Study examines why belief in limbo has declined through the decades

Catholics in Ireland from 1960s onwards found idea of limbo incredible and even cruel, says historian

Queens University Belfast historian, Professor Liam Kennedy said he had  ‘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’. File photograph: Alan Betson

Queens University Belfast historian, Professor Liam Kennedy said he had ‘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’. File photograph: Alan Betson

 

A new study from Queen’s University, Belfast has found that belief in limbo – a place for unbaptised babies – has declined throughout the decades in Ireland due to the changing beliefs and values of the country.

Limbo, in Catholic theology, was believed to be the border place between heaven and hell where those souls who died without being baptised, though not condemned to punishment, were deprived of eternal happiness with God in heaven.

The study was led by historian Professor Liam Kennedy in association with the Irish Countrywomen’s Association.

Twenty six women, including 23 from the ICA, took part in the survey which was carried out in 2017. The women varied in ages, with birth dates ranging from the 1930s to the 1960s and represented all four provinces in Ireland.

In the study, 75 per cent 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 Vatican in Rome.

However, 25 per cent of respondents believed that the decline was as a result of changes in church teaching.

Prof Kennedy cited some of the responses to the survey: “More people [were]less accepting of Church/Catholic myths”; “young people became more educated and began to question stuff that did not make sense to them. They were no longer afraid of the ‘fire and brimstone’ that our previous generations were afraid to question”; “people think limbo is a . . . cruel place and don’t think that children go there. They believe in a more merciful God and that children will go to heaven directly”; “because people didn’t buy it anymore”.

Development of limbo

“The term limbo does not appear in the Bible or the New Testament,” said Prof Kennedy. “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,” he added.

“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.”

Prof Kennedy said 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 said.

Added Prof Kennedy, “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.”

Prof Kennedy said that 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”.

“But it really did matter for the best part of a thousand years and gave rise to both fear and pain,” he concluded.