by Kim Rendfeld
Christians in this era believed the teaching of Saint Augustine (354-430): an unbaptized infant, even one who died in the womb, would spend eternity with the damned but receive the lightest of punishments. Saint Augustine admitted these children had done nothing wrong, but he contended they still bore Adam’s original sin, which only baptism could remove.
As if losing a baby was not tragic enough. Now the great hope of the parents’ faith—that they would see their loved ones in the afterlife—could be crushed. Contrary to a common misconception, medieval parents were attached to their infant children. Just read the epitaph for Charlemagne’s 40-day-old daughter: “Dear little maiden, you leave no little grief/Stabbing your father's heart with a dagger.”
|A 16th century image of The Last Judgment, |
depicting various forms of the afterlife.
Limbo is the second from the bottom
at the left (public domain
via Wikimedia Commons).
Thomas Aquinas’s ideas were close to those of early Church fathers, who believed that infants would not go to heaven or hell. They saw original sin more as an inclination toward evil rather than guilt for a specific wrongdoing.
Aquinas’s ideas were further refined in the 15th century, when writers added that infants in limbo would receive bodies during the Resurrection and happily spend eternity in the New Earth.
Still, I can imagine that if there was any sign of life, even a faint one, a midwife would splash water on the child and say the prayer, or something that passed for Latin, and hope the newborn would spend eternity in paradise.
Postscript: Roman Catholic teachings have moderated in recent years. Catechisms have not included references to limbo since 1992. In 2007, a theological commission went further: “The conclusion of this study is that there are theological and liturgical reasons to hope that infants who die without baptism may be saved and brought into eternal happiness, even if there is not an explicit teaching on this question found in Revelation.”
"Limbo" by Patrick Toner. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 9, 1910.
Saint Augustine’s On Merit and the Forgiveness of Sins, and the Baptism of Infants (Book I)
“Vatican revises limbo view, hope for unbaptized babies,” USA Today, April 22, 2007
“The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die without Being Baptised,” International Theological Commission
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