Rest in peace, limbo

Attention, Catholics: when you die, you now only have three places to which you can go: heaven, hell or purgatory. Forget the painless buffer called limbo.

Attention, Catholics: when you die, you now only have three places to which you can go: heaven, hell or purgatory. Forget the painless buffer called limbo. Now, people have two painful destinations (though in different degrees) and one happy place they may go to when they kick the bucket. The odds aren’t looking too good.

So what happened to limbo? Pope Benedict XVI has announced that limbo is no more, releasing a report entitled “The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized.” In the report, it states that “the conclusion of this study is that there are theological and liturgical reasons to hope that infants who die without baptism may be saved and brought into eternal happiness even if there is not an explicit teaching on this question found in revelation,” and “there are reasons to hope that God will save these infants precisely because it was not possible [to baptize them].” OK. So, no more limbo. But…just what was limbo and how did it differ from purgatory?

For all of you ignorant, blasphemous souls out there who have no idea what purgatory or limbo are, we’ll go with the Cliff’s Notes version. Let’s start with purgatory. Purgatory is a place where one goes if they weren’t good enough to get into heaven, but weren’t awful enough to go straight to hell. Basically, purgatory is a place where you are punished for your sins or, if you prefer, a place of purification. Limbo, on the other hand, was a place where unbaptized infants went when they died. This included stillborns, miscarriages and abortions. Other people who were thought to have gone to limbo were those who lived before Jesus Christ, and that includes everyone in the Old Testament (sorry, Abraham). Once in limbo, you were stuck there.

So…where exactly did limbo go?

Unlike purgatory, limbo was never in official church doctrine, so technically it was never in existence. We can thank St. Augustine for the idea. When Augustine “reformed” from a sexually charged, debaucherous young man, he became a Christian. Once upon a time, before Augustine, it was thought that the unbaptized automatically got a golden ticket straight to hell. Augustine came to the conclusion that unbaptized infants who died had to go somewhere else. They hadn’t committed their own sins yet, so they obviously didn’t deserve to go to hell, but they had been born with original sin. Since the original sin hadn’t been wiped clean by the act of baptism, they certainly couldn’t go to heaven. Hence, limbo: a place where you float around without knowing God, apparently. Thanks, Augustine.

St. Thomas Aquinas also theorized that there’s a different place for the unbaptized; a place where those who go there are in a state of perpetual happiness (just not in heaven with God). And this is where St. Augustine and St. Thomas made similar mistakes: they theorized. There is nothing in scripture that dictates what happens to the unbaptized. The Bible is silent on the matter. Limbo and the state of happiness that St. Augustine and St. Thomas thought of were just that: thoughts. None of this had any basis on a holy book or doctrine. And yet the theory of limbo has been in existence and followed for 800 years.

While the belief of limbo has carried weight over time with Catholics and was even taught in Catholic schools until the 1980s, Pope Benedict felt that limbo was a needless belief since it was never mentioned in the Bible or the catechism. About damn time, too.

In a story by Alan Cooperman in the Washington Post, a woman named Ann Drudge had a sibling who was a stillborn. Her Catholic family all lived with the thought that the baby, who they named Mary Ellen, had died without being baptized and therefore was in limbo. Drudge, who is now 80 years old, says that that knowledge made the family extremely upset, especially when Mary Ellen couldn’t be buried on consecrated ground. Now that limbo has been vetoed, they are planning on giving her a sacred burial.

How many Catholics have had to deal with a similar situation? How many Catholics have had to live with the torment of thinking that their baby wasn’t in a place of love and happiness? That’s almost sinful in its own right. (Not to mention worrying about all of those poor folks who lived before Jesus. Limbo must have been extremely crowded.)

It’s about time that the Catholic Church began looking at what it has been teaching its followers, and people should take heart. A grieving mother should never have to go through the death of her child and then worry about what happened to her soul after she died. Religion should be a comfort, not a source of fear. As na’ve as it sounds, it just isn’t fair, especially when the issue isn’t even in the very basis of the religion: the Bible.

While some will still cling fast to the idea of limbo, it’s refreshing to see the Pope willing to cast away the needless and possibly harmful ideas that have held to a religion for all too long. It is one thing for people to follow the word of a book that has been deemed holy, but when they are following the ideas of a man whose reasons behind the ideas had partly to do with his sexual issues (look into Augustine’s life, you’ll see what I mean), there’s simply no reason for it.