BY DAVID V BARRETT
THE FATE OF CHILDREN who die unbaptised, an issue which has worried Catholics for centuries, is to be examined by a group of theologians at the request of the Pope.
Although it has never been formally accepted as Church dogma some Catholics accept the concept of limbo, an intermediary place between heaven and hell, which spares innocents who die without baptism from the punishments of hell.
The limbus infantium was proposed as a possible solution by medieval theologians: a place without punishment for those who have committed no sin, but cannot enter heaven because they are not baptised. Although excluded from the full blessedness of the divine vision, they would spend eter nity in a state of “natural happiness”. Limbo is distinct from purgatory, where the Church teaches that believers undergo purging or cleansing before being admitted into heaven.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church does not mention limbo, but says of 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”. It quotes Jesus’s words from Mark 10:14, “Let the children come to me, do not hinder them,” and says that the great mercy of God and Jesus’s tenderness toward children “allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without baptism”.
The new members of the International Theological Commission will consider this issue along with others over the next five years. The commission was established over 30 years ago by Pope Paul VI. Thirty Catholic theologians from around the world advise the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, helping to clarify Church teaching. The president of the commission is Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the CDF.
The concept of limbo “is not simply an isolated theological problem,” said Pope John Paul II at the plenary session of the Commission last week. “Many other fundamental topics are closely related to it: the universal salvific will of God; the unique and universal mediation of Jesus Christ; the role of the Church, universal sacrament of salvation; the theology of the sacraments; the meaning of the doctrine on original sin. It corresponds to you to scrutinise the nexus among all these mysteries to offer a theological synthesis that might serve as an aid for a more consistent and enlightened pastoral practice.” The commission will also examine the subject of Natural Law, which Catholic philosophy regards as a law implanted in creation by the Creator that can be discovered by human reason. It will also explore the issue of theology and academia, asking the question “To whom is theology accountable?” Although the Commission’s reflections on doctrinal issues usually take the form of study documents, it is not known if this will be the case on the issue of limbo.