Before letting limbo go entirely, it might be worth a last glance as a medieval/modern example of the church’s humanity, its imagination and its grudging ability to admit that it is wrong.
It is the lot of humans, of course, to set about trying to figure out these matters of salvation, puzzling through the gray areas where no texts apply and no divine intervention seems apparent. So it was with the problem of babies who died before having the capacity to do evil and before being baptized, and thus cleansed, in the catechism’s words, of the taint of original sin. What to do with these babies? Medieval thinkers devised a place -- limbo -- a spot not quite heaven and not quite hell where, as the CNS story on puts it, “denizens enjoy natural happiness but not the ‘beatific vision’ of the creator.” ( See story)
It was, in short, an attempt to figure out the mind of God regarding creatures who had not been subjected to all of the church’s rituals and those who had the misfortune to have been deprived of the Christian message.
The problem was that, inventive as the scheme may have been, it shortchanged the mercy of God, a not unimportant aspect, one suspects, in this business of salvation.
Any Catholic school kid in the United States a certain number of decades ago knew all about limbo, and it may be well to point out that, to our knowledge, there was no nun ready at the fourth-grade level to draw distinctions between it and other more defined truths of the faith. We knew precisely where those unfortunate unbaptized souls were going.
It took us centuries to come to the realization that perhaps these most inventive theologians of the past might have been wrong in their reading of the mind of God.
Even Pope Benedict XVI, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, apparently had trouble with the concept. In an interview while head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he said, “Limbo was never a defined truth of the faith. Personally -- and here I am speaking more as a theologian and not as prefect of the congregation -- I would abandon it, since it was only a theological hypothesis.”
There is, it is worth noting on the side, more than a small advantage in being the one setting or interpreting the rules. No one, as far as we know, accused the then-cardinal of being a cafeteria Catholic.
Much is being made now of what this new document says about the pope’s demeanor and ability to adapt.
Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese, who felt the sting of Benedict’s discipline when the priest was forced out as editor of the order’s America magazine, referred to the recent statement of the International Theological Commission as “a sensitive and pastoral response,” noting that parents mourning the death of a child “will no longer be burdened with the added guilt of not having gotten their child baptized quickly enough.”
He said the development also “shows that Benedict is not afraid to look at something that has been taught in the church for centuries and say it is not at the core of Catholic belief.”
John L. Allen Jr., in an online analysis (NCRcafe.org) considers the document one of the recent papal “surprises.” But then he goes on to say, as well, that the International Theological Commission, might not have had the nerve to be so bold in overturning a long-held concept had members not known ahead of time of the pope’s disposition toward the issue.
But why might they have been less bold if their theological investigation and reflection led them to that conclusion? If something isn’t true can it be less not true because a pope doesn’t believe it, or more not true because he does?
But we divert.
The real news is that everyone finally agrees -- after years of study by 31 theologians from around the world and 41 pages of explanation -- that a concept most Catholics, it can be ventured, had long ago thrown into the dustbin, indeed belongs there.
We at NCR hope God is pleased that the church has restored his capacity for exercising infinite mercy. It must have been a grand moment in heaven.
On earth, we hope the ongoing lesson is that we should not be too quick to absolutely proclaim what God has in mind for his creation or how severely God judges those who don’t fit all the categories created over time to determine who’s in the community and who’s out, who can gather around the table and who must be excluded.
Maybe we’ll learn to give God great latitude when it comes to dispensing mercy.
National Catholic Reporter, May 4, 2007