Church Tradition of Limbo Heading for Limbo
Limbo, that netherworld of unbaptized babies, worthy pagans, and even a few Muslims, is very much on the way out. During the month of December, 2005, thirty Roman Catholic theologians from around the world met at the Vatican to discuss, among other dilemmas, the problem of what happens to babies who die without baptism.
The conferees, as theological advisers to Pope Benedict XVI, was finally disposing of limbo; a concept that was never official church doctrine but has been an enduring medieval theory of a blissful state among the departed, somehow different from both heaven and hell.
It is relevant to what the Roman Catholic church has been and what it wants to be. The concept of limbo bumps up against one of the most contentious issues for the church: abortion. If fetuses are human beings, what happens to their souls if they are aborted? It raises questions of how broadly the church; and its new pope, view the notion of salvation.
Unlike other issues; the recent emotional debate over homosexuality in the priesthood, for example; there seems to be unanimity that limbo should exit from the church's stage, even if, at the moment, it is unclear what exact doctrine will replace it.
Limbo has not been a "truth of the faith"
"Limbo has never been a definitive truth of the faith," Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, elected Benedict this year, said in an interview in 1984, during his long term as Pope John Paul II's doctrinal watchdog. "Personally, I would let it drop, since it has always been only a theological hypothesis."
The controversy over limbo began with one of Pope Benedict's spiritual heroes: St. Augustine. The theology is complicated; but essentially, it is that Augustine, believing in man's original sin, persuaded a church council in A.D. 418 to reject any notion of an "intermediary place" between heaven and hell. He held that baptism was necessary for salvation and that unbaptized babies would actually go to hell, though in his later writings he conceded that it would entail the mildest of conditions.
In the Middle Ages, theologians, notably St. Thomas Aquinas, proposed a slightly cheerier idea: limbo, from the Latin limbus, meaning "a hem" or "a boundary". Here innocents would live forever in what Thomas called "natural happiness", if not in heaven. This was the "Limbo of the Babies".
It has never been an official Roman Catholic doctrine
Although limbo had no firm scriptural basis, and was thus never an official church doctrine, it remained a major part of church tradition; as well as, a defining image of Catholicism. It remained strong in 1905, when Pope Pius X stated plainly: "Children who die without baptism go into limbo, where they do not enjoy God, but they do not suffer either."
Ideas began to change with the reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s, when the church held that everyone, baptized Christians or not, could be eligible for salvation through the mystery of Jesus's redemptive power.
Pope John Paul II continued the decline of limbo, omitting the term from the most recent catechism and last year (2004), not long before his death, he asked the theological commission to officially consider the question of unbaptized babies; apparently because of his concern for the fate of aborted fetuses.
Last week in Rome, theological advisers to Pope Benedict XVI expressed a consensus that limbo, the afterlife state reserved for the unbaptized innocent, does not exist. Never formally defined as doctrine, limbo had nevertheless found a firm place in the religious imagination of many Christians [Roman Catholics].
Limbo's symbolism long seemed to mitigate the harshness of a theology that said only those formally initiated into Christianity through baptism can gain admittance to heaven, although by banishing the innocent to a lesser state ("natura" happiness as opposed to beatific bliss), limbo carried a harshness of its own.
Now the church is acknowledging that the passion and authority once invested in limbo, however "unofficially", can yield. Limbo is an invented symbol that can be left behind.
Limbo, Part 2.