Saturday, April 21, 2007

Out on a Limb(o)

Today's newspaper had a subheading that was downright erroneous, claiming that we were seeing a change in Catholic "dogma."
While to the popular mind, "dogma" means "strongly held teaching," for Catholics, the word has a specific and very limited meaning. And, just for the record, Limbo was never a defined dogma. So what was it?
"Limbo" falls into the category of theological hypothesis. It was an attempt to explain and uphold two pivotal doctrines: the first is that "there is no other name given to us by which we can be saved" other than the name (meaning, the person) of Jesus Christ. In other words, Jesus is the universal Savior in the absolute sense. The second doctrine that the "Limbo theory" aimed to uphold was that sacramental Baptism is valid and effective even for people who are unable to make their own personal act of faith. Obviously, tiny children are the prime example.
Today people are scandalized by the very thought that innocent children might be excluded from the fulness of eternal life because they died without Baptism. 1,000 years ago, though, the concept of Limbo was actually consoling! Goes to show you how cultural perceptions change.
For a couple of generations now, the concept of Limbo has been more of an obstacle than a help in preserving and teaching those two basic doctrines it was once thought to guard: that Jesus, the first-century Palestinian Jew who was crucified and raised from the dead, is the true Savior of all people, of all times and places, and that Baptism with water and the invocation of the Trinity really does bring a person into the living communion with God that is the beginning of eternal life.
Limbo has been "cut off" like one of those "dry branches" Jesus spoke of in the Gospel. It was beginning to clutter the theological landscape, drawing too much attention to itself and not enough attention to Jesus and the sacramental order he left his Church.
Now, what are we going to do to make those truths known? We have a new way, thankfully, to console those who lost children through miscarriage, abortion and infant death. Can we now also motivate parents to seek Baptism for their children, not out of anxiety for their salvation, but in the desire to give them the best that God gave us?

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