Limbo

An ex-Catholic friend made an observation concerning Limbo on a former encarnation of the Pro-Gospel bulletin board:

... if one dies as an infant they do not go to heaven but to a place Catholicism calls "limbo" or at least they did! Rome no longer teaches this! It's not in the catechism that I can find and I have read at a few Catholic sites that this is not believed anymore (well, never was according to them) I guess those holy nuns lied to us in the parochial schools that I attended (12 years).

Anybody old enough to remember the sixties surely was taught this at some point in their life. But never changing Rome apparently does change!

I am plenty old enough to remember the sixties. And the fifties. And the forties. I clearly remember being taught about Limbo.

Limbo is 'mentioned' in the new catechism--in a reference in the Index that refers readers to Paragraph 1261 and suggests they search under Baptism and Funerals,

1261 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,"[Mk 10 14; cf. 1 Tim 2:4] allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without Baptism. All the more urgent is the Church's call not to prevent little children coming to Christ through the gift of holy Baptism. -- Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), 2nd Ed., (c) 1994/1997 United States Catholic Conference, Inc.

I looked in an old catechism to freshen my memory.

23. Q. What is Limbo?

A. Limbo is a name given by the early fathers of the Church to the place or condition in which dwelt the souls of the just who died before the Redemption.

24. Q. Does the Bible speak of Limbo?

A. In the epistle of St. Peter (iii, 18) we read: "Christ being put to death indeed in the flesh, but enlivened in the spirit. . . coming He preached to those spirits who were in prison . . . they waited for the patience of God in the days of Noah." -- Roderick MacEachen, Complete Catechism of Christian Doctrine, Catholic Book Company (1911), p. 40; has Nihil Obstat, Imprimatur & Cum Permissu)

And here we have what appears to be another example of Roman Catholic eisegesis, or reading into Scripture what is not there. In this case, the Roman dreamworks has changed the Scriptural message by having Christ speak to "souls of the just who died before the Redemption." That this is not what the passage says becomes clear when one appliles honest hermeneutics to the inspired words. In the KJV, the passage reads:

18 For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit:
19 By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison;
20 Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water.
21 The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God) by the resurrection of Jesus Christ:
22 Who is gone into heaven, and is on the right hand of God; angels and authorities and powers being made subject unto him.
-- 1 Peter 3:18-22

In this passage, Peter seeks to encourage his readers in their suffering. He reminds them that even Christ Himself was unjustly made to suffer because that was the will of God. The Apostle reminds them that Christ triumphed in the end and was raised up to sit at the right hand of God while those demons who caused His suffering were made eternally subject to Him.

How interesting that Rome used this passage to support her concept of Limbo, a place where souls of the just spend eternity in happiness but without God. In verse 18, Peter reminds us how Christ, the atoning sacrifice for the sins of all mankind, died once for sins, not over and over again as under the Old Covenant. Christ's one perfect sacrifice was sufficient for the sins of all mankind and needs not to be repeated.

Christ was executed and died in the flesh, but His spirit did not die. Peter is not here referring to the Holy Spirit but to Jesus' own spirit. Jesus' flesh, His humanity, was dead for three days, but His spirit, His deity, was alive.

Verse 19 is one of the most controversial verses in the Bible, being interpreted in many ways by theologians great and small throughout the centuries. Rome uses it to support the existence of Limbo, or used to anyway. By comparing this verse with others, using the Scriptures to interpret the Scriptures, one comes to a somewhat different conclusion. Paul tells us, in his letter to the Colossians (2:14,15) that Christ made a show of His triumph over demon spirits. Viewed in the light of this passage, it seems clear that verse 19 speaks of Christ's visit to demon spirits bound in the abyss, where He proclaimed that, in spite of His death, He had triumphed over them.

