Catholic World News News Feature
Teaching on Limbo "neither essential nor necessary" October 05, 2006
The International Theological Commission will recommend against using the concept of Limbo in explaining the eternal fate of unbaptized babies. But the group does not intend any "break from the great tradition of the faith."
Archbishop Bruno Forte, a member of the International Theological Commision, made these predictions in a conversation with the I Media news agency. Archbishop Forte, who was a renowned theologian prior to his appointment in 2004 as Archbishop of Chiete-Vasto, is in Rome this week for the Commission's plenary session, held from October 2 to 6.
The concept of Limbo, which has never been formally defined in Catholic teaching, can be dropped "without compromising the faith at all," the archbishop said. In recommending that move, he said, the Commission is not contemplating a change in doctrine, but only "avoiding the use of images and metaphors that do not adequately account for the richness of the message of hope that is given to us in Jesus Christ."
Archbishop Forte reported that the Commission is close to completion of a statement on the fate of unbaptized children. But he warned that the document, which has been heavily anticipated, is not likely to be publicized soon. He pointed out that the International Theological Commission does not work quickly; the group is convened for 5-year terms, and the current term, which was charged with discussion of this question, began its work in 2004.
While he said that the Commission's statement on unbaptized children is now in "mature" form, the archbishop added that some refinements would be needed before it is complete. Then it would be submitted to Cardinal William Levada, who as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is also the chairman of the International Theological Commission. Cardinal Levada, in turn, would submit the statement to Pope Benedict XVI.
The International Theological Commission is an advisory body, and the document that is eventually submitted to the Pontiff will not carry any teaching authority. But Pope Benedict-- who will preside at a Mass on October 6 to conclude this plenary session of the Commission-- may welcome the statement. In 1984, then-Cardinal Ratzinger expressed his own "purely personal" belief that the concept of Limbo had outlived its pastoral value.
Archbishop Forte, a longtime theological colleague of the current Pope, explained to I Media that the document now being prepared by the International Theological Commission does not simply discard the notion of Limbo. Instead, he reported, the statement sets forth the doctrinal questions involved in the discussion, including the reality of Original Sin.
"Original Sin is a reality that really marks the fragility of the human condition," the archbishop remarked. Salvation from sin can come only through Jesus Christ, and baptism is necessary to remove the stain of Original Sin. But in the case of children who are not baptized, through no fault of their own, "then it would seem that the saving power of Christ ought to prevail over the power of sin," he said. In a "complex and secularized society," questions about the fate of unbaptized children are raised more and more frequently, Archbishop Forte said. Most pastors, he continued, respond to those questions by encouraging the faithful to place their trust in God's mercy and entrust the children to his loving care. That pastoral response, he noted, is backed by the teaching of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
The archbishop emphasized that the International Theological Commission is not introducing any change in Catholic doctrine, and said that he hoped to "reassure those who are worried about a discontinuity" in teaching. The essential doctrinal points that have led theologians to posit the existence of Limbo are still clearly upheld in the forthcoming document, he said; in fact the Commission hopes to present those points with greater clarity.
At the same time, Archbishop Forte said, one can "set aside certain formulations without compromising the faith of the Church in any way." Again he noted that the concept of Limbo had "never been defined by the Church, although it was a very common teaching." In this case, the archbishop said, the International Theological Commission is reaching the conclusion that the concept of Limbo is "neither essential nor necessary."