Vat­i­can Panel Dis­counts Limbo for Un­bap­tized

Great­est Im­pact of Change May Be Re­lief for Par­ents

The Washington Post Sunday - - National News - By Alan Coop­er­man

Ann Druge grew up in a Catholic fam­ily with eight chil­dren and the haunt­ing knowl­edge that a ninth was still­born. Be­cause the baby, named Mary Ellen, had not been bap­tized, she was de­nied a Catholic burial.

“ When we would go to the ceme­tery . . . we’d al­ways stop where they threw the dead flow­ers. That’s where the lit­tle one was buried,” said Druge, 80, of Storrs, Conn. “ My mother and fa­ther were very up­set ev­ery time. She was still­born, so she couldn’t be buried in the con­se­crated ground. We were told she was in limbo.” No more. Af­ter three years of study, a Vat­i­can- ap­pointed panel of the­olo­gians has de­clared that limbo is a “ prob­lem­atic” con­cept that Catholics are free to re­ject. The 30- mem­ber In­ter­na­tional The­o­log­i­cal Com­mis­sion said there are good rea­sons to be­lieve in­stead that un­bap­tized ba­bies go to heaven, be­cause God is mer­ci­ful and “ wants all hu­man be­ings to be saved.”

“ We em­pha­size that th­ese are rea­sons for prayer­ful hope, rather than grounds for sure knowl­edge,” said the com­mis­sion’s re­port, pub­lished last week with the pope’s ap­proval.

Late- night television hosts and In­ter­net satirists have had their yuks over this change, but the idea of limbo was a real an­guish to many Catholic par­ents and grand­par­ents griev­ing over mis­car­riages or still­births. Its aban­don­ment may say some­thing about the af­ter­life, but it also says some­thing about the cur­rent pope, who is turn­ing out to be more pas­toral ( read: com­pas­sion­ate) and less rigid than many ex­pected.

For about 750 years, from the be­gin­ning of the 13th cen­tury un­til the mid­dle of the 20th, the com­mon Catholic teach­ing was that ba­bies who died with­out bap­tism — as well as adults who lived holy lives but in ig­no­rance of Je­sus — would spend eter­nity in limbo, which is nei­ther heaven nor the full fury of hell.

Be­cause ba­bies are guilty of no per­sonal sins ( only the taint of orig­i­nal sin), the think­ing went, surely God would not con­sign them to per­pet­ual tor­ment. But be­cause the church teaches that bap­tism is a ne­ces­sity, the­olo­gians also as­serted that un­bap­tized ba­bies could not en­joy eter­nal life in God’s pres­ence.

To faith­ful Catholics, the Vat­i­can’s pro­nounce­ment does not mean that limbo once ex­isted and sud­denly is abol­ished; it means there are grounds for hope that un­bap­tized ba­bies are in heaven — and have been all along.

Druge said she felt long ago that her sis­ter was in heaven and sees no need to move the 75- year- old grave.

“ Years ago, ev­ery­thing you heard at the church you be­lieved,” she said. “ But limbo never made sense to me. I al­ways thought that if the baby came from God, it would go right back to God. I think that’s what my mother be­lieved, too.”

The Vat­i­can com­mis­sion stressed that there is no men­tion of limbo in the Bi­ble and that it was never a part of church dogma. Nor, by the way, is the com­mis- sion’s own ad­vi­sory opin­ion. But there is lit­tle doubt that Pope Bene­dict XVI agrees with its con­clu­sion. In a 1985 book- length in­ter­view, “ The Ratzinger Re­port,” then- Car­di­nal Joseph Ratzinger said limbo was “ never a de­fined truth of faith,” and “ per­son­ally . . . I would aban­don it, since it was only a the­o­log­i­cal hy­poth­e­sis.”

Some Catholics, how­ever, are stand­ing firm on limbo.

