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Limbo goes to heaven

February 13, 2006

ANYONE PAYING ATTENTION to what's been happening to hell in recent years has surely realized that limbo was not long for this world -- or the next one. Limbo is the nether region where, according to Roman Catholic tradition, unbaptized babies go after death. It's a pleasant enough place, though devoid of the bliss of God's presence. But now its future is in peril.

A group of Vatican theological advisors signaled after a recent meeting that they would recommend eliminating the concept of limbo. Pope Benedict XVI is expected to agree, meaning unbaptized babies would go to heaven instead.

There are practical reasons to eliminate limbo. It hinders the church's conversion of Africa -- normally more receptive to Roman Catholic orthodoxy than the United States or Latin America -- because limbo is a hard sell in a place with high infant mortality rates. Mothers are repelled by the thought that their lost children can never enter heaven and that there will be no reunion in the afterlife. Sending unblessed infants to heaven also lends gravitas to the church's position on abortion, allowing a fetus to be accepted into the presence of God.

Political considerations aside, limbo was already being squeezed out by hell, which has been going through its own transformation both at the Vatican and among various Christian branches. In the softer self-help world of today, brimstone and ever-scorching fire no longer bring in the believers. Many pastors and priests have just stopped talking about it. One big indicator of hell's downfall came in 1999, when Pope John Paul II said that rather than being a fiery torture chamber, hell was a more docile place, "the state of those who freely and definitively separate themselves from God."

In other words, not a bad place to hang out but lacking the grace and joy of God. With hell now just limbo for adults, there's not much left for the original article.

But consigning limbo to nonexistence brings up other issues -- such as the catechism, which implies that baptism is needed for salvation. A related worry is that people will go in the other direction and view baptism as unnecessary. Then there's the concern of the poets. If hell is stripped of color, and limbo demolished, can purgatory be far behind? Dante perhaps was lucky to live in his time; these days he might have been relegated to scriptwriting for "The O.C." -- another sort of place altogether.

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