"A clean heart create for him, God; renew in me a steadfast spirit." Psalm 51:12

Original Sin and the Question of Limbo

The term "original sin" is a Catholic term but even among Catholics it is not used much because people do not understand what it is. Generally, when we talk about sin, we are talking about what we have done wrong. Most of the time we are talking about personal sins, things that we have done individually and that we are responsible for. There is also social sin that refers to "systems" of public policy that harm people. It is not done by any one person but it based on how community and government policies are set.

"Original Sin" is not something we have done individually. Neither is it a "social sin" committed today. The Compendium to the Catechism of the Catholic Church provides the following definition of original sin, "Original sin, in which all human beings are born, is the state of deprivation of original holiness and justice. It is a sin “contracted” by us not “committed”; it is a state of birth and not a personal act. Because of the original unity of all human beings, it is transmitted to the descendants of Adam “not by imitation, but by propagation”. This transmission remains a mystery which we cannot fully understand (76)."

Key to understanding original sin in this definition is that original sin is not committed but rather contracted. It is not something we do ourselves. Man and woman were created in the image of God in "original holiness" and justice. Everything they needed was provided by God in the Garden of Eden. But Adam and Eve, the first human beings, gave into the temptation of the devil (Genesis 3:1-24). That first sin is "original sin." God does not hold us personally responsible for that first sin but it does forever identify humans as sinners, struggling to resist temptation.

The Bible includes the story of Adam and Eve's sin to help us understand our human inclination to sin. It is not just about Adam and Eve but to help us understand our own personal response to sin and how it is a turning-away from God. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, "Man, tempted by the devil, let his trust in his Creator die in his heart and, abusing his freedom, disobeyed God's command. This is what man's first sin consisted of.All subsequent sin would be disobedience toward God and lack of trust in his goodness (397)."

The United States Catholic Catechism For Adults provides another definition for original sin, "The personal sin of disobedience committed by the first human beings, resulting in the deprivation of original holiness and justice and the experience of suffering and death.  It also describes the fallen state of all human beings, including the experience of concupiscence, ignorance of God, and suffering and death (522)."

Original sin is removed in Baptism but it still has an "effect" on us. "Concupiscence" is the inclination to sin. Paul speaks of how we do the evil we do not want to do (Rom 7:19). While Baptism removes the stain of original sin, it does not remove the inclination to future sin (Catechism for Adults, 310).

Speaking of how original sin has affected the whole human race throughout history the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, "How did the sin of Adam become the sin of all his descendants? The whole human race is in Adam "as one body of one man." By this "unity of the human race" all men are implicated in Adam's sin, as all are implicated in Christ's justice. Still, the transmission of original sin is a mystery that we cannot fully understand. But we do know by Revelation that Adam had received original holiness and justice not for himself alone, but for all human nature. By yielding to the tempter, Adam and Eve committed a personal sin, but this sin affected the human nature that they would then transmit in a fallen state. It is a sin which will be transmitted by propagation to all mankind, that is, by the transmission of a human nature deprived of original holiness and justice. And that is why original sin is called "sin" only in an analogical sense: it is a sin "contracted" and not "committed"—a state and not an act. (404)."

So, original sin dates back to creation. While the term "original sin" is not found in the Bible, there are verses that refer to our fallen nature. Psalm 51:7 describes us as born guilty. Sirach 25:23 refers to Eve's action in the Garden, "In woman was sin's beginning, and because of her we all die." In Wis 2:23-24 we read, "For God formed man to be imperishable; the image of his own nature he made him. But by the envy of the devil, death entered the world, and they who are in his possession experience it."

We were created to be imperishable (original holiness and justice) but through the devil "original sin" came. Lastly, Ezekiel 18:14-20 tells us that a son does not die for the sins of his father. We are not responsible for the individual sin of Adam and Eve. Nonetheless, it has its effect on the world and humans are forever marked with "original sin."

The term "original sin" was first used by St. Augustine in the 4th century A.D. People were asking if it was necessary to baptize babies. Augustine developed the language of "original sin" to explain the necessity of infant baptism (cf. John 3:5). He taught that without Baptism infants who died would be sent to hell for original sin (International Theological Commission (ITC), "The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptised",16), Thavis, "Vatican commission: Limbo reflects 'restrictive view of salvation'").

