Limbo in Limbo

The BBC reports:

Catholic experts are expected to advise Pope Benedict XVI that the traditional state of limbo – somewhere between heaven and hell – should be abolished.

This statement does read a bit strangely, almost making it sound as if limbo is a real place that the papacy created many years back and have finally decided to empty of its occupants, having no further use for the realm. Of course, limbo is nothing of the kind. It is just a speculative and unbiblical notion and we should be encouraged that Pope is possibly going to decisively reject it. Let’s hope that purgatory is next on the list.

So what might the rejection of limbo for unbaptized children mean for the Roman Catholic practice of infant Baptism? Hopefully it will encourage a popular movement towards a more biblical understanding of the place of infant Baptism. Kurt Stasiak, a Roman Catholic theologian, puts the issue well:

Our discussion here emphasizes that the primary motive for baptizing our infants should not be our fear of what might be denied them should they die unbaptized but, rather, our hope of whom through baptism they will become. Through baptism the sons and daughters of our flesh become sons and daughters of God and are brought into new life in Christ and his Church. We baptize our children because we hope that as the grace of their baptism unfolds, they will mature as adult sons and daughters of God, ever-learning how to walk according to the Spirit.

Baptism overcomes the power of original sin. The connection between infant baptism and original sin, however, is not theological speculation as to how God can receive an unbaptized infant. It is, rather, the challenge of how the Christian community can receive the infant in such a way so that he will learn from the beginning the community’s ways and means of overcoming the effects of original sin that linger stubbornly in the lives of all. Baptism is the pledge and promise that infants are delivered from original sin—not by slow trickles of water, but by the flood of grace which rushes forth as they are transformed and brought into the family of God and the Church. Infant baptism does not mean the child is “home free” because limbo is no longer a possibility. It means the child is brought into a home—into a Christian environment—in which the Word of God is proclaimed from the beginning. Children learn how to be part of the family by being part of the family. Infant baptism proclaims how an infant is to live and be formed. If there is a limbo that needs to be addressed in our baptismal catechesis, it is not a hypothetical limbo between earth and heaven but, rather, the spiritual limbo that still exists in quite tangible form in far too many homes today.

In his superb treatment of the subject of infant Baptism in his book Return to Grace, Stasiak observes that many Christians leave infants in a form of suspense, waiting for the time when they can come to a more explicit form of faith. The impression given is that God views the infant more as a potential adult and believer, rather than as one to be brought into His family and to be valued for what they already are as infants (I have dealt with some of these issues in an older post). Stasiak writes:

The “point” of infant baptism—it is the point of adoption, of taking the initiative on behalf of another—is that neither God, nor Church, nor parents, keep the child “in limbo” until some future time when the child is able or willing to respond to the love already present and presented. Parents love their infants because of who they are now, not because of who they might eventually become. And if the precautions many parents today take even as the child is being “knit together in the mother’s womb” is any indication, they love their child “before now”: before the child from their flesh becomes their child in the world.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in In the News, The Sacraments, Theological. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Limbo in Limbo

  1. John H says:

    The BBC’s coverage on the Today programme this morning was utterly idiotic. They seemed to think this was entirely motivated by shrinking market-share under competition from Islam, which has teachings on the fate of stillborn children and infants that are perceived as being more appealing than the RC doctrine.

    Hang on, the RC what? While the BBC kept talking about the RCC dropping the “Catholic teaching” about limbo, my understanding is this has never been official RC teaching (the word “limbo” doesn’t appear to crop up in the RC Catechism, checking the index this morning), however widely it might have been held (and by however eminent individual theologians).

    That’s why purgatory is not going to go the same way as limbo, not ever. However unbiblical the concept of purgatory may be, it is an absolutely fundamental part of RC doctrine and practice. Remove purgatory and you have more or less abolished everything objectionable about Roman Catholicism (masses for the dead, prayers to the saints, the “treasury of merit”, indulgences, etc, etc, etc).

  2. Al says:

    Much of the same idiocy can be found on the BBC website. And the demise of purgatory is, I realize, far too much to hope for. I supposed that the best that we can hope for on that front is a dramatic facelift. Purgatory is indicative of many of the root problems of RC thought. Wright puts this issue well: “The idea that Christians need to suffer punishment for their sins in a post-mortem purgatory, or anywhere else, reveals a straightforward failure to grasp the very heart of what was achieved on the cross.”

  3. Byron says:

    Thanks for this post and the subsequent comments on limbo vs purgatory. I’d love to hear an analysis of what is at stake theologically and philosophically regarding purgatory, perhaps beginning with Wright’s comment, but then asking “what is it that leads to this (under-)reading of the cross?”

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