Looking into the Pope’s heart

limboReligion reporter Ruth Gledhill of The Times (U.K.) has a notable wit and attitude that she brings to her job and her blog. That snappy style didn’t serve her so well in a story about the Roman Catholic concept of limbo.

Amy Welborn
wants to nominate the headline alone as the worst ever:

Pope tries to win hearts and minds by saving souls of unbaptised babies

The Pope hasn’t stated any such motivations and I doubt highly that Gledhill, her coauthor Richard Owen, or the unidentified headline writer have secret knowledge of same. The headline is indefensible. Gledhill and Owen try to support the claim, however, in their opening graphs:

The Pope will cast aside centuries of Catholic belief later this week by abolishing formally the concept of limbo, in a gesture calculated to help to win the souls of millions of babies in the developing world for Christ.

All the evidence suggests that Benedict XVI never believed in the idea anyway. But in the fertile evangelisation zones of Africa and Asia, the Pope — an acknowledged authority on all things Islamic — is only too aware that Muslims believe the souls of stillborn babies go straight to Heaven. For the Church, looking to spread the faith in countries with a high infant mortality rate, now is a good time to make it absolutely clear that stillborn babies of Christian mothers go direct to Heaven, too.

Oh calm down, Times writers. They later concede that the belief was never a formal doctrine, but after using words like “cast aside” and “abolishing” that imply otherwise. And again they characterize the motivations of the church as calculating. Reporters should consider incentives and motivations to help them get to the bottom of the story, but they shouldn’t speculate publicly on them without proof.

This week a 30-strong Vatican international commission of theologians, which has been examining limbo, began its final deliberations. Vatican sources said it had concluded that all children who die do so in the expectation of “the universal salvation of God” and the “mediation of Christ”, whether baptised or not.

The theologians’ finding is that God wishes all souls to be saved, and that the souls of unbaptised children are entrusted to a “merciful God” whose ways of ensuring salvation cannot be known. “In effect, this means that all children who die go to Heaven,” one source said.

The commission’s conclusions will be approved formally by the Pope on Friday.

Oh really? I’m no John Allen Jr., but something tells me that it’s usually a bad idea to say that something in the Vatican will definitely happen — even if the consensus supports the conclusions. The International Theological Commission has been working on this and other issues for a while. But it has drafted documents before that weren’t approved by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

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  • http://conblogeration.blogspot.com Pastor Jeff

    The clearly implied message is that the Pope is ready to reject doctrine if it will help the church gain new members. That’s incredibly offensive. It assumes the Pope has a cavalier attitude towards his own religion, and it presupposes a cynicism and desperation (a “calculated gesture”).

    So according to this report, the Pope is a manipulative, faithless, calculating schemer who treats doctrine as a consumer product to be modified if it will bring in more people.

    That’s some good reporting!

  • http://hornswoggled.blogspot.com/ David B.

    The clearly implied message is that the Pope is ready to reject doctrine if it will help the church gain new members. That’s incredibly offensive. It assumes the Pope has a cavalier attitude towards his own religion, and it presupposes a cynicism and desperation (a “calculated gesture”).

    Sounds like the New York Times has accused the Pope of being an American megachurch pastor.

  • Hans

    Yeah, I was about to say…Rick Warren called. His wants his methodology back.

  • Martha

    This is the kind of thing that makes me want to dash off replies starting “Dear Stupid Person” (which is an offence against charity, so I content myself with going “Arrghh!” loudly and repeatedly).

    First, I can very nearly guarantee you that I am in the last generation of Roman Catholics ever to have heard of Limbo, let alone been taught anything about it. For about, oh, the last thirty years, it’s been let quietly alone.

    Second, it was never a doctrine or a dogma. It was the best option suggested to reconcile the necessity of incorporation into the mystical body of Christ for salvation and justice and mercy, but it was never “This is the last word and you must believe it”.

    Third, yes, it *does* make it sound like there are no lasting beliefs or unchangeable doctrines or even, y’know, *reasons* for why Catholics believe what we do. No, it’s all done with an eye on ‘what are the laity gullible enough to swallow?’ and ‘how can we gain power over the masses, bwahahaha!’

    Fourthly (and finally, you will be glad to hear), it does a massive disservice in that it perpetuates the notion that if the Pope really wanted to, he could just issue an edict in the morning that contraception/divorce and remarriage/female ordination/same-sex unions/Goddess worship is just peachy and that the only reason he doesn’t is that he’s a big meany. It’s not like there are reasons and logic and theology and rules and the will of God involved, is it?

  • zacchaeus

    There’s an interesting discussion just started up about this here if any of you wish to partake :)

  • http://www.raceisrun.typepad.com/weblog vynette

    I too am an ‘older’ generation baptised Catholic and I remember being taught that unbaptised babies went to ‘limbo’and that they were forever excluded from heaven.

    It matters not whether it was an ‘offically defined’ teaching or not. What matters is that the Church encouraged its members to believe it. How can the grief and pain thus caused to many Catholic parents for many centuries be addressed? If this non-teaching is overturned, will the Church be able to say ‘sorry’?

  • Larry Rasczak

    “This is the kind of thing that makes me want to dash off replies starting “Dear Stupid Person” (which is an offence against charity..”

    Martha, is it still and offence against charity if it is manafestly and obvioulsy true? I mean it’s not uncharitable to call a thief a thief if the man in question IS a thief after all.

