St. Thomas Aquinas and the Catholic Teaching
on the Limbo of Children

This question is particularly interesting in our modern circumstances.  The existence of the Limbo of Children (distinct from the Limbo of the Fathers, in the Old Testament) on the one hand, is denied by modernists and on the other is misunderstood by many Catholics, either believing that souls detained there suffer or that we can ‘baptise’ them ‘at a distance’!  The truth is always a summit between opposite errors.  This issue is also important in the question of aborted babies.  Let us examine it in three parts:
  1. Whether these souls suffer fire like the souls in hell;

  2. Whether they suffer from the privation of the Beatific Vision;

  3. Whether we can pray or do anything for them.
St. Thomas dwells on this subject in the Supplement of the Summa Theologica, Questions 70bis and 71 (Art.7).  In the following article, he explains that these souls do not suffer a sensible pain since this pain is due to actual sins and, having died before having committed any actual sin, they do not deserve that suffering.  The punishment for original sin is merely the privation of the Beatific Vision.

Question 70bis:

Of the Quality of those Souls who depart this life with Original Sin only.

- In Two Articles -

First Article.


Augustine says (Enchir, xxiii) that the mildest punishment of all will be for those who are burdened with original sin only.  But this would not be so if they were tormented with sensible punishment because the pain of hell fire is most grievous.  Therefore, they will not suffer sensible punishment.

Further, the grief of sensible punishment corresponds to the pleasure of sin (Apoc. xviii.7): As much as she hath glorified herself and lived in delicacies, so much torment and sorrow give ye to her.  But there is no pleasure in original sin, as neither is there operation, for pleasure follows operation, as stated in Ethic. x.4.  Therefore punishment by fire is not due to original sin.

Further, Gregory Nazianzen, in his fortieth sermon, which is entitled On Holy Baptism, distinguishes three classes of unbaptised persons: those namely who refuse to be baptised, those who through neglect, have put off being baptised until the end of life and have been surprised by sudden death and those who, like infants, have failed to receive it through no fault of theirs.  Of the first, he says that they will be punished, not only for their other sins but also for their contempt of Baptism; of the second, that they will be punished, though less severely than the first, for having neglected it; and of the last, he says that a just and eternal Judge will consign them neither to heavenly glory nor to the eternal pains of hell, for although they have not been signed with Baptism, they are without wickedness and malice and have suffered rather than caused their loss of Baptism.  He also gives the reason why, although they do not reach the glory of heaven, they do not therefore suffer the eternal punishment suffered by the damned: Because there isamean between the two, since he who deserves not honour and glory is not for that reason worthy of punishment and, on the other hand, he who is not deserving of punishment is not, for that reason, worthy of glory and honour.

I answer that, Punishment should be proportionate to Fault, according to the saying of Isaias xxvii.8, In measure against measure, when it shall be cast off, thou shalt judge it.  Now, the defect transmitted to us through our origin and, having the character of a sin, does not result from the withdrawal or corruption of a good consequent upon human nature by virtue of its principles but from the withdrawal or corruption of something that had been super-added to nature.  Nor does this sin belong to this particular man, except insofar as he has such a nature, that is deprived of this good which, in the ordinary course of things, he would have had and would have been able to keep.  Wherefore, no further punishment is due to him besides the privation of that end to which the gift withdrawn destined him, which gift human nature is unable of itself to obtain.  Now, this is the divine vision and consequently the loss of this vision is the proper and only punishment of original sin after death: because, if any other sensible punishment were inflicted after death for original sin, a man would be punished out of proportion to his guilt, for sensible punishment is inflicted for that which is proper to the person, since a man undergoes sensible punishment insofar as he suffers in his person.  Hence, as his guilt did not result from an action of his own, even so, neither should he be punished by suffering himself but only by losing that which his nature was unable to obtain.  On the other hand, those who are under sentence for original sin will suffer no loss whatever in other kinds of perfection and goodness which are consequent upon human nature by virtue of its principles.

