Limbo has been in limbo for quite some time, but is now on its way to extinction. A Vatican committee that spent years examining the medieval...
ROME — Limbo has been in limbo for quite some time, but is now on its way to extinction.
A Vatican committee that spent years examining the medieval concept on Friday published a much-anticipated report reversing limbo’s basic tenet that unbaptized babies who die may not go to heaven.
That could reverse centuries of Roman Catholic traditional belief that the souls of unbaptized babies are condemned to eternity in limbo, a place that is neither heaven nor hell, giving rise to the popular usage meaning “in between.”
Limbo is not unpleasant, but it is not a seat alongside God.
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In his 14th-century work “The Divine Comedy,” the Italian poet Dante famously placed virtuous pagans and great classical philosophers, including Plato and Socrates, in limbo.
Catholic doctrine states that because all humans are tainted by original sin thanks to the experience of Adam and Eve, baptism is essential for salvation. But the idea of limbo has fallen out of favor for many Catholics, who see it as harsh and not befitting a merciful God.
The Vatican’s International Theological Commission issued its findings — with the approval of Pope Benedict XVI — in a document published by the Catholic News Service, the news agency of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
• From the Latin “limbus,” for hem or edge, limbo refers to a “state of natural happiness” outside heaven, a destination for the souls of babies who were not baptized and certain virtuous people, such as faithful Jews who lived before the time of Christ.
• In the fifth century, St. Augustine declared that all unbaptized babies went to hell upon death. By the Middle Ages, the idea was softened to suggest a less-severe fate, limbo.
• Never part of formal doctrine because it does not appear in Scripture, limbo was removed from the Catholic Catechism 15 years ago.
Limbo, the commission said, “reflects an unduly restrictive view of salvation.”
“Our conclusion,” the commission said in its 41-page report, is that there are “serious theological and liturgical grounds for hope that unbaptized infants who die will be saved and brought into eternal happiness.” The commission added that while this is not “sure knowledge,” it comes in the context of a loving and just God who “wants all human beings to be saved.”
A church decision to abolish limbo has long been expected.
Benedict and his predecessor, the late Pope John Paul II, expressed misgivings about the concept. Benedict, when he was still Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and the church’s top enforcer of dogma, said he viewed limbo as a mere “theological hypothesis.”
The document published Friday said the question of limbo has become a “matter of pastoral urgency” because of the growing number of babies who do not receive the baptismal rite. Especially in Africa and other parts of the world where Catholicism is growing but has competition from other faiths such as Islam, high infant-mortality rates mean many families live with a church teaching them that their babies could not go to heaven.
Catholic parents should still baptize their children, as that sacrament is the way salvation is revealed, the document said.
The Rev. Thomas Weinandy, executive director for doctrine at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the document “addresses the issue from a whole new perspective — if we are now hoping these children get to heaven, there is no longer any point in worrying about limbo.
“Although it doesn’t actually dismiss limbo altogether,” Weinandy added, “it argues for other ways of dealing with salvation for infants who died unbaptized.”
Catholic conservatives criticized any effort to relegate limbo to oblivion.
Removing the concept from church teaching would lessen the importance of baptism and discourage parents from christening their infants, said Kenneth J. Wolfe, a Washington-based columnist for the traditionalist Catholic newspaper The Remnant.
“It makes baptism a formality, a party, instead of a necessity,” Wolfe said. “There would be no reason for infant baptisms. It would put the Catholic Church on par with the Protestants.”
It would also deprive Catholic leaders of a tool in their fight against abortion, Wolfe said. Priests have long told women that their aborted fetuses cannot go to heaven, which in theory was another argument against ending pregnancy. Without limbo, those fetuses would presumably no longer be denied communion with God.
Los Angeles Times staff writer Louis Sahagun in Los Angeles contributed to this report. Additional information is from The Associated Press and Reuters.