Q — What has happened to purgatory and limbo? These were things we learned about in school so many years ago, but we don’t hear anything about nowadays.

A — Let’s begin our response with purgatory. We read in the Catechism, pars. 1030 and 1031: “All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven… The church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned…” If God is to be understood as absolute and unconditional Love reaching out to us now in Word and Sacrament to draw us closer into communion with himself, then our encounter with God after death cannot be other. God remains Love reaching out to us, embracing us.

However, which of us in the presence of this Love will feel appropriately ready for this final embrace of God? In this moment of what we call judgment, I imagine most of us will feel very un-lovely. We will have a basket of regrets, maybe a dumpster of regrets!
The regrets of our un-love will be dissolved in the presence of Absolute Love. The pain of such regret is what we call “purgatory.” The Love that God is, we might say, burns away the un-love that we are. The self-discovery or self-awareness that is consequent upon being on the threshold of final embrace in the Divine Communion of Love is immediately purgatorial.  

Then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger once expressed it like this: “I would go so far as to say that if there was no purgatory, then we would have to invent it, for who would dare say of himself that he was able to stand directly before God?”  (“Joseph Ratzinger, God and the World”).

What about “Limbo”?
Limbo has been the supposed permanent dwelling “place” of those who die in the state of original sin without the benefit of the sacrament of baptism.  It comes from the Latin word limbus/border. Let us again turn to the Catechism. In paragraph 1261 we read: “As regards children who have died at 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 to 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.”

Furthermore, in paragraph 1257 we read: “the Lord himself affirms that baptism is necessary for salvation… the church does not know of any means other than baptism that assures entry into eternal beatitude… God has bound salvation to the sacrament of baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments.”

Both of these paragraphs from the Catechism provide us with a strong foundation of hope for unbaptized infants. Really, hope is so strong that “limbo” is unnecessary and redundant.

Hear some more words of Joseph Ratzinger: “Limbo was never a defined as faith.  Personally, and here I am speaking more as a theologian and not as prefect of the congregation, I would abandon it, since it was only a theological hypothesis.  It formed part of a secondary thesis in support of a truth which is absolutely the first significant faith, namely the importance of baptism.” (Joseph Ratzinger, The Ratzinger Report). Joseph Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI released a document prepared by his International Theological Commission on April 20, 2007. This document was entitled “The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized.” Essentially, the document states that this theological opinion, “Limbo,” is unnecessary.