In the last few morceaux on the general topic of death we’ve considered the alternatives of heaven, purgatory and hell which follow up on it rather immediately. While it’s no longer part popular Catholicism, I suspect everyone over the age of 60 is hoping that I’ll devote at least one morceau to something they dimly remember as a possibility after death: limbo.
Okay, let’s do it! The theory of limbo developed out of a tortured medieval logic. If purposeful holiness led to heaven after death – perhaps after a time of purification in purgatory – and purposeful sin resulted in eternal damnation in hell, the question arose: what about those who could not choose either holiness or sin? Where would they end up? This kind of question took on added emotional weight when one realized that this category of human beings, along with those suffering from mental or psychological defect or illness, includes unbaptized children from conception until the age of reason when sin becomes possible for them.
Thus some theologians concluded that there might be a third eternal possibility apart from heaven and hell. It would be a place not of damnation or pain, but likewise could not be a place of happiness equivalent to heaven, where perfect union with God surpasses all human desires. This kind of theory indeed achieved a certain popularity among clergy in late medieval times until the middle of the last century, but honestly never was very well-accepted among most Catholics. I suspect that’s because most Catholics were married and parents, and few among them were ever comfortable with forbidding heaven to their unbaptized infants and preschoolers!
The real mistake limbo lovers made was undervaluing the wisdom and mercy and justice of God! While we know His love for humanity impels Him never to act contrary to our human free will, so that if we should choose to be separated from Him by sin He will respect that choice, His love does desire our salvation. He rejoices in and welcomes our faith and discipleship which merits eternal joy in His heavenly kingdom. It doesn’t take a highly-developed theology to understand God’s desire for our salvation as adequate to the task of welcoming those completely innocent of personal sin through no fault of their own into heavenly peace. (This way of thinking has also led the Church to understand how those who are inculpably ignorant of the need for faith and baptism may be saved as well.)
In the Catechism of the Catholic Church limbo is not mentioned. Rather, the Catechism teaches that infants who die without baptism are entrusted by the Church to the mercy of God. The principle that God desires the salvation of all people gives rise to a firm hope that there is a path to salvation for the guiltless who die without baptism (see CCC, art. 1261), even if there is not an explicit teaching on this question found in Biblical revelation.