Out on a Limbo

Good news, dead, unbaptized babies! Turns out there’s a chance you’re not going to hell after all!

This bit of cheery optimism comes courtesy of the Catholic Church, which is starting to do away with its teaching on “limbo.” Now they say that babies and young children who die unbaptized don’t go to limbo — which is a good place but is not in God’s presence — but instead are probably whisked straight to heaven, straight into the loving metaphorical arms of the incorporeal, unknowable three-part God.

This is a big deal, because it’s quite a switch from the previous policies. Officially, the church has no opinion on where unbaptized babies go. St. Augustine, the fifth-century bishop and philosopher, taught that anyone who dies without being baptized goes to hell, including children — but that kids would be “under the mildest condemnation of all.” So, you know, it’s hell … but it’s a slightly less hot version. You get the nicer room, maybe with air conditioning. St. Augustine was surely a lot of fun at parties.

The idea of babies going to hell, even the nicer neighborhoods of hell, never sat well with people who believed in a loving and merciful God, or who even just had an ounce of common sense. So over time, the idea of “limbo” emerged. Limbo is for people who led good lives but who died before Jesus’ time, and for infants and children who died without being baptized. It’s a nice place, full of perpetual happiness and lollipops and bunnies and so forth, but God isn’t there, so it doesn’t have quite the full awesomeness of heaven. Also, it’s near the interstate, so you get a lot of traffic noise.

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Limbo was never official doctrine, but it was what most Catholics went with, since the Bible is silent on the specifics of what happens to unbaptized babies. Of course, the Bible is also silent on baptizing babies at all, or on baptizing anyone by sprinkling rather than immersing them in water, or on the need to confess sins to a priest in order to be absolved, or on the notion of doing penance to obtain forgiveness, or on the idea of praying to saints or other intermediaries instead of directly to God, or on celibacy within the priesthood, or on papal infallibility, or on having popes in the first place. But still, limbo has been a commonly accepted Catholic belief for several centuries.

But now the Vatican’s International Theological Commission has issued a 41-page report called “The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized,” and the report says that limbo indicates an “unduly restrictive view of salvation.” The report has no doctrinal authority, but Pope Benedict XVI (who was never a fan of the limbo philosophy anyway) has endorsed it, leading some to speculate he might make an official papal statement on it at some point.

The report says: “Our conclusion is that the many factors that we have considered … give serious theological and liturgical grounds for hope that unbaptized infants who die will be saved and enjoy [God’s presence].” It is careful to add, however: “We emphasize that these are reasons for prayerful hope, rather than grounds for sure knowledge.” In other words, you should still baptize your newborns. Heck, baptize ’em twice, just in case. But if for some reason you don’t get around to it, and your baby goes teats up, don’t let guilt compound the feelings of agony already racking your soul! You have reason to prayerfully hope that your baby is in heaven, not in a place called “limbo” that some people sort of made up around the 13th century!

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The report says the impetus for examining the limbo question was that Pope John Paul II requested it, back in October 2004, because it had become a matter of some urgency to him. With so many abortions occurring worldwide, not to mention the thousands and thousands of infants who die in countries where Catholicism has not yet taken hold … well, that’s a lot of babies whose post-mortal status was unaccounted for. The pope wanted to get to the bottom of it, so he put his best theologians on the case. And it took them 2 1/2 years to come up with “we think they’re in heaven, but we still don’t know.” You gotta love committees.

There are two things that I find very interesting about all this.

1. The report says, “People find it increasingly difficult to accept that God is just and merciful if he excludes infants, who have no personal sins, from eternal happiness.” Well, duh. It took the church 1,600 years to realize that? Really? The blatant injustice in that arrangement never struck anyone as odd until now? And no one thought to research the matter until the pope specifically brought it up?

2. The commission doesn’t indicate how, exactly, it came to its new conclusion. There wasn’t any new scripture to analyze, unless they stumbled across some book that’s been hidden in the Bible all this time that no one noticed. Like maybe it was stuck between the pages between Matthew and Mark? Maybe it’s called Smartthew? The Gospel According to St. Smartthew? But no, probably not. So no new scriptures, and there doesn’t seem to have been a revelation from God. So what are they going by? They sat around and thought about it for a while, and this new arrangement just sounds better? OK, I guess. But I could have arrived at the same conclusion they did, and I’m not even Catholic.

The bottom line is: It looks like St. Augustine was probably wrong. Hell is probably not full of babies. Which is too bad, in a way, because I was hoping that that’s how people who refuse to take their crying babies out of movie theaters would be punished: by going to a hell full of crying babies. Maybe the really wicked babies still go there. YOU’RE NOT OFF THE HOOK YET, BABIES!

The full 41-page report is not publicly available yet, so all of my information on it came from the many news stories about it. I assume the report itself offers more details about how, exactly, they came to their conclusions.

St. Augustine's teachings (including the "mildest condemnation" part) can be found here. Some good news stories about the commission's report are at USA Today and Catholic News Service.

I hope I don't seem too dismissive of the Catholic Church in this column. I love religion in general, and I like Catholicism a lot, at least from an outsider's perspective, i.e., I have no interest in becoming a Catholic myself. There were just some things about the new limbo report that I thought were amusing and worthy of comment.