If one looks into what is actually dogmatic about the afterlife, there is very little specified and it is all quite basic:
- There are those who are saved and enjoy God’s kingdom
- There are those who don’t
- There is a temporary state of purgation and cleansing (though the Orthodox claim to deny this idea, they do believe it in concept… it was believed even in the time of Origen)
There is nothing else. God’s kingdom and the intricacies of how it works are not revealed to us. There is nothing dogmatic about a 7, 10, or 12-tiered hell or anything else found in The Divine Comedy.
I would like to draw attention to the concept of the after life postulated on by some of the Greek Fathers: That all souls are in the same “place” but their state is determined in how they lived. There are no farting devils poking souls with pointy sticks, no souls wailing with their eyes sewn shut, no sinners frozen in ice. The damned instead look upon God and the saved around them who bask in the Communion of Love, and they despair. The damned are damned because they did not follow the first and second commandments (“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. And thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself”) and what they loved is gone and exists no more. They now look upon that which they cannot partake and look back on what they gave it up for and are filled with an overwhelming despair. The devils who willingly rejected this Love gloat in triumph over the damned soul, pointing him to what they helped deprive him of.
Such a soul-crushing hell so close to heaven is more horrifying than all the fires, devices of torture, and other inventions of the Tuscan poet.
Yet the Dante view is the one that has taken deep root in the popular and mainstream Catholic culture, probably because it is easier for our materialistic minds to visualize. The inadequacies of these concepts are no more apparent than in the conundrum of the unbaptized infants.
I would like to point out before going any further that there are many possibilities about the unbaptized infants and nothing is dogmatic about it, except possibly one thing. The Council of Carthage explicitly condemned a middle ground for infants as Pelagian fantasy but did not specify where they go since there was no consensus (Augustine believed in his own self-loathing that they were damned, but wasn’t able to get the other bishops on board with this idea). The anti-rationalist and orthodox 19th century theologian Heinrich Klee floated the idea that the infant could be enlightened by God enough to make a choice at the moment of its death, which is certainly possible. There is also the possibility that they are held in a temporary “Limbo” and will decide at the final judgement. There is the ever-present truth that our some of our prayers could be redirected by God to help the infants (like in the story of St. Perpetua and her own brother who died unbaptized). Finally, it is my sincere belief that a miscarried child from Catholic parents will likely be saved if the parents intended to baptize him/her. After all, it is they who speak for the child when he/she is baptized with water!
To summarize, much like the question of “How many are saved and how many are damned?” it is one of the great mysteries that has never been revealed. Anyone who states otherwise seeks to restrict God into a human box, which is the great error of rationalism.
Note however, that the view of paradise and hell I mentioned above makes such hand-wringing look utterly silly (I would posit that it even makes the question of “universal salvation” utterly superfluous). It does away with the torment one may feel at imagining a baby in hell or the stingy anger of a pharisee who may be offended at the idea of an unbaptized enjoying paradise. We will all be in God’s kingdom. The question is, do we get to partake of its fruits?
“In my Father’s house there are many mansions” – John 14:2