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After a commission of top Catholic theologians wrapped up a December conference that examined the topic, the prognosis was apparently grim: the groups’ secretary-general told Vatican Radio that the church’s teaching on limbo was “in crisis.”

…The shift, telegraphed in the 1994 Catechism, should strike most believers as a good thing. For centuries, Catholic couples lived in fear that in the tragic event that their newborns perished, the infants would go not to heaven but to a cheery yet inaccessible outer parking lot, a locale where they would enjoy eternal happiness but be denied the actual presence of God (and, presumably, of the parents, assuming they reached heaven).

…The question arose, What about babies who died before they were baptized? The church father Augustine of Hippo (A.D. 354-430), applying more logic than compassion, said that without baptismal grace, they must go to hell. That proved too much for the theologians of the Middle Ages who counter-proposed limbo. The Protestant reformers eliminated it from their theology along with several other post-death constructs, but it remained a looming staple of Catholic understanding. Says Martin: “I’ve rarely baptized a baby where limbo has not come up, at least as a joke.”