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Why belief in 'Limbo' has disappeared in recent decades – Queen's Research

9/11/2018

Catholic church

A research study from Queen's has found that the belief in Limbo – a place for unbaptised babies - has declined throughout the decades in Ireland due to the changing beliefs and values of the nation.

Limbo, in Catholic theology, was believed to be the border place between heaven and hell where those souls who died without being baptised, though not condemned to punishment, were deprived of eternal happiness with God in heaven.

The study was led by Professor Liam Kennedy, Professor Emeritus of History from the Institute of Irish Studies at Queen's University, who conducted a survey questionnaire in association with the Irish Countrywomen's Association.

Some 26 women in total, including 23 from the Irish Countrywomen's Association, took part in the survey which was carried out in 2017. The women varied in ages, with birth dates ranging from the 1930s - 1960s and represented all four provinces of the island of Ireland.

Professor Kennedy explained: "The term Limbo does not appear in the Bible or the New Testament. It seems the concept was developed over time by Christians to handle two problems: one was the fate of those who led just lives and who died before Christ came on earth to redeem humankind; the other was the fate of unbaptised babies in the event of death.

"Children growing up in the Ireland of the 1950s will have a clear remembrance of a metaphysical space or place known as Limbo. For Catholics, though not Irish Protestants, this formed part of a spiritual cosmos which viewed Heaven and Hell as opposite poles, with Purgatory and Limbo occupying rather vaguely defined intermediate positions. But Limbo appears to have disappeared off the spiritual map."

In Ireland, understandings of Limbo, along with Heaven, Hell and Purgatory, were handed down by parents, schoolteachers, priests and nuns, drawing on the teachings of the Catholic Church.

"Catholics in Ireland, from the 1960s onwards, turned their backs on a religious belief they found not credible or even cruel and the institutional church itself placed less and less emphasis on the 'doctrine' of Limbo.

"A fear of Limbo drove parents to have their new-born child baptised as soon as was practicable. Otherwise, the infant risked losing eternal happiness and going into a void called Limbo. I have little doubt that mothers who had miscarriages or still-births suffered mental anguish as a result of the death of an unbaptised foetus or still-birth. Heaven was closed to the unbaptised, as indeed was consecrated Church ground," Professor Kennedy said.

In the study, 75 per cent of respondents felt the decline of belief in Limbo was due to the changing beliefs and values of the Catholic laity in Ireland, rather than change emanating from the centre of the Catholic Church in Rome.

However, 25 per cent of respondents believed that the teaching authority of the Catholic Church – in other words the Pope and the hierarchy – was the source of change.

 Comments from respondents in the survey include:

  • 'More people [were] less accepting of Church/Catholic myths'.
  • 'Young people became more educated and began to question stuff that did not make sense to them. They were no longer afraid of the "fire and brimstone" that our previous generations were afraid to question.'
  • 'People think Limbo is a ... cruel place and don't think that children go there. They believe in a more merciful God and that children will go to Heaven directly.'
  • 'Because people didn't buy it anymore'.

Speaking about their own experience of Limbo, a respondent in the study said: "I was the eldest of ten children. But in 1954 I had a sister born named Marian (as it was Marian year in Ireland). She was born on a Saturday but died the next day.

"As was customary then my dad had to take her little body late at night well after dark to an old graveyard and on the perimeter of the graveyard. My dad had to bury her with no grave markings (an unknown grave). But at the time he made a little cross shape tied together with twine, made from two sticks and stuck them in the ground. Every year my dad used to take me to Marian's grave to say a little prayer."

Marie O'Toole, President of the ICA said: "ICA members were delighted to be invited to contribute to this worthwhile project by way of memories dating back to their youth, on the subject of Limbo. Some of them had very traumatic tales to tell, however, I suppose we lived in a different era then and believed everything we were told."

The study also found that there was a movement towards late baptism in recent times which meant that the mother, who was rarely at the baptism ceremony, was present at the moment of introducing the infant into her community of faith. Previously the mother would not have been present as the baptism as they were held almost immediately after birth.

Professor Kennedy concluded: "The survey was primarily concerned with belief in Limbo and its subsequent demise, as seen from the viewpoint of women. As the decades have gone by, belief in Limbo has withered. So much so that in this present day hardly any of those born in the new millennium will have the slightest notion of what Limbo was (or is), other than as a colloquial expression for being in some indeterminate mood or situation, as for example in the feeling of being 'in Limbo'. But it really did matter for the best part of a thousand years and gave rise to both fear and pain."

For more information on the study, please visit: http://www.qub.ac.uk/home/Filestore/Filetoupload,845202,en.pdf

ENDS…

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