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The Last of Limbo

No, I’m not talking about bending over backwards in an attempt to pass under an ever-descending horizontal pole, typically to the beat of Jamaican music!

I’m referring to the recent dialogue within the Vatican concerning the status of the unofficial “doctrine” of Limbo (from the Latin limbus, meaning a hem, edge or boundary).

The concept of Limbo in Roman Catholic theology is tied to their beliefs concerning original sin and the necessity of baptism for salvation. The Catholic Catechism defines baptism as follows:

“Holy Baptism is the basis of the whole Christian life, the gateway to life in the Spirit, and the door which gives access to the other sacraments. Through Baptism we are freed from sin and reborn as sons of God; we become members of Christ, are incorporated into the Church and made sharers in her mission: ‘Baptism is the sacrament of regeneration through water and in the word’” (CC, 1213).

According to Roman Catholicism, two things are accomplished in water baptism: first: the individual is purified from the guilt of both original sin and all personal sins (the latter, of course, would be relevant only in the case of adults); and second, the person experiences regeneration or the new birth. In the Catechism, we read that “Baptism not only purifies from all sins, but also makes the neophyte ‘a new creature,’ an adopted son of God, who has become a ‘partaker of the divine nature,’ member of Christ and co-heir with him, and a temple of the Holy Spirit” (CC, 1265).

Children are likewise to be baptized. According to the Catechism, “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 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” (CC, 1250).

Does this mean, then, that those infants who die without the sacrament of baptism remain in their sin, unregenerate, and condemned to hell? Augustine (d. 430) said yes, although they do not suffer the full extent of hell’s misery because they have committed no personal sin. Medieval Catholic theologians were uncomfortable with this and wanted to mitigate what they perceived as the harshness of Augustine’s doctrine, so they formulated the concept of Limbo, a place or experience in the after-life in which unbaptized infants enjoyed a natural happiness, blessedness, or peace, but were excluded from the Beatific Vision, or sight of God (and the supernatural joys that living in his presence would bring).

The Catechism does not use the word “Limbo” but contains the following explanation:

“As regards children who have died without 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 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” (CC, 1261).

As Catholic theologian Alan Schreck has pointed out, “the Catholic Church has never formally recognized or denied the existence of limbo in its official teaching” (The Essential Catholic Catechism, 393). It is, therefore, notes Peter Kreeft, “neither a dogma nor a heresy” (Catholic Christianity, 312).

My purpose here isn’t to deal with the difficult issue of the eternal destiny of those who die in infancy. I have addressed that subject elsewhere on my website (www.SamStorms.com) and I encourage you to check it out if you are interested in delving into this matter in more detail (you can find it in the Theological Studies section under Controversial Issues, Session 8, “Are those who die in infancy saved?”). Neither is it my intent to refute the Catholic view that a person is regenerated and forgiven of sins in the waters of baptism.

Rather I wanted to update you on developments concerning Limbo that may well lead to its disappearance altogether from Catholic theological dialogue. In December of 2005, 30 leading theologians met at the Vatican to discuss what should be done with the concept. They had been summoned over a year ago by the late John Paul II to develop a “more coherent and illuminating” doctrine. In 1984, then Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, told Catholic author Vittorio Messori that Limbo had “never been a definitive truth of the faith” and that it was “only a theological hypothesis” and should be dropped. Although nothing has been done as yet, one expects Benedict to make it “official” that unbaptized infants enter into the fullness of heavenly bliss.

There are two interesting corollaries to this development. In a recent Time magazine editorial, David Van Biema writes that “in the absence of limbo . . . the rite of baptism may not seem as imperative to many Catholics as it once appeared. Despite its continued centrality as the sacramental entry to the body of Christ, some of its ASAP urgency will presumably fade” (January 9, 2006, p. 68). Whereas that may well be true for many Catholic parents, I doubt if the Church’s more conservative theologians will countenance such a thought.

Second, many see this impending decision as consistent with the church’s stance on abortion as murder. Recently Pope Benedict asserted that the embryo, despite its lack of physical development, is a “full and complete” human being. In the same Time article the author observes that “if you are going to call a fetus’ termination murder, then it seems somehow inconsistent to deny heaven to the blameless, full and complete victim” (68). I won’t comment on the cogency of such reasoning or its theological implications, but it does provide the Catholic Church with a way of granting grieving parents a measure of consolation following the loss of a child.

If Rome issues an official statement on the issue, and I’m quite certain they will, I’ll let you know.