A word derived from the Latin limbus, literally meaning the "hem or border" as of a garment. The word is not employed by the Fathers, nor does it appear in Scripture. Since the time of Thomas Aquinas theologians have used the term to designate the state and place either of those souls who did not merit hell and its eternal punishments but could not enter heaven before the Redemption (the limbo of the fathers') or of those souls who are eternally excluded from the beatific vision because of original sin alone (the children's Limbo).
The Limbo of the Fathers. Inhabiting the "limbo of the fathers" (our ancestors in the faith) are those who led a righteous life before Jesus' earthly existence and death. They could not enter heaven even though righteous, however, because of Adam and Eve's sin. This is the limbo (the Hebrew Sheol, the Greek Hades ) referred to in the Apostles' Creed—the "hell" into which Christ descended after his crucifixion. Jesus' experience of a true human death included his entering this realm of the dead, but his descent there redeemed the just and brought them to salvation. The "limbo of the fathers" explained how the righteous who died before Christ's death could attain salvation, while maintaining that their salvation depended upon and was effected by Christ's death. The same difficulty is addressed today more generally in the question of the possibility of salvation for the adult non-Christian.
The Limbo of Children. In the patristic era there was apparently little concern with the problem of infants dying without baptism. St. Augustine thought that unbaptized infants went to hell, although he conceded that, due to their lack of personal responsibility and guilt for original sin, the pains of hell were in some way diminished for them. Subsequent theologians distinguished between a pain affecting one's senses (the pain of sense), and the pain caused by the absence of the perfect joy of the Beatific Vision (the pain of loss). The scholastics of the 12th century departed from Augustine's viewpoint. St. Thomas Aquinas freed the doctrine of the idea that unbaptized infants suffer from any pain of sense; indeed, he held that, though deprived of the Beatific Vision, they enjoy a natural bliss. The problem was not handled in any explicit manner by the Council of Trent, though there was some preliminary discussion about the punishment of original sin in the next life.
From Trent to Pistoia. During this period theologians were absorbed in attempting to determine exactly what punishment is allotted to unbaptized infants in the next life. The vast majority believed them immune from the pain of sense and transferred to a special place, or state, called Limbo. Although this was without doubt the common teaching of the period, the question was considered open to discussion. Others believed these infants were consigned to the fire of hell, obviously denying the existence of Limbo. The defenders of the existence of Limbo found their strongest arguments in the teaching of Aquinas and his concept of original sin as a sin of nature and not of the person. As a result they viewed the punishment of original sin and that of personal sin as entirely different. Only personal sin involves a conversion to some forbidden created good that deserves the pain of sense. Traces of this doctrine are found in the teaching of Innocent III in 1201 (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum, ed. A. Schönmetzer [Freiburg 1963] 780) as well as in that of the Second Council of Lyons (ibid. 858) and the Council of Florence (ibid 1306).
Pistoia and the Bull Auctorem Fidei. The Jansenists in Italy based their idea on the teaching of St. Augustine. They said that Limbo as taught by the scholastics is a fable invented by Pelagius and that the teaching that infants dying without Baptism are condemned to the fire of hell is revealed doctrine. They boldly proclaimed it at the Synod of pistoia in 1786, and implied that the defenders of the existence of Limbo are heretics. The reply of Rome is found in Pius VI's bull Auctorem Fidei (1794). This is the last declaration of the Church in regard to this problem and the only official document containing the word Limbo. From the history of this document it is certain that the Church merely wished to defend the common teaching from slander. As such it is not a defense of the existence of Limbo. The question of Limbo's existence— openly disputed by Catholic theologians at the time of the bull—was not touched upon directly in any way by PiusVI. The open denial of Limbo by the Jansenists was tolerated and merely their manner of denial censured. Auctorem Fidei, in fact, dealt the deathblow to the teaching of St. Augustine. For all purposes, no one defended any longer the opinion that infants who die without baptism are condemned to the fire of hell.
Recent Church Teaching. While limbo was mentioned in a 1951 address given by Pius XII to Catholic midwives, of far greater significance is its absence in recent Church documents in the very context where mention of it might be expected. Examples include the 1979 "On Certain Questions Concerning Eschatology" and the 1980 "Instruction on Infant Baptism," both published by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) quotes from and affirms the 1980 "Instruction": "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' (Mk 10:14), 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"(1261).
Most theologians today regard the "limbo of children" as a once-popular, but now inert, theological opinion that attempted to resolve the theological tension between the Church's teaching on the necessity of baptism for salvation and the acknowledgment that infants and young children are innocent of personal sin. While some theologians have devised sophisticated theories attempting to reconcile the two (for example, that an infant would receive supernatural knowledge at the moment of death and thus be able to choose for or against God), today most would support the theological and pastoral approach suggested by the CCC. The possibility of an eternal state of natural bliss, separate from the Beatific Vision, is not treated directly in official Church teaching, while among theologians it is addressed more generally in the discussions of the relationship between nature and grace.
Bibliography: g. j. dyer, Limbo, Unsettled Question (New York 1964). p. gumpel, "Unbaptized Infants: May They Be Saved?" Downside Review 72 (1954) 342–458. p. j. hill, The Existence of a Children's Limbo According to Post-Tridentine Theologians (Shelby, Ohio 1961). v. wilkin, From Limbo to Heaven (New York 1961). l. g. walsh, The Sacraments of Initiation (London 1988), 104–109. k. stasiak, "Infant Baptism Reclaimed: Forgotten Truths about Infant Baptism," Living Light (1995): 36–46. c. beiting, "The Idea of Limbo in Thomas Aquinas," The Thomist 62 (1998): 217–244.
[p. j. hill/
lim·bo1 / ˈlimbō/ • n. 1. (also Limbo) (in some Christian beliefs) the supposed abode of the souls of unbaptized infants, and of the just who died before Christ's coming. 2. an uncertain period of awaiting a decision or resolution; an intermediate state or condition: the fate of the Contras is now in limbo. ∎ a state of neglect or oblivion: children left in an emotional limbo. lim·bo2 • n. (pl. -bos) a West Indian dance in which the dancer bends backward to pass under a horizontal bar that is progressively lowered to a position just above the ground. • v. [intr.] dance in such a way.
Limbo ★★ 1999 (R)
Ambivalent family saga that leaves the viewers deliberately in limbo for good or ill. Alaskan Joe Gastineau (Strathairn) is a former fisherman traumatized by an accident at sea years before. Into his life comes smalltime singer Donna de Angelo (Mastrantonio) and her depressed teen daughter Noelle (Martinez). Joe and Donna start a tentative romance and Joe even goes back to fishing. Then Joe's fasttalking half-brother Bobby (Siemaszko) shows up, precipitating a crisis that leaves Bobby dead and Joe, Donna, and Noelle stranded on a deserted island. 126m/C VHS, DVD . David Strathairn, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Vanessa Martinez, Casey Siemaszko, Kris Kristofferson, Kathryn Grody, Rita Taggart, Leo Burmester, Michael Laskin; D: John Sayles; W: John Sayles; C: Haskell Wexler; M: Mason Daring.
The name is recorded from late Middle English, and comes from the medieval Latin phrase in limbo, from limbus ‘hem, border, limbo’. From the mid seventeenth century the use of the term widened to cover a place or situation resembling limbo; it is now generally used for an uncertain period of awaiting a decision or resolution; an intermediate state or condition.