December 28, 2005


The NYT has a front-page article on the debate over limbo.
"Limbo has never been a definitive truth of the faith," Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who became Benedict XVI earlier this year, said in an interview in 1984, during his long term as Pope John Paul II's doctrinal watchdog. "Personally, I would let it drop, since it has always been only a theological hypothesis."...

The theology is complicated, but the bottom line is that Augustine, believing in mankind's original sin, persuaded a church council in 418 to reject any notion of an "intermediary place" between heaven and hell. He held that baptism was necessary for salvation, and that unbaptized babies would actually go to hell, though in his later writings he conceded that it would entail the mildest of conditions....

In the Middle Ages, theologians, notably St. Thomas Aquinas, postulated a slightly cheerier idea: limbo, from the Latin "limbus," meaning a hem or a boundary. Here innocents would live forever in what Thomas called "natural happiness," if not in heaven.
The idea seems to have originated because of the need to moderate the harshness of the religion. But limbo itself may seem too harsh today:
The church is growing most in poor places like Africa and Asia where infant mortality remains high. While the concerns of the experts reconsidering limbo are more theological, it does not hurt the church's future if an African mother who has lost a baby can receive more hopeful news from her priest in 2005 than, say, an Italian mother did 100 years ago.

"You look at the proper theology, but if there is more consolation, all the better," said the Rev. Luis Ladaria, the Spanish Jesuit who is secretary general of the International Theological Commission, the official body working on limbo.
Is religion about consolation? Is it about consolation because it's really about expansion and consolation works? Is it about consolation because it's really about expansion and the greatest potential for expansion is among the poorest people who really need consolation? I don't see how any of that has anything to do with whether limbo in fact exists.

UPDATE: In related news, Pope Benedict said today that God sees embryos as fully human:
"The loving eyes of God look on the human being, considered full and complete at its beginning," Benedict said in his weekly address to the faithful gathered in St. Peter's Square.

Quoting Psalm 139, Benedict said the Bible teaches that God already recognises the embryo as a complete human. That view is the basis for the Church teaching that aborting or manipulating these embryos amounts to murder.

In Psalm 139, the psalmist says to God: "Thou didst see my limbs unformed in the womb, and in thy book they are all recorded."

"It is extremely powerful, the idea in this psalm, that in this 'unformed' embryo God already sees the whole future," Benedict said.
Do the Psalms count as God's perspective?


The Florida Masochist said...

Limbo only exists in the minds of some very misguided theologians.

Father to Daniel, who lived 14.5 hours but was baptized.

Freeman Hunt said...

I don't see how any of that has anything to do with whether limbo in fact exists.

I could not agree more. I don't like this smiley-face strain of theology.

Ann Althouse said...

Bill, I'm sorry to hear about your son.

Robin said...

Limbo was made up. There is no biblical/scriptural basis for a belief in it. As to the fate of the young, yes we all have sin, but children are innocent until they develop an awareness of right and wrong and when that happens differs in every individual.I have always heard this referred to have the the Age of Accountibility. (capitalization, my own) Babies have no cognitive capacity for such and are in heaven.

Robin said...

I have always heard this referred to as the Age of Accountibility. (capitalization, my own) Babies have no cognitive capacity for such and are in heaven.

I gotta use the Preview button more

Ricardo said...

"Is religion about consolation?"

No, religion is about control. Love is about consolation.

Bruce Hayden said...

I disagree with Ricardo. Yes, maybe some get into religion for control, but that may be a portion of the clergy. But what is it that brings the parishioners to church? Surely not to be controlled. And most likely not to gain control over their lives, since, IMHO, most religions are more about accepting loss of control than actually gaining control.

No, I think that a lot of religion is for consolation. Why did this kid die so young? Why should this young mother be widowed with two little kids (as my girlfriend was)?

Without death, I don't see religion having that much of a hold on us. Rather, it is for our own pending deaths, as well as the deaths of our loved ones, that many join churches for consolation and hope.

Ricardo said...


I agree with you to a certain extent. But I think that there are two different viewpoints that need to be explored here: the viewpoint of the parishioner (or adherent, or whatever you want to call him/her); and the viewpoint of the religious organization itself. I don't at all believe that these two viewpoints converge, in any meaningful fashion, except by happenstance. The individual goes in looking for consolation, forgiveness, hope, community, and a variety of other outcomes. The organization is looking for corporate self-preservation, growth and expansion, financial improvement. At the local level, priests, pastors, and other clergy do "connect" very much on an emotional level with "their flocks", and this can be of great benefit to the parishioners. But the goals of the organization are much more fixated inwardly, than outwardly. Hence, my comment that religion (and I meant the organization) is about control.

Jacques Cuze said...

Is religion about consolation?

There is no God -- Penn Jillette


Believing there's no God means I can't really be forgiven except by kindness and faulty memories. That's good; it makes me want to be more thoughtful. I have to try to treat people right the first time around.


