SCIENCE & HI-TECH

Christian women in Ireland don’t believe in limbo anymore, survey finds


For years Roman Catholics believed unbaptised babies would spend eternity in ‘limbo’ rather than going to heaven.

But now the ‘cruel’ belief has almost completely died out, a study in Ireland has found.

Limbo was considered to be an intermediate place between heaven and hell and unbaptised babies would be buried on unconsecrated ground on the edge of churchyards.

It was important to baptise a baby as quickly as possible for fear that if a baby died, they would be consigned to limbo.

But a study has found that the beliefs have now almost completely died out in Ireland.

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For years Roman Catholics believed unbaptised babies would spend eternity in ‘limbo’ rather than going to heaven. But now the ‘cruel’ belief has almost completely died out, a study in Ireland has found (stock)

Liam Kennedy, a history professor at Queen’s University, Belfast carried out the survey of 26 women.

Professor Kennedy explained: ‘The term Limbo does not appear in the Bible or the New Testament.

‘It seems the concept was developed over time by Christians to handle two problems.

‘One was the fate of those who led just lives and who died before Christ came on earth to redeem humankind; the other was the fate of unbaptised babies in the event of death.

‘Children growing up in the Ireland of the 1950s will have a clear remembrance of a metaphysical space or place known as Limbo.

‘For Catholics, though not Irish Protestants, this formed part of a spiritual cosmos which viewed Heaven and Hell as opposite poles, with Purgatory and Limbo occupying rather vaguely defined intermediate positions. But Limbo appears to have disappeared off the spiritual map.

He added: ‘In Ireland, understandings of Limbo, along with Heaven, Hell and Purgatory, were handed down by parents, schoolteachers, priests and nuns, drawing on the teachings of the Catholic Church.

‘Catholics in Ireland, from the 1960s onwards, turned their backs on a religious belief they found not credible or even cruel and the institutional church itself placed less and less emphasis on the ‘doctrine’ of Limbo.’

He added: ‘A fear of Limbo drove parents to have their new-born child baptised as soon as was practicable.

‘Otherwise, the infant risked losing eternal happiness and going into a void called Limbo.

‘I have little doubt that mothers who had miscarriages or still-births suffered mental anguish as a result of the death of an unbaptised foetus or still-birth.

‘Heaven was closed to the unbaptised, as indeed was consecrated Church ground.’

Limbo was considered to be an intermediate place between heaven and hell and unbaptised babies would be buried on unconsecrated ground on the edge of churchyards. This image shows Limbo depicted in Christ in Limbo (c. 1575) by a follower of Hieronymus Bosch

Limbo was considered to be an intermediate place between heaven and hell and unbaptised babies would be buried on unconsecrated ground on the edge of churchyards. This image shows Limbo depicted in Christ in Limbo (c. 1575) by a follower of Hieronymus Bosch

Only one of the 26 women surveyed said they felt a belief in limbo survived in Irish society.

Three quarters of respondents felt the decline of belief in Limbo was due to the changing beliefs and values of the Catholic laity in Ireland, rather than change emanating from the centre of the Catholic Church in Rome. 

One in four believed that the teaching authority of the Catholic Church – in other words the Pope and the hierarchy – was the source of change.

Speaking about their own experience of Limbo, a respondent in the study said: ‘I was the eldest of ten children. 

But in 1954 I had a sister born named Marian (as it was Marian year in Ireland). She was born on a Saturday but died the next day.

‘As was customary then my dad had to take her little body late at night well after dark to an old graveyard and on the perimeter of the graveyard. 

WHAT DO CATHOLICS BELIEVE ABOUT LIMBO?

Limbo comes from the Latin word meaning border or edge.

It was considered by medieval theologians to be a state or place reserved for the unbaptised dead.  

That includes good people who lived before the coming of Christ. 

In the Divine Comedy, Dante placed virtuous pagans and great classical philosophers, including Plato and Socrates, in limbo.

Centuries of tradition and teaching held that babies who die without baptism went to limbo. 

The Catholic Church’s official catechism, issued in 1992 after decades of work, dropped the mention of limbo. 

In 2007, the Church effectively buried the concept of limbo when the Church’s International Theological Commission said limbo reflected an ‘unduly restrictive view of salvation’.

My dad had to bury her with no grave markings (an unknown grave). But at the time he made a little cross shape tied together with twine, made from two sticks and stuck them in the ground. Every year my dad used to take me to Marian’s grave to say a little prayer.’

Professor Kennedy concluded: ‘The survey was primarily concerned with belief in Limbo and its subsequent demise, as seen from the viewpoint of women.

‘As the decades have gone by, belief in Limbo has withered. 

‘So much so that in this present day hardly any of those born in the new millennium will have the slightest notion of what Limbo was (or is), other than as a colloquial expression for being in some indeterminate mood or situation, as for example in the feeling of being “in Limbo”. 

‘But it really did matter for the best part of a thousand years and gave rise to both fear and pain.’



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