Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Whoooooa ... No More Limbo!

Boninsegna: Descent of Christ into Limbo

Christ's Descent into Limbo by Duccio di Boninsegna 1255-1318

Having been raised a Catholic, but long, long past even remotely considering myself to be Catholic now, I read with some interest Vatican Considers Consigning Limbo to Oblivion. Like wow, a blast from the past. Indeed, a blast from the past that was the linchpin to my shucking the notion of being a Catholic, and eventually my not taking serious any commitment to any other religion fettered with the sort of silliness that the Catholic Church imposed on its members. Mind you, it's not as if the notion of limbo, some in-between world found sandwiched with heaven on top and hell on the bottom, was ever Church dogma, rather it's some weird vestige of the medieval church that was alive and well, and taught in Catholic schools, until very recently. The Church, in a manner of speaking, just sort of went along with the whole idea.

I encountered limbo somewhere in grade school, and if I'm not istaken it was somewhere around the 4th grade in a religious class. Let's set the stage: My parents weren't exactly well off, but it was pretty clear that if I wasn't put into a structured environment I'd likely make a mess of my education. I started out in a local public school but it didn't take long before my natural inclinations for trouble and being bored in general took over and I became what teachers refer to either as a "disruptive element" or that "pain-in-the-ass" kid. My mother wasn't partial to this sort of behavior out of me, Lord knows she didn't put up with it at home, and having been raised a Catholic, and attending what the Catholic church called "religious instruction", which meant I went on afternoon a week to what was specifically Catholic religious instruction, I was in good standing to make the transfer over to the Catholic school uniform-wearing group. Moreover my reading ability was a bit higher than that of my peers and Catholic schools in those days were a bit selective (I haven't a clue if they're this way now or not), and this helped to make me a good candidate for entrance into the local Catholic school a few months into the start of the school year (this all happened a few months into the third year in school.) My mother took advantage of the chance, feeling that it was an investment that was clearly called for if I was to get an education in the normal span of time and in the general correct trajectory of how educations were expected to flow. And yes, she had a reason to do this in the way she did - having unexpectedly walked in on me dancing on a desk in the back of what was otherwise a classroom dedicated to study, my mother saw the light, or at least she did after she tanned my young bottom.

So off to Catholic school I go and it took a year but I finally hit the "limbo" situation, and this was a head squeezer of a religious concept. I was never one to just accept much on the basis of faith (well, if my wife asks this of me that's fine, but when it comes to where we relegate the souls of unborn children ... well, I get ahead of myself here ...), and when I was hit with this limbo thing my head imploded, or some such thing. From the article we learn the following about limbo:

"But limbo, that netherworld of unbaptized babies, worthy pagans and even a few Muslims ... Unlike purgatory, a sort of waiting room to heaven for those with some venial faults, the theory of limbo consigned children outside of heaven on account of original sin alone. As a concept, limbo has long been out of favor anyway, as theologically questionable and unnecessarily harsh. It is hard to imagine depriving innocents of heaven."

Indeed, it was the last sentence that got me, I mean newborn babies are sent to limbo and not heaven because ... why? Well, they're not baptized, and you can't baptize someone that isn't alive and only baptized souls made it into heaven, ergo babies floated off to limbo. Ok, that was the theological whatever behind this, even if it wasn't officially supported by the Church it did serve wonderfully to do one thing: Guilt parents. I mean it was YOUR kid, right? It died and you may not have had anything to do with that, but oh well, the kid's floating his or her days of eternity in limbo because you didn't get it baptized in time. Apparently back in 1984 the current Pope, who as a cardinal at the time, had this to say about limbo:

"Personally, I would let it drop, since it has always been only a theological hypothesis."

A hypothesis? Wow ... generations of Catholics have been guilted and allowed to think their kids have been relegated to some lesser state than heaven because of a fouled up "hypothesis". How does the church test theological hypotheses anyway? Does the Church have theological theories? Again I digress ...

What's worse is that this limbo thing wasn't the worst possibility for babies. Since the Catholic Church maintains that we're all tainted with original sin, and even new born babes bear this dark mark on their souls, then the fact was:

The theology is complicated, but the bottom line is that Augustine, believing in man's original sin, persuaded a church council in 418 to reject any notion of an "intermediary place" between heaven and hell. He held that baptism was necessary for salvation, and that unbaptized babies would actually go to hell, though in his later writings he conceded that it would entail the mildest of conditions.

So given a choice, if your kid was going to wind up somewhere without benefit of baptism, what would you choose, limbo or a mild flavor of hell? And who knew that hell came in levels of intensity, sort of like buffalo wings? Why I never became a theologian I don't know ...

Well, wanting to lift the burden of parents having to ponder their innocent but deceased new born as living in hell, in 1905 we're told the following by the then Pope:

"... Pope Pius X stated plainly: "Children who die without baptism go into limbo, where they do not enjoy God, but they do not suffer either."

Now that was comforting, right? Your kid isn't living in hell, but he or she is dwelling somewhere called limbo where, essentially, no one's around to love them and sure as heck God doesn't care about them. Now that's a God I want to be worshipping ...

Leave it to St. Thomas Aquinas to put a nice spin on this:

In the Middle Ages, theologians, notably St. Thomas Aquinas, postulated a slightly cheerier idea: limbo, from the Latin "limbus," meaning a hem or a boundary. Here innocents would live forever in what Thomas called "natural
happiness," if not in heaven.

