul II teaches: “Since salvation is offered to all, it must be made concretely available to all.” [Redemptoris Missio 10]. It is certainly not sufficient, to satisfy the universal salvific will of God, that the prenatal would have had salvation had he or she not suffered a miscarriage or abortion. Salvation is offered to all human persons, including the conceived prenatal at any stage of development from conception to birth. And that salvation is concretely available.

In what way, then, can salvation be concretely available to persons who die before birth?

Some foolish persons say that the prenatal who dies in the womb must certainly be sent by God to the limbo of Hell. They conceive of this place as offering a state of perfect natural happiness, absent the Beatific Vision of God and all the joys of Heaven. They claim that prenatals must be sent to Hell because they died in a state of “original sin alone” — meaning that they died without any form of baptism (which takes away original sin), but had committed no personal sins. This conclusion would necessarily imply that the souls in the limbo of Hell lack the state of grace, and lack the infused theological virtues: love, faith, hope. Baptism also infuses seven additional virtues: knowledge, wisdom, understanding, prudence, fortitude, temperance, justice. These seven cardinal virtues can be acquired in life by cooperation with actual graces. But prenatals who die in the womb had no opportunity to acquire them, so they would lack all these virtues as well.

Why is the above claim so foolish and misguided? First, a human soul lacking in love, faith, hope, knowledge, wisdom, understanding, prudence, fortitude, temperance, justice cannot have happiness, not even on a merely natural level.

Second, human persons were created, as natural beings, for supernatural grace and eternal life with God. Happiness is not possible for us without grace and the presence of God.

Pope Benedict XVI: “Human beings cannot completely fulfill themselves, they cannot be truly happy without God.” [Homily, Sunday, 24 May 2009]

Pope John Paul II: “Without God, man cannot fully find himself, nor can he find his true happiness.” [Homily, 9 November 1999]

Third: “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.” (CCC 1035). The souls in the limbo of Hell have this deprivation of the presence of God, therefore they suffer from the main punishment of Hell. The Catechism teaches that souls can only be happy with this presence of God, which all the souls in Hell lack, including the souls in the limbo (or fringe) of Hell.

Fourth, the Magisterium has never definitively taught that unbaptized prenatals, infants, and young children die in a state of “original sin alone”. The infallible teachings of two Ecumenical Councils on this point does not mention age:

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.”

The Second Council of Lyons: “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.”

The claim is absurd that the souls who die in “original sin alone” can BOTH “go down straightaway to Hell to be punished” with “unequal pains” and “different punishments” AND yet have perfect natural happiness. Saint Thomas Aquinas held this erroneous theological opinion about the souls in the limbo of Hell, because he died prior to the above quoted Councils. If he had known of this infallible teaching of the Magisterium, he would not have contradicted it by claiming that souls in the limbo of Hell can be happy.

Can we say that prenatals who die in the womb are saved under the universal salvific will of God by being sent to the limbo of Hell? Not at all. No one in Hell is saved, that’s why it’s called Hell and not Heaven. If prenatals are sent to the limbo of Hell, then they have not been saved, they are not happy, they suffer the chief punishment of Hell, and they are deprived of all the joys of Heaven, including the presence of their parents and other family members who have been saved in Heaven. No one in Hell is saved in any sense.

The offer of salvation is universal, but not everyone attains to that salvation. Human persons have free will, and so they can sin gravely, refuse to repent, and therefore end up in Hell. The CCC teaches that only unrepentant actual mortal sin condemns 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]

So then, how does a human person die in a state of original sin alone, and end up in the limbo of Hell? My understanding is that the person commits the actual mortal sin of omission of never having found sanctifying grace in this life, despite ample opportunity. No prenatal, infant, or young child has had ample opportunity to obtain sanctifying grace. Therefore, no little children are sent to the limbo of Hell.

Can they be sent to the main part of Hell? No. For Pope Pius IX taught that no one is punished eternally, unless they have committed a deliberate sin.

“Because God knows, searches and clearly understands the minds, hearts, thoughts, and nature of all, his supreme kindness and clemency do not permit anyone at all who is not guilty of deliberate sin to suffer eternal punishments.” [Quanto Conficiamur Moerore, n. 7.]

And of course prenatals and infants cannot sin at all “if they die before attaining the use of free will” [Pope Benedict 12, On the Beatific Vision of God]. The prenatal who dies in the womb has not committed any personal sins, venial or mortal.

The above teachings imply that prenatals who die in the womb cannot be sent to any part of Hell, since even the limbo of Hell includes the chief punishment of Hell: deprivation of the presence of God.

In summary, the Church teaches that:

* God offers salvation to all human persons.
* This salvation is concretely available to all.
* Only persons who commit deliberate personal sin, specifically actual mortal sin, and who die unrepentant are punished in Hell.
* The limbo of Hell is a place of punishment, not a place of perfect natural happiness.
* No human person can be happy without grace and God.
* Prenatals and infants cannot commit any sin deserving of Hell.

Therefore, prenatals who die in the womb, for whom formal baptism with water is unavailable, must receive some type of non-formal baptism (of desire or blood) prior to death. Otherwise, the salvific will of God would not be universal, since it would exclude many billions of human persons.

Can prenatals receive a baptism of desire? Probably not. For a human person to desire something, he or she must first have some knowledge of the object of desire. Prenatals die “before attaining the use of free will” or the use of reason, and so they can neither know, nor freely choose baptism, even implicitly (by knowing and choosing transcendent goods ordered toward God, Christ, and the Sacraments).

The only option left is a baptism of blood. Prenatals who die in the womb must receive a baptism of blood from Christ on the Cross, granting the state of grace along with forgiveness from original sin at least in the last moment of life (perhaps sooner). The teachings of the Magisterium on salvation and the universal salvific will of God necessarily imply this conclusion.

All prenatals who die prior to birth receive a baptism of blood, die in a state of grace (not in a state of original sin alone), and will have eternal life in Heaven. Whosoever rejects this conclusion necessarily, at least implicitly, rejects the teaching of the Magisterium on salvation.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and
translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

Please take a look at this list of my books and booklets, and see if any topic interests you.

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3 Responses to The Certainty of Salvation for Prenatals who die before birth

  1. Michael says:

    So who, if anyone, would go to the Limbo of Hell? Does the Limbo of Hell even exist?

    • Ron Conte says:

      The existence of a limbo of Hell is necessarily implied by the above quoted infallible teachings of the Councils of Lyons II and Florence. Persons who die in a state of original sin alone go there; they have lesser punishments than others in Hell, which is why it is called the “fringe” or limbo of Hell. My view is that a person who dies unrepentant from the actual mortal sin of omission of never having found the state of grace in life, despite ample opportunity, and who has no other actual mortal sins on his conscience, goes to the limbo of Hell.

  2. Rico says:

    In 2007, the International Theological Commission in Rome published a study that dealt with the subject of salvation of unbaptized infants. It has very long discussion on limbo that should interest anyone thinking about the Church’s teaching on it.

    Since the study was also initiated due to concerns on the increasing number of unbaptized infants caused by factors like in vitro fertilization and abortion, I would say the definition of infants in the study also include prenatals.


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