Objection 5: After the resurrection, the bodies of children will be either passible or impassible.  If they be impassible--and no human body can be impassible except either on account of the gift of impassibility (as in the blessed) or by reason of original justice (as in the state of innocence) - it follows that the bodies of children will either have the gift of impassibility and thus will be glorious, so that there will be no difference between baptised and non-baptised children, which is heretical, or else they will have original justice and thus will be without original sin and will not be punished for original sin, which is likewise heretical.  If, on the other hand, they be passible, since everything passible suffers of necessity in the presence of the active, it follows that in the presence of the active sensible bodies, they will suffer sensible punishment.

Reply - Objection 5 - The bodies of children will be impassible, not through their being unable in themselves to suffer but through the lack of an external agent to act upon them because, after the resurrection, no body will act on another, least of all so as to induce corruption by the action of nature but there will only be action to the effect of punishing them by order of the divine justice.  Wherefore, those bodies to which pain of sense is not due by divine justice, will not suffer punishment.  On the other hand, the bodies of the saints will be impassible because they will lack the capability of suffering; hence impassibility in them will be a gift, but not in children.

In the second article, St. Thomas explains that these souls do not suffer from the privation of the Beatific Vision which is a supernatural happiness, therefore something which we have no natural right to possess, just as ‘no wise man grieves for being unable to fly like a bird.’

Second Article.


We proceed thus to the Second Article:

Objection 1.  It would seem that the souls in question suffer spiritual affliction on account of the state wherein they are because, as Chrysostom says (Hom. xxiii, in Matth.), the punishment of God, in that they will be deprived of seeing God, will be more painful than their being burnt in hell fire.  Now these souls will be deprived of seeing God.  Therefore they will suffer spiritual affliction thereby.

Objection 3.  Further, if it be said that they do not suffer, because they know that through no fault of theirs, they are deprived thereof, on the contrary - freedom from fault does not lessen but increases the pain of punishment: for a man does not grieve less for that he is disinherited or deprived of a limb through no fault of his.  Therefore these souls likewise, albeit deprived of so great a good through no fault of theirs, suffer none the less.

Objection 5Further, separation from what we love cannot be without pain.  But these children will have natural knowledge of God and for that very reason, will love Him naturally.  Therefore, since they are separated from Him for ever, seemingly they cannot undergo this separation without pain.

On the contrary,if baptised children have interior sorrow after death, they will grieve either for their sin or for their punishment.  If for their sin, since they cannot be further cleansed from that sin, their sorrow will lead them to despair.  Now sorrow of this kind in the damned is the worm of conscience.  Therefore these children will have the worm of conscience and consequently, theirs would not be the mildest punishment, as Augustine says it is.  If, on the other hand, they grieve for their punishment, it follows, since their punishment is justly inflicted by God, that their will opposes itself to divine justice and thus would be actually inordinate, which is not to be granted.  Therefore they will feel no sorrow.

Further, right reason does not allow one to be disturbed on account of what one was unable to avoid; hence Seneca proves (Ep. 1xxxv., and De Ira ii. 6) that a wise man is not disturbed.  Now in these children, there is right reason deflected by no actual sin.  Therefore they will not be disturbed for that they undergo this punishment which they could nowise avoid.

I answer that,on this question, there are three opinions.  Some say that these children will suffer no pain because their reason will so much in the dark that they will not know that they lack what they have lost.  It, however, seems improbable that the soul freed from its bodily burden should ignore things which, to say the least, reason is able to explore and many more besides.  Hence, others say that they have perfect knowledge of things subject to natural reason and know God and that they are deprived of seeing Him and that they feel some kind of sorrow on this account but that their sorrow will be mitigated, insofar as it was not by their will that they incurred the sin for which they are condemned.  Yet this again would seem improbable, because this sorrow cannot be little for the loss of so great a good, especially without the hope of recovery; wherefore their punishment would not be the mildest.  Moreover, the very same reason that impugns their being punished with pain of sense, as afflicting them from without, argues against their feeling sorrow within, because the pain of punishment corresponds to the pleasure of sin; wherefore, since original sin is void of pleasure, its punishment is free of all pain.  Consequently, others say that they will know perfectly things subject to natural knowledge and both the fact of their being deprived of eternal life and the reason for this privation and that nevertheless this knowledge will not cause any sorrow in them.  How this may be possible we must explore.

