Sunday, April 22, 2007

How can limbo just be abolished?

How can limbo just be abolished?
The Magazine answers...

St Peter's Square
The notion of limbo has long been problematic for the Church
The Pope may be about to abolish the notion of limbo, the halfway house between heaven and hell, inhabited by unbaptised infants. Is it really that simple?

Pope Benedict XVI's anticipated pronouncement on limbo will have been informed by the International Theological Commission - a group of leading Roman Catholic theologians who have been meeting to consider the issue.

The Pope, himself, has been quoted in the past as saying that he would let the idea of limbo "drop, since it has always been only a theological hypothesis".

He was quoted as saying that limbo has never been a "definitive truth of the faith".

So what is limbo?

Question mark
A feature to the BBC News Magazine - aiming to answer some of the questions behind the headlines

According to the BBC's Religion and Ethics site [see internet links, right], the church held that before the 13th Century, all unbaptised people, including new born babies who died, would go to hell. This was because original sin - the punishment that God inflicted on humanity because of Adam and Eve's disobedience - had not been cleansed by baptism.

This idea however was criticised by Peter Abelard, a French scholastic philosophiser, who said that babies who had no personal sin didn't even deserve punishment.

It was Abelard who introduced the idea of limbo. The word comes from the Latin "limbus", meaning the edge. This would be a state of existence where unbaptised babies, and those unfortunate enough to have been born before Jesus, would not experience pain but neither would they experience the Beatific Vision of God.

Pope Benedict
Pope Benedict was quoted as saying he would let limbo drop, while he was a cardinal
But limbo has long been a problem for the Church. Unease has remained over reconciling a Loving God with one who sent babies to limbo and the Church has faced much criticism.

The current review of limbo began in 2004, when Pope John Paul II asked the commission to come up with "a more coherent and enlightened way" of describing the fate of such innocent babes.

This review is part of a wider re-examination of the notion of salvation that has been taking place within the Church.

Many Catholics would see the abandonment of limbo as a good thing - there is little doubt that some interpretations of the teaching may have caused untold misery to the millions of parents whose children have died without being baptised.

But there are those who argue that it is not simply a "hypothesis" that can just be swept aside; that the notion that unbaptised children do not go to heaven has been a fundamental part of Church teaching for hundreds of years.

Then, of course, there is the argument that if this can be abolished, what else is disposable?

Not popular

According to church historian Michael Walsh limbo is so unpopular it has all but dropped out of Catholic consciousness.

It has not really been standard teaching for decades and it has not been part of official teaching since the early 1990s, when it was omitted from the catechism - the Church's summary of religious doctrine.

A papal decree reversing the firm Catholic belief of two millennia that infants dying unbaptised do not go to heaven would be like an earthquake in the structure of Catholic theology and belief
Father Brian Harrison
"Most priests don't talk about the notion of limbo anymore. There is a understanding that it just simply doesn't wash with people," says Mr Walsh.

But, there are a number of conservative and traditionally minded Catholics who say they are shocked by the notion of getting rid of limbo.

Father Brian Harrison, a theologian, told the BBC News website that while limbo may have been a "hypothesis", he argues 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".

He argues that this is borne out in the various funeral rites for unbaptised children practised by the Church.

"A papal decree reversing the firm Catholic belief of two millennia that infants dying unbaptised do not go to heaven would be like an earthquake in the structure of Catholic theology and belief," he said.

Some argue that the question of limbo has taken on fresh urgency because it could be hindering the Church's conversion of Africa and Asia, where infant mortality rates are high.

An article in the UK's Times newspaper this week suggested that the "Pope - an acknowledged authority on all things Islamic - is only too aware that Muslims believe the souls of stillborn babies go straight to heaven".

The theological commission ends its deliberations on Friday. Most commentators believe the Pope will not make any decision immediately. Until he does, the fate of limbo is in - well, limbo.

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