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Dumping Limbo.


Frozen embryos have been surfacing a lot in the headlines recently, and when they do, they are invariably greeted with confusion and ire. When a hospital in Great Britain threatened to dispose of its massive stockpile of chilled fetuses some months back, Catholics hit the roof. Babykillers, however, come in many shapes and sizes: not just dour atheists in sterile white lab coats, but also, it turns out, popes in robes. With miters.

It is, actually, one of the most startling developments in the history of Christianity; less sinister than the Spanish Inquisition, the condemnation of Galileo, and the beheading of Sir Thomas More, but perhaps more subversive to Church authority than past flip-flops on usury, slavery, and Jews. A new theological turnabout happened quite, quite inconspicuously, delivered with the imprimatur of John Paul II. Simply stated, the 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church, a summa of official doctrine, has erased Limbo from the traditional map.

Since the Middle Ages, children's Limbo was the Church's otherworldly haven for the littlest brethren, the born as well as the unborn, who perished with Original Sin on their souls. Since only baptism can erase the stain of Original Sin and since Christ made baptism the sine qua non for salvation ("Truly, truly, I say unto you, unless one is born of water and the spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God," John 3:5), these unlucky souls had to be stored elsewhere in the afterlife.

Enter Limbo, a place somewhere - to borrow George Michael's memorable phase - on the edge of Heaven ("limbus" means border or hem in Latin), where unbaptized babies waited out their sentences and God decided their ultimate destination at the end of time. Although the Church never vouched for Limbo infallibly - as it did Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory - it still fostered belief in it as a divine safety net for miscarried embryos, fetuses without brains, and healthy babies who died en route to the baptismal font.

During its eight-century heyday, Limbo was a relatively wobbly construct. Minus strong biblical backing, popes avoided formal endorsement as they would a scorching Roman summer. Nonetheless, Limbo was the common teaching of the Church with roots deep in Aquinas, Dante, Church councils, and the relatively recent Pills XII. It seemed an aesthetic necessity for a religion founded on Love. Yes, if Limbo didn't exist, someone would have to invent it.

Then, in 1994, something quite amazing happened. Limbo was deleted in the new Catechism: no mention in the text, which refined 2,865 items of Catholic faith, and no footnote either. When St. Christopher was delisted as a saint in the sixties, there was hue and cry in the press. But when the Vatican vaporized one of the four spots in the Christian otherworld, the media slept.

What of the fate of the possible billions and billions of unbaptized babies presumed to inhabit Limbo? John Paul II was silent. The Catechism had no comment except that "the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God" and "hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without baptism."

You don't have to be Voltaire, though fortunately I am, to see that this spelled big trouble for the Church. Either God is merciful or He is not. If He is, if waves of unbaptized babies are swept into Heaven through a theological back door with a wink and a smile, then Catholic doctrine has been turned upside down. God has contradicted His Son's word in John 3:5 by allowing the unbaptized into Heaven. Moreover, he has done something arguably even more irritating. As a being who knows everything, God would have known from the beginning about this free ticket to Heaven. To let some people - even if they are very, very tiny people - into Heaven just like that while so many others must sweat and anguish and say their Hail Marys and get baptized - has long seemed simply unfair. This sense of unfairness has been enshrined in Catholic doctrine as the "heresy of predestination."

But if God strains his mercy and does not save these immortal souls, where are they now and where do they land in eternity? It was this sort of brain-twister that led to the invention of Limbo in the first place. So perhaps John Paul II is to be commended for boldly razing a theological eyesore and forgiven for pretending that it never existed in Catholic tradition.

Indeed, this is his reputation. "Down deep this pope is an honest man," says John Deedy, author of Facts, Myths & Maybes: Everything You Think You Know About Catholicism and Maybe Don't. "From Galileo to Darwin, he's been trying to clean up the Church's mistakes, to prepare for the new millennium. As for dropping Limbo, it belongs to pious history like several Stations of the Cross, which he also dropped. But if you adopt Pascal's Wager, you don't delve too deeply in such mysteries."

However, the dismantling of Limbo cannot be passed over lightly. It is directly related to the Church's credibility apropos what it considers to be the great moral crisis of the day - abortion on demand. Can a religion where the aborted are treated with such reckless disregard in the hereafter plausibly claim to represent their interests here and now?

Together with Limbo, the problem of abortion penetrates the heart of Christian metaphysics. The Church has always presented the Creator as an all-wise architect, an I. M. Pei of the cosmos. "By the very nature of creation, material being is endowed with its own stability, truth, and excellence, its own order and laws," the Catechism states. ". . . They call for the admiration of scholars. The beauty of creation reflects the infinite beauty of the Creator and ought to inspire the respect and submission of man's intellect and will."

Yet there appears to be a flaw in the blueprint. This same Creator, it was discovered not long, has designed the human reproductive system so that roughly three of four pregnancies are naturally terminated. Much of this wastage occurs in so-called occult abortions that ensue between fertilization and the earliest signs of pregnancy. This biological fact could be parried, of course, with the God-writes-straight-with-crooked-lines explanation favored by theists. Indeed, the Catechism does allow for the zigs and zags of evolution, declaring that "God freely willed to create a world 'in the state of journeying; toward its ultimate perfection," which is presumed to account for such things as natural selection, the extinction of dinosaurs, the preponderance of beetles among animal species and, of course, Donald Trump.

However, no such work-in-progress exemption was granted the anatomy of Homo sapiens, which Christ Himself, it is said, adopted. After the fall, Adam and Eve purportedly lost some preternatural gifts - e.g., freedom from lust, sickness, death, and painful birthing - but there is nothing in Genesis or subsequent Catholic thought suggesting that God intended to punish mankind further by sabotaging the process of conception, a process in which He is supposedly involved. "Every spiritual soul is created personally by God," says the Catechism. When? "At the moment of conception."

The Church, it seems is trapped in a mythology, in which (1) God creates a surplus of souls and then instantly blows most of them into oblivion, and (2) His Son comes down to earth and announces that the unborn, currently called Holy Innocents, cannot go to Heaven. Is this any way to run a universe?

Via the new Catechism, the Church has finally admitted that the whereabouts of the vast majority of God's children - that is, the vast majority of the ever-conceived who did not result in live births and could not be baptized - is beyond Christian explanation.

In this humbling circumstance, God's vicars might do well to restrain themselves from condemning the discard of frozen embryos as a "prenatal Holocaust," and from excommunicating mothers, fathers, doctors, and nurses for choosing God's path with unwanted pregnancies.
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Title Annotation:Catholic Church's decision to erase Limbo from official doctrine
Publication:Free Inquiry
Date:Dec 22, 1997
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