The reference to spirits in prison is to demons, or fallen angels, who because of their terrible wickedness were permanently bound. Though other demons, still unbound, might resist such a sentence (Luke 8:31), in the end they will be cast into the fiery lake (Matthew 25:41; Revelation 20:10)

In verse 20, Peter explains how the abyss is occupied by demons bound since the days of Noah, sent there because they had greatly overstepped the limits of God's tolerance by their wickedness. Wickedness and evil were such that not even 120 years of preaching by Noah could convince any but Noah's immediate family to believe in God. (2 Peter 2:4,5; Jude 6,7; Genesis 6:1-8) So God permanently bound the demons in the abyss until the time of final judgment. The reference to saved by water informs us that eight were saved in spite of the water, not because of it. In this case, God used water as an agent of judgment, not the means of salvation.

Peter continues, in the next verse, by pointing out that eight people in the ark went through the whole judgment, yet were unhurt. This clearly is analogous to the Christian experience of salvation by being in Christ, the Ark of our salvation. When he writes of baptism…through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Apostle is by no means referring to water baptism but to the figurative immersion into union with Christ as the ark of safety from the judgment of God. The resurrection of Christ manifests God's acceptance of Christ's substitutionary death for the sins of believers (Acts 2:30,31; Romans 1:4). Peter underscores this by telling us he is not speaking of water baptism; not the removal of the filth of the flesh.

In closing the passage by recounting how Christ was exalted and seated at the right hand of God, Peter is assuring his readers that their suffering can be the context for one's greatest triumph.

Back to Rome's teaching on Limbo. Or at least what Rome used to teach on that subject.

12. Q. Where was Christ's soul whilst His body was in the tomb?

A. Whilst His body was in the tomb, Christ's soul was in Limbo.

13. Q. What is Limbo called in the Apostle's Creed?

A. In the Apostles' Creed, Limbo is called Hell; it says: "He descended into hell."

14. Q. Was Limbo really Hell?

A. Limbo was not the Hell of the damned but a place or state of rest where the souls of the just were waiting for Redemption.

15. Q. Why did Christ descend into Limbo?

A. Christ descended into Limbo to preach to the souls who were waiting for Him and to announce the Redemption to them.

-- Roderick MacEachen, Op. cit., pp. 50,51

"To announce the Redemption…" Interesting. If that were the case, then there must be no souls left in Limbo. After all, logic tells us that if they were there to wait for Redemption, then when Redemption was announced, they moved on. In that Christ's sacrifice was a one-time event, though the redeeming effect continues to be extended to all believers, there no longer is a need for a waiting room for souls awaiting redemption. Of course, it could be that, in the Catholic understanding, Christ did not redeem the waiting souls but only announced redemption to them. That would be a cruel trick, I should think, and unworthy of God. If Limbo is still out there some place and souls are still hanging around waiting for redemption, one must wonder why.

I looked for more information in an old Catholic dictionary and learned that the teaching of the RCC used to include information on not one but TWO Limbos:

i. The Limbo of the Fathers. A place and state of rest wherein the souls of the just who died before Christ's ascension were detained until he opened Heaven to them; referred to as "Abraham's Bosom" (Luke xvi,22) and "Paradise" (Luke xxiii, 43) and notably in Eph. Iv, 9 and I Peter iii, 18-20.

ii. The Limbo of Children. It is of faith that all, children and adults, who leave this world without the Baptism of water, blood or desire and therefore in original sin are excluded from the Vision of God in Heaven. The great majority of theologians teach that such children and unbaptized adults free from grievous actual sin, enjoy eternally a state of perfect natural happiness, knowing and loving God by use of their natural powers. This place and state is commonly called Limbo. -- Donald Attwater, A Catholic Dictionary, The Macmillan Company (1942), p. 309; has Nihil Obstat &imprimatur

OK. The old Limbo, referred to as the Limbo of the Fathers, was a place for the souls of good guys to hang out until Christ ascended. I reckon that place has been boarded up now that Christ is seated at the right hand of the Father.

