We’ve been hearing something lately about the expertise and, how shall I say, the best-mindedness (in the sense of being among the greatest minds of the past thousand years) of theologians. I’m not convinced. Actually I could put it more strongly than that, but I’ll just say I’m not convinced. No one has ever accused me of not being tactful. Okay lots of people have accused me of exactly that, but it was always a misunderstanding.
There are several reasons I’m not convinced; this article in the Times illustrates one or two.
The Pope will cast aside centuries of Catholic belief later this week by abolishing formally the concept of limbo…This week a 30-strong Vatican international commission of theologians, which has been examining limbo, began its final deliberations. Vatican sources said it had concluded that all children who die do so in the expectation of “the universal salvation of God” and the “mediation of Christ”, whether baptised or not. The theologians’ finding is that God wishes all souls to be saved, and that the souls of unbaptised children are entrusted to a “merciful God” whose ways of ensuring salvation cannot be known. “In effect, this means that all children who die go to Heaven,” one source said.
Okay – you’ve got your Vatican commission of theologians, thirty of them, and they have been ‘examining’ limbo. They’ve been what? What does that mean? How have they been examining limbo? They’ve been looking at it through a telescope? Through a microscope? Both at once? Both in alternation? Fifteen theologians on the tele and fifteen on the micro, and they combine their findings? Or they X-ray it? Run it through an MRI scan? Shave off bits of it for radio-carbon dating? Or is it that they sit limbo down and ask it a lot of questions? Or do they give it a written exam, with two hours to complete it and proctors walking up and down to prevent cheating? Or what?
Well, apparently none of those, since the pope is going to abolish the concept itself, which would seem to hint that there’s nothing physical or material to examine. But then what? What does it mean for theologians to examine limbo? To talk about it, apparently, and decide whether they feel like believing in it or not.
In propelling limbo out of its own uncertain state, the Pope is merely acknowledging the distress its half-existence causes to millions…One of the reasons Baptists and some other Protestant denominations resist infant baptism is because they believe the souls of babies are innocent and that it is for adults to choose a life in Christ or otherwise.
In other words, all this stuff is about what people want or don’t want to believe. That’s understandable. But it’s not some sort of body of specialist knowledge that only panels of theologians are qualified to pronounce on, because real knowledge isn’t in play here. What is in play here is how people want things to be arranged. The ‘Vatican international commission of theologians’ looks remarkably like a bit of hocus-pocus designed to disguise the fact that the pope is just making a political move, giving people what they want. It’s another one of those ‘ignore that man behind the curtain’ scenarios. Maybe the theologians just got together to eat cannoli and chat, and after enough time had passed for dignity, emerged to announce what they’d been going to announce all along. Or maybe they talked seriously about ‘limbo’, but the effect is the same. It’s all cannoli and chat, if you ask me.
Note, especially, the somewhat riotous non sequitur: ‘The theologians’ finding is that God wishes all souls to be saved, and that the souls of unbaptised children are entrusted to a “merciful God” whose ways of ensuring salvation cannot be known. “In effect, this means that all children who die go to Heaven.”‘ That ‘finding’ is rich. But the non sequitur is even better: God’s ways of ensuring salvation cannot be known, therefore all children who die go to Heaven. But if God’s ways of ensuring salvation cannot be known, how can it be known that all children who die go to Heaven? If one thing cannot be known, how can another, related thing be known? Isn’t it all or nothing in this department? To put it another way, why can’t God’s ways of ensuring salvation be known? Because…well, because there’s no one to ask, and nothing to examine, and no publication to peer review, and no experiment to replicate, and no claim to falsify. But if the Vatters admits that about one aspect of god, why do they get to make flat assertions about other aspects? What magical powers do theologians have to make all this kind of thing authoritative? Especially when they don’t even have the papal perk of infallibility.