Friday, December 30, 2005

To hell with limbo

News that Vatican theologians are going suggest banishing limbo from Catholic teaching has gotten quite a bit of coverage, but not one article seems to point out that Roman Catholics quit believing in limbo at least a generation ago. Only the most rigid could believe that God would banish unbaptized babies to semi-heaven because of original sin--though limbo was the softer position on the fate of unbaptized babies taken by Thomas Aquinas. Augustine, from whom we get the full development of the idea of original sin, was totally opposed to any intermediate "place" for the unbaptized; for him it was either hell or heaven, and baptism was the only ticket up.

Almost every story, however, has reported that limbo was merely a "tradition," not a doctrine. For people who want to deny that church teaching changes, that's a convenient way out. But the existence of limbo was taught by countless popes, bishops, and theologians, and it was a commonly held belief among the faithful. It may never have been dogma--the relatively small category of specifically defined beliefs that must be held by all the faithful, like the Trinity, incarnation, saving death and resurrection of Jesus--but limbo was certainly a doctrine, despite the fact that it did not appear in the most recent catechism.

Limbo's non-existence is another good example of the development of doctrine: As our understanding of scripture and tradition grows, our formulations of God's mystery change; sometimes we reverse course. Limbo was, in the end, a failure of belief in God's final mercy, and its departure is the result of another, more substantial change in church teaching, which no longer claims that one must be baptized or even believe in Jesus to go to heaven, made explicit in the documents of the Second Vatican Council.

Better still, limbo's evaporation illustrates another point about doctrinal development: Sometimes it's the sheep who lead the shepherds. The faithful abandoned limbo long ago; Vatican theologians are just catching up.


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