By Alan Cooperman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 29, 2007
Ann Druge grew up in a Catholic family with eight children and the haunting knowledge that a ninth was stillborn. Because the baby, named Mary Ellen, had not been baptized, she was denied a Catholic burial.
"When we would go to the cemetery . . . we'd always stop where they threw the dead flowers. That's where the little one was buried," said Druge, 80, of Storrs, Conn. "My mother and father were very upset every time. She was stillborn, so she couldn't be buried in the consecrated ground. We were told she was in limbo."
After three years of study, a Vatican-appointed panel of theologians has declared that limbo is a "problematic" concept that Catholics are free to reject. The 30-member International Theological Commission said there are good reasons to believe instead that unbaptized babies go to heaven, because God is merciful and "wants all human beings to be saved."
"We emphasize that these are reasons for prayerful hope, rather than grounds for sure knowledge," said the commission's report, published last week with the pope's approval.
Late-night television hosts and Internet satirists have had their yuks over this change, but the idea of limbo was a real anguish to many Catholic parents and grandparents grieving over miscarriages or stillbirths. Its abandonment may say something about the afterlife, but it also says something about the current pope, who is turning out to be more pastoral (read: compassionate) and less rigid than many expected.
For about 750 years, from the beginning of the 13th century until the middle of the 20th, the common Catholic teaching was that babies who died without baptism -- as well as adults who lived holy lives but in ignorance of Jesus -- would spend eternity in limbo, which is neither heaven nor the full fury of hell.
Because babies are guilty of no personal sins (only the taint of original sin), the thinking went, surely God would not consign them to perpetual torment. But because the church teaches that baptism is a necessity, theologians also asserted that unbaptized babies could not enjoy eternal life in God's presence.
To faithful Catholics, the Vatican's pronouncement does not mean that limbo once existed and suddenly is abolished; it means there are grounds for hope that unbaptized babies are in heaven -- and have been all along.
Druge said she felt long ago that her sister was in heaven and sees no need to move the 75-year-old grave.
"Years ago, everything you heard at the church you believed," she said. "But limbo never made sense to me. I always thought that if the baby came from God, it would go right back to God. I think that's what my mother believed, too."
The Vatican commission stressed that there is no mention of limbo in the Bible and that it was never a part of church dogma. Nor, by the way, is the commission's own advisory opinion. But there is little doubt that Pope Benedict XVI agrees with its conclusion. In a 1985 book-length interview, "The Ratzinger Report," then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said limbo was "never a defined truth of faith," and "personally . . . I would abandon it, since it was only a theological hypothesis."
Some Catholics, however, are standing firm on limbo.
"The Vatican is suggesting that salvation is possible without baptism. That is heresy," said Kenneth J. Wolfe, Washington columnist for the Remnant, a traditionalist Catholic newspaper.
He predicted that the 41-page report, titled "The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized," would undermine the church's advice to parents to make sure that children are baptized within the first 10 days of life. It might also undercut the church's position against abortion, since "one of the reasons for opposing abortion is that the baby's soul is lost," he said.
Although the Catholic Church still adheres to the related idea of purgatory -- a period of punishment and purification before the full joy of heaven -- it has been inching away from limbo for decades. Most Catholic schools gradually stopped teaching children about limbo in the 1960s, '70s and '80s, according to Monsignor Daniel Kutys, director of religious education for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The Baltimore Catechism, an official compendium of Catholic teachings used in the United States until the 1960s, described limbo as the destination of unbaptized babies. But there is no mention of limbo in the new catechism, published in 1992, Kutys said.
In 1969, the Catholic Church introduced a funeral rite for unbaptized babies, doing away with the severe policy that had kept Druge's sister from being buried in consecrated ground.
While the church is often viewed as a top-down organization in which bishops tell ordinary Catholics what to believe, the commission's report suggests that in this case, the process worked partly in reverse.
A commission member, the Rev. Paul McPartlan, a professor of theology at the Catholic University of America, said that in the run-up to the Second Vatican Council, which met from 1962 to 1965, there were proposals to add limbo to the central teachings of the church.
But the senior bishops who prepared the council's agenda rejected those proposals, noting that the idea that unbaptized babies cannot go to heaven simply did not match the "sensus fidelium," Latin for "the sense of the faithful," McPartlan said.
Before becoming pope, Benedict earned a reputation as a fierce defender of traditional teachings as head of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Yet he also served as president of the International Theological Commission when it decided a few years ago to revisit the issue of limbo.
"It shows that Benedict is not afraid to look at something that has been taught in the church for centuries and say it is not at the core of Catholic belief," said the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a senior fellow at Georgetown University's Woodstock Theological Center and a former editor of the Jesuit magazine America.
"This is a critical issue for our time: what is central to our faith, what is peripheral; what can change, what can't."