Reprieve for limbo after theologians meet

A Vatican document on the concept of limbo is still incomplete and the International Theological Commission will continue work for another year in an attempt to further refine the Catholic understanding of what happens to unbaptised babies after death.

While no one can be certain of the fate of unbaptised babies who die, Christians can and should trust that God will welcome those babies into heaven, members of the Vatican's Commission told Catholic News Service at the conclusion of their 2-6 October meeting in Rome.

The commission had met to continue work on a statement explaining why the concept of limbo entered the common teaching of the Church, why it was never officially defined as Catholic doctrine, and why hope for their salvation makes more sense, said commission member Fr Paul McPartlan.

"We cannot say we know with certainty what will happen" to unbaptised babies, Fr McPartlan said, "but we have good grounds to hope that God in his mercy and love looks after these children and brings them to salvation."

Fr McPartlan, a professor at the Catholic University of America in Washington, said the 30 commission members were in agreement on the main thesis of the document, but they had not put the finishing touches on it.

If they vote on the final version by mail, the document could be released in 2007.

He said that while affirming people's hope, the document takes pains to explain the Christian belief that baptism is necessary to guarantee salvation and urges parents to baptise their infants.

The document "in no way means to lessen the urgency with which the church invites parents to have their children baptised," said Fr McPartlan.

"What we are trying to do is to say, 'What does the church say when confronted with the situation of an infant who has died without being baptised?' That and that alone is what prompted our document.

"The answer is not a simplistic, 'Oh, don't worry; everything is fine,'" but rather that God's endless mercy, his love poured out in Jesus Christ and his desire to save all people gives a solid basis for hoping those children will be saved despite not having been baptised.

The commission began formal studies of the question in 2004 when Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, was president of the advisory body and prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Fr McPartlan said the commission began considering the question because priests and bishops around the world had asked then-Cardinal Ratzinger for "an updated Catholic statement in response to the distressing human situation" of parents mourning the loss of a baby before baptism.

The commission also hoped to be able to respond to questions raised by those mourning the lives of babies lost through abortion. Because the Church teaches that human life begins at conception, the question applies to those babies as well, Fr McPartlan said.

He also said the theologians felt called to articulate a Catholic expression of hope in a world where hope is often lacking and lives are often laid to waste by war and violence.

Catholic theology moves from limbo - Vatican commission sees unbaptized babies welcomed by God in heaven (Online Catholic, 6/10/06)
Pope keeps Limbo in limbo (SBS News, 7/10/06)
How can limbo just be abolished? (BBC NewsMagazine, 6/10/06)

LINKS (not necessarily endorsed by Church Resources)
Limbo (Wikipedia)
Limbo (Catholic Encyclopaedia 1910)
International Theological Commission
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith

Limbo under threat from Vatican theologians (CathNews, 4/10/06)
Vatican theologians to shine "light of God's mercy" on Limbo conundrum (CathNews, 29/11/04)

9 Oct 2006