The New York Times

December 28, 2005

Letter From Rome

Limbo, an Afterlife Tradition, May Be Doomed by the Vatican


ROME, Dec. 27 - It may seem half a shame to get rid of a church tradition, however cruel and antiquated, if it can inspire poetry like "The Inferno" or spooky lines like these from Seamus Heaney: "Fishermen at Ballyshannon/Netted an infant last night/Along with the salmon."

But limbo, that netherworld of unbaptized babies and worthy pagans, is very much on the way out - another lesson that while belief in God may not change, the things people believe about him most certainly do.

This month, 30 top theologians from around the world met at the Vatican to discuss, among other quandaries, the problem of what happens to babies who die without baptism. They do not like the word for it, but what they were really doing, as theological advisers to Pope Benedict XVI, was finally disposing of limbo - a concept that was never official church doctrine but has been an enduring medieval theory of a blissful state among the departed, somehow different from both heaven and hell.

Unlike purgatory, a sort of waiting room to heaven for those with some venial faults, the theory of limbo consigned children outside of heaven on account of original sin alone. As a concept, limbo has long been out of favor anyway, as theologically questionable and unnecessarily harsh. It is hard to imagine depriving innocents of heaven. These days it prompts more snickers than anything, as evidenced by the titter of press coverage here along the lines of "Limbo Consigned to Hell."

But it remains an interesting relic, strangely relevant to what the Roman Catholic Church has been and what it wants to be. The theory of limbo bumps up against one of the most contentious issues for the church: abortion. If fetuses are human beings, what happens to their souls if they are aborted? It raises questions of how broadly the church - and its new leader - view the idea of salvation.

And it has some real-life consequences. The church is growing most in poor places like Africa and Asia where infant mortality remains high. While the concerns of the experts reconsidering limbo are more theological, it does not hurt the church's future if an African mother who has lost a baby can receive more hopeful news from her priest in 2005 than, say, an Italian mother did 100 years ago.

"You look at the proper theology, but if there is more consolation, all the better," said the Rev. Luis Ladaria, the Spanish Jesuit who is secretary general of the International Theological Commission, the official body working on limbo. Unlike many issues - the recent emotional debate over homosexuality in the priesthood, for example - limbo seems to garner unanimity that it should exit the church's stage, even if, at the moment, the exact doctrine that will replace it is unclear.

"Limbo has never been a definitive truth of the faith," Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who became Benedict XVI earlier this year, said in an interview in 1984, during his long term as Pope John Paul II's doctrinal watchdog. "Personally, I would let it drop, since it has always been only a theological hypothesis."

As pope, Benedict has said nothing on the subject, though many experts - but not all, it should be noted - say the controversy over limbo began with one of Benedict's spiritual heroes: St. Augustine.

The theology is complicated, but the bottom line is that Augustine, believing in mankind's original sin, persuaded a church council in 418 to reject any notion of an "intermediary place" between heaven and hell. He held that baptism was necessary for salvation, and that unbaptized babies would actually go to hell, though in his later writings he conceded that it would entail the mildest of conditions.

It was "a pretty grim doctrine," said the Rev. Gerald O'Collins, an Australian Jesuit and co-author of "A Concise Dictionary of Theology" (Paulist Press: 2000). "You're either in hell or you're not."

In the Middle Ages, theologians, notably St. Thomas Aquinas, postulated a slightly cheerier idea: limbo, from the Latin "limbus," meaning a hem or a boundary. Here innocents would live forever in what Thomas called "natural happiness," if not in heaven.

This was the Limbo of the Babies. There was also a temporary Limbo of the Fathers, where Dante located, among others, Virgil, his guide through hell; Moses; Socrates; Plato; even the gentlemanly Muslim warrior Saladin (to whom Saddam Hussein, incidentally, often compared himself).

Though limbo had no firm scriptural basis, and so was never official church doctrine, it remained a major part of church tradition - as well as one defining image of Catholicism - as either a neat theological compromise or as a bit mean, depending on whom one asked.

It remained strong in 1905, when Pope Pius X stated plainly, "Children who die without baptism go into limbo, where they do not enjoy God, but they do not suffer either."

But ideas began to change with the reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960's, in which the church held that everyone - baptized Christians or not - could be eligible for salvation through the mystery of Christ's redemptive power. Pope John Paul II continued the decline of limbo, omitting the term from the most recent catechism and last year, not long before his death, asking the theological commission to officially consider the question of unbaptized babies.

John Paul, who brought the issue of abortion to the fore of the church's concerns, appeared interested for a special reason: the fate of aborted fetuses. In his 1995 encyclical, he wrote to women who had abortions, "You will also be able to ask forgiveness of your child, who is now living in the Lord." He did not say if they were in heaven or limbo.

The mystery of God, and man's ignorance before it, is, according to Father Ladaria, the starting point for the commission's work. To some observers of the church, which holds the pope's judgment infallible on certain matters, the questioning of limbo is a rare, welcome admission of error.

This will attract attention "as something that does look like an ability to pull back," said James J. O'Donnell, the provost of Georgetown University and a professor of classics. It is, he said, essentially saying, "Let's progress back to ignorance rather than remain mired in assertion that brings with it perhaps more complication and more trouble than it is worth."

Mr. O'Donnell, author of "Augustine: A New Biography" (HarperCollins: 2005), said it might also be interesting to see limbo killed off under the rule of Benedict.

Benedict, he noted, is also an Augustine scholar, and the issue of unbaptized babies aside, Augustine was a man who generally argued for a broader view of who should be allowed in the church.

Over the years before he became pope, Cardinal Ratzinger propounded several doctrines that had the "appearance, and sometimes more than the appearance, of exclusivity and separatism" of Catholics over other faiths, Mr. O'Donnell said. Getting rid of limbo, he said, could be read as a sign of Benedict's endorsing a greater inclusivity into God's plan.

"Even though Augustine himself would not be particularly tolerant of a doctrine that is kinder to unbaptized children, you could still say that a move in that direction would have an Augustinian quality to it," he said.

It is often said the church moves in centuries, not days or even years. So Father Ladaria looked up to heaven when asked when the final report on limbo might be finished. Probably no less than a year, he said, when the commission meets here again.