Catholic Doctrine on Limbo and Baptism Revisited

Robert Siegel talks with Lawrence Cunningham, professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame, about the Catholic notion of "limbo" — the spiritual place where people who have not been baptized wait to enter heaven. Now the notion itself is in limbo, according to some reports. The church, Cunnigham says, never had a doctrine on limbo, more of a kind of theological hypothesis to answer some troubling questions: If baptism is necessary for salvation, what happens to people — babies, for example — who die without the sacrament? And what happens to morally upright people who haven't been baptised?

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

A Google search of the phrase `in limbo' turns up Jose Padilla, stem cell research, Social Security, 2,500 people arrested in Louisiana, aspiring subcontractors at the Los Alamos National Laboratory and the San Diego Chargers' quarterback situation. They've all recently been placed in that condition of endless suspension. Despite the robust life of that phrase, `in limbo,' its origins are about to be terminally undermined. A Vatican panel is about to recommend that the concept of limbo be eliminated from Catholic teaching. Theology Professor Lawrence Cunningham of Notre Dame says the concept of limbo was not a fundamental teaching of the church.

Professor LAWRENCE CUNNINGHAM (Notre Dame): It was a medieval, theological hypothesis to explain what happened to infants who died before they were baptized or what happened to the just people who'd lived before the time of Christ. As you probably remember, Dante has a kind of an anteroom to hell for such people.

SIEGEL: But this idea obviously has had currency among the people because the notion of being in limbo, as a figurative statement, is just incredibly common.

Prof. CUNNINGHAM: Quite true. I was actually taught about limbo when I was a child growing up in parochial school; that that's what happened to unbaptized babies. I think the reason why theologians want it removed certainly from the Catechism and from discourse is that they would like to have a more compassionate understanding of the saving will of God and not have such a juridical notion, which is basically a medieval notion.

SIEGEL: The theological problem was that you have these souls who died before they even had the opportunity to be baptized.

Prof. CUNNINGHAM: Exactly right.

SIEGEL: If you'd been old enough to have had the opportunity and to have consciously skipped it, that's another matter. That consigns you to another place.

Prof. CUNNINGHAM: Well, then children would hardly have that choice. It would be their parents' negligence. It was the question of what happened to infants before they reach the age of reason who were not baptized. That was where limbo, as a theological hypothesis, developed.

SIEGEL: How do we describe the trend in the church that would want to get rid of this idea?

Prof. CUNNINGHAM: Well, I think that it's part of the larger issue of the salvific will of God. There's much theological writing today about the idea of how people are and who, in fact, are saved. And one of the things that Catholic theology for a long time has been trying to erase out of its discourse is this idea that only a small segment of the world's population in the past or now are going to be saved, and others are going to be damned. I think it's part of that larger discussion.

SIEGEL: But doesn't it still leave the majority of the world that is non-Christian damned because they don't receive baptism?

Prof. CUNNINGHAM: That is certainly not the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. I've heard it often said in evangelical or fundamentalist circles that those people who are not consciously Christian are damned. I've heard many preachers say that on television. The Catholic Church has never said that.

SIEGEL: I'm just trying to think if there's another parallel use of limbo. I mean, our suspension of things in limbo all comes from this religious notion, doesn't it? I mean, there's no other use of this from which our common usage of `to be in limbo' springs. It's all from this idea.

Prof. CUNNINGHAM: I think all of the contemporary and multiform usages of the word `limbo' ultimately derive from that word, which was coined in the Middle Ages.

SIEGEL: There are some unsuspecting souls who think that dancing under a pole has just been banned by the Vatican, which would be a terrible misconstruction of what's happened.

Prof. CUNNINGHAM: That certainly would be. I'm not limber enough to do the limbo, but I can speak about the other kind of limbo.

SIEGEL: Professor Cunningham, thanks a lot for talking with us.

Prof. CUNNINGHAM: You're welcome. Bye-bye.

SIEGEL: Professor Lawrence Cunningham, who is a professor of theology at the University of Notre.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Chorus: (Singing) Limbo, limbo, limbo. Limbo, limbo, limbo.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Sitting in limbo, limbo-oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh.

Unidentified Chorus: (Singing) Limbo, limbo, limbo.

Unidentified Man: Yeah, yeah.

MELISSA BLOCK (Host): You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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