“ The Vat­i­can is sug­gest­ing that sal­va­tion is pos­si­ble with­out bap­tism. That is heresy,” said Ken­neth J. Wolfe, Wash­ing­ton colum­nist for the Rem­nant, a tra­di­tion­al­ist Catholic news­pa­per.

He pre­dicted that the 41- page re­port, ti­tled “ The Hope of Sal­va­tion for In­fants Who Die With­out Be­ing Bap­tized,” would un­der­mine the church’s ad­vice to par­ents to make sure that chil­dren are bap­tized within the first 10 days of life. It might also un­der­cut the church’s po­si­tion against abor­tion, since “ one of the rea­sons for op­pos­ing abor­tion is that the baby’s soul is lost,” he said.

Al­though the Catholic Church still ad­heres to the re­lated idea of pur­ga­tory — a pe­riod of pun­ish­ment and pu­rifi­ca­tion be­fore the full joy of heaven — it has been inch­ing away from limbo for decades. Most Catholic schools grad­u­ally stopped teach­ing chil­dren about limbo in the 1960s, ’ 70s and ’ 80s, ac­cord­ing to Mon­signor Daniel Ku­tys, di­rec­tor of re­li­gious ed­u­ca­tion for the U. S. Con­fer­ence of Catholic Bishops.

The Bal­ti­more Cat­e­chism, an of­fi­cial com­pen­dium of Catholic teach­ings used in the United States un­til the 1960s, de­scribed limbo as the des­ti­na­tion of un­bap­tized ba­bies. But there is no men­tion of limbo in the new cat­e­chism, pub­lished in 1992, Ku­tys said.

In 1969, the Catholic Church in­tro­duced a funeral rite for un­bap­tized ba­bies, do­ing away with the se­vere pol­icy that had kept Druge’s sis­ter from be­ing buried in con­se­crated ground.

While the church is of­ten viewed as a top- down or­ga­ni­za­tion in which bishops tell or­di­nary Catholics what to be­lieve, the com­mis­sion’s re­port sug­gests that in this case, the process worked partly in re­verse.

A com­mis­sion mem­ber, the Rev. Paul McPart­lan, a pro­fes­sor of the­ol­ogy at the Catholic Univer­sity of Amer­ica, said that in the run- up to the Sec­ond Vat­i­can Coun­cil, which met from 1962 to 1965, there were pro­pos­als to add limbo to the cen­tral teach­ings of the church.

But the se­nior bishops who pre­pared the coun­cil’s agenda re­jected those pro­pos­als, not­ing that the idea that un­bap­tized ba­bies can­not go to heaven sim­ply did not match the “ sen­sus fi­delium,” Latin for “ the sense of the faith­ful,” McPart­lan said.

Be­fore be­com­ing pope, Bene­dict earned a rep­u­ta­tion as a fierce de­fender of tra­di­tional teach­ings as head of the Vat­i­can’s Con­gre­ga­tion for the Doc­trine of the Faith. Yet he also served as pres­i­dent of the In­ter­na­tional The­o­log­i­cal Com­mis­sion when it de­cided a few years ago to re­visit the is­sue of limbo.

“ It shows that Bene­dict is not afraid to look at some­thing that has been taught in the church for cen­turies and say it is not at the core of Catholic be­lief,” said the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a se­nior fel­low at Ge­orge­town Univer­sity’s Wood­stock The­o­log­i­cal Cen­ter and a for­mer ed­i­tor of the Je­suit mag­a­zine Amer­ica.

“ This is a crit­i­cal is­sue for our time: what is cen­tral to our faith, what is pe­riph­eral; what can change, what can’t.”

A 15-cen­tury paint­ing by Fra An­gelico shows Je­sus visit­ing limbo. Pope Bene­dict XVI, then a car­di­nal, right, said in “The Ratzinger Re­port” that he would aban­don the con­cept of un­bap­tized in­fants be­ing sent to limbo be­cause it was “only a the­o­log­i­cal hy­poth­e­sis.”



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