What Does the Catholic Church Teach about Purgatory vs. Limbo?

Purgatory is a defined doctrine of the Catholic faith. As a Catholic you must believe in it, and, if you are a student of Scripture and early Church practices, you should believe in it.

Limbo has a different status. It arises from theological speculation, not revelation. If you find the speculation convincing, you may believe in limbo. If you find the speculation unconvincing, you have the option of not believing in limbo.

Probably it’s fair to say that there are fewer theologians today writing in favor of limbo then there were fifty years ago. Yes, there are also fewer writing in favor of purgatory – or about purgatory at all – but that is an indictment of them, not of the doctrine.

Why is there less said about purgatory? Several reasons come to mind: the decline in saying regular prayers for the dead; a reduced sense of sin and of our unworthiness before God; an over emphasis, by some, on God’s mercy to the exclusion of his justice; perhaps even embarrassment over a doctrine which, at the Reformation, induced some people to leave the Church.

When most people refer to limbo, they mean the limbo of infants, where unbaptized infants are said to go, as distinguished from the limbo of the Fathers, where good people who died before Jesus’ resurrection were waiting for heaven to be opened to them.

Since the limbo of the Fathers is specifically mentioned in Scripture (1 Pt 3:19), a Catholic must believe in it. But what about the limbo of infants? It isn’t mentioned in Scripture, and the Church never has formally defined its existence, but many theologians writing since the Middle Ages have argued such a state is logically necessary.

The Council of Trent said, in reference to the passing into a state of justification, ”Since the Gospel was promulgated, this passing cannot take place without the water of regeneration [baptism] or the desire for it, as it is written, ‘Unless a man be born of water and the Holy Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God’ (John 3:5).”

What happens, theologians asked, to an infant who dies before water baptism and who, because of age, cannot desire baptism? What happens then to one who dies in the state of original sin?

If the infant is ineligible for heaven, and if it would seem contrary to God’s mercy to punish it everlastingly in hell, how do we resolve the problem? The answer theologians in the Middle Ages came up with is limbo.

Most modern theologians see no need for limbo, suggesting that God provides some way for unbaptized infants to make a decision for or against him immediately after death.

Keep in mind that one can be a good Catholic and believe or not believe in limbo, since the Church has issued no definition about its existence.

We are not at liberty to label someone a bad Catholic for thinking differently than we do on the subject.

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