Accordingly, it must be observed that if one is guided by right reason, one does not grieve through being deprived of what is beyond one’s power to obtain but only through lack of that which, in some way, one is capable of obtaining.  Thus, no wise man grieves for being unable to fly like a bird or for that he is not a king or an emperor, since these things are not due to him; whereas he would grieve if he lacked that to which he had some kind of claim.  I say, then, that every man who has the use of free-will is adapted to obtain eternal life, because he can prepare himself for grace whereby to merit eternal life; so that if he fail in this, his grief will be very great, since he has lost what he was able to possess.  But children were never adapted to possess eternal life, since neither was this due to them by virtue of their natural principles, for it surpasses the entire faculty of nature, nor could they perform acts of their own whereby to obtain so great a good.  Hence they will nowise grieve for being deprived of the divine vision; nay, rather will they rejoice for that they will have a large share of God’s goodness and their own natural perfections.  Nor can it be said that they were adapted to obtain eternal life, not indeed by their own action but by the actions of others around them, since they could be baptised by others, like other children of the same condition who have been baptised and obtained eternal life: for this is of superabundant grace that one should be rewarded without any act of one’s own.  Wherefore the lack of such a grace will not cause sorrow in children who die without Baptism, any more than the lack of many graces accorded to others of the same condition makes a wise man to grieve.

Reply - Objection 1.  In those who, having the use of free-will, are damned for actual sin, there was aptitude to obtain eternal life but not in children, as stated above.  Consequently there is no parity between the two.

Reply - Objection 3.  Everyone has a claim to his own inheritance or bodily members, wherefore it is not strange that he should grieve at their loss, whether this be through his own or another’s fault: hence it is clear that the argument is not based on a true comparison.

Reply - Objection 5Although unbaptised children are separated from God as regards the union of glory, they are not utterly separated from Him: in fact they are united to Him by their share of natural goods and so will also be able to rejoice in Him by their natural knowledge and love.


After having seen in the previous two articles that the souls in Limbo do not suffer but enjoy a natural happiness, St. Thomas examines whether we, on earth, can help them in any way, for example can we ‘baptise’ them at a distance. etc.

In Question 71 of the Supplement, the Angelic Doctor speaks of the mode of suffrage’ (request, supplication), the only mode by which we can help the souls of the departed.  He says among many other things, that “Charity, which is the bond uniting the members of the Church, extends not only to the living but also to the dead who die in charity.  “Nevertheless, we must not believe that the suffrages of the living profit them as to change their state from unhappiness to happiness or vice versa.” (art.2)  In other words, those who departed this world have entered eternity where there is no longer any time, therefore where it is no longer possible to gain the state of grace if one did not have it at the moment of death or where it is neither possible to lose the state of grace, for the Saints in Heaven.

Q. 71 - Seventh Article.


We proceed thus to the Seventh Article:

Objection 1.  It would seem that suffrages avail the children who are in Limbo.  For they are not detained there except for another’s sin.  Therefore it is most becoming that they should be assisted by the suffrages of others.

Objection 2.  Further, in the text (iv Sent. D.45), the words of Augustine (Enchir. cx.) are quoted: The suffrages of the Church obtain forgiveness for those who are not very bad.  Now children are not reckoned among those who are very bad, since their punishment is very light.  Therefore the suffrages of the Church avail them.

On the contrary, the text (ibid.) quotes Augustine as saying (Serm. xxxii. De Verb Ap.) that suffrages avail not those who have departed hence without the faith that works by love.  Now the children departed thus.  Therefore suffrages avail them not.

I answer that unbaptised children are not detained in Limbo save because they lack the state of grace.  Hence, since the state of the dead cannot be changed by the works of the living, especially as regards the merit of the essential reward of punishment, the suffrages of the living cannot profit the children in Limbo.

Reply - Objection 1.  Although original sin is such that one person can be assisted by another on its account, nevertheless the souls of the children in Limbo are in such a state that they cannot be assisted, because after this life there is no time for obtaining grace.

Reply - Objection 2.  Augustine is speaking of those who are not very bad but have been baptised.  This is clear from what precedes: Since these sacrifices, whether of the altar or of any alms whatsoever, are offered for those who have been baptised, etc.