Ok, so they don't have God's love, but they're otherwise happy, that's not so bad, right?

Well, my sarcasm has been exercised and I'm once again reminded of why I have such a hard time with organized religion of any flavor, but especially one that considers us damned from the point of birth and is so sure it's the only source of salvation, and if you don't get that salvation or otherwise toe the line you're damned for all eternity. Gee, I wonder if I'm going to go to the mild, medium, hot, or extra-spicy version of hell ... I'm not going to lose sleep over it.


Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

I can't stand anyone who says babies are not anything but perfect. This is why I did not convert when I married-- actually it's not the only reason, there the woman thing too....

Hmm, God must be sending us a message, because the word verification says " oyhcvy," which looks like "Oh vey!"

9:37 PM  
Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

I mean Oy vey! Jeez, butterfingers!

9:38 PM  
Blogger James said...

Ms. Cornelius,

Clearly we're cut from similar swaths of cloth (down to the movies we like ... though I have to admit, The Transporter took me a bit by surprise) - with a baby on the way the thought that she'd be some sort of carrier for original sin, I mean really, what sort of idiots come up with this horse manure? Oh well ... thanks for stopping by!

10:13 PM  
Blogger Ogilvie said...

I have to tell you, for someone who doesn't consider himself remotely Catholic, you have one heck of a grasp of some aspects of theology. I'd write more, but I see you have enabled 'comment moderation' so you can censor comments. I am always amused to find people with liberal views who approve of censorship, as long as they are the ones doing the censoring.

11:02 AM  
Blogger James said...


Now the comment about censorship is way out of line ... first, haloscan was installed on this site this morning so this comment moderation feature is entirely new to me and in fact your comment was the very first one ever sent to me for "moderation", a chore I have no need for. I don't intend to use it, instead relying on the delete button for any comments which are entirely inappropriate, of which there have been a few, or comments which are intended to serve to sell something, of which there have also been a few. I have no intention of moderating anything that someone has to say, though if it's offensive to me, i.e. racist, sexist, ad hominem in nature, or otherwise totally out of line, I reserve the right to delete the comment. The moderation feature will be turned off once I've made this comment. So amused you may be, but it's not because of anything you can deduce from the features enabled on this blog, much less my "liberal" views (by the way, something I would not identify myself as being).

So feel free to comment away without fear of "moderation", and if you have views I don't agree with you can be sure you won't be the first to have expressed them here.

11:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

James, I am so happy to hear the Purgatory news! I think I can speak for 5 or 6 generations of Catholic school children who have felt bad about all those African babies. When my own kids asked for clarification on this point, my response was "It's only a theory, no one really knows. It's not like anyone has been and come back to report."
The weird thing is how comfortable The Faithful are with swallowing all this dogma whole, no matter how bizarre or out of sync the paradigms are with the world we live in. The idea of any kind of "digestion," or even common sense makes so many otherwise rational people uneasy.
This kind of insistence on supersition and brainwashing "for their own good," is something that looks very much like evil.
I was afraid Benedict was just going to be another fundamentalist hard-liner, which is JUST what the world needs, but maybe he will turn out to be a human being and a worthy spiritual father. Some hope and happiness in the New Year!

12:13 PM  
Blogger James said...


Nice to see you visiting!

The church hasn't quite decided what it's going to do about this yet, so cautious optimism for the faithful who were puzzled by limbo may well be in order, but it remains to be seen what will finally come out of it. For me it really comes down to how religion can so easily foul up the lives of people with silliness like limbo - though I'll concede that religion has had its good points. Well, whatever, we can only hope that things for Catholics, and the faithful of all flavors throughout the new year will be for the better.

Take care!

9:10 AM  
Blogger Boelf said...

So with no Limbo do babies and "good" non catholics to to hell or heaven?

7:40 PM  
Blogger James said...


For as much as I ever follow something like this, or give it much thought, I think I read that they're moving to some sort of heaven - now what sort of heaven I haven't a clue, and whether this is retroactive for all those who up to now have been pounding sand limbo, I just don't know.

7:48 PM  
Blogger : Joseph j7uy5 said...

I remember having been told, in fourth grade, that "Limbo is just like heaven, except you don't get to see God."

And I remember thinking, "So what if you don't get to see God." I also remember thinking that if I could get away with a little sin ever now and then, and end up in Limbo instead of Heaven, that might not be sucha bad deal.

Anyway, it's nice to know that we all get a "Get Out of Limbo Free" card, just in case.

9:34 PM  
Blogger MavXP said...

Limbo is a product of theologians musing about things they cant possibly know. So its good that it is being consigned to the pile of 'unknown, untestable fictions'. The Church should focus on the basics of Christianity, Jesus' mission, what he preached about. Removing the detritus of 'religion' and helping believers through their day to day existence.

One aspect of Catholic-flavoured christianity that I respect is that they do not take the bible as infallible, and requires interpretation by intelligent people who understand context as well as the literary devices employed by the original authors. The problem with avoiding such so called 'fundamentalism' that maligns many protestant-flavoured brands of christianity, is that the Church can, and has, made dumb interpretations themselves and foistered them on people.

5:44 AM  

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