» Apr. 20, 2007 Update: Catholic Church buries limbo after centuries
The Pope will this week overturn a belief held by Roman Catholics since medieval times by abolishing the concept of Limbo.
Limbo is traditionally held to be the place where the souls of children go if they die before they can be baptised and so freed from original sin.
It is also the fate of “holy people” such as the prophet Abraham who lived before the time of Jesus Christ, who Christians believe offered mankind redemption through his death and Resurrection.
This week a 30-strong Vatican international commission of theologians which has been examining Limbo began its final deliberations. Vatican sources said that it had concluded that all children who die do so in the expectation of “the universal salvation of God” and the “mediation of Christ”, whether baptised or not.
The theologians’ finding is that God wishes all souls to be saved, and that the souls of unbaptised 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” one source said.
The commission’s conclusions will be formally approved by Pope Benedict XVI at a mass on Friday in the Redemptoris Mater chapel in the Apostolic Palace, a richly decorated chapel restored by John Paul II and used for the proclamation of papal “magisterial teachings” as well as spiritual retreats and ecumenical services.
The process of doing away with Limbo began under the late John Paul II. He was backed by the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger – now Pope – who as John Paul II’s guardian of doctrinal orthodoxy once observed that Limbo had “never been a definitive truth of the faith”.
He added:”Personally, I would let it drop, since it has always been only a theological hypothesis”. The theological commission is currently chaired by Archbishop William Levada of the United States, the Pope’s chosen successor as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Christians hold that Heaven is a state of union with God, while Hell is separation from God. Christians have long wrestled, however, with the conundrum of what happened to those who lived a “good life” but died before the time of Jesus, as well as the fate of children who die without being christened.
The answer since the 13th century has been Limbo – from the Latin limbus, meaning a hem or boundary – held to be the temporary resting place of “the souls of good persons who died before the resurrection of Jesus” (limbus patrum, or Limbo of the Fathers) and the home in the afterlife of “those who die in infancy without having been freed from original sin” (limbus infantium, or Limbo of the Children).
St Thomas Aquinas described the “limbo of children” as an “eternal state of natural joy” in which unbaptised children were unaware of the greater joy of Heaven.
The concept was given papal authority by Pope Pius X (1903-1914), who in his Catechism declared Limbo to be a place where the unbaptised “do not have the joy of God but neither do they suffer…they do not deserve Paradise, but neither do they deserve Hell or Purgatory”.
This was quietly dropped from the Cathechism issued under John Paul II, who in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life) – referring to victims of abortion – said the Church “does not know the fate of unbaptised infants” and can only “trust in God’s mercy and love.”
Father Tony Kelly, an Australian member of the theological commission, said that dropping Limbo reflected “a different sense of God, focusing on his infinite love.”
Vatican officials said the Pope was not overturning a “doctrine”, since Limbo had no Scriptural authority and is not part of the Church’s official dogma, unlike Heaven, Hell and Purgatory.
The Old Testament does however refer to “the bosom of Abraham”, a place which is neither heaven nor hell and where the “righteous dead” await entry to Paradise.
The commission was not asked to consider whether unbaptised adults also die in the hope of entry to Heaven. Some theologians hold that original sin bars the unbaptised from the “pure beatific vision” of Paradise.
Others say that God seeks to “save” everyone, and note that Jesus himself told the two (presumably unbaptised) thieves crucified alongside him that that they would join him “this day” in “Paradise” (Luke 23:43).
Limbo was described by Dante as a place in the first circle of Hell, beyond the river Acheron and before the judgment seat of Minos, where “virtuous pagans” and classical philosophers such as Plato and Socrates resided as well as the Old Testament prophets. In colloquial speech “limbo” has come to mean any uncertain or intermediate state.
Oct. 3, 2006
Richard Owen, in Rome