Believing there's no God stops me from being solipsistic. I can read ideas from all different people from all different cultures. Without God, we can agree on reality, and I can keep learning where I'm wrong. We can all keep adjusting, so we can really communicate. I don't travel in circles where people say, "I have faith, I believe this in my heart and nothing you can say or do can shake my faith." That's just a long-winded religious way to say, "shut up," or another two words that the FCC likes less. But all obscenity is less insulting than, "How I was brought up and my imaginary friend means more to me than anything you can ever say or do." So, believing there is no God lets me be proven wrong and that's always fun. It means I'm learning something.

Believing there is no God means the suffering I've seen in my family, and indeed all the suffering in the world, isn't caused by an omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent force that isn't bothered to help or is just testing us, but rather something we all may be able to help others with in the future. No God means the possibility of less suffering in the future.

Believing there is no God gives me more room for belief in family, people, love, truth, beauty, sex, Jell-O and all the other things I can prove and that make this life the best life I will ever have.

BrianOfAtlanta said...

Scripture supports a sliding scale of accountability for ones own sin. Therefore, the "Age of Accountability" has some basis in scripture, while Limbo and Purgatory certainly do not, and contradict scripture in a few places.

Pastor_Jeff said...

Do the Psalms count as God's perspective?

There are two issues here.

1. Is the Bible God's word through man, or man's word? If you believe in an inspired Bible of which God is the ultmate author, then the Psalms are God's word.

2. Are these thoughts prescriptive or descriptive? In other words, are they God's word on preborn life, or just the author's inspired reflections? One way to answer is by looking whether the rest of the Bible agrees with what this passage seems to say. I think there is plenty of reason to believe this truth is widely supported in the Bible. This is why most Christian pro-lifers care about the unborn and not because we want to "control women's bodies."

And Reuters got Psalm 139 wrong.

Stephen said...

The phenomenon of Christian doctrine changing depending on its appeal to a religion's most promising new constituencies dates all the way back to the synoptic Gospels. In his last published paper, David Daube traced the changes in the portrayal of Judas, relatively sympathetic (and strongly imitating/echoing earlier traditions from Rabbinic Judaism) in Matthew, hostile (and devoid of Rabbinic themes) in Luke. The key notion was that in the earlier account, Judas' suicide was portrayed, and would have been understood, as making atonement and meriting forgiveness. Daube attributed the alteration of the story in the later Gospel to a shift from an initial felt need to make Christianity attractive to Jews to a desire to improve recruitment in the Hellenistic world. Judas, 82 Calif. L. Rev. 95 (1994). It would be surprising if there weren't similar phenomena in the theology of other religions.

Robin said...

To say God does not exist is to ignore the evidence which proclaims his existence. People somehow think that science gives proof that God does not exist when knowledge of the complexity of the structures that make up our universe shouts out that it is not an accident. See Romans 1:19-20

People seek God because we all of us have a hunger for communion with our creator. It's not about consolation or explanation. It's about a God-shaped hole in our souls.

"He knew me when I was in my mother's womb.." The psalmist said--God inspired knowledge and a human acknowledgement of the awesome power of a living creator who cares for each individual.

YAMB said...

The interesting part is that if you believe that every fertilized embryo is a person who will go to heaven, and reconcile that with the estimate that 50% of fertilized eggs don't implant, it seems as though heaven will have more pre-born souls than actualized people!

nunzio said...

Religion, philosophy, etc. is only relevant to the extent it changes over time.

Catholicism is evasive as to its change, but it changes (sometimes for the worse), so does humanism or agnosticism or atheism.

This is probably also true of political parties/beliefs as well. To have any relevance they must change.

Sigivald said...

Don't forget Jeremiah 1:5, either.

"Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations."

Makes the point as well, if not better.

amba said...

Everything in the effing Bible is God's perspective, if you believe some people.

Great remarks about consolation and expansion.

(verification word: scqooz

as in: scqooz me!)

Farnsworth said...

My impression from church was that the Psalms were not the word of God, but just songs from David. Since David was a prophet, I suppose that puts them on a higher level than Christian rock, but still not the word of God.

The following excerpt from Monty Python and the Holy Grail might help:

GOD: Arthur! Arthur, King of the Britons! Oh, don't grovel! If
there's one thing I can't stand, it's people groveling.
ARTHUR: Sorry--
GOD: And don't apologize. Every time I try to talk to someone
it's "sorry this" and "forgive me that" and "I'm not worthy". What
are you doing now!?
ARTHUR: I'm averting my eyes, oh Lord.
GOD: Well, don't. It's like those miserable Psalms -- they're so
Now knock it off!
ARTHUR: Yes, Lord.
GOD: Right! Arthur, King of the Britons -- you're Knights of the
Round Table shall have a task to make them an example in these dark
ARTHUR: Good idea, oh Lord!
GOD: 'Course it's a good idea! Behold! Arthur, this is the Holy
Grail. Look well, Arthur, for it is your sacred task to seek
this Grail. That is your purpose, Arthur -- the Quest for the
Holy Grail.
ARTHUR: A blessing!
LANCELOT: A blessing from the Lord!
GALAHAD: God be praised!