I’d like to try to rehabilitate two old beliefs left over from the Catholic Church’s past. Almost ten years ago Pope Benedict XVI acknowledged that Limbo no longer represented adequately the Church’s beliefs about God’s mercy. Limbo belonged to a class of beliefs that are theoretical answers to practical questions. The practical question at the time (the Middle Ages), was, “What happens when the infant children of faithful Catholics die before Baptism?” The theoretical answer (Limbo), tried to strike a balance between the demands of mercy and the demands of justice.
In the Middle Ages, people were obsessed with laws and legalism. They saw the death of an unbaptized infant as a “legal” issue with regard to God’s law. Their reasoning went like this: Baptism is necessary because it is the normal means of salvation, but God is a merciful God. An unbaptized infant is not qualified to enter into eternal life with God, but God would not condemn an infant because an infant has no culpability for its lack of baptism. They surmised that the compromise between Divine justice and Divine compassion had to be an eternal state that was neither eternal punishment nor the eternal reward of the Beatific Vision.
They postulated that there must be a place on the edge of eternal heavenly reward for infants who through no fault of their own were never baptized. In Latin, the phrase “on the edge” is translated “limbo.” The doctrine of Limbo was created as a compassionate response to the grief and anxiety of faithful Christian parents whose infants died before Baptism. Limbo was conceived of as a place of natural (rather than supernatural), happiness – a compromise between justice and mercy.
Pope Benedict XVI did away with the doctrine of Limbo because in recent centuries Limbo had ceased to be a consolation for Christian parents, and had become instead a sort of Boogey-man. Instead of offering consolation to parents who had lost infants, Limbo became justification to baptize the infants on non-believing and non-practicing Catholics. Parents who had no intention of living a Catholic life, and no intention of fulfilling their promises to raise their children as Catholics, were having their infants baptized based on the superstition that they were saving their children from the undesirable fate of being consigned to Limbo.
While the Pope made a reasonable choice in moving away from something that had become tragically misunderstood and misrepresented, he might have acted a little too soon. Today, in the Catholic Church there is a lamentable situation that has resulted from western culture’s distrust of institutions. Spirituality is alive and well in America, but churches are in steady decline. Among the many consequences of people considering themselves to be “spiritual but not religious” is that many faithful Catholics now endure the burden of worrying about their grandchildren who remain unbaptized well into adulthood. In this present situation, I think Limbo could be rehabilitated, and returned to its intended function of providing comfort and reassurance.
Baptism, and the life of faith, remain the normative means to salvation. Those who have heard the Gospel preached, and have been Baptized, are obliged to live in obedience to Jesus’ teaching. But what about those, who through no fault of their own, were never taught the Faith? I’d like to propose a variation on Limbo, a place of natural (rather than supernatural), happiness where good, but unbaptized people go after death. I’m going to call my invention “Starbo,”or perhaps, “Limbucks.”
Starbo (or Limbucks), is like hanging out in an aspirational coffee shop, but for eternity. It’s a gathering place for hipsters who have been taught to lead shallow and self-concerned lives; they could have lived faithful lives, but were never given the opportunity to do so. Starbo/Limbucks is filled with chill, like-minded people; the wi-fi is mostly reliable; the coffee is of course over-priced, but that’s because it’s not heaven it’s only on the edge of heaven. There ought to be some comfort in the belief that your unbaptized grandchildren will be able to hang out for ever with their friends and peers.
The second belief I’d like to rehabilitate is Purgatory. Purgatory is still valid doctrine in the Catholic Church, but it’s rarely mentioned any more because it’s considered old-fashioned. It never had the traction that Limbo had. Purgatory was always for those people who were in the middle of the bell curve of faith and morals: the ones who were neither really good nor really bad. Failing to be bad enough to merit hell, and failing to be good enough to merit heaven, those folks were sent to Purgatory to do penance for their mediocrity. Because there are no cute babies involved, and not much material to make into superstition, Purgatory has languished – all but forgotten.
Today, however, Purgatory might find renewed purpose. What is to be done about all of those parents who never bothered to fulfill the promises they made at their children’s Baptism to raise their children in the Church? What will be their recompense for acquiescing to the cultural values that justify self-serving spirituality at the expense of personal integrity? I think there’s plenty of room in Purgatory for them, and plenty of time for those parents to reflect on their thoughtlessness. A few eons of temporal punishment might be just what they need.
Now, for those of you who find my drollery to be less than satisfying, I’d like to make a more serious suggestion. Your children and grandchildren are going to live their own lives, usually without consulting you first. In matters of the Faith, this might be to their detriment, and a cause of worry for you. While you can’t make decisions for them, there is something substantive you can do about their faith or lack thereof.
This Sunday’s Gospel contains a message of hope for those who repent. One of the thieves crucified next to Jesus asked, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” (Luke 23:42) Without hesitation Jesus responded, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:43)
There is mercy to be found even by those who repent at the last possible moment, and there is an obligation assumed by those who have already turned to the Lord in faith. Those of you who have already experienced the forgiveness made possible by Jesus’ death on the Cross have an obligation to mirror Jesus’ forgiveness to others (even your family members). Further, in your acts of forgiveness, you are obliged to avoid being judgmental, just as Jesus avoided being judgmental toward the repentant thief. In all likelihood you can do nothing to change your children and grandchildren’s minds about religion, but you can offer them real insight into the value of Catholicism.
If you are truly concerned about the salvation of your children and grandchildren, live as if you truly believe that God is merciful and that the Lord Jesus is not judgmental. Give credible example that the Gospels are truth for salvation, and that you have encountered the One, True God in the Scriptures and in the Church.
If your children won’t go to church, why not bring the experience of church to them? Why not be the living presence of the Church when you are with them? Make every family meal an experience of Eucharist. Make every conversation an experience of God’s compassion, forbearance and forgiveness. Make your attitudes and deeds the tangible representation of the reconciliation and peace proclaimed by the Scriptures.
Rather than bringing your worry or disapproval or judgmentalism to your interactions with non-believing or non-practicing family members and friends, bring instead the presence of God, the saving message of the Gospel and the compassion of Jesus.
We live in a culture that encourages us to be cynical and judgmental – like the unrepentant thief who taunted Jesus saying, “Save yourself and us.” (Luke 23:39) While it might be easy to worry or be cynical about unbelieving loved ones, it is obligatory to avoid doing so. Believers can never allow themselves to forget that in Baptism they’ve already heard Jesus’ assurance of salvation. It’s not merely a better idea, it’s an obligation in Faith to repeat Jesus’ words of reconciliation rather than the cynical words of those who mocked him.