Thursday, December 29, 2005

A Few Thoughts About Limbo

As you may have heard, a Vatican commission is looking into limbo, a theological theory that the souls of unbapitized babies (who would have original sin, but not actual sin, on their soul) are not able to enter into Heaven, but instead spend eternity in a place of "blissful ignorance" - they are naturally happy, but they do not enjoy union with God. The theory has never been doctrine nor proclaimed infallibly, and after this commission finishes its work, it seems the theory may become more unpopular. It was/is accepted by some theologians and members of the faithful because it affirms the necessity of baptism for salvation.

Now, I am not a theologian by any stretch of the imagination, nor will I achieve the sanctity that Sts. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas did (they believed in limbo, I am told), but I do have some thoughts to respond to those who have defended the theory in some St. Blog's comboxes. I am inclined not to believe in limbo, but there have been insightful comments into the theory by those who do accept it, and I wanted to respond to some comments its defenders have made, however poor my qualifications for that may be (read: very poor).

1. God doesn't "owe" us or anyone Heaven, including babies, so it's not punishment that unbaptized babies be sent to limbo. This statement is true. God doesn't owe us Heaven. He doesn't owe innocent babies Heaven. But God owes us nothing and yet He has given us all. His track record when dealing with us humans is one of unfathomable generosity. He didn't have to create us, He could have decided not to save us through the blood of His Son, He could have abstained from giving us the gift of the Holy Spirit, the gift of the Church, the gift of the sacraments. He didn't have to give us the thousand little graces with which He sprinkles our every days. Yet He freely gave us all this - and He continues to give. So while it is correct that God doesn't owe us or these unbaptized babies anything (including Heaven), the history of our relationship with Him affirms that He gives all to us anyway. While I certainly don't want to presume to know God's thoughts or ways, I'm not sure why the gift of Heaven to unbaptized babies would be any different.

2. There's been some talk that the commission's work may have been proximately caused by how to deal with people like mothers in Africa, where the infant mortality rate is still very high and pastorally speaking, you don't want to tell those mothers that their babies aren't in Heaven. But it's not a good idea to base doctrine on pastoral concerns alone. I've never developed doctrine, but it sounds right to me that you don't want to base it on pastoral concerns alone. The thing is, limbo was never doctrine and the work of this commission does not seem to indicate that the theory's suppression (if you can call it that) would be equivalent to doctrine, either. But nonetheless, pastoral concerns are very important. The sheep shouldn't be in fear of their shepherd. And the shepherd shouldn't scare the sheep away. It's not like these grieving parents are giving their kids condoms and turning a blind eye to their sexual activity (*cough* some Western parents *cough*). They've lost a baby and like any good parent, they want to be sure of their child's safety and happiness in eternity. I can say with some confidence that if I were a mother who lost a baby before that baby was baptized, and then someone from the Church told me unequivocally that my baby was NOT in Heaven, I'd have a crisis of faith. Not to mention that Africa and Asia are where the Church is growing exponentially and where so many of our vocations are coming from. Do we really want to alienate the heads of those households?

3. The current popular thought on limbo - which is to dismiss it - is just a remnant of all that lovey-dovey '60s stuff. I don't know the history on this, but I'm pretty sure some people before Vatican II must have had some problems with it, or it wouldn't have remained just a theory. Not only that, but I'm sure there were parents of dead unbaptized babies who didn't like this theory since its inception. But more to the point: The uneasiness with which many in the modern world react to limbo may in fact be a movement of the Holy Spirit. Our emotions alone shouldn't guide our decisions. We need to use reason and prayer (and, where applicable, the guidance of the Church). But we are made in the image and likeness of God. If are hearts are really telling us that this doesn't seem right, maybe that's because it isn't right. God does work in those ways sometimes.

In the end, I'll accept what the Holy Father asks me to. What the Church says now (and seems likely to reaffirm in this commission), is that, "The Church can only entrust them (children who have died without baptism) to the mercy of God."