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Straight Answers: Do Aborted Children Go to Heaven?

Given that as Catholics we believe that life begins at conception, it would necessarily follow that an unborn child has a soul. If so, are the souls of aborted children lost to limbo as well? I know of several contrite mothers who have suffered the pains of an abortion and been consoled by clergy assuring them that their child is in Heaven. Given your explanation of limbo, this cannot be... can it? — A reader in Alexandria

Before addressing the question at hand, we must first be clear on two points.

First, the idea of limbo is a theological speculation, not a defined doctrine of the Catholic Church. Remember we must uphold what our Lord taught concerning the necessity of Baptism: He said, "I solemnly assure you, no one can enter God's kingdom without being begotten of water and Spirit" (John 3:5). Therefore, the Catechism rightly asserts, "The Church does not know of any means other than Baptism that assures entry into eternal beatitude" (#1257). Limbo, consequently, was a speculation as to what happened to the souls of children in particular who died and who through no fault of their own were not baptized. They did nothing to warrant eternal damnation in Hell, but because of Original Sin and the lack of Baptism they could not enter Heaven. Consequently, theologians, including St. Thomas Aquinas, posited there was a limbo, a place of benign existence. Nevertheless, the teaching of limbo still remains undefined and speculative.

Second, the unborn child is indeed a person at the moment of conception. The Declaration on Procured Abortion asserted, "From the time that the ovum is fertilized, a life is begun which is neither that of the father nor of the mother; it is rather the life of a new human being with his own growth. It would never be made human if it were not human already" (#12). The Church, however, does not specifically define when ensoulment takes place. However, we rightly believe that Almighty God infuses the soul into the body when in accord with His will that creation is a person: for most of us, that would be at conception, but for identical twins or others, this would be after the initially fertilized single ovum divides. Here again the Church emphasizes that life is sacred from that moment of conception and must be protected. Even if a doubt existed about the personhood of the child in the womb, to risk murder would be an objectively grave sin (#13).

Returning now to the fate of children who are murdered through abortion, or die in the womb before birth, or are miscarried, or are born but die without the benefit of baptism, the Catechism asserts, "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,' allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without Baptism" (#1261). Therefore, while upholding our Lord's teaching about the necessity of Baptism, we also focus on "the great mercy of God." Throughout Sacred Scripture the mercy of God is extolled: For instance, Psalm 136 reminds us, "His mercy endures forever," and Psalm145:8-9 proclaims, "The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and of great kindness. The Lord is good to all and compassionate toward all His works." Throughout the Gospel, Jesus dealt mercifully with sinners who had freely chosen to sin. St. Paul wrote, "God is rich in mercy; because of His great love for us, He brought us to life with Christ when we were dead in sin" (Ephesians 2:4-5). In all, Sacred Scripture consistently emphasizes the infinite mercy of God.

Because of our firm belief in God's infinite mercy and His universal salvific will that all should be saved, we have a genuine hope that there is indeed a way of salvation for children who have died without the benefit of Baptism through no fault of their own. After all, could we not rightly speculate that the desire of the parents, of the whole Church, of the child (who is made in God's image and likeness, and at least in the most simple way has a natural longing for God), and of God Himself is truly a desire for salvation? Just as those adults, who through no fault of their own know neither the Gospel of Christ or His Church but seek God with a sincere heart and live by the dictates of their conscience with the help of His grace, may attain eternal salvation (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, #16), we certainly trust that a helpless, innocent child who has died in the womb, been aborted, been miscarried, or died without the benefit of Baptism will not be abandoned by the Lord or denied His saving grace.

This hope is evident in the "living faith" of our Church. Pope John Paul II in EvangeliumVitae, when compassionately addressing women who have had abortions, wrote, "...You will also be able to ask forgiveness from your child, who is now living in the Lord" (#99). Such a statement indicates the Holy Father's trust in the infinite mercy of God for these children and their place in the Heaven. In the Opening Prayer for the funeral Mass of an unbaptized child, the priest offers one of the following prayers: "Lord, listen to the prayers of this family that has faith in you. In their sorrow at the death of this child, may they find hope in your infinite mercy," or, "Father of all consolation, from whom nothing is hidden, you know the faith of these parents who mourn the death of their child. May they find comfort in knowing that he is entrusted to your loving care." Interestingly, prior to the Second Vatican Council, a priest always offered the Mass of the Angels for the children who died without baptism, entrusting their care to the Guardian Angels who look upon the face of God in Heaven. The graces of atonement of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass which flow from the death and resurrection of our Lord must surely give repose to these children and comfort to their grieving families. Moreover, we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Innocents on December 28, who are considered martyrs for the faith although they were neither technically baptized nor knew Christ. Surely, the victims of abortion must be considered modern martyrs, who have shed their blood just because they were created by God yet rejected by others.

While we may still struggle with this issue and find tension due to the lack of definitive teaching, we place our trust in the Lord. While the Lord has revealed to the Church that Baptism is the means of salvation, He is not restricted in offering other graced means unknown to the Church to these helpless children, and for such means the Church has great hope. However, such a hope in the infinite mercy of God must not make us complacent and thereby negligent in having children baptized or in evangelizing others. Rather, we must conscientiously fulfill our duty and enable all people to come to the Lord through Baptism.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 1998