National Catholic Register


How Long Will Limbo Be in Limbo?

Limbo as a concept is exiting Catholic theology.


November 26-December 2, 2006 Issue | Posted 11/22/06 at 10:00 AM


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 national press.

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 afterlife?”

Limbo entered common discourse 700 years ago from the Latin word limbus. The world slides comfortably into English as hem or border.

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.

Cardinal 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 in heaven.

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

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