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The word “limbo” has become part of today’s common vernacular. A quick on-line search of the world’s newspapers illustrates the point. The budget is stuck in limbo, or the peace talks are in limbo. This medieval term has become a very modern word, one that is used with frequency. However, it is interesting to note that the Catholic Church, which originated the concept, is attempting to relegate this word back to whence it came – the medieval ages.

The creation of Limbo

In Latin, it means “the lip,” and for centuries devout Roman Catholics have tried to avoid thinking about its full meaning: the edge of hell, where those who have died without baptism — notably babies — are sent for eternity. The fate of unbaptized babies has been a subject of obsession among the Catholic faithful since the earliest centuries of Christianity. As early as the fourth century, scholars had addressed the fate of the unbaptized. Saint Augustine made it clear that unbaptized babies went straight to hell, though he did note that their suffering was somewhat mitigated.

As one may appreciate, this hard line approach was hardly reassuring to parents, especially considering the infant-mortality rates during the 4th – 5th centuries. Hence in order to help appease the masses, medieval scholars came up with two new locations in Middle Earth for unborn children to go. There was limbus patrum, the limbo of the fathers, which solved the tricky theological problem of determining the mortal fate of those holy figures such as Abraham and Moses, who died before Christ’s followers created the Church. This limbo was a temporary outbuilding, closing its doors with the death and resurrection of Jesus.

The other place, limbus infantium, the limbo of infants, proved more enduring. Since all infants, in
Catholic belief, are stained with original sin but are likely free from mortal sin, limbo provided a place free from the fires of hell but without the rewards of heaven – “a giant daycare centre,” in the words of the U.S. theology professor Gerald Fagin, “where children were well cared for and lived happily, even if separated from their parents.”

To many Catholics, this still sounded more like hell than heaven, and thus was born the long-standing practice of baptizing babies at the moment of birth — or even before. Even very recently, divinity students were taught “intrauterine baptism” to be performed on dying fetuses.
The place called limbo, alongside such well-known medieval additions as the gates of heaven, the nine circles of hell, purgatory and the heavenly vestibule, has become increasingly shaky. Thus, the Italian media reported that an international commission of high-ranking theologians intends to advise Pope Benedict to banish the notion of limbo from all teachings of the Catholic catechism.

Redefining limbo

Last October, seven months before he died, Pope John Paul asked a special commission to come up with “a more coherent and enlightened way” of describing the fate of such innocent babes. This commission was then headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who was elected Pope in April. It is now headed by his successor at the Vatican’s doctrinal department, Archbishop William Levada, an American from San Francisco.

If the commission, which has been meeting behind closed doors, recommends banishing limbo, it will put an end to the unease and ambiguity in one of the church’s most awkward and embarrassing areas of faith. One Australian cardinal, George Pell, once dismissed limbo as “not the best seats in the house,” and the last four popes have tried to eradicate it from church teachings. Accordingly, within the church, limbo remains in a state of, well, uncertainty.

This is by no means the first time that the Catholic Church has attempted to redefine limbo. The Second Vatican Council in 1962 diminished the importance of limbo, and Pope John Paul II issued a new catechism in 1992 that addressed the issue: “As regards children who have died without baptism, the church can only entrust them to the mercy of God, as she does in her funeral rites for them.” In other words, they have as much access to heaven as anyone else. In an age when other Catholic teachings are growing more conservative, it is one effort to send a message of moderation.

Tickling ears

With close to one billion followers, the Catholic Church has changed its doctrine and continues to do so in order to appease the masses. As we observe its dilemma, we become ever more thankful for understanding the fundamentals of truth. Further, our prayers increase for the return of our Lord Jesus Christ when truth will be the order of the day and will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea.
May that day come soon.

George Rayner

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