Online Edition – May 2007
Vol. XIII, No. 3
Why is Limbo in the Limelight?
“Pope buries Limbo”. “Church puts Limbo in Limbo”. Startling headlines such as these, which appeared in news stories reporting on a new study by the International Theological Commission were, at best, misleading — and alarmed some Catholics who were concerned that a group of theologians is tampering with Church doctrine.
The document, “The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized”, was approved in January and released for publication in April. It was the result of several years of work by the International Theological Commission (ITC), a group of theologians appointed and overseen by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The project began in 2004 at the behest of then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. A draft was presented in October 2006, and its publication was approved by Pope Benedict XVI.
So does the study “bury” Limbo?
Not exactly. Unlike Heaven and Hell and Purgatory, Limbo lacks grounding in Scripture. The concept of Limbo was developed during the middle ages as an attempt to arrive at a theological understanding of the eternal destination of unbaptized babies, who were innocent of personal sin, though stained with original sin. Significantly, though it has been commonly accepted for centuries, Limbo was never a defined dogma of the Church.
Why revisit the Limbo question at this time in history? In a word: abortion. Questions about unbaptized infants have become increasingly urgent. Pope John Paul II, in his 1995 encyclical, Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), directly addressed women who have had abortions: “The Father of mercies is ready to give you His forgiveness and His peace in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. You will come to understand that nothing is definitively lost and you will also be able to ask forgiveness from your child, who is now living in the Lord.” (EV 99 – emphasis added)
The destiny of innocent unborn children has long been a concern of the present pope, as well. In The Ratzinger Report, his 1988 interview with Vittorio Messori, Cardinal Ratzinger said:
Limbo was never a defined truth of 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. It formed part of a secondary thesis in support of a truth which is absolutely of first significance for faith, namely, the importance of baptism.… One should not hesitate to give up the idea of “Limbo” if need be (and it is worth noting that the very theologians who proposed “Limbo” also said that parents could spare the child Limbo by desiring its baptism and through prayer); but the concern behind it must not be surrendered. Baptism has never been a side issue for faith; it is not now, nor will it ever be. (The Ratzinger Report, Ignatius Press. pp. 147-148)
In his book, God and the World, published in 2000, Cardinal Ratzinger made the concern for unborn children who are aborted explicit:
The question of what it means to say that baptism is necessary for salvation has become ever more hotly debated in modern times. The Second Vatican Council said on this point that men who are seeking for God and who are inwardly striving toward that which constitutes baptism will also receive salvation. That is to say that a seeking after God already represents an inward participation in baptism, in the Church, in Christ. To that extent, the question concerning the necessity of baptism for salvation seems to have been answered, but the question about children who could not be baptized because they were aborted then presses upon us that much more urgently. Earlier ages had devised a teaching that seems to me rather unenlightened. They said that baptism endows us, by means of sanctifying grace, with the capacity to gaze upon God. Now, certainly, the state of original sin, from which we are freed by baptism, consists in a lack of sanctifying grace. Children who die in this way are indeed without any personal sin, so they cannot be sent to Hell, but, on the other hand, they lack sanctifying grace and thus the potential for beholding God that this bestows. They will simply enjoy a state of natural blessedness, in which they will be happy. This state people called limbo. In the course of our century, that has gradually come to seem problematic to us. This was one way in which people sought to justify the necessity of baptizing infants as early as possible, but the solution is itself questionable. Finally, the Pope [John Paul II] made a decisive turn in the encyclical Evangelium Vitae, a change already anticipated by the Catechism of the Catholic Church, when he expressed the simple hope that God is powerful enough to draw to Himself all those who were unable to receive the sacrament. (God and the World, Ignatius. pp. 401-402)
The ITC develops a theology of hope, and of communion, as the Introduction, which appears below, explains. The complete report is on the Adoremus web site.
—Helen Hull Hitchcock