Next to mathematics, theology is the discipline least conducive to journalism. So certain precincts of the press should be forgiven their recent headlines about the Vatican and the realm known as limbo.

The Times of London claimed that limbo had been "banished on orders of the Pope," while a New York Times headline reported, "Pope Closes Limbo." Agence France-Presse ran with the most magisterial headline of all, declaring, "Vatican abolishes limbo; opens gates of heaven for babies." None of which is quite right.

Limbo is in the news again because, in late April, the Vatican's International Theological Commission published a document titled "The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized." The report wasn't really "news": It had been in the works and discussed in theology circles since 2005. And contrary to the headlines, Pope Benedict XIV neither closed nor banished limbo: He had merely approved the publication of this report under the auspices of the ITC. The pontiff took no direct action; no official church doctrine changed.

Nonetheless, the ITC report is an interesting story because it illuminates the ways in which traditions manifest themselves, and how magisteriums - the authoritative bodies that communicate the official teaching of a church - can interpret a revealed religion over time.

Let's start with what limbo was before the ITC report. Recent generations of Catholics theorized that when an infant - any organism after the moment of conception - died without being baptized, he or she went not to heaven or hell, but to a place known as "limbo," which was a state of happiness just outside heaven itself. (Limbo is derived from the Latin limbus, meaning "border.") But limbo was never more than "common doctrine" - a theory rooted in tradition, not a statement of faith, or dogma, or even a definitive act of the magisterium.

So where did limbo come from? It has no foundation in Judeo-Christian revelation. Limbo is neither mentioned nor alluded to anywhere in the Old or New Testaments. In fact, the Bible does not explicitly consider the question of what happens to infants who die without having been baptized.

But the New Testament does say a great deal about two important tenets of the faith: (1) the universal "salvific will" of God - that is, God's intention or desire to save humanity; and (2) the necessity of baptism for overcoming original sin. Early theologians understood that, when it came to babies who died without being baptized, these two precepts were in tension. How could God both desire the salvation of all people and require infants with no control over their fates to become baptized before they could be saved?

The early Greek fathers were the first to consider this conundrum. They concentrated on the universality of original sin and proposed that while unbaptized children could not enter heaven, they should not be condemned to hell. Yet they did not presume to name where such souls would reside. As Gregory of Nyssa put it in the fourth century A.D., the ultimate destiny of these souls was "something much greater than the human mind can grasp."

(Anastasius of Sinai puts it most beautifully, writing, "It would not be fitting to probe God's judgments with one's hands.")

Later, St. Augustine took a different approach, proposing that unbaptized infants must be consigned to hell, because the Word of God admitted no "middle ground" between heaven and hell. But Augustine believed that, since God was just, in hell these souls would suffer only the "mildest condemnation."

By the Middle Ages, the theory was evolving further. Catholic theologians came to believe that Augustine's "mildest condemnation" might actually be only the deprivation of the beatific vision, meaning that these souls were simply prevented from coming face-to-face with God.

By the time of Thomas Aquinas, the notion that these children experienced any pain was gone, replaced with the suspicion that they might enjoy natural happiness, but without the possibility of living in sight of the Almighty. Aquinas even went a step further, proposing that since these young souls had no knowledge of God, they would not know what they were missing.

Beginning in the 16th century, Augustine's sterner theory of mild condemnation came back into vogue among many scholars, but several popes, from Paul III, to Benedict XIV, to Clement XIII, intervened to defend the possibility of the softer medieval view - without endorsing one opinion over the other, culminating with Pius VI issuing a papal bull to this effect in 1794.

Before the First Vatican Council in 1869, there was some desire for a definite settling of doctrine on limbo, but both Vatican I and Vatican II, in 1965, declined to do so. All of which lead to the most recent report.

The ITC's reasoning is careful, judicious and narrow. It notes that "it must be clearly acknowledged that the church does not have sure knowledge about the salvation of unbaptized infants who die" because this destiny "has not been revealed to us, and the church teaches and judges only with regard to what has been revealed."

They then argue the following: Those who die in a state of original sin must be denied the beatific vision; but because God does not demand the impossible, there is reason to hope that unbaptized infants might receive some "divine remedy." The crux of this argument is that the traditional understanding of limbo places a higher priority on the necessity of baptism than on God's own yearning for the salvation of souls.

In essence, the biggest problem with the whole theory of limbo was that it suggested that the sacraments God established created limits to his own power - which would mean that God is not, in fact, omnipotent. If one believes that all things are possible to God, then limbo is a problem.

Thus the ITC concludes that there are "serious theological and liturgical grounds for hope that unbaptized infants who die will be saved and enjoy the beatific vision." It isn't quite the banishing of limbo, but it is a welcome development.

What did the magisterium do that is so heartening? It admitted, refreshingly, that it doesn't, and we can't, know everything. It acknowledged that this situation has no theological signposts to guide an approach to it. So what it did was to trust the gentler emotions: that God would not simply consign infant souls denied the light to pain or deprivation. It looked around for hope and found reasons for it. All the while, it acknowledged that all this might be less than theologically satisfying. In a way, it was a model, from on high, of a type of intellectual humility, a constant awareness that we are trying to talk about things we can't really talk about.

And a fine example of how important a magisterium is to the intellectual development of religion.

One Last Thing |

To read the International Theological Commission's report, "The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized," go to http://go.philly.com/limbo. EndText

Contact Jonathan V. Last at jlast@phillynews.com.