New hope exists in the uncertainty over the fate of unbaptized babies - for Catholics, at least.
The International Theological Commission released a report yesterday that eased speculation about limbo, the ethereal waiting room where Catholics believed the souls of infants who died without baptism would go until the second coming of Jesus.
The 41-page document, authorized by Pope Benedict XVI, expresses optimism that unbaptized children will someday reach heaven, according to the Catholic News Service. The panel of 30 theologians, appointed by the pope, advises the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Scholars said yesterday that the release of this paper clarifies that limbo was never a part of church doctrine but was a matter of conjecture, and that the church still urges the baptism of infants.
The document asserts that the question needed to be answered because more babies remain unbaptized with the rising numbers of non-Catholics and an increase in abortion, according to wire reports from the Vatican.
Limbo "was a theological hypothesis, really, to deal with a real pastoral problem of trying to figure out what happened to everybody who never heard of Jesus," said the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a Jesuit and a senior fellow of the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University.
"Now when a parent whose child dies before they got a chance to baptize it doesn't have to feel guilty and have all this religious guilt on top of the tragic sorrow of having lost a child," Reese said. "We can celebrate their funerals and say, 'This child is with the angels,' even though it wasn't baptized."
Some early Catholic thinkers such as St. Augustine of Hippo drew a hard line for those who died without taking care of their problem of original sin. Catholics believe all humans since Adam and Eve (except Mary, the mother of Jesus) are saddled with this taint, which keeps them out of heaven - unless washed away through baptism.
"Limbo emerged as a kind of way of softening the teaching of St. Augustine that unbaptized infants go to hell," said Frederick C. Bauerschmidt, who researches contemporary and medieval theology at Loyola College.
Though the saint said that "they're in the nicest part of hell, people did not find that entirely satisfactory," Bauerschmidt said.
Gradually, during the Middle Ages, people begin to put forth the idea of limbo to ease the logical question about the souls of those who died before reaching the "age of reason" - about seven years old, Bauerschmidt said. Heroes of the Hebrew Scripture who would have died long before Jesus' time also would have been confined there.
Limbo was considered a place of not supernatural but natural happiness, away from the presence of God. This concept is immortalized in Dante's Inferno, which describes hell as ringing with the cries of the tormented, but "in limbo you just hear sighs," Bauerschmidt said.
Back then, "the theologians couldn't work up the courage Benedict XVI has to say God's love reaches down even to infants," said James Buckley, a scholar at Loyola College.
Most modern theologians take a different approach. "Today we don't interpret those [Scripture] passages in that literal a way," Reese said. "We believe it's possible for good people and especially innocent people to go to heaven directly."
This has implications for interfaith discussions - an area in which the pope has been seen to take a harder line than his former boss.
"Benedict is trying to balance the centrality of Jesus as savior of the world without saying that anybody who is not a Christian is going to hell," Reese said. "He's trying to do this delicate balancing act of stressing the importance of baptism but not joining fundamentalist views."
Bauerschmidt agreed. "While he might differ from his predecessor John Paul II on the best way to conduct interreligious dialogue, he's not at all closed to the possibility of salvation for non-Christians," he said.
Catholic conservatives criticized any effort to relegate limbo to oblivion. Removing the concept from church teaching would lessen the importance of baptism and discourage parents from christening their infants, said Kenneth J. Wolfe, a Washington-based columnist for the traditionalist Catholic newspaper The Remnant.
"It makes baptism a formality, a party, instead of a necessity," Wolfe said. "There would be no reason for infant baptisms. It would put the Catholic Church on par with the Protestants."
It would also deprive Catholic leaders of a tool in their fight against abortion, Wolfe said. Priests have long told women that their aborted fetuses cannot go to heaven, which in theory was another argument against ending pregnancy. Without limbo, those fetuses would presumably no longer be denied communion with God.
The ruling has been expected in recent years. According to wire reports, before he was elected pope, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger served as head of the doctrinal congregation when it began to study limbo in 2004.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, published in the early 1990s, does not mention limbo but calls for the church to entrust unbaptized children to "the mercy of God." It points to the account in the Gospel of Matthew in which Jesus says, "Let the children come to me, do not hinder them," as hope for their salvation.
Bishop W. Francis Malooly, vicar general and western vicar of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, said he appreciates the way the document expresses prayerful hope rather than grounds for sure knowledge. "I think we always lean on the side that, right from square one, we have a loving and merciful God that wants all of us to be together forever," he said.
The question of when to perform a baptism was likely a bigger question a century ago when infant mortality rates were higher, Malooly said.
Malooly says that when he was ordained in 1970, families were still encouraged to baptize their children within 10 days of birth - even while still in the hospital.
Haste for salvation
Sometimes children were baptized without their mothers present because of the haste to save their souls, said Danielle Schaaf, the co-author of Don't Chew Jesus! A Collection of Memorable Nun Stories.
She remembers her mother was recovering in the hospital when her brother, five years younger, was baptized on the Sunday after he was born.
Limbo has long held a place in the imaginations of some Catholics. Schaaf's book includes the story of a woman who was taught by a nun in Catholic school that unbaptized babies would go to limbo but never reach heaven.
"To her it was a sad thing," Schaaf said. "She had in the back of her mind that maybe [Jesus' mother] Mary was at the back door letting them in."
The Los Angeles Times contributed to this article.