Forget about the cute headlines proclaiming that limbo is in limbo. In fact, limbo, the incomplete afterlife postulated by the Roman Catholic Church for infants who die before being baptized, is on the skids. After a commission of top Catholic theologians wrapped up a December conference that examined the topic, the prognosis was apparently grim: the group's secretary-general told Vatican Radio that the church's teaching on limbo was "in crisis."
Beyond being headline news (how often does a major faith admit to retooling its take on the afterlife?), the shift, telegraphed in the 1994 Catechism, should strike most believers as a very good thing. For centuries, Catholic couples lived in fear that in the tragic event that their newborns perished, the infants would go not to heaven but to a cheery yet inaccessible outer parking lot, a locale where they would enjoy eternal happiness but be denied the actual presence of God (and, presumably, of the parents, assuming they reached heaven).
That scheme had come to seem impossibly harsh. Says the Rev. James Martin, an editor at the Jesuit publication America who has performed many baptisms: "My idea of God is not a God who would condemn a baby to an imperfect life for eternity." Many priests have downplayed limbo out of similar concerns, and Martin lauds the Vatican panel for "bringing theological development in line with pastoral application."
Shutting down limbo also aligns nicely with the church's activism on abortion. On last week's Feast of the Holy Innocents--honoring children murdered by the evil King Herod--Pope Benedict XVI emphasized that the embryo is a "full and complete" human being, despite being "shapeless." If you are going to call a fetus' termination murder, then it seems somehow inconsistent to deny heaven to the blameless, full and complete victim.
In the finely balanced theological universe, however, it's hard to give in one area without taking away elsewhere. In this case, the loser is baptism--or at least the rite's broadest, bluntest definition. Limbo was conceived in the Middle Ages to solve a problem relating to original sin, the inherited stain of Adam and Eve's disobedience. Jesus' death on the Cross is understood to have relieved humanity of the burden of that sin, an immunity Catholicism still considers activated for each human as he or she unites with Christ in baptism.
The question arose, What about babies who died before they were baptized? The church father Augustine of Hippo (A.D. 354-430), applying more logic than compassion, said that without baptismal grace, they must go to hell. That proved too much for the theologians of the Middle Ages, who counterproposed limbo. The Protestant reformers eliminated it from their theology along with several other postdeath constructs, but it remained a looming staple of Catholic understanding. Says Martin: "I've rarely baptized a baby where [limbo] has not come up, at least as a joke."
Those nervous jests may now end. The original head of the theological commission that met in December was none other than Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, who had written years earlier that limbo was not actually church doctrine but only a "theological hypothesis." Elsewhere he called it "problematic." As Pope Benedict XVI, he will probably approve a document recognizing unbaptized babies' full entrée into heaven.