Vatican City Pope Benedict XVI has reversed centuries of traditional Roman Catholic teaching on limbo, approving a Vatican report released Friday that says there were "serious" grounds to hope that children who die without being baptized can go to heaven.
Theologians said the move was highly significant - both for what it says about Benedict's willingness to buck a long-standing tenet of Catholic belief and for what it means theologically about the church's views on heaven, hell and original sin - the sin that the faithful believe all children are born with.
Although Catholics have long believed that children who die without being baptized are with original sin and thus excluded from heaven, the church has no formal doctrine on the matter. Theologians, however, have long taught that such children enjoy an eternal state of perfect natural happiness, a state commonly called limbo, but without being in communion with God.
"If there's no limbo and we're not going to revert to St. Augustine's teaching that unbaptized infants go to hell, we're left with only one option, namely, that everyone is born in the state of grace," said the Rev. Richard McBrien, professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.
Benedict approved the findings of the International Theological Commission, a Vatican advisory panel, which said it was reassessing traditional teaching on limbo in light of "pressing" pastoral needs - primarily the growing number of abortions and infants born to nonbelievers who die without being baptized.
While the report does not carry the authority of a papal encyclical or even the weight of a formal document from the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, it was approved by the pope on Jan. 19.