Thursday, December 15, 2005

I will not keep you in 'limbo' any longer...

I am no theologian-but that won't prevent me from making my own observations on the recent discussions (here and here for example) which have appeared ever since the report that the International Theological Commission (ITC) will publish a document that is reported to send the concept of Limbo to the dustpin (see for example the story carried by ZENIT on 2 December '05).

What is Limbo?

Limbo is a theological hypothesis developed many years ago to solve or to help us understand better a mystery-the mystery of how to reconcile the attributes of God: He being both all-merciful and all-just. This mystery is especially hard to understand in light of the Catholic doctrine of the necessity of Baptism for salvation when applied to infants who die un-Baptized or who are miscarried or who were the victims of abortion.

In practical terms, of course, Limbo was that place where infants who died un-Baptized went: they couldn't enter Heaven because of Original Sin but didn't deserve Hell by their own sins. So Limbo was a place of natural contentment but without the Beatific Vision. Seemingly both God's justice and God's mercy are satisfied.

Most theological hypotheses, I daresay, never become a matter of heartfelt affection or discussion (or even enter the realm of knowledge) of the common faithful-especially in years gone past. Limbo is different however because it addresses a mystery and a suffering-especially in the case of miscarriage-which many of the faithful experience and ask questions about. Further, and very unfortunately, in some catechisms Limbo as a theory was not clearly distinguished from doctrine. Thus many faithful may actually have been mis-educated on this point, and thus even when explained as a hypothesis, these faithful are reluctant to accept Limbo for what it is and for what it is not-or will think that the Church is changing doctrine. If this is the case, it is result of poor catechesis.

Further, for the Church, Limbo had the advantage of encouraging infant Baptism without being draconian and allowing for God's mercy. But while convenient, this doesn't necessarily make it true...

Possible Problems with Limbo

However, I would imagine over the course of time (even before the current era), some have recognized potential problems with the concept of Limbo. For example, the Holy Innocents are honored as saints-attaining salvation by Baptism of Blood-dying in place of our Lord. But the Holy Innocents did not chose their martyrdom-they had not reached the age of reason and could not either affirm or deny Christ. In fact, the particular young boys and infants who were slaughtered seems arbitrary-an accident of time and place of birth. Why does this infant go straight to Heaven and this other one go to Limbo when neither made any conscious choices or decisions in their whole lives? This doesn't poke a hole in Limbo, but does present a new problem to be resolved.

Another (and there may be better arguments I am unaware of) argument against Limbo which has gained popularity more recently is that the existence of Limbo may place limits on God's mercy. Why can't God allow these infants who died before birth or during an abortion, or otherwise un-Baptized enter into Heaven-simply given to God's mercy? (Of course by some mechanism that doesn't violate the doctrines of Baptism and salvation. How can this be? This is a theological problem which again needs study.)

Why some decry the "abolishment" of Limbo and their errors

First, we must acknowledge that Limbo can't be abolished by man if it does indeed exist. It also can't be abolished by man if it doesn't exist. We can only speculate whether it does exist or not.

Further, some of those who are concerned about Limbo treat it on the same level as Catholic doctrine-implying that the doctrine rests on the existance of Limbo. Think about this... For example, one commenter argues (or at least clearly implies) that if you eliminate Limbo, the teachings of the Church on Original Sin and the necessity of Baptism are somehow in jeopardy. This is clearly backwards. Limbo is being raised to the level of dogma. Its very existence as a theory rests on the doctrines of Baptism and Original Sin, not the other way around.

We need to distinguish between those things which help us understand a mystery and the mystery itself. Without Limbo, we may not understand how God resolves the problem of the final destination of aborted babies for example-but it isn't critical to our salvation that we understand it. God takes care of these things for us. These non-doctrinal explanations don't effect doctrine. We really don't understand the Holy Trinity either. We have some nice models which help us visualize it, but they really don't give us any true understanding. Limbo is simply a model to help us explain something we really know little about.

Others are afraid that traditionalists will be (further) alienated from Rome if the ITC goes ahead with the document (with the Pope's approval) that theorizes that infants who die un-Baptized are simply entrusted to God's mercy for salvation. This doesn't give traditionalists very much credit for their knowledge of the Faith or their powers of reasoning. Sure, they may be attached to Limbo also as a popular hypothesis as many of us are. But really, they don't have to give it up. The ITC is not going to make a dogmatic statement saying that the faithful cannot believe in the existence of Limbo anymore. If traditionalists hang their hat on a popular but speculative theory about God's justice and mercy called Limbo and not on the Faith-the doctrines and Tradition of the Church, then they will always be alienated.

It is wise?

Some critics of the ITC say it is not wise and will confuse the faithful if new statements dis-creditting Limbo are issued now (or in this day and age). This may be true in some cases, but let me make some observations and pose a question:

1. Catholics who get their news and understanding of Church teachings from TIME magazine will no doubt be further confused by the ITC statements. However, these Catholics are already confused about a good many things concerning Catholicism, and there is no help for them until they decide they are going to take the Faith seriously and engage Catholicism through Catholic sources.

2. There is more information and more eduction available to the faithful today than in any other time in history. If Catholics want to know about the Faith, there is no better time to learn. Of course as in all eras, some guidance may be necessary. (Dare I open another can of worms?-This is part of what Vatican II was about. The laity must take responsibilty for their own education and spirituality-not in absence of the Church, but in the knowledge that each of us has a vocation to follow with a passion for Christ-not just a passive reception of the sacraments or an assumption that 'the Church will take care of me - I will follow my pastor blindly'...No question the Church has fallen down on catechesis in the past 30-50 years if not longer, in some respects, but the laity have the education and tools to take responsibility themselves.)

