ROME — Limbo has been in limbo for quite some time, but is now on its way to extinction.
A Vatican committee that spent years examining the medieval concept published a much-anticipated report Friday, concluding that unbaptized babies who die may go to heaven.
That could reverse centuries of Roman Catholic traditional belief that the souls of unbaptized babies are condemned to eternity in limbo, a place that is neither heaven nor hell. Limbo is not unpleasant, but it is not a seat alongside God.
Catholic doctrine states that because all humans are tainted by original sin, thanks to Adam and Eve, baptism is essential for salvation. But the idea of limbo has fallen out of favor for many Catholics, who see it as harsh and not befitting a merciful God.
The Vatican's International Theological Commission issued its findings -- with the approval of Pope Benedict XVI -- in a document published by the Catholic News Service, the news agency of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The commission is advisory, but the pope's endorsement of the document appears to indicate his acceptance of its findings.
Limbo, the commission said, "reflects an unduly restrictive view of salvation."
"Our conclusion," the panel said in its 41-page report, is that there are "serious theological and liturgical grounds for hope that unbaptized infants who die will be saved and brought into eternal happiness." The committee added that although this is not "sure knowledge," it comes in the context of a loving and just God who "wants all human beings to be saved."
Never formal doctrine
A church decision to abolish limbo has long been expected. Benedict and his predecessor, the late Pope John Paul II, expressed misgivings about the concept. Benedict, when he was still Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and the church's top enforcer of dogma, said he viewed limbo as a mere "theological hypothesis." Never part of formal doctrine because it does not appear in Scripture, limbo was removed from the Catholic catechism 15 years ago.
From the Latin "limbus," for hem or edge, limbo refers to a "state of natural happiness" outside heaven, a destination for the souls of babies who were not baptized and certain virtuous people, such as faithful Jews who lived before the time of Christ.
In the 5th century, St. Augustine declared that all unbaptized babies went to hell upon death. By the Middle Ages, the idea was softened to suggest a less severe fate, limbo.
In his Divine Comedy, Dante characterized limbo as the first circle of hell and populated it with the great thinkers of ancient Greece and Rome, as well as leading Islamic philosophers.
The document published Friday said the question of limbo had become a "matter of pastoral urgency" because of the growing number of babies who do not receive the baptismal rite. Especially in Africa and other parts of the world where Catholicism is growing but has competition from other faiths such as Islam, high infant mortality rates mean many families live with a church teaching them that their babies could not go to heaven.
Father Thomas Weinandy, executive director for doctrine at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the document "addresses the issue from a whole new perspective -- if we are now hoping these children get to heaven, there is no longer any point in worrying about limbo."
"Although it doesn't actually dismiss limbo altogether," Weinandy added, "it argues for other ways of dealing with salvation for infants who died unbaptized."
Jesuit Father Thomas Reese, senior fellow at Georgetown University's Woodstock Theological Center, praised a shift in policy as "pastoral and sensitive."
"It shows that Benedict is not afraid to look at something that has been taught in the church for centuries and say it is not at the core of Catholic belief," Reese said in an e-mail statement.
Father Thomas Rausch, a theologian at Loyola Marymount University, said the document "puts the Catholic Church in a different position than Protestant evangelicals, who teach if you do not have a conscious explicit relationship with Christ -- born again -- you cannot be saved."
He said Roman Catholic theologians of earlier generations had a Latin phrase for it, "Extra ecclesia nulla salus, meaning outside the church there is no salvation, or baptism is necessary for salvation."
Rausch said "most young Catholics are probably not even aware of limbo" because of its removal from the catechism. "So I don't see this document as terribly earthshaking. But it is an interesting example of the doctrinal development going on in a church that is alive and responding to new questions."
Catholic conservatives criticized any effort to relegate limbo to oblivion.
Removing the concept from church teaching would lessen baptism's importance and discourage the christening of infants, said Kenneth J. Wolfe, a Washington-based columnist for the traditionalist Catholic newspaper the Remnant.
"It makes baptism a formality, a party, instead of a necessity," Wolfe said. "There would be no reason for infant baptisms. It would put the Catholic Church on par with the Protestants."
It would also deprive Catholic leaders of a tool in their fight against abortion, he added. Priests have long told women that their aborted fetuses cannot go to heaven, which in theory was another argument against ending pregnancy. Without limbo, those fetuses presumably would no longer be denied communion with God.
Baptism with water remains a fundamental step to salvation in Catholic doctrine, and the new document urges parents to continue to baptize their children.
"There is no salvation which is not from Christ and ecclesial by its very nature," the report said.
Wilkinson reported from Rome and Sahagun from Los Angeles.