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Wednesday, September 20, 2017
Date Posted:

The Man of Sin will change the eternal destiny of millions with a word: Benedict XVI attempts to put limbo into limbo

British Church Newspaper – 8th December 2006
Dr Clive Gillis

The present writer trained in operative obstetrics under a devout Irish Roman Catholic Senior Registrar in the late sixties when infant mortality was higher than it is now.

I have witnessed the heart rending screams of terrified Romanist mothers when an infant died at birth. There was the desperate attempt to locate a priest to make a mercy dash to the hospital, followed by a conspiracy to fudge the time of the infant’s death to give the mother hope that the priest had arrived in time, when really she knew in her heart that the baby was consigned to limbo for all eternity. The whole business was agonising, dishonest and sickening.

Limbo is a word greatly over used in common speech and literature and, of course, by journalists. The headline writers had a field day following the Pope’s attempt in early October to dismiss the idea. As the BBC put it, “Vatican is to review state of limbo”.

‘Not official’

All the comment was along the same lines ‑ that the concept has never been official church teaching. But everybody knows Rome’s aversion to doctrine in dealing with bereaved parents, and rubbish it in private. Others believe that Pope Benedict was too intellectual to entertain woolly concepts, or that limbo was putting Rome at a disadvantage in competing with the Muslims who believed that dead infants went to heaven.

Monstrous foundations

So it is time to look at limbo and appreciate the monstrous foundations of this fiction before Rome can cover her tracks. And if she does succeed in extinguishing limbo, including a convincing explanation as to what happens to all its little inhabitants as a result, verbal tradition may remain the only evidence that this weird fabrication ever existed. Tangible historical evidence of limbo is already quite scarce.

Limbo comes from the Latin LIMBUS meaning a hem, border, or something distinct from that to which it is attached. It blossomed as a theological concept in medieval times.

The obvious place to look for an insight into the medieval mind is Dante’s Divine Comedy. Here he describes how “midway” in this life he “awoke to find (himself) in a dark wood, where the right road was wholly lost and gone”. He then describes a mammoth trek which led him on a bizarre journey through hell, onto purgatory, and finally to paradise, as he searched for the “beatific vision” of the glorified Christ. What a contrast to the apostle Paul’s comment in 2 Corinthians 5:8, “We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord”!  Even bearing in mind the general opinion that Dante’s, “version of this region is more generous than most,” we nevertheless discover in the Divine Comedy that Rome has inspired some horrific imagery and appalling concepts.

Dante, having entered “the hall way of the futile” and passed through “Hell gate”, encounters Charon, ferryman of the dead across the Acheron, a “joyless” great river of Hell.  Once across Dante descends to the First Circle of Hell’s pit. This is Rome’s Limbus patrium which is defined in her own words as “the temporary place or state of the souls of the just”.  It is in stark contrast to the never ending Limbus infantium, “the permanent place or state of those unbaptised children . . . dying without grievous personal guilt (that) are excluded from the beatific vision on account of original sin alone”.

There are no agonised cries here, simply a crescendo of sighs, “quivering for ever through the eternal air ... their sorrows multiplying”.  These hapless “sorrowers” are held here, “not for sin but because their merit lacked its chief fulfilment ... baptism”.  These poor, unbaptised infants say, “For such defect alone ‑ no other wrong ‑ we are lost ‑ without hope we ever live and long (for the beatific vision)”.

One suspects many Romanists have never heard of Limbus patrium but every Roman Catholic is chillingly aware of Limbus infantium otherwise known as limbo.

Reformed position

The Reformed position concerning infants dying un‑baptised is clearer. The Westminster Confession Ch X sec 3 states “Elect infants, dying in infancy, are regenerated, and saved by Christ, through the Spirit”.

But this could imply that there are elect infants who go to Heaven and un‑elect infants who go to Hell. Subsequent commentary on this passage from the Westminster Confession has tended to be along the lines of the Declaratory Statement of the USA Free Presbyterians in 1903 which stated, “We believe that all dying in infancy are included in the election of grace, and are regenerated and saved by Christ through the Spirit, who works when and where and how He pleases.”

William Shedd in his book on Calvinism thought this Declaratory Statement was not necessary and that the Puritan authors of the Confession had simply not commented upon the extent of the election, but Shedd assumes that they felt that it encompassed all dying in infancy.

