The Roman Catholic Church has effectively buried the concept of limbo, the place where centuries of tradition and teaching held that babies who die without baptism went.
In a long-awaited document, the Church’s International Theological Commission said limbo reflected an “unduly restrictive view of salvation.”
The 41-page document was published on Friday by Origins, the documentary service of the U.S.-based Catholic News Service, which is part of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Pope Benedict XVI, himself a top theologian who before his election in 2005 expressed doubts about limbo, authorized the publication of the document, called “The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized.”
The verdict that limbo could now rest in peace had been expected for years. The document was seen as most likely the final word since limbo was never part of Church doctrine, even though it was taught to Catholics well into the 20th century.
“The conclusion of this study is that there are theological and liturgical reasons to hope that infants who die without baptism may be saved and brought into eternal happiness even if there is not an explicit teaching on this question found in revelation,” it said.
“There are reasons to hope that God will save these infants precisely because it was not possible (to baptize them).”
The Church teaches that baptism removes original sin which stains all souls since the fall from grace in the Garden of Eden.
‘No negation of baptism’
The document stressed that its conclusions should not be interpreted as questioning original sin or “used to negate the necessity of baptism or delay the conferral of the sacrament.”
Limbo, which comes from the Latin word meaning “border” or “edge,” was considered by medieval theologians to be a state or place reserved for the unbaptized dead, including good people who lived before the coming of Christ.
“People find it increasingly difficult to accept that God is just and merciful if he excludes infants, who have no personal sins, from eternal happiness, whether they are Christian or non-Christian,” the document said.
It said the study was made all the more pressing because “the number of nonbaptized infants has grown considerably, and therefore the reflection on the possibility of salvation for these infants has become urgent.”
The commission’s conclusions had been widely expected.
In writings before his election as pope in 2005, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger made it clear he believed the concept of limbo should be abandoned because it was “only a theological hypothesis” and “never a defined truth of faith.”
In the “Divine Comedy,” Dante placed virtuous pagans and great classical philosophers, including Plato and Socrates, in limbo. The Catholic Church’s official catechism, issued in 1992 after decades of work, dropped the mention of limbo.