Fortunately, the idea that unbaptized babies went to Hell did not become the teaching of the Church. In the 12th Century, Pope Innocent II, without specifically speaking of infants, said "baptism of desire" was possible (ITC, "The Hope of Salvation", 36). "Baptism by Desire" (CCC, 1258). refers to what is in the heart of an unbaptized person's heart. God knows what is in the person's heart. God knows if the person wants to be Christian. Typically RCIA for adults is a yearlong process. What happens to a person if they start RCIA but then die in an accident before they are baptized? God provides. God knows the desire of their hearts and will receive them into his heavenly kingdom (CCC,1259). The same is true for infants who die, through no fault of their own without being baptized. Our God is an Awesome God! He does not abandon anyone who loves him.

In the 13th Century Alexander of Hales said unbaptized babies do not suffer in Hell. Albert the Great said unbaptized babies know they are not in Heaven but they do not feel bad for it. To them, it is simply the way things are. St. Bonaventure said unbaptized infants consciously suffer in their own place which is neither heaven or hell. This place became known as "Limbo." (ITC, "The Hope of Salvation", 24, Thavis, "Limbo reflects").

Does Limbo really exist?
For years there was a Catholic belief in "limbo". Limbo was some "place" where babies who died without being baptized went. They were not with God in the heavenly kingdom but at least they were not in Hell and they did not suffer (ITC, "The Hope of Salvation", 23). Yet, dying without being baptized meant they would be separated from God for all eternity.

Recently, the International Theological Commission of the Vatican studying the question of Limbo. This is not proper Catholic Teaching today. Limbo does not exist ("The Hope of Salvation", Thavis, "Limbo reflects").

So what does happen to babies who die without being baptized? We trust them to the mercy of God (CCC, 1261). Our God is a loving God. Jesus became human for our sake and died for us on the Cross. He will not let one innocent child suffer because they were not baptized. Jesus loves every one of the children and will take them home to himself. Remember, Baptism is a Sacrament and has the power to forgive our sins and to make us children of God because God wills it. The Sacrament is for us but God can bestow this grace on anyone he desires ("God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments" (CCC 1257).

God can save babies who die without Baptism. Yet, in choosing to baptize our little ones, we entrust them to God for as the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, "Born with a fallen human nature and tainted by original sin, children also have need of the new birth in Baptism to be freed from the power of darkness and brought into the realm of the freedom of the children of God, to which all men are called.The sheer gratuitousness of the grace of salvation is particularly manifest in infant Baptism. The Church and the parents would deny a child the priceless grace of becoming a child of God were they not to confer Baptism shortly after birth. (1250)."

In conclusion we read in "The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptised,"  "It must be clearly acknowledged that the Church does not have sure knowledge about the salvation of unbaptised infants who die. She knows and celebrates the glory of the Holy Innocents, but the destiny of the generality of infants who die without Baptism has not been revealed to us, and the Church teaches and judges only with regard to what has been revealed. What we do positively know of God, Christ and the Church gives us grounds to hope for their salvation, as must now be explained (79)."

In effect, we all rely on the mercy of God. We rely on the saving act of Jesus Christ as he was crucified for our sins. We struggle to resist temptation and must continue the struggle. There is hope. Paul tells us that sin entered the world through one man, Adam. Redemption enters the world through one man, Jesus Christ!

For Further Information


Catechism of the Catholic Church. Second Edition, Libreria Editrice Vaticana. 1997. Available online at http://www.usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/what-we-believe/catechism/catechism-of-the-catholic-church/.

Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2006. Available online at http://www.vatican.va/archive/compendium_ccc/documents/archive_2005_compendium-ccc_en.html.

International Theological Commission, "The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptised." April 19, 2007. Available online at http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/cti_documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_20070419_un-baptised-infants_en.html.

Thavis, John, Catholic News Service, "Vatican commission: Limbo reflects 'restrictive view of salvation'." April 20, 2007. Available online at http://www.catholicnews.com/data/stories/cns/0702216.htm. Access Date July 26, 2010.

USSCB, United States Catholic Catechism for Adults, Washington, DC: USCCB, 2006.

"The woman saw that the tree was good for food, pleasing to the eyes, and desirable for gaining wisdom. So she took some of its fruit and ate it; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized that they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves" (Genesis 3:6-7)