01 December 2005

Keeping it simple

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not one bit simpler.
-- Albert Einstein
Reuters has picked up Italian press reports that the fate of limbo is in (where else?) but limbo.

Apparently, a Vatican committee set up last year by the previous pope (whose fate would now appear, technically at least, to be a bit more uncertain than before) wants to do away with the whole concept of limbo. Karol Wojtyla asked the group to come up with "a more coherent and enlightened way" of describing the fate of anyone who dies before they've had the chance to be baptized.

Not having been raised in the Roman Catholic Church, I had no idea that the afterlife could be so complicated. In addition to good old heaven and hell, there's also purgatory and limbo, although whether all four existed before Jesus held the original revival meeting seems to be the subject of some uncertainty.

Consider this description of purgatory from the excellent Religious Tolerance website:
It has traditionally been viewed as a place of torment, where nearly all of us shall...have to pass a period more or less long in the excruciating fires of Purgatory after death.... The purpose of this pain is to cleanse the individual from the temporal consequences of her or his sins while on earth. Eventually, the person will be eligible to be transferred to Heaven.
And I thought the federal tax system was bureaucratic.

Limbo is even more so. It was the brainchild of 13th-century theologians who had been stymied by the problem of unbaptized infants. There's as good a summary of the history as any at The Scotsman, which includes some major milestones in the evolution of the concept.
  • First suggested by St Gregory of Nazianzus (329-390 AD), who believed that the unbaptized would neither be punished nor access the full glory of God.

  • Pope Pius X declares in 1905: "Children who die without baptism go into limbo, where they do not enjoy God, but they do not suffer either, because having Original Sin, and only that, they do not deserve paradise, but neither hell or purgatory."

  • JP2 gives the commission the task of looking at the issue in 2004. There has always been speculation that he wanted to drop the concept after he wrote his own papal document which gave no clear answer to the question of what happens to children who die before being baptized.

  • Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (who would later succeed Karol W.), 1984: "Limbo has never been a defined truth of faith. Personally, speaking as a theologian and not as head of the Congregation, I would drop something that has always been only a theological hypothesis."
I can understand Ratzinger's unease with the whole idea. I mean, an interdimensional netherworld inhabited by zygotes, embryos, fetuses, babies, a few toddlers and everyone who ever lived before baptism was invented? As Warwick McFadyen of Australia's The Age newspaper writes, "It's lucky the universe is such a big place."

I'm glad someone brought up cosmology. It brings to mind the difference between science and Catholicism.

Scientists spend their working lives trying to reduce the chaotic and complex world in which we live to a few simple equations. Catholic theologians, it would seem, tend to spend theirs trying to make the simple complicated. So it's good to hear that, at least for once, the sacred is getting simpler.

But I fear Catholics still have a long way to go before they embrace Occam's famous razor: Pluralitas non est ponenda sine necessitate, which is Latin for something like "Given two equally predictive theories, choose the simpler."

Amen.

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