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 CNS Story:

LIMBO Oct-6-2006 (xxx words) xxxi

Theologians: Unbaptized babies in heaven makes more sense than limbo

By Cindy Wooden
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- To hope that babies who die without being baptized will go to heaven makes more sense than the idea that they go to limbo, says a group of papally appointed theologians.

While no one can be certain of the fate of unbaptized babies who die, Christians can and should trust that God will welcome those babies into heaven, said members of the International Theological Commission.

The commission, a Vatican advisory board, met Oct. 2-6 to continue work on a statement explaining why the concept of limbo entered the common teaching of the church, why it was never officially defined as Catholic doctrine, and why hope for their salvation makes more sense, said Father Paul McPartlan, a member of the commission and a professor at The Catholic University of America in Washington.

"We cannot say we know with certainty what will happen" to unbaptized babies, Father McPartlan said, "but we have good grounds to hope that God in his mercy and love looks after these children and brings them to salvation."

Speaking the last day of the commission's meeting, Father McPartlan said the 30 commission members were in agreement on the main thesis of the document, but they had not put the finishing touches on it. If they vote on the final version by mail, the document could be released in 2007.

He said that while affirming people's hope, the document takes pains to explain the Christian belief that baptism is necessary to guarantee salvation and urges parents to baptize their infants.

The document "in no way means to lessen the urgency with which the church invites parents to have their children baptized," Father McPartlan said Oct. 6. "What we are trying to do is to say, 'What does the church say when confronted with the situation of an infant who has died without being baptized?' That and that alone is what prompted our document.

"The answer is not a simplistic, 'Oh, don't worry; everything is fine,'" but rather that God's endless mercy, his love poured out in Jesus Christ and his desire to save all people gives a solid basis for hoping those children will be saved despite not having been baptized.

The commission began formal studies of the question in 2004 when Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, was president of the advisory body and prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Pope Benedict celebrated Mass Oct. 6 with the commission members; in his homily, he spoke about the role of theologians as listening to the word of God in order to help other's hear the good news. But he did not mention the so-called limbo document at all.

Father McPartlan said the commission began considering the question because priests and bishops around the world had asked then-Cardinal Ratzinger for "an updated Catholic statement in response to the distressing human situation" of parents mourning the loss of a baby before baptism.

The commission also hoped to be able to respond to questions raised by those mourning the lives of babies lost through abortion. Because the Catholic Church teaches that human life begins at conception, the question applies to those babies as well, Father McPartlan said.

He also said the theologians felt called to articulate a Catholic expression of hope in a world where hope is often lacking and lives are often laid to waste by war and violence.

Realizing some people could misinterpret the statement as saying that baptism is unnecessary for infants because they are incapable of sinning, the document reaffirms church teaching about the reality of original sin.

The church believes that with the exception of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Jesus, every human being is born marked with the stain of original sin, which distances them from God.

As the Catechism of the Catholic Church explained: "Born with a fallen human nature and tainted by original sin, children also have need of the new birth in baptism to be freed from the power of darkness and brought into the realm of the freedom of the children of God, to which all men are called."

But the catechism, published in 1992, did not mention limbo.

In fact, regarding the fate of children who die without the grace of baptism, it said, the church entrusts them to the mercy of God.

Presenting the commission's work to Pope Benedict last year, Cardinal William J. Levada, prefect of the doctrinal congregation and president of the commission, said the statement was important because "the number of babies not baptized has increased considerably," and the church knows that salvation "is only reachable in Christ through the Holy Spirit."

He also told the pope last year that he hoped the statement would be published soon.

Father McPartlan said there were "no hiccups" in the drafting process, but the commission's work takes time.

In the 1985 book-length interview, "The Ratzinger Report," and in the 2000 book, "God and the World," the future Pope Benedict said focusing on hope made more sense theologically then upholding the idea of limbo, where unbaptized babies would enjoy "natural happiness" for eternity, but would not be in heaven in the presence of God.

Limbo, he pointed out, was never a defined article of Catholic faith, but rather was a hypothesis formed on the basis of the church's belief in the need for baptism.

END


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