Limbo, an Afterlife Tradition, May Be Doomed by the Vatican

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It may seem half a shame to get rid of a church tradition, however cruel and antiquated, if it can inspire poetry like "The Inferno" or spooky lines like these from Seamus Heaney: "Fishermen at Ballyshannon/Netted an infant last night/Along with the salmon."

But limbo, that netherworld of unbaptized babies and worthy pagans, is very much on the way out - another lesson that while belief in God may not change, the things people believe about him most certainly do.

This month, 30 top theologians from around the world met at the Vatican to discuss, among other quandaries, the problem of what happens to babies who die without baptism. They do not like the word for it, but what they were really doing, as theological advisers to Pope Benedict XVI, was finally disposing of limbo - a concept that was never official church doctrine but has been an enduring medieval theory of a blissful state among the departed, somehow different from both heaven and hell.

Unlike purgatory, a sort of waiting room to heaven for those with some venial faults, the theory of limbo consigned children outside of heaven on account of original sin alone. As a concept, limbo has long been out of favor anyway, as theologically questionable and unnecessarily harsh. It is hard to imagine depriving innocents of heaven. These days it prompts more snickers than anything, as evidenced by the titter of press coverage here along the lines of "Limbo Consigned to Hell."

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Michael Beatty - 12/29/2005

One explanation for "limbo" that I've heard is that it is the first person singular conjugation of the verb limbare, "to know not" - that is, "I know not." Supposedly, when Thomas Aquinas was going over and editing a draft of the Summa theologica, working with a secretary, the secretary would put questions to Aquinas and transcribe his answers.

The story is that when they got to the question of what happens to infants who die before baptism, Aquinas responded, "Limbo." The secretary wrote down the answer, which was picked up in later revisions of the MS and became an accepted, if unofficial teaching, because Aquinas had used an unfamiliar word.

Are there any Latin scholars out there who can help determine if Thomas Aquinas frankly admitted his ignorance as to the fate of unbaptised infants? Has all the controversy over limbo simply been a result of centuries of ignorance over how Aquinas expressed his ignorance?