The Examined Life
Who do you say that I am?
It’s certain that human language fails to capture the mystery of God, but sometimes what we say doesn’t even come close to doing God justice.
April 20 saw a rare episode of Extreme Makeover: Metaphysical Edition, with the final teardown of heaven’s foyer, limbo. Since limbo had already been banished from the Catechism of the Catholic Church some years ago, the International Theological Commission only had to gently remove the last bits of theological mortar by suggesting in its 41-page The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized that there are “serious theological and liturgical grounds for hope that unbaptized infants who die will be saved and enjoy the beatific vision.” (That’s Theologianese for “all babies go to heaven, we hope anyway.”)
Of course, limbo’s dismissal to the theological discard pile isn’t really that surprising. It was, as many have pointed out, more a common belief than a dogma, meant to soften eternity for the unbaptized when our images of God leaned more toward dispassionate Judge than merciful Father. Far more interesting are the reasons the commission gave for its metaphysical renovation, which ranged from the many deaths of children in tragedy and conflict to our deepening understanding of God’s desire that everyone be saved.
Perhaps the most interesting reason given by the commission is simply that Catholics have ceased to believe in limbo. For whatever reason, the sensus fidelium, the general understanding of the faith among God’s people, has by and large judged that banishing infants—the epitome of innocence, original sin or not—to a secondary celestial tier while all of us actual sinners get eternity in God’s presence isn’t really worthy of the God revealed in Jesus. After all, when we talk about “final things”—heaven and hell (and limbo), judgment and salvation—we’re really talking about who God is and how God behaves. When we suggest that, because of Adam and Eve’s mythic sin, real infants who die lacking the proper ritual don’t get the fullness of salvation, we’re describing a God who’s petty to say the least.
What’s more unfortunate for God is that, limbo aside, we still do it. News coverage after every big storm or natural disaster includes the comments of thankful survivors juxtaposed with those of bereaved relatives of the deceased, all of whom generally suggest that God wanted it this way. “I prayed the entire time for God to protect me, and he did,” said one survivor of the May 4 Greensburg, Kansas tornado, which killed 10 people. While on the surface that may seem a pious thing to say, it doesn’t reflect too well on God—unless you’re OK with a God who plays favorites.
No one is at their best, of course, the minute after a giant tornado has just destroyed an entire town or, God forbid, a mentally ill Virginia Tech student kills more than 30 fellow students and their teachers. Some chaos needs order fast, and an omnipotent God in control of even the most tragic events is better than a world apparently spinning out of control. Cruel to God as such a vision may be, at least there’s a framework on which to hang our confusion and deep suffering.
But in the quiet moments, between tragedies or maybe long after, you’d think we could do better for God. Surely the God who, as the prophets and psalmists tell it, has written us on the divine palms and knits us together in our mothers’ wombs does not desire our suffering. Surely Jesus’ tears as he wept over Jerusalem were God’s own, grieving as any mother over the suffering of her children.
Some years ago a close friend from high school was telling me about her mother’s death after a long battle with cancer. She was grateful that God allowed her mother to live to see her four oldest daughters marry. Left unspoken was the pain that my friend, the fifth daughter, felt at being deprived of her mother’s presence at her own wedding. “God doesn’t give us any more than we can handle,” she said.
Though I wanted to convince her that God neither wanted her mother to have cancer nor to deprive my friend of that maternal presence, I knew to do so would be as cruel as her mother’s death; at least for my friend it all made sense. But I couldn’t help feeling sorry for God, too, who I’m sure was there with us, feeling my friend’s pain more deeply than we can know, wishing just as much that it wasn’t this way, and maybe just as powerless as we were, at least this side of eternity, to do anything about it.
Bryan Cones is associate editor of U.S. Catholic. This article appeared in the July 2007 (Volume 72, Number 7; page 7) issue of U.S. Catholic.