In the world of Vatican reversals, it’s a big one. According to a 41-page report released last week by the Roman Catholic Church’s International Theological Commission, limbo—a celestial middle ground between Heaven and Hell—is no longer necessary. That means that babies who die unbaptized are now free to go to heaven rather than being consigned to limbo, where for the last 800 years they’ve been forced to await the End of Days, unable to share in the beatific vision of God and Jesus Christ with their Roman Catholic brethren.
Limbo has never been official church doctrine, but with this report, the Catholic Church signals that it is not interested in perpetuating the concept at all. It also suggests that Pope Benedict XVI may be less conservative than his image suggests. Citing a “greater theological awareness” that God is “merciful and wants all human beings to be saved,” the commission, after three years of study and with approval from the pope, has concluded that excluding innocent babies from heaven doesn’t seem to “reflect Christ’s special love for the little ones.” These are, of course, merely “reasons for prayerful hope, rather than grounds for sure knowledge,” says the report, titled “The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized.”
Limbo is not to be confused with purgatory, a place of temporary punishment for those not deemed good or bad enough to merit an immediate ticket to heaven or hell. Limbo, rather, (meaning “hem” or “border”) is a construct of the Middle Ages, an alternative destination for the souls of the unbaptized who were previously thought, because of original sin, to go to hell. The question surrounding the fate of these souls was first addressed properly in the fifth century by St. Augustine, who concluded that they did in fact wind up in hell. Paula Frederiksen, the Aurelio Professor of Scripture at Boston University, says St. Augustine reached this conclusion as a result of his training in dialectical reasoning, a process of critical thinking whereby a problem is solved through the alternating consideration of opposing points. Since original sin was seen as being indelibly tied to the act of sex, and since babies were the natural result of that act, Augustine reasoned that they must carry sin. Ergo, those who die without having that sin removed must necessarily go to hell. “This was the corner he painted himself into,” says Frederiksen. Since Augustine was the last great Christian theologian before “the lights went out in the Western Roman Empire,” Frederiksen says, his theological legacy went essentially unchallenged for the next several hundred years. For this reason, Roman Catholics have traditionally baptized their children as soon as they could after birth, and Catholic missionaries have circumnavigated the globe, emphasizing baptism as the key to salvation.
The first significant Christian teacher to break with Augustinian tradition on the subject was St. Thomas Aquinas, the 13th-century Italian theologian and philosopher who posited that perhaps there’s a special place for the unbaptized—one where their perpetual state is natural happiness. The teachings of Aquinas, along with the popularity of such martyrdom stories as that of Perpetua, a third-century Christian who prayed for her dead, unbaptized brother and received a vision of his health and contentment, contributed to a consensus among laypeople and philosophers that babies didn’t deserve eternal damnation. “By the time you get to Dante and the Divine Comedy, limbo is fully developed,” says Fredericksen.
Pope Benedict has been decisively committed to tearing down the notion of limbo for some time. A year before being elected Pope in April 2005, the then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, in his role of Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, appointed a commission of 30 international theologians to study whether the concept was still necessary to the Catholic faith. According to Thomas J. Reese, a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University, “This was not a committee of liberals. Most of these guys are very conservative theologians.” The idea of doing away with limbo however, did not require a progressive stance. For the past three decades, says Reese, “no reputable theologian, liberal or conservative, was defending limbo.” In January, the commission reported its findings to the pope, who signed off. The study wasn’t made public until last week.
By doing away with limbo, Reese says, Benedict has shown that he’s willing to do the hard work of distinguishing the core faith of the Catholic Church from centuries-old peripheral beliefs, and that he is perhaps more progressive than his image suggests. “He has criticized Catholics involved in interreligious dialogue with Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists for downplaying the centrality of Jesus as savior, but that does not mean that he consigns all these people to hell,” says Reese. In the end, it seems that getting rid of limbo is akin to striking an outdated law: it’s not something people have paid attention to for years and hasn’t been taught in Catholic classrooms for more than a decade. “It’s not referenced in the religious education materials,” says Monsignor Daniel J. Kutys of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Department of Education. With the Vatican report, all those anxieties about babies that have been part of growing up Catholic can finally be put to rest.