But what to do with the souls of babies, birthed and in the womb, who die before being baptized? And what about all those really nice unbaptized people who die without ever having committed a serious sin (can this be?)? According to the Romish understanding, these are not good enough to go to Heaven, yet do not merit the eternal punishments of Hell. So the Roman dreamworks invented the Limbo of Children to provide a comfortable answer for this difficult question. As a Catholic apologist explains:

Since Christ ascended into heaven only the souls of those, mostly children, who die in original sin, without ever having been guilty of personal mortal sin, are in this place of happiness. These souls enjoy a positive happiness being united to God and to their parents, if they are in heaven, by a natural knowledge and love. It is commonly called the Limbo of Children. -- Betrand L. Conway, The Question Box, Paulist Press (1962), p. 315; has Nihil Obstat & Imprimatur

This raises other interesting issues. If Limbo is just outside Heaven ("Limbo" translates to "border"), how can those who reside there be united to their parents in Heaven? Also, Conway mentions those in Limbo are united with God, yet other Catholic sources argue that those in Limbo are denied what Rome calls the Beatific Vision. All this serves to underscore how complicated things can get when people or churches look to men for doctrine rather than seeking doctrinal truth in Scripture. One invention demands additional inventions if it is to be sustained. Scriptures are self-sustaining, for they originate in God, not the imagination of men.

Another priest sheds some light on how the idea of a Limbo of Children came about. After explaining that the Council of Florence, in the Decree of Union , made it clear that the unbaptized cannot enter Heaven (Denzinger 696), this priest continued:

But there is a natural repugnance to the belief that those who have committed no sin should be tormented in Hell, and this difficulty led theologians to adopt various theories to account for souls in this state. -- C.F. Donovan, Our Faith and the Facts, Patrick L. Baine (1929), p. 319; has Nihil Obstat & Imprimatur

It is a rare occurrence when a Catholic theologian recognizes that personal prejudices led theologians – Catholic, of course – to come up with theories to make God's truth more palatable. In this case, rather than accept that we cannot know from Scripture that God has made special provision for babies and other innocents, churchmen created such a place in order to be comfortable. Donovan then shared with us the names and ideas of a few of those theologians.

St. Bernard thought that such infants might be saved by the faith of their parents, that God might be pleased to supply the want of Baptism in this way. Some thought the lack of Baptism might be supplied by the wish for the Sacrament on the part of the parents. The great majority of theologians, among whom is St. Thomas, thought that infants dying in original sin suffer no "pain of sense" but are simply excluded from heaven. St. Gregory Nazianzen agreed with this. As St. Thomas puts it, such infants do not suffer because pain of punishment comes only from personal guilt, of which there is none. They do not grieve because they do not see God; more than that, they rejoice, because they share in God's goodness and in many natural perfections. They know and love God by use of their natural powers. -- Donovan, Op. cit.

As a parent, grandparent and great grandparent, I sincerely hope that God , whose justice is perfect, indeed has made some special provision for those who never had an opportunity to be saved by faith. It grieves me deeply to think that a baby or a person born with limited mental abilities might be condemned to eternal suffering. I find nothing in Scripture about this situation but my faith in God's perfect justice gives me hope.

Donovan goes on to explain that while Limbo has never been an official doctrine of the RCC, people have been censured for not believing in its existence.

The existence of Limbo for Infants has never been defined by the Church, although it is a common belief within the Church. Those who scoffed at it have been censured. Pius VI thus condemned the Jansenist Council of Pietoia. -- Donovan, Ibid.

Jesuit John Hardon, in his catechism, addresses provisions the RCC has made for the unbaptized.

A more delicate question is the lot of those children who die without receiving baptism. According to God's universal salvific will, we believe that somehow he gives all persons the opportunity of reaching heaven. There is such a thing as baptism of desire, defined by the Council of Trent, but this assumes sufficient mental maturity to make an act of faith and love of God.

