Well, one of the great eternal conundrums of all time has resolved itself happilyone of those things that important minds have struggled with for centuries.
I dont mean the question of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Rather, I refer to that other important theological problem of where un-baptized babies will spend eternity.
The New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia gives this entry for limbo:
In theological usage the name is applied to (a) the temporary place or state of the souls of the just who, although purified from sin, were excluded from the beatific vision until Christ’s triumphant ascension into Heaven (the “limbus patrum”); or (b) to the permanent place or state of those unbaptized children and others who, dying without grievous personal sin, are excluded from the beatific vision on account of original sin alone (the “limbus infantium” or “puerorum”).
It is so nice to hear that an advisory panel in the Vatican, after years of study, has concluded that “limbo” does not exist and that unbaptized infants may go to heaven after all.
Religion News Blog reported last October that the Pope was simply abolishing limbo. More accurately, he is approving a report that abolishes any teaching about limbo. The official Catholic Catechism simply erased it in 1992. Now we have “The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized,” a 41-page report. Wow! (Read it in English here straight from the Vatican!)
Apparently this decision in the Vatican has a back story. When still merely Cardinal Ratzinger, head of the Office of the Inquisition (okay, the contemporary name is the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith), now-Pope Benedict XVI had expressed his view in 2005 that Limbo is a mere “theological hypothesis.”
One cannot help wondering if the Inferno isnt the same kind of a creature the invention of over-active human minds who needed to invent the place they would assign their enemies to, in order to be as far away as possible. Granted, the Inferno (Hell) has a better pedigree, since it is mentioned under various titles and names in the Bible. But Limbo is a purely medieval fabrication the work of small minds in the Dark Ages cranking out hypotheses which they felt must be explained in order for everything else in their comprehensive system to mesh together as a well-oiled theological machine.
While the Vatican admits that no teaching about Limbo exists in the Scriptures, it claims there is scriptural authority for Heaven, Hell and Purgatory. That last is such a stretch that I am dumbfoundedbut of course I am also not Roman Catholic. All the usual Biblical citations are stretched to produce the same results, a “theological hypothesis” that there has to be some place where people who arent perfect can work on themselves before entering heaven.
To which my overly-postmodern mind says with fatigue and exasperation, “oh stop.” I know my thinking is anachronistic, in expressing impatience that medieval minds were so, well, medieval.
But I am also mindful of a scholars serious assessment that St. Augustine practically invented the Dark Ages single-handedly. (Augustine believed that un-baptized dead babies go to hell.) That is, thinkers who sent western culture on a dark dead-end path of assigning people to hell, to purgatory and limbo, were themselves very darkly-disposed individuals.
It was Luther, of course, in 1517 who was able to criticize the idea of Purgatory aloud and live to tell about it. Another trait of dark, angry, bitter, narrow minds is that they do not tolerate dissent. Earlier reformers than Luther simply met with execution. But now the teaching about Limbo is going into perdition, and perhaps so will Purgatory some day.
One online commentary suggests a pastoral reason for all this shocking change of teaching: that the church is encountering places where infant mortality is still quite high, and the teaching about limbo has become an obstacle to converting adults to Christianity, if they are told that their dead baby will never enter heaven to be with them forever.
But isnt it also an obstacle to faith and spirituality to be told that other people whom we have known, and perhaps loved, will languish in purgatory for thousands of years, or as that Phelps guy in Topeka insists, will go straight to hell? When will the Pope, or Phelps, ever see that it is an obstacle to faith to declare that lesbian and gay and transgender people, and other sexual minorities, are destined for hell, just for being who we are?
We joke about the unintended consequences of our actions. And we cynically joke that “no good deed goes unpunished” because of unintended consequences. But doesnt a lot of official Christian teaching fall in the same camp? The unintended consequences of teaching that the human race will be judged and split up in the afterlifesome to go to paradise and some to eternal flamesproduces these other odd doctrines that imply people, families, loved ones, will be “separated at death” forever.
We are rubbing up against the anthropomorphism which always saturates spiritual teachings about God. The real unintended consequence of rigid doctrines, and papal advisory panels and solemn theological treatises, just may be that the doctrine of God itself will no longer be accepted by anyone. Who can believe in a divine being who destines souls to eternal torment?
—Pastor Dan Hooper, Los Angeles