Saturday, December 6, 2008

Limbo

From the very beginning Christianity taught that to be saved from hell it was necessary to be baptized. Although this was clear enough it gradually dawned on theologians that this doctrine gave rise to some very troubling questions. The most serious, not to say most embarrassing of these, was the question of what happened to babies who died at birth or soon after without being baptized. And of course this was not just a theoretical matter; until recently infant death was very common and many isolated farmhouses and remote villages did not have access to a priest who could perform the baptism. By the 13th century theologians developed (i.e. thought up) the idea of limbo. The word limbo comes from the Latin word meaning ‘edge’ and the place itself was believed to be near hell but not in it, where babies existed in a sort of state of suspended animation without experiencing the tortures of hell or the bliss of heaven. This never became an official doctrine of the Church but not having the ‘official’ stamp of approval probably didn’t make much difference to the average person. It was widely taught and most people believed it. One can only imagine how this idea compounded the grief and distress of already distraught parents whose child had just died and they had failed or not been able to get it baptized.
But now we know that all this grief and despair were unnecessary because the Church has recently announced that in fact there is no such place as limbo. In 1984 Cardinal Ratzinger, then in charge of the Vatican’s board of doctrine and now Pope Benedict XVI, announced that he was ‘personally’ in favor of scrapping the idea of limbo, which he termed a mere ‘hypothesis.’ In April 2007 he approved of a 41 page document drafted by the International Theological Commission which suggested abolishing the idea. It had taken the Commission two years to conclude their deliberations and announce their recommendations. ‘We cannot know with certainty what will happen when an unbaptized baby dies’, said Paul McParthian, ‘but we have good grounds to hope that God in his mercy and love looks after these children and brings them salvation.’ Mmm. Interesting. It seems to me that this solves one problem but creates another. If all unbelievers and even Christians who sin can be condemned to hell, but babies who die at birth are saved, then surely it would be better to die early than to survive infancy and perhaps be brought up as a Buddhist or become a sinner. Better still I suppose would be to be aborted before birth. I’m just a simple monk. I just don’t understand theology.
The picture above is, I believe, of limbo as imagined by a Baroque artist. It doesn't look too bad does it? But I wonder how that teenager snuck in. And what are those cats doing there? Perhaps some cold-hearted person drowned them before they were baptized.

1 comment:

Jamie G. said...

You might not be theologian, but you make a great comedian.

I think psychologists have a term for all this theological gerrymandering.... cognitive dissonance. It's this kind of stuff that helped me quickly abandon Christianity.