We must, however, say with the Church that "There are people who are in ignorance of Christ's Gospel and of his Church through no fault of their own, and who search for God in sincerity of heart; they attempt to put into practice the recognition of his will that they have reached through the dictate of conscience. They do so under the influence of divine grace; they attain everlasting salvation." By implication, their children who die before the age of reason can also be saved.

Saying this does not deny what the Church also teaches through two ecumenical councils, that even those who die with only original sin on their souls cannot reach the beatific vision. There is also the condemnation of the Jansenists, as teaching something "false, rash, and injurious to Cathollic education," who claimed it was a Pelagian fable to hold that there is a place "which the faithful generally designate by the name of the limbo of children," for the souls of those who depart this life with the sole guilt of original sin. St. Thomas taught that limbo is a place of perfect happiness, but minus the supernatural vision of God tow which, of course, no creature has a natural right. -- John A. Hardon, The Catholic Catechism, Doubleday (1975), p. 510; has Imprimi Potest, Nihil Obstat & Imprimatur

So, what's the answer? Is Limbo real? Or is it just another example of Catholic mythomania? Church historian John Deedy, in responding to the argument that Limbo is just pious Catholic imagery, writes:

…In point of fact, Limbo is a Middle Ages idea, a solution to a problem that had stumped theologians from the moment they defined baptism as necessary for salvation on the authority of Christ's admonition to Nicodemus: "Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God" (John 3:5) -- John Deedy, Facts, Myths and Maybes, Thomas More (1993); p. 99

Deedy goes on to explain how Augustine and other church fathers believed that infants who died suffered a form of damnation, in that they could not enter Heaven. These early theologians also believed the souls of these infants actually suffered positive pain, though it was light and easily bearable.

Some folks had trouble with the idea that an infant should suffer any pain at all and that such positive punishment was inconsistent with the mercy of an all-loving God. Deedy tells us how the RCC solved that little problem.

The answer was provided by the person known as the father of scholasticism, Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109). Unbaptized infants, he concluded, did not go to heaven, but they weren't damned either; rather they went to a place of peace and natural happiness, where their only, albeit great, loss was deprivation of the beatific vision, the full flowering of grace. This place was just outside heaven, or on its border – in limbo, in the Latin. Hence the theology, hence the name. -- John Deedy, Op. cit. p. 100

So Anselm provided the solution to a sticky problem. This solution, though popes may have censured those who did not accept it, has never been formally defined. Vatican II did not mention it at all. And so Catholic faithful are left with a teaching that is included in catechisms and theology books, yet is not "official."

"Limbo, in sum, is merely a general teaching of theologians. Its status in the hierarchy of ecclesiastical truths, as Joseph Martos comments in Doors to the Sacred (Doubleday, 1981), is that of "a workable solution to a sticky problem."

Workable, but then how satisfactory? Even with a Limbo the unbaptized infant is still lost, as English theologian Canon George D. Smith pointed out back in 1949 in The Teachings of the Catholic Church (MacMillan). "He is not in some midway state between salvation and damnation," Smith commented in then-common gender inclusive style. "He was made for one end only, a supernatural end; and failure to reach that, whether the fault be his own or another's, is complete failure, is eternal loss, even though unaccompanied by the positive tortures of a soul that has willfully damned itself."

Nothing's changed since then. Limbo remains a pious Catholic tradition, and not a very satisfactory one at that. -- John Deedy, Op. cit., p. 101

Deedy's honest closing comment on the subject of Limbo says it all. The only thing I would add is the admonition to seek truth in the Scriptures rather than the inventiveness of men.

In closing, I offer this bit of evidence that the church that is always the same has once more changed its stand on a long-held doctrine:

The Vatican has determined that limbo does not exist, opening the gates of heaven to babies who die unbaptised, a member of a high-level theological commission [said].-- Pope abolishes limbo, "Daily Telegraph," April 21, 2007

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