Theology is the effort to explain the unknowable in terms of the not worth knowing.
— H.L. Mencken
From time to time events ecclesiastical eclipse things political. It’s happened before and will happen again.
On October 31, 1992, it was reported that Pope John Paul II was prepared to close an investigation into the condemnation some years earlier of Galileo. In 1632 Galileo published his proof of the Copernican theory of the solar system, a proof that put him in bad odor with the church since it contravened the Ptolemaic theory that all heavenly bodies orbit the earth. Unsuccessful at convincing the powers that were that his findings did not constitute heresy, on June 21, 1633, he was found guilty of having “held and taught” the Copernican doctrine and was ordered to recant. Recanting, he was nonetheless placed under house arrest where he remained until his death at age 77; his study of the solar system was placed on the list of church-banned books where it remained for 122 years. His rehabilitation was delayed until 1992 when Cardinal Paul Poupard, who was the head of an investigation by the church into Galileo’s theory, said: “We today know that Galileo was right in adopting the Copernican astronomical theory.” Galileo, wherever he now is, was undoubtedly delighted. Shortly after his restoration to the ranks of the reputable, Charles Darwin’s theories of evolution, which had once given the church ecclesiastical heartburn, were also embraced. That happened in 1994.
That was the year in which the Pope announced to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences that Darwin’s theories are sound so long as they take into account that creation as described by him was the work of God. The Pope said that “fresh knowledge leads to recognition of the theory of evolution as more than just a hypothesis”.
Commenting on the two rehabilitations, Francesco Barone, a philosopher on scientific issues said: “With Galileo’s recent ‘rehabilitation’ and with this message by Pope John Paul II, the tear between the church and science has been strung together.”
The most recent good news from the Vatican was Pope Benedict XVI’s approval of a Vatican report released April 20 by the International Theological Commission that said there were “serious” grounds to hope that unbaptized children might get into heaven. Prior to this report it was believed that unbaptized children went to a place called “limbo.” Theologians (none of whom, I have it on good authority, has ever visited) describe “limbo” as a place where children enjoy an eternal state of perfect natural happiness. It almost certainly has enough teeter-totters and swings for everyone, as well as cotton candy, lemonade, computer games and all the other things children enjoy. According to those in the know, the only thing lacking in limbo is communion with God, which in the vernacular means the children there have no adult supervision, a condition that most of the children would find very much to their liking and in many cases probably comports with their idea of heaven.
If the International Theological Commission in its continuing studies of this issue concludes that the unbaptized can go straight to heaven without passing limbo and that view becomes church doctrine, there are two obvious questions. Will the new policy be retroactive and will there be an age or geographical cutoff?
With respect to the first question, it seems likely that in the divine order of things there are a certain number of unbaptized infants who die each year and if they are now permitted to enter heaven, their entry will occur in an orderly fashion. Those presently in limbo present an entirely different problem. There are surely billions of unbaptized infants cavorting about in unsupervised perfect happiness in limbo. Although all may not want to leave their perfectly happy state, others may welcome the chance to get to heaven which, even though none of them has been able to visit it, almost certainly enjoys as good a reputation in limbo as it enjoys here on earth. If billions decide all at once that they want to go to heaven, the question is can heaven accommodate what might be described in today’s parlance as a “surge”.
The second question is whether there is an age or geographical cutoff for invocation of the dispensation. At what age does failure to be baptized become an offense that warrants limbo or, worse yet, hell, and is there consideration of where the child is located geographically? It is a lot easier to get baptized in Manhattan than in a remote village in Tibet. Those are questions that I, being a columnist and not a theologian, cannot hope to answer. I suspect the Vatican will appoint yet another commission with an appropriate Latin moniker to study the question and make appropriate recommendations to the Pope. The children in limbo as well as those still on earth will eagerly await its conclusions.