The Book of Common prayer 1662 states in the rubric, “It is certain by God’s Word, that children which are baptized, dying before they commit actual sin, are undoubtedly saved”.

The Church of England made no clear pronouncement on the position of the unbaptised infant but the minister had to accompany the coffin to the interment and the infant buried in consecrated ground. Anglican formularies seem to follow Scripture in not expressing a definite opinion on the subject but neither did they deny the infant salvation. It has been suggested that this was to prevent infanticide. The churches that have a problem are those like Rome that teach baptismal regneration. 

Roman Catholicism built its limbo from the human ebb and flow of 1500 years of teaching by church fathers, theologians and popes, with each seemingly harsh edict tempered by a softer one in the way that human beings deal in their own affairs. But Pope Benedict, who claims loudly never to have believed in limbo himself, may find this unofficial fudge now so settled in the Romanist psyche that it is harder to ban it than it would be to shed a crisper teaching.

One person who was influential in advancing the idea of limbo was Pope Innocent III (1161‑12160). He reckoned that un‑baptised babies would suffer, “no other pain whether from material fire or the worm of conscience except the pain of being deprived forever of the vision of God”.  However, Thomas Aquinas felt that, if the babies were conscious of their loss, this was worse than Hell. He therefore taught that un‑baptised infants never come to know spiritually what they are missing but might have a natural inkling, hence the crescendo of wistful sighs in Dante’s limbo.

Decrees of urgency

The agonies of those suffering the loss of baptised infants in this world are however heightened by decrees on the urgency of baptising infants to outwit the spectre of death stalking the infant. An early pope (AD 385) wrote “We desire infants ... in want of the water of holy baptism be succoured with all possible speed ... Enough of past mistakes”. The Council of Florence 1439 was so convinced of the efficacy of the actual act of water baptism that it decreed, “in case of necessity ... laymen or laywomen or even pagans or heretics may baptise provided they observe the Church’s form and intend to do what the Church does”.

Threat from Islam

One interesting conjecture, put forward in the press, is that Benedict, and indeed his predecessor John Paul II, who also mooted the discontinuation of limbo in favour of “a more coherent and enlightened way”, were both motivated by the threat from Islam.  The BBC reckoned that this was an, “attempt by the Vatican to prevent people in developing countries with high infant mortality rates turning to Islam ‑ Muslims believe the souls of stillborn babies go straight to paradise”.

Equally widely reported is the red hot denial of Father John MacDaid, a theologian and principal of the Catholic Heythrop College at the University of London, that competition with Islam has anything to do with the move. He insists “I don't think there is any rivalry here”. Heythrop is of course the old Jesuit institution incorporated into the university but continuing the traditional Jesuit ethos. Heythrop now promotes itself as, “a natural . .. forum for the study and practice of the encounter between Christianity and the other major religious traditions ... The Centre is committed to ... fostering the practice of interreligious dialogue".

An internet search confirms that at popular level Muslims do solidly believe that if any baby dies the infant goes straight to heaven forthcoming to indicate that this general belief is Quran based. The author’s search seems rather to support one polemicist in the view that, “there is not a single verse in the Quran which says all infants that die go to Paradise”. And since the “overwhelming majority of Muslims” consider hadith (supplementary writings about what Mohammed said, did or approved of) to be essential supplements to and clarifications of the Qur'an, their pronouncements on this topic, also now accessible with search engines, are notable. They seem to show that Mohammed himself did not think it possible to know the fate of dead babies (See box below).

Could it be that the learned Jesuits have seen in this question of the fate of those dying in infancy an opportunity to enter into dialogue with Islam?

Sahih Muslim, Book 033: A'isha, the mother of the believers, said that Allah's Messenger (may be upon him) was called to lead the funeral prayer of a child of the Ansar. I (A'isha ) said: Allah's Messenger, there is happiness for this child who is a bird from the birds of Paradise for it committed no sin nor has he reached the age when one can commit sin.

He said: ‘A’isha, per adventure, it may be otherwise, because God created for Paradise those who are fit for it while they verse yet is their fathers loins and created for Hell those who are to go to Hell.  He created hem for Hell while they were yet in their father's loins.

Sahib Muslim, Book 033: Abu Huraira reported that Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him) was asked about the children of the polytheists who die young. Thereupon Allah's Apostle (may peace be upon him) said: It is Allah Who knows what they would be doing.

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