The End of Limbo

On October 29, 1965, four high hierarchs proposed to their Second Vatican Council colleagues that they might put on the agenda a discussion of the possibility that they should rethink the Catholic Church's position on birth control. That evening, Albert C. Outler, our profoundly informed fly on the wall who moved with the most ease of any Protestant among the bishops, reported that he heard an Archbishop express concern to a Cardinal: "For centuries we've been sending women to purgatory [or hell, I can't remember which] for violating Church law on birth control. If we would change that, what would happen to them?"

Outler reported that the Cardinal responded with a question: "Are you sure God ratifies all our decisions?" That exchange, deeply stamped in my mind, came forward again this week when a change in traditional Catholic teaching was declared. The press reported that Pope Benedict XVI announced that the Church will no longer teach that there is a reality or place called limbo to which unbaptized babies go to spend eternity. The pope reportedly has long chafed when talk of limbo comes up, and welcomed the chance in his pontificate to report on the obsolescence and even disappearance of this teaching. The council father might ask, "What happens now to the babies we said were sent there?"

The post-limbo announcement awakens all kinds of responses, many of them easily accessible on the internet or in the press. Taunters who have heard that Catholicism does not change now taunt, "Here's a change." Catholic pastors who have always found the reference to limbo, a place of non-descriptness and non-happening, to be more chilling than comforting to parents of unbaptized children can be relieved of the charge to pass on word about it. Catholics who lean toward a most expansive Catholic view of salvation and tend toward universalism cheer, for this proclamation that unbaptized infants can go straight to heaven might open the door for Catholic witness that some non-infants could have the same experience. "Pro-choice" Catholics are coming on record as seeing that this can fortify their cause: If fetuses are babies, and they no longer go to limbo but can go to heaven, then abortion may not be as dire a fate as it is often pictured to be. Abort and send them prematurely to heaven. Catholic traditionalists – you'll find plenty of them – rage at Pope Benedict and others involved in this announcement, seeing them as traitors to the Catholic cause: If this can change, can't other things? Relativism, which the pope abhors, will take over.

Pope Benedict made clear in his announcement that limbo was never an infallible teaching and was not even a formal doctrine of the church. We wonder whether generations of parents who suffered endlessly as they imagined their infants endlessly denied the vision of God or much of any other kind of vision knew of that nuance. Those of us who are not Catholic, and who care about Catholic teaching and Catholic parents, but cannot appreciate all the niceties of gradation of authority among "infallible" and "not quite infallible" and "traditional" and "easy to change" teachings, will look for clarification.

So will Catholics of many stripes, including some who had not thought about limbo for a long time, but in response to press coverage now find themselves in an intellectual limbo.

Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at Original Source: Sightings – A biweekly, electronic editorial published by the Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

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