The Catholic Church has finally got its act in gear and published a document burying limbo. While never a formal part of the Church’s doctrine, it was taught for generations; in medieval Christian theology it was where the unbaptised dead went, even the good people who lived before Jesus.
But what got the Church moving on the issue was the spiritual destination for unbaptised babies, who were, according to the theory, sent to limbo. This is because of the Church’s doctrine of original sin; i.e. the sin of Adam and Eve in giving into temptation. Baptism is said to wash this sin away, leaving one’s soul squeaky clean.
That’s fine if you’re an adult or otherwise have some understanding of sin, confession, forgiveness, etc. But if you were unfortunate enough to be born and die shortly afterward without the requisite trickle of cold water over your forehead, off you went to that great waiting room in the sky.
Although it wasn’t necessarily a bad place to be. Thomas Aquinas considered it a state of natural happiness, although lacking the presence of God. Which is certainly a better fate for unbaptised infants than that espoused by Augustine of Hippo, who believed they went to hell.
I have never understood the logic in excluding infants from heaven. What could be more innocent than a newborn baby? I thought God was benevolent, loving and forgiving? And He would send babies to limbo because they couldn’t ask to be baptised? It all clashed horribly with the Christian teaching of salvation. Now the Catholic Church has come to its senses in this regard with a document called The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptised.
The report by the International Theological Commission, authorised by Pope Benedict (who himself cast doubt on limbo before he was elevated the papacy), decided that limbo represents “an unduly restrictive view of salvation”.
“The conclusion of this study is that there are theological and liturgical reasons to hope that infants who die without baptism may be saved and brought into eternal happiness even if there is not an explicit teaching on this question found in revelation,” it reads.
“There are reasons to hope that God will save these infants precisely because it was not possible (to baptize them).
“People find it increasingly difficult to accept that God is just and merciful if he excludes infants, who have no personal sins, from eternal happiness, whether they are Christian or non-Christian.”
The reference to non-Christian infants is particularly interesting. I look at it as a recognition of universal innocence; after all, babies have no understanding of the world and its foibles, and in that respect they’re all the same.
Of course, it is possible to argue that this is the Catholic Church staking a claim to the soul of every child born on the face of the Earth (and there’s no getting around its doctrine that salvation is only possible through Christianity, and the report stresses it is not challenging the concept of original sin). I am unsure if what the report says is intended to also be applied to non-Christian adults, although Rev Thomas Reese, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Woodstock Theological Center, seems to think so.
So there we have it. While the document lacks the weight of a papal bull, Benedict has nonetheless backed it. And while the report only expresses the “hope” that the non-baptised can go to heaven, hope is better than limbo.
The report can be read online at http://www.originsonline.com (log-in required).