Could the Pope Reverse the Concept of Limbo?

Shawn McEvoy | Crosswalk Faith Editor | Thursday, October 12, 2006

Could the Pope Reverse the Concept of Limbo?

According to Catholic teaching, infant baptism removes original sin, that which has stained all souls since Adam and Eve disobeyed God's only (at that time) "do not" commandment.

But, what about infants who pass away before having the chance to be baptized? For centuries, many Roman Catholics have believed in the state of limbo - a place somewhere between heaven and hell - as a repository for these souls, even though the concept has never been part of official Church teaching. Limbo has also been held to be the destination for godly people who lived before Christ. And the poet Danté, in his Divine Comedy, placed even virtuous pagans and classical philosophers in limbo.

According to the BBC's Religion and Ethics site, prior to the 13th Century, the Church held that all people dying unbaptized - including newborns - would spend eternity in hell. So limbo (from the Latin limbus, meaning "the edge") was expounded as a solution to the theological question of God's fairness and grace over the situation. Even so, many Catholic parents through the ages suffered much guilt and grief over the idea their little one was excluded from heaven, something which concerns the Church greatly.

Many modern Christians, particularly those from non-Catholic backgrounds, are not familiar with limbo, having been taught that while we are all indeed born with a nature given to original sin, a person has not actually sinned until they've made the conscious choice to disobey God. Infants and very young children who die are therefore unstained and bound for heaven.

Either way, the whole idea of limbo may be about to change, as the BBC reports Pope Benedict XVI is said to be very interesting in tying up "loose theological ends." Catholic experts have advised Pope Benedict that teachings on the state of limbo should be amended, while the Pope himself is said to have never quite believed in the concept, and has been quoted as dismissing the notion as a mere "hypothesis."

But change is rare in the Catholic Chuch when it comes to doctrine and traditional teachings. And indeed, the question is being asked whether a change is even necessary in this case. Church historian Michael Walsh claims limbo is so unpopular it has all but dropped out of Catholic consciousness anyway. Considering that fact, should the Church risk the earthquake that could shake its foundations if a papal decree reverses two-thousand years of "firm belief"? Because if limbo can be abolished, it opens the door for those who might wonder, "What else is disposable?"

According to Reuters and the BBC, rumors and suggestions abound that the Church may have an ulterior motive in abolishing limbo. As the church strives to maintain influence in regions of the globe where there are high infant mortality rates, many times it's competing with the spread of Islam. In these developing countries, might parents who have suffered the death of their baby be swayed to convert to Islam, which teaches that the souls of stillborn children go straight to paradise, particularly if the local Christian Chuch is preaching another fate?

Father John MacDaid, a theologian and principal of the Catholic Heythrop College at the University of London, denied the suggestion to the BBC. "What I would say to any parent who loses a child and who is anxious about the destiny of that child is that we must have complete confidence that that child is now embraced by God in heaven," Father MacDaid said.

As a counter-point, Father Brian Harrison, a theologian, told the BBC News website that "the clear 'doctrine of the Catholic Church for two millennia has been that wherever the souls of such infants do go, they definitely don't go to heaven.'" So regardless of whether limbo is a "hypothesis" or not, Harrison and others would still resist the idea of the unbaptized finding themselves in the presence of the Lord.

According to the Catholic weekly newspaper The Universe, Father Allen Morris from the England and Wales Bishops’ Conference’s Department of Christian Life and Worship said: "What happens to the child of Christian parents, whose parents haven’t been able to get their child [baptized]? Is that child condemned to Hell? Given what we know of God’s love, this would be unreasonable, so therefore there must be another way."

That "other way" has been under review since 2004, when Pope John Paul II asked the Church's International Theological Commission (ITC) to come up with "a more coherent and enlightened way" than limbo of describing the fate of innocents. The review is part of the Church's wider re-examination of the notion of salvation in general. Pope Benedict XVI had been expected to make an announcement last week, but the ITC had failed to resolve the issue. The Pope has now delayed the decision, and a document on limbo as a theological concept is expected to be published next year.

Father Morris commented, "My own guess as to the reasons for the postulation over the announcement would be that the issue of limbo in the first case presents a theological predicament – in that the Church has always said that Baptism in necessary. But in saying so [it] presents problems."

For example, does doing away with limbo make infant baptism not so necessary, and therefore obsolete? That's not a place the Church would wish to go. "What the Church is struggling to say," said Father Morris, "is that Baptism deepens the sacramental relationship with God. And at the same time God is not vengeful, and so, when the document is eventually published, I expect it so say that grounds for hope in the afterlife for unbaptized children and people of good moral character can be found in the love of God."

Pastor Ray Pritchard of Keep Believing Ministries, commenting from the evangelical perspective, summarizes the argument well: "If there is no scriptural support for limbo (and there isn't), and if the teaching serves no theological or pastoral purpose, and if most people don't believe it and most priests ignore it, why keep it on the books, so to speak?"

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