3. Who is to say that now or any other time the ITC should not investigate, discuss, give opinion on, publish, and discuss again mysteries that we don't understand? Doctrines are settled. Hypothoses can and should be re-examined periodically in the light of further understandings of other mysteries so that we all can deepen our understanding of our Creator. Theologians must do this. This is their gift to the Church and their vocation. Sure, they shouldn't wantonly discard the old just because innovation is the current fad. But serious reasons or holes in non-doctrinal theories should be investigated-always deferring to the teaching of the Church.

4. Many fear that parents won't Baptize their babies as soon as they should if Limbo is eliminated in favor of God's mercy. Surely, I would think it wise that any communication to the faithful discussing Limbo as being replaced as a theory by this new "Compassion theory" (for want of a better term) should be accompanied by a statement on the urgency of infant Baptism, and that we really don't know for sure how God treats these infants. (However, I will say from the many Baptisms I have witnessed, that people are already delaying Baptism much longer than I think is prudent. Regardless of the current debate, I would urge Rome to address this, because in fact, we don't really know for sure what happens to the un-Baptized infant.)

Pure speculation

I don't have much at stake in the Limbo debate. I think it is a nice way to make it comfortable for us to explain something we don't understand. But I also do understand: that we just don't know!

Now you can stop reading because I am about to enter some pure speculation, some of it probably silly. Just jump ahead to the conclusion below. I don't even know whether I would believe the hypotheses I am about to suggest, but here goes....

- Christ says "unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God." And Christ gave the specific mission to the Apostles of Baptizing.

These teachings are the basis of the doctrine of Baptism and salvation. And yet we know plenty of exceptions. We have of course Baptism by blood. We have John the Baptist who received the Holy Spirit but not water in the womb and was born without original sin. We have all those righteous figures of the Old Testament who waited in "limbo" (hell or Sheol) for the Messiah and then entered Heaven. None of these were Baptized on earth.

Is the requirement of Baptism part of the New Covenant only? (This has always been my understanding.) Yet we know that God is not limited by time. He is outside of time. Could then those infants who die un-Baptized be treated by God as He treated the Old Testement people. Or could Limbo exist and God sends His angels to Baptize these infants in Limbo so they can enter Heaven? Or could Limbo exist, but not as our vision shows it, but a place where there is some kind of new test given for these souls to chose God? All these solutions entrust these souls to God's mercy-and some include Limbo.

What we know for sure...and Conclusion

What Peter binds on earth is bound in Heaven. But Peter has never bound the existence of Limbo. Baptism as a condition of salvation is bound on earth and in Heaven.

We know also that God's ways are not man's ways. That 1000 years to man is nothing to God. We don't need to understand all things-and we won't understand all the mysteries of God and how He works.

I think some may be reluctant to let go of Limbo because then they realize there is something more that we don't understand (therefore can't control) about God. Here is something we thought we had a handle on in a way that met our expectations and our sense of fairness. Others want Limbo to go because they want a God who doesn't judge and doesn't punish (maybe justifying their own dissent from Church teachings?).

But God is God, and we are not. He doesn't fit our models.

Personally, I have always leaned towards being a Limbo man myself. But I don't hang my hat on it. I usually don't meditate or worry too much about things that are so speculative and don't effect my own journey. (Maybe I should...)

So there it is. I am sure there are many holes to be plugged (or widened) in this overly long post. Go for it. I will try to respond and adjust but my response times will probably be slow for a few days. Lots of doings here.

From Bethany, the small holding in Bethune...Oremus pro invicem!


TS said...

Good post, I collar'd some of it for STG purposes.

Speculating on your speculation, and prompted by your mention of the Holy Innocents, I recently saw a comment on Mark Shea's blog asking why martyrs have a "get out of Purgatory" free card when their martyrdom might've been relatively quick and painless. And I think the answer might be hidden in an article Jimmy Akin wrote in which the Church can remove temporal punishment by the fact of, and part and parcel of, Christ's conferring upon her the ability to forgive sins. It's almost as though the Holy Innocents are in Heaven rather than Limbo simply because the Church confers that gift automatically for martyrs, surely because they (martyrs in general) serve as such a powerful examples. But I'm in way out of my depth here, and it seems impossible to understand why God would save the "geographically lucky", as the Holy Innocents were, before the geographically unlucky, i.e. the baby who dies before Baptism.

Re: No question the Church has fallen down on catechesis in the past 30-50 years if not longer.

Longer indeed. I was reading something from the the 1890s that said how the state of catechesis was deplorable and in an utter shambles. The more things change the more they stay the same.

Jeff Culbreath said...

Jim, thanks for this summary of your thoughts. I have no problem *hoping* that unbaptized babies go to heaven - God isn't bound by the sacraments - but my private hopes should have *zero* influence on Catholic doctrine.

Make no mistake: here's how the proposed "solution" to the problem of Limbo will be played out on the ground -

Layman: Should we baptize infants?

Church: Yes.

Layman: Why?

Church: Because unbaptized children might go to Limbo and be excluded from the Beatific Vision due to Original Sin.

Layman: Might go to Limbo? And they might not?

Church: Yes, they might and they might not.

Layman: What are the chances?

Church: We don't know the chances. We entrust them to God's mercy.

Layman: Well, then. God is certainly merciful. And Limbo doesn't sound very merciful. Therefore baptism can wait ...

JCurley said...

Jeff: No doubt your scenario will happen-it already does in other forms regardless of the status of Limbo. People will latch onto any excuse to avoid or delay their responsibility. If not this, there will be something else.

However, the properly catechized Catholic will Baptize for positive reasons-not simply to avoid negative consequences.

(I'm sure you would agree) proper catechisis deserves a greater priority than worrying about theological investigations into the existence of Limbo. Proper catechisis makes the point moot.

(Jeff - good to hear from you!)