HONG KONG — Theologians of the Roman Catholic Church are recommending the abolition of a special place that has existed for more than 2,000 years and enriched the world of literature and politics, as well as theology. Pope Benedict XVI himself has given his clear opinion, as an eminent theologian, that he agrees that limbo should be banished.
That will leave literature and politics poorer and put the theology of what happens to the unbaptized, I might have said, in a dangerous limbo.
Limbo, as the theologians originally conceived it, was a place of loss or deprivation for the unbaptized. There were two groups of inhabitants: the first were the holy people who died before Jesus Christ’s death, for whom limbo was a halfway house from which they were released to heaven by the salvific force of Christ’s death on the cross; the other and continuing group is babies who died before they could be baptized.
In the Christian tradition, limbo was a distinct and separate place from the eternal punishment of hell — to which the wicked are damned — or purgatory — which is a cleansing place to prepare grubby souls of the good whose sins make them unready immediately to enter the presence of God in heaven.
From the early centuries of the Catholic Church there were disputes about precisely what was the loss and pain involved in limbo. St. Augustine in 418 persuaded the Council of Carthage that unbaptized babies share the misery of the damned, though he was prepared to accept that theirs was a lesser pain.
Other doctors of the church and most modern theologians have taken a more lenient view that the souls of unbaptized babies enjoy a state of perfect natural happiness. The poet and artist William Blake presented limbo as a sort of pleasant Elysian Fields kind of place.
But artists and writers have tended to see limbo in at least an Augustinian sense. Giotto, Duccio, Bellini and others painted masterpieces showing the risen Christ freeing souls from limbo. In literary use, limbo generally means any place of restraint or confinement or imprisonment.
“Dante’s Inferno” describes limbo as the first circle of hell, inhabited by unbaptized children and virtuous pagans, including Homer, Ovid, Plato and the Muslim Saladin. Shakespeare uses limbo as a metaphor for prison.
In “The First Circle,” Alexander Solzhenitsyn compares life in a Stalinist prison camp to limbo. The prisoners are unlikely to reach heaven, but still enjoy relative freedom within the Gulag system, avoiding the worst of this “hell.”
To Samuel Taylor Coleridge, limbo is a frightening state, “where Time & weary Space Fettered from flight, with night-mair sense of fleeing Strive for their last crepuscular half-being.”
“In The Rape of the Lock,” Alexander Pope locates the stage between heaven and hell in the lunar sphere, where all things lost on earth find their place. There, “smiles of harlots” are preserved with “the tears of heirs,” broken vows and prayers.
All this is now under threat. The Vatican international commission of theologians has concluded that God wishes all souls to be saved, and that the souls of unbaptized children are entrusted to a “merciful God” whose ways of ensuring salvation cannot be known. In effect, this means that “all children who die go to heaven,” according to a Vatican source.
Limbo’s lack of doctrinal authority has long failed to impress the pope, who was recorded as saying before his election: “Personally, I would let it drop, since it has always been only a theological hypothesis.” But it is a hypothesis whose consignment to the outer darkness beyond limbo poses a few problems for the Church, which has always insisted on the importance of baptism for salvation and access to heaven.
Baptism washes away “original sin” that stains the souls of all humans as an inherited result of the first man Adam’s defiance of God.
If now unbaptized babies are admitted to heaven, then the door is surely opened to unbaptized unbelievers of all sorts. If this is so, then a corollary is — what is the necessity for baptism and membership in the Catholic club? Access to opportunities for grace would be the answer, but the privilege of such access also imposes obligations to use it well.
Still, within the modern Catholic Church there is a strand of tolerance and a view of God that al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden or maybe even U.S. President George W. Bush would not appreciate.
My religions teacher used to say that it is an article of faith for Catholics to believe in the existence of hell with its awful pains of damnation. But, he added, “You do not have to believe that there is anyone in hell, since God’s goodness surely transcends any awful characteristics. If God is Love, then surely He cannot live with cruelty or loss of any of His children.”
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.