World -- Analysis
This week's stories | Home Page
Issue Date:  October 20, 2006

Conclusion on limbo known before work began


One time-honored journalistic maneuver to keep a story in the headlines is to build unrealistic expectations, and when those expectations go unrealized, to write juicy pieces speculating about what happened. The whole thing is artificial, but it often makes for a great run of copy.

A classic example of this is the early October news reports about the International Theological Commission’s discussion of limbo.

Breathless coverage prior to the Oct. 13 Mass celebrated by Pope Benedict XVI for members of the commission predicted a dramatic papal edict overturning limbo, for centuries the usual Catholic explanation of where unbaptized babies go in the afterlife. (Limbo was typically envisioned as an intermediate state between heaven and hell.) In reality, however, the commission is merely an advisory body to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, so its conclusions carry no official standing, and its document on limbo is not even finalized. Given that, there was never any question of something historic happening Oct. 13.

Yet when Benedict didn’t mention limbo in his homily, several papers reversed course and suggested there is now uncertainty, perhaps even behind-the-scenes debate, about limbo’s fate. London’s Daily Telegraph, for example, stated Oct. 7: “It was rumored yesterday that [the pope] had remained silent on the subject to foil those who are trying to anticipate his decision.”

In fact, members of the International Theological Commission, speaking on background, told NCR this week that their document offers a very clear conclusion, which one member paraphrased this way: “Limbo is no longer the common opinion of Catholic theology, and as far as the salvation of unbaptized babies is concerned, we trust in the loving mercy of God.”

One member said that while limbo is not really a burning concern in contemporary Catholic theology, two elements nevertheless make this conclusion important:

  • First, the pastoral need to offer a message of hope and consolation to parents who have lost their infant children;
  • Second, the “healthy relativization” it offers of the church’s role in salvation. Without reducing the imperative to make disciples and to baptize, the decision on limbo represents a reminder that theologians shouldn’t go too far in attempting to systematize exactly how God saves.

This conclusion cannot be said to represent church teaching until the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith or the pope himself adopts it, but given that it coheres with statements then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger offered as early as 1984, it seems this is the way the winds are blowing.

The commission’s document, which still has to be finalized, runs to roughly 30 single-spaced typed pages. It was drafted in English by a subcommission led by Salesian Fr. Dominic Veliath, a professor of systematic theology at Kristu Jyoti College in Bangalore, India.

The recent development in Catholic theology away from limbo is clear.

Following the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), a “Funeral Mass of a Child Who Died before Baptism” was added to the Roman Missal, which is the official collection of the rites of the church. The opening prayer of the Mass is as follows: “Father of all consolation, from whom nothing is hidden, You know the faith of these parents who mourn the death of their child. May they find comfort in knowing that he (she) is entrusted to your loving care.” That formula seems to imply hope that the child may be saved, and under the adage lex orandi, lex credendi, or “the rule of worship is the rule of faith,” it has doctrinal implications.

Later, when the new Catechism of the Catholic Church appeared in 1994, it contained this teaching: “As regards children who have died without baptism, the church can only entrust them to the mercy of God, as she does in her funeral rites for them. Indeed, the great mercy of God who desires that all men should be saved, and Jesus’ tenderness toward children which caused him to say: ‘Let the children come to me, do not hinder them,’ allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without baptism.”

Notably, the term “limbo” does not appear in the catechism.

What has driven this evolution, commission members said, is a tendency in the 20th century toward what might be called “eschatological hope.” As perhaps the most famous case in point, Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar argued that Christians are entitled to hope that hell is empty.

In many ways, sources said, the chief challenge for the document was not so much to reach its conclusion, which was a given before work even began. The difficulty was instead to explain how limbo could be set aside -- a concept that, even if it was never formally defined as a matter of faith, nevertheless represented a widespread consensus in Catholic teaching for centuries.

Some commission members expressed concern that ordinary Catholics may wonder: “If the teaching on limbo can change, what’s next?” For that reason, should the pope choose to make a formal statement, it will need to be surrounded by pastoral efforts to help people distinguish between limbo, which was a theological hypothesis, and formally defined teachings of the church such as the Trinity, the Incarnation, and so on, which are immutable.

Members said it will probably be at least a year before the document on limbo is ready for release. As to when, or if, Benedict XVI will make its conclusion his own, that remains to be seen.

John Allen is NCR senior correspondent. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, October 20, 2006

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to: