One of the amusing aspects of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel is their frequent pilgrimage to Catholic-land in its news pages. No doubt trying to accommodate part of its aging demographic, whenever Archbishop Dolan sneezes, the J-S gets a cold. All proclamations are treated with the utmost seriousness, as if the sometimes-celibate men in robes trying to perpetuate the paternalistic pretenses of a medieval past have any relevance to a world that has passed them by, several times over. As a long-fallen-away former altar boy and Guitar Mass content-provider, I feel warm and touched by the patronizing coverage, like a touch of Latin and the smell of sacremental wine. I also find the newspaper again seeking relevance by exploring the irrelevant.
This Saturday, the paper updated faithful and pagan alike on Catholic doctrine relating to limbo, that imperfect place where, is had been said from time to time, unbaptized babies must spend eternity. It’s the sort of serious article about otherwise absurd religious doctrine that gives the J-S its unique niche as the go-to paper for the still-deluded.
Not heaven and not hell – except that anything short of heaven is, er, certainly not optimal – limbo existed as a necessary extension of the doctrine of Adam’s original sin, which, if not extinguished by the sacrament of baptism, we all carry to the grave, even if our grave is a very small and unfortunately infant-sized one. I mean, people who still had original sin couldn’t get into heaven just because they were kids. And, it would be kind of rough to just send all those infants to eternal damnation just because Adam couldn’t keep it real (and we know why that was, don’t we Eve?). So, someone came up with limbo – not as hot as purgatory (short-time hell) and, in fact, somewhat pleasant by all (imaginary) reports – but placement there was forever.
Wikipedia has a remarkable entry on the Catholic-only doctrine of original sin and the concept of limbo, including a link in the footnotes to a long screed by St. Augustine on the whole serious business of unbaptized babies. The rambling piece (well, the guy did write it in 390 or so -- they had a lot of time on their hands those days) includes chapters titled "Unless Infants are Baptized, They Remain in Darkness" and (my favorite) "The Case of Certain Idiots and Simpletons". You’ve got to admire this kind of complete-ism, trying to rationalize every strange doctrine of the Church with every known anomaly. You can see old St. Augie tying himself up in philosophical knots as he stretches and strains to put the square peg of Catholic teachings in the round hole of life.
The Journal Sentinel apparently viewed Pope Benedict’s (nee: Ratzinger) revision of the limbo concept as important stuff, running the AP posting on Page 3 of the front page. Ever the bearer of good news (or, as it were, Good News) the article proclaimed that "there was reason to hope that babies who die without baptism can go to heaven". Well, let’s hope so, shall we? What kind of church would have it any other way? Oh...never mind.
Benedict’s role was apparently to approve the report of a Catholic organ called the "International Theological Commission", the result of the Pope’s call for "further study on limbo". You wonder what sort of "study" might be had on an entirely imaginary place or state of being. Searching a section of the sky for lost souls? Checking the database of souls signed in at heaven’s gate for missing names or fetuses (yes, part of the "pastoral need" to sort all this out is to figure out what happens to even the unborn – can you baptize a fetus?)? "These are reasons for prayerful hope rather than grounds for sure knowledge," says the report. Gee, ya think?
Actually, other reports on the limbo study were a bit more emphatic. The New York Times headline at least had a little definitive pizzazz: "Pope Closes Limbo", reporting in a one-paragraph story that the study actually "demoted" limbo. Limbo, Pluto – good grief, what’s next? When the concept of limbo was originally threatened by the temporarily-flexible church in the late ‘60s, George Carlin had the best line, saying that he hoped all those limbo-ed souls were "promoted" and weren’t "just cut loose in space".
It’s not likely the Journal Sentinel is going to develop much of a sense of humor about these serious liturgical matters, no matter how inadvertently comical. Now that all the unbaptized babies have hope (at least), perhaps we can now turn our attention to those in more identifiable and tangible limbos. There is political limbo, like Alberto Gonzales, maybe John McCain. There is legal limbo – hey, are the convicted Scooters (Libby and Jensen) in prison yet? Try as they might to define it out of existence, limbo remains too convenient a concept to let go of completely. Unbaptized babies without fault or direction of their own are one thing, but grown-ups stuck in a limbo of their own making – now, that’s entertainment!