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Limbo as a concept is exiting Catholic theology.
BY FATHER JAMES GILHOOLEY
Limbo as a concept
is exiting Catholic theology. But as a word, limbo will never leave our
everyday language. We and our ancestors have been using the word in a variety
of ways for almost 700 years.
The present position of limbo in
Catholic theology is of much interest not only to Catholics, but also to the
Limbo was the subject of a major
article in The New York Times (Dec. 28, 2005) by Ian Fisher. It was discussed in a
full-page essay in Time magazine
(Jan. 9, 2006). And really we should not wonder why Time’s essayist, David Van Biema, coyly
asks, “How often does a major faith admit to retooling its take on the
Limbo entered common discourse 700
years ago from the Latin word limbus. The world slides comfortably into English as hem or
We owe the limbo concept to the
theologians of the Middle Ages. One of their
superstars was the 13th century’s St. Thomas Aquinas. He was a Dominican friar
associated with the University
of Paris. These
theologians were studying the theology of the early fifth-century St. Augustine. He was the
bishop of the once flourishing Diocese of Hippo in North
Africa. Even today, 16 centuries after his death, Augustine is
considered a theological giant.
In talking about Augustine and
Thomas, we talk not of theological contenders, but of charter members of the
Theology Hall of Fame.
Aquinas and the other medieval
theologians found Augustine’s judgment on unbaptized
babies difficult to swallow. Augustine would put innocent infants in hell. His
judgment was not baby- friendly theology. Yet his views held sway in Catholic
theology for almost 800 years. His position won the day at a Council in 418.
The Council rejected any “intermediary place” between heaven and hell.
Augustine’s theology on this matter was either black or white. There was no
room for gray. There was no room for limbo.
Have you ever wondered why most
parents down through the centuries have refused to name their children either
Augustine or Augustina? You have just discovered why.
The solution of Thomas Aquinas and
his confreres eight centuries later was infant-friendly limbo. Unbaptized babies would not enter heaven and see God. But neither would they experience hell nor suffer. They
would be on heaven’s hem or border along with the good people who lived before
the advent of Christ. Time magazine
calls limbo “a cheery … outer parking lot.” It was at best a theological
compromise. But, after Augustine, it was a welcome one. It relieved countless
parents for 700 years.
There is nothing in Scripture that
speaks of limbo. Nor has limbo been ever part of official Church teaching.
Incidentally, have you ever
noticed how many parents are anxious to name their sons after Thomas? I can
count six in my immediate family.
Seven centuries hurry by and we
tumble into the 20th century. A theology quake, measuring 9.2 on the Gospel
scale, occurred in the second half of that century. It was the Second Vatican
Council. It ran from 1962 to 1965.
The council fathers taught that
everyone, baptized Christians and the unbaptized,
could achieve salvation. The sacrifice of Jesus the Christ on Calvary
was that humongous. It could encompass everyone for all time.
Pope John Paul II did not use the
term limbo in our newest Catechism. And, in the last year of his life, he
authorized a commission of major-league theologians to discuss the very point
of unbaptized babies. To head that commission he appointed
his power-hitter theologian, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.
had years before discussed limbo. He called it at best a “theological
hypothesis.” He declared it was never part of the deposit of faith. He penned
that “God is powerful enough to draw to himself all those who were unable to
receive the sacrament.”
In 2005, the cardinal changed his
black cassock for a white one. He had to get used to people addressing him as
Pope Benedict XVI.
It is anticipated that he will
soon announce the happy advent of unbaptized babies
As Time points out, this conclusion ties in very nicely with Pope
Benedict’s pronouncement on the 2006 Feast of the Holy Innocents that “the
embryo is a ‘full and complete’ human being despite being ‘shapeless.’” After
all, since the fetus asked neither to be conceived nor destroyed, how can you
possibly prevent that innocent human being from entering Paradise?
Are we talking of error here?
Well, in today’s theological context, the fifth-century Augustine was wrong. So
also were the 13th-century Thomas Aquinas and his fellow university professors.
But we talk neither infallibility here nor official Church teaching. Human
error is always to be found in the baggage of the Church.
For example, I am 50 years a priest
of the Archdiocese of New York. Our diocesan chancellor, who is the
third-ranking member in our diocesan hierarchy, recently sent me an official
letter. His envelope was addressed to a name that is not mine. After half a
century on the job, the chancery still does not know my name.
Was I upset? No, I was amused.
Father James Gilhooley is author of Reflections on the Sunday Gospels
available at 1-800-566-6150 or WLPmusic.com.
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