IF THE holy go to heaven, the sinners to hell, the in-betweens to purgatory, where do the unborn innocents go, given no chance to commit sin or to receive grace?

Since 400 A.D., theologians and thinkers from the Catholic Church had tinkered with the possibility that a fourth after-life exists. Called limbo, it is an abode of natural happiness where innocent yet unbaptized children supposedly rest.

Now, the Vatican has scrapped the idea, for dead babies are said to go straight to heaven’s nursery.

Natural happiness

A Latin word which means “hem” or “border,” limbo is a concept that originated in the Middle Ages.

In the 14th century, Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy described limbo as a world of pagan men and children who were not sinners, but can neither go to heaven for being unbaptized.

But even before the Middle Ages, St. Augustine of Hippo (354-30 AD) probed questions regarding the fate of the unbaptized in his Confessions, where he concluded that their souls go to hell, since early beliefs link original sin to sex and the babies are fruits of sex. As such, baptism is necessary to cleanse man from the original sin of Adam and Eve.

But in the 13th century, St. Thomas Aquinas disproved St. Augustine’s assertions and claimed that there exists a special place for the unbaptized, which he and other theologians called “limbo of infants.” This is to distinguish it from the “limbo of the fathers,” also called the “abode of Abraham and the Patriarchs,” before Jesus opened the gates of paradise when he descended to the dead.

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Aquinas thought of limbo as a place of perfect natural happiness, yet a place without the supernatural vision of God or “beatific vision,” which no creature has a natural right to. This made him conclude that souls in limbo do not suffer a sensible pain. Instead, they suffer the pain of not being with God.

Not infallible

Last April 20, the Vatican’s International Theological Commission (ITC), a body of 30 theologians, tackled the idea of limbo with a 41-page document titled “The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized.”

In a May 24 editorial from the Philippine Daily Inquirer, UST Central Seminary rector Fr. Gerard Francisco Timoner, O.P., stressed that limbo, despite being considered by the ITC as an “unduly restrictive view of salvation,” never became a part of the Church magisterium.

“The ITC view on limbo is a “theologomenon” or theological concept. But the fact that then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger has supported the publication of limbo as a theological concept meant that there was some progress, however, regarding its non-existence,” Timoner said.

Since 2004, the commission under then Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), has began conducting studies to address the limbo conundrum. The commission is the theological advisory arm of the Pope.

On the other hand, UST Center for Ethics director Fr. Pablo Tiong, O.P., said that the ITC may have asserted a greater theological awareness on God’s great mercy for all humans and the seemingly un-Christ-like disregard for the little ones by excluding unbaptized babies from heaven.

But Fr. Tiong clarified that the document does not explicitly deny the idea of limbo and only assured the salvation works as well with the unbaptized.

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“The document says that there may be hope for salvation for the babies who die without being baptized, but the Church still does not categorically confirm whether there is limbo or not,” Tiong told the Varsitarian. “Although with this document, it seems that we find the possible absence of limbo.”

Tiong also clarified that the ITC paper cannot be thought as the official stand of the Church on the matter but just an official Vatican pronouncement since the necessity for baptism seems to be put into question.

“Baptism is really needed to wash away the taints of original sin,” Tiong said. “In order to free men from the power of darkness and to be children of God, all must be born again in baptism.”

An interview with Sr. Sara Butler, an ITC member, ironed out these seemingly nagging contradictions.

“The commission is trying to say what the Catechism of the Catholic Church has already said,” Butler told Inside the Vatican’s Andrew Rabel. “We have a right to hope that God will find a way to offer the grace of Christ to infants who have no opportunity for making a personal choice with regard to their salvation. We do not know what the destiny of these children is but we have grounds for hope.”

Meanwhile, Institute of Religion assistant director Dionisia Roman said that Filipino Catholics should not be troubled with the issue of limbo in terms of faith.

“The concept of limbo is just an expanded theological opinion. It should not have an effect on Filipinos’ view of salvation since it is not a doctrine of faith,” Roman said.

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Tiong also confirmed that limbo was never a dogma of the Catholic Church.

“It was never mentioned in the Bible and was never part of the Catholic faith. It was barely a hypothesis based on the Church’s conviction about the importance of baptism and the reality of original sin,” he said.

Although the ITC’s document has not really closed the issue, Tiong said “it is better for now to think neither the presence nor absence of limbo but God’s abundant love for mankind.” Francis James B. Gatdula with reports from CBCP Monitor

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