    -wink-

  • Maureen

    Re: Vynette

    I think if you’re going to get angry, you should define which segment of “the Church” you’re mad at. Your religion teacher? Your textbook publisher? Your bishop? It’s likely that none of them knew any better, either. It’s only recently that this kind of nuance could be widely made known to non-scholars, and we should be glad we live in such a time. But it’s a bit hard to denounce all other times for not being equally fortunate.

    It’s not so long ago in America that Catholic books were hard to come by, and many priests went to seminaries that didn’t teach in their native tongues. I’m sure that was the case in England, too. I’m sure nuance suffered thereby.

    Being mad at the Church in general because your school, or your time and place, stunk at theological nuance is a bit hard. It also means that, if at any time you don’t accurately define the difference between pious speculation and magisterial teaching, you give others the right to be mad at the entire Church forever for what you say.

    Personally, I wouldn’t want any soul’s impression of the whole Church to rise and fall on _my_ accurate expression of any doctrine, so I’m inclined to give folks the benefit of the doubt.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    And complaining that “the Church” did or did not do something about what was, theologically speaking, at best a “probable opinion”, perpetuates the fallacy that “theChurch” is a hive mind which bears as-a-whole responsiblity for whatever someone, somewhere, taught. I have gone through too much of this on a smaller scale to feel any respect for it.
    And, let’s see, it “caused grief and pain” to tell people that their unbaptized children were NOT in Hell, as too many good Protestants insisted?

  • jack perry

    Someone writes, I think if you’re going to get angry, you should define which segment of “the Church” you’re mad at. Your religion teacher? Your textbook publisher? Your bishop?

    Presumably, all of these should have known what they were talking about, especially in the old church, and everyone I have spoken to says that they learned that Limbo was a certainty back then. A bishop especially should have known what he was talking about. Even popes have warned against disbelieving in Limbo (Pope Pius VI, for example).

    Back in the bad old days, theologians classified Catholic teachings in a hierarchy of truths, in which some were more certain than others. I would like to know where this one fell back then.

    The Catholic Encyclopedia, usually praised as exceptional in its scholarship (at least in things pertaining to Catholicism), goes so far as to state:

    Now it may confidently be said that, as the result of centuries of speculation on the subject, we ought to believe that these souls enjoy and will eternally enjoy a state of perfect natural happiness; and this is what Catholics usually mean when they speak of the limbus infantium, the “children’s limbo.”

    The language strikes me as fairly well convinced. Of course, I suppose that the vast majority of Catholics, and the brightest Catholic thinkers (Gregory Nazianzus, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Bellarmine, …) could have been wrong all these centuries long. Thank goodness we finally got it right in these latter days! Coupled with our fidelity to Church teaching on sexuality, it gives all new meaning to sensus fidei.

    The current speculation does not particularly offend me, except insofar as it reflects a certain capitulation to our age of excessive sentimentality. Limbo makes a lot more sense to me. In the end, however, they are both that: speculation, and I am not willing to deny anyone entry to heaven. After all, I have no right to enter it.

  • MJBubba

    Note to David B.:
    The Ruth Gledhill story did not appear in the New York Times, but in The Times (U.K.).
    Mollie Z.H. is reading the London paper. She is probably reading it because she was pointed to it by Catholic bloggers. There are good reasons for reading The Times (U.K.), since they are usually a day (or weeks) ahead of the stateside media, and their stories on matters outside the USA are usually more complete than what you find in American media. Also, professor Terry M. appears to be an anglophile.

  • http://conblogeration.blogspot.com Pastor Jeff

    Sounds like the New York Times has accused the Pope of being an American megachurch pastor.

    Yeah, I was about to say. . .Rick Warren called. His wants his methodology back.

    Hans, David B.,

    That’s not really fair to Warren or mega-church pastors — especially on a blog about how religion is covered.

    There are mega-church pastors who have clearly abandoned doctrine for pragmatism, but I don’t think Warren is one, nor is it an accurate generalization.

    And wouldn’t the Pope be a megachurch pastor, anyway? :)

  • Joe

    Maybe the pope couldd explain what is necessary for us to get to Heaven in a clear non-scholarly wway, and how this has not changed over centuries. Then there owuld not be so much static about what Church teaching is. Rome and Bush get about the same points on clear communication.

  • Will Reaves

    From the Baltimore Catechism (version three):

    Q. 632. Where will persons go who — such as infants — have not committed actual sin and who, through no fault of theirs, die without baptism?

    A. Persons, such as infants, who have not ommitted actual sin and who, through no fault of theirs, die without baptism, cannot enter heaven; but it is the common belief they will go to some place similar to Limbo, where they will be free from suffering, though deprived of the happiness of heaven.

    So they are not quite willing to accord limbo (or the children going to it part) with anything like official standing. Another version I read refers to it as a “pious opinion” but I’m not certain which is the original and which is the updated language version.

    Note that these is very little discussion of “baptism by desire” (covered in 653 and 654) in the context of this issue. My guess is that Benedict and the commission in this will probably be using this or something like it to explain their developments.

    Personally, I would be fine with them saying something like, “It’s an inscrutable mystery of God and we can’t know what happens to unbaptized infants and the like. We trust in the mercy of a loving God.” But they’ve already said that. (See CCC #1283)

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    Er, 653 and 654 of WHAT? This is something I would like to check.

    And I would like to leave you with the immortal words of Dorothy Parker: “Any stigma will do to beat a dogma.”


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