When the Vatican’s International Theological Commission issued its document on limbo this month, readers of the Catholic press should not have been surprised at its content. Take a look at this CNS headline from last October: Theologians: Unbaptized babies in heaven makes more sense than limbo. That was on a story about the commission’s meeting last fall, at which members were in agreement on what the document should say — they just had not yet put the finishing touches on it.
The CNS story on the document is here. Readers also should not miss the CNS analysis of the document by CNS Rome bureau chief John Thavis (Critiquing limbo: Vatican responds to changes in theological thought):
Some people saw (the commission’s conclusions) as a reversal of a centuries-old Catholic principle. But rather than announcing a radical break with the past, the commission said it was assessing an issue in theological evolution.
The very first sentence of the document signaled an important distinction when it spoke of the “hierarchy of truths” in Catholic doctrine. The teaching on limbo was among those never addressed by Scripture and never defined as dogma and is therefore subject to theological development, it said.
Thavis also notes that the document “goes beyond strictly theological opinions” and also cites the need for the church to read “the signs of the times” to better understand the Gospel.
In unusual detail, it listed several such signs that support the idea of hope for the salvation of unbaptized infants: the warfare and turmoil of the international scene and the church’s awareness of its mission as a bearer of hope; greater emphasis on God’s love and mercy in a world of suffering people; renewed concern for the welfare of infants in societies that are scandalized by the suffering of children; and increased dialogue with people of other faiths, which encourages the church to have greater appreciation for the “manifold and mysterious ways of God.”
Origins, the CNS documentary service where the document first appeared, also provides some helpful background on the commission itself, since many Catholics probably have never heard of it. In the margin notes published with the document, it notes that the commission was instituted by Pope Paul VI in 1969 and that in 1979 Pope John Paul II praised the help the commission gives the church in theological matters. Origins’ margin notes — a great treasure of cross references to previous church documents — also provides short excerpts from seven previous commission texts so readers can see some of the other issues the commission has tackled. (The margin notes are also available online to Origins subscribers, who can click here for the entire document and notes, which are posted after the full text.)