A few weeks ago the International Theological Commission, an advisory panel for the Catholic Church, published a 41-page document entitled “The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized”. When this news was faxed to Reuters, I thought that it would furrow the editor's brow: "The who published what?". Perhaps through her mind would flit a brief recollection of Nicole Kidman as a neurotic mother in The Others, followed by the rapid processing of the fax into a crumbled ball and its trajectory into the the limbo of the wastepaper basket.
But that is not what happened. Catholic teaching on the afterlife suddenly became a hot topic. Why?
One possibility is that the world has grown tired of the pace and frenetic change of this-worldly consumerism. US film expert David Bordwell has found that whereas the average shot in American films of the 1930s and 60s lasted 8 to 11 seconds, Hollywood has now reduced that time to between 3 to 6 seconds. Slow, plodding films like Into Great Silence, a documentary on the life of the Chartreuse monks, are a reaction to such speed. This documentary about monks chanting and repairing their habits is enjoying great critical acclaim. In the midst of today’s "slow-down" protests, eternity takes the cake.
A more likely scenario, however, is that the media feel that they have caught the Church doing a flip-flop. Newsweek’s “The Pope Lets Go of Limbo” led with: “In the world of Vatican reversals, it’s a big one.” Time’s “The Pope Banishes Limbo” started with “Pope Benedict XVI has reversed centuries of traditional Roman Catholic teaching on limbo.” This was a follow-up to an earlier article “Life after Limbo”, which posed the rhetorical question: “how often does a major faith admit to retooling its take on the afterlife?”
American publications did not necessarily see this breach of "a non-core promise" as being such a bad thing. They even commended the Pope for allowing Americans to praise Jesus without consigning non-believers to hell. The British were more cynical. The BBC saw it as a ploy to protect the Church’s share in souls from encroachment by Muslims in Africa and Asia. Muslims hold that stillborn babies go straight to heaven – a marketing plus in comparison to the merely human happiness currently on offer by Catholics.
So, has the Vatican document been a mere readjustment to Ptolemaic beliefs about the afterlife when what we really need is a Copernican revolution that dismisses religion as just so much bunk?
More than a dispute about the afterlife, however, this is a theological conundrum related to the notion of original sin. When Adam and Eve disobeyed God and ate the apple, a series of unfortunate events unfolded, including malice, ignorance and pain. Originally, life really was meant to be easy. Unfortunately for us, our first parents bequeathed to their descendants the weaknesses they had acquired. It was a kind of defect in our spiritual DNA.
Thus, Orthodox Christians have always believed that our baffling tendency to screw things up is ultimately due to an inherited sin, of some sort. It is probably the only Christian dogma for which we have empirical proof: just tune into the six o'clock news. And the darkness which this original sin casts over our intellects helps explain the errors of those who have sought to defend this belief against the notion that we are born without a flawed human nature.
It hasn't been easy for Catholic theologians to explain how it works. One big problem relates to Baptism, the Christian sacrament which cleanses the soul of original sin. The Bible teaches that it is needed to get into heaven. That's fine for people who are baptised, but what about babies who die without it?
Theologians like St Augustine of Hippo, back in the fifth century, assigned them a place in hell, albeit a very mild one. In his Inferno, Dante also placed good pagans there — Homer, Aristotle, and Socrates as well as great Muslims like the foe of the Crusaders, Saladin, and the philosophers Avicenna and Averroës. It wasn't really hell, though, but a place of purely natural happiness. A bit like a 10-star resort where the breezes are always balmy, the beer is always cold and the conversation always stimulating.
It wasn't much beside the exhilarating splendour of heaven where people see God face to face. But, hey, said the medieval theologians, they'll never miss what they don't know about. Those mediaevals were far from being the superstitious clods depicted in Monty Python sketches. If anything, they were excessively logical. No baptism, ergo, no heaven. But babies have got to go somewhere, so let's invent Limbo — even if there's no evidence for it in the Bible.
What the International Theological Commission did was to remind Catholics that Limbo was just a theory. Theories, even in theology, need facts, which for Christians are the facts found in the revelation brought by Jesus Christ. But he did not reveal everything, including what happens to the souls of children who are miscarried and aborted before birth or who died unbaptised after birth. What we do know is that we have been joined in some way to Christ, the new Adam, when Christ became man. This does not mean that we are all born in the state of grace, as though Jesus didn’t really mean that baptism was necessary for salvation.
The document is a statement that salvation is not an act of caprice by God – Scripture tells us that he desires the salvation of everyone. The Commission has given us an expression of hope that by his incarnation God has a way of dealing with innocent children that He has not revealed to us. The Church has hopes for the salvation of the unbaptised, hopes which are not based on an unattainable destiny.
The Catholic Church is no stranger to mystery. It's often criticised for having all the answers, but really it doesn't. It's a but unfair to lambaste it for saying that some questions – Why must we suffer? How is our free will and God’s foreknowledge compatible? What happens to innocent babies? – will remain unanswered this side of eternity. The Church contemplates Jesus Christ and offers us an ever deeper understanding of what he said and did. Whether or not zebras are black horses with white stripes or white horses with black stripes are matters that surpass the competence of St Peter and will have to be taken up with God himself in heaven.
Dr Richard Umbers is a Catholic priest. He lectures in philosophy in Sydney.