Aborted Babies and Baptism
Fr. Peter West
Priest Associate, Priests for Life
What happens to the souls of babies who die before baptism? This remains a
mystery. We are free to believe that they are in heaven with God, but this has
not been revealed and the Church does not have a definitive answer to this
question. We simply say that we entrust these children to the mercy of God.
There has been an attempt by theologians throughout the centuries to
reconcile two essential teachings of the Church - the necessity of Baptism for
salvation and God’s infinite mercy and his desire that all human beings be saved
and come to a knowledge of the truth (cf.1 Timothy 2:4). The Church teaches us
that God commands us to be baptized and to baptize, but his actions in bestowing
sanctifying grace are not limited to the sacraments. God in his mercy offers his
salvation to every human being sometimes in ways known only to Him.
Since the twelfth century, the opinion of the majority of theologians has
been that unbaptized infants are immune from all pain of sense. This was taught
by St. Thomas Aquinas, Scotus, St. Bonaventure, Peter Lombard, and others. Pope
Innocent III decreed: "The punishment of original sin is the deprivation of the
vision of God; of actual sin, the eternal pains of hell." (III Decr., xlii, 3).
Pre-born babies are incapable of committing an actual sin.
St. Thomas taught that these infants are not saddened by the loss of the
beatific vision, either because they have no knowledge of it, and are not aware
of their loss; or because, knowing it their will is entirely conformed to God’s
will and they are conscious that they have missed an undue privilege through no
fault of their own. (De Malo, Q.v, a.3) In addition to this freedom from regret
at the loss of heaven, these infants may also enjoy some positive happiness. St,
Thomas says: "Although unbaptized infants are separated from God as far as glory
is concerned, yet they are not separated from Him entirely. Rather are they
joined to Him by a participation of natural goods; and so they may even rejoice
in Him by natural consideration and love," (In II Sent., dist. XXXIII, Q. ii, a.
5). Again (a.2) he says: "They will rejoice in this, that they will share
largely in the divine goodness and in natural perfections."
In the 18th century a heretical sect called Jansenists taught that all
infants dying without baptism are condemned to the fires of hell. In 1794, Pope
Pius VI condemned this teaching. He said, in effect, that one may believe in a
limbo, a "middle state" of happiness that is not in heaven with God, and still
be a Catholic (Errors of the Synod of Pistoia, No. 26).
That remains the only significant mention of limbo in any official Catholic
The 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church states: "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,"
allows 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)
In 1995 Pope John Paul II issued his encyclical "Evangelium Vitae" or the
"Gospel of Life". What he says in addressing women who have had abortions is
relevant to the question of what happens to the souls of aborted babies:
"I would now like to say a special word to women who have had an abortion.
The Church is aware of the many factors which may have influenced your decision,
and she does not doubt that in many cases it was a painful and even shattering
decision. The wound in your heart may not yet have healed. Certainly what
happened was and remains terribly wrong. But do not give in to discouragement
and do not lose hope. Try rather to understand what happened and face it
honestly. If you have not already done so, give yourselves over with humility
and trust to repentance. The Father of mercies is ready to give you his
forgiveness and his peace in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. To the same Father
and to his mercy you can with sure hope entrust your child. With the friendly
and expert help and advice of other people, and as a result of your own painful
experience, you can be among the most eloquent defenders of everyone’s right to
life. Through your commitment to life, whether by accepting the birth of other
children or by welcoming and caring for those most in need of someone to be
close to them, you will become promoters of a new way of looking at human life."
If you know someone who is struggling with a past abortion, please refer to
our Priests For Life website for resources.
Encourage the person to go on a Rachel’s Vineyard Retreat (a ministry of
Priests for Life) which is designed to help men and women who have participated
in abortion to find healing and peace. See the following link for more
If you know someone who is struggling with the loss of a child through a
miscarriage, I recommend
Ministry. This ministry is an international movement designed to support
women and their families during the joys, trials and sorrows of the childbearing
years. Elizabeth Ministry’s mission is to cherish children, encourage families
and build community. They offer peer support, mentoring, spiritual nourishment,
educational and inspirational resources.