Friday, December 30, 2005

Stuck in the Middle With You

One thing I always respect about certain philosophies and religions are those dark, uncomfortable beliefs they hold, however much I disagree with them. One of those uncomfortable beliefs was the Catholic Church's belief that those not baptized were relegated to limbo, a sort of stasis between heaven and hell for those still soiled by original sin.

But hold on, what's this? A group of 30 theologians have collected at the Vatican and are revising this teaching, stating its mistaken and that limbo doesn't exist. Limbo has never been official Church teaching but it is rolling back a traditional belief associated with Saint Thomas Acquinas. This is just another example that the Catholic Church's teachings are not heaven sent but politically crafted beliefs to provoke fear or hope, which translates into membership. Think about it. You're a medieval peasant whose life is nasty, brutish, and short in the Hobbesian sense. You're illiterate and your existence is centered around subsistence for you and your family. The political authority temporal and ethereal is the Catholic Church which tells you that this life of pain is just a short interlude before paradise. One caveat: You must follow the dictates of the Church, which means you must be officially inducted into the faith by cleansing your original sin. If you do not, you, and most horrifically, your children, will be cosigned to a perpetual destination between heaven and hell. Not a bad recruiting pitch for induction into the Church through baptism huh?

Fast forward some hundreds of years and the Church is facing another problem politically: abortion and massive infant-mortality in those regions where Catholicism is on the march. As Ian Fisher of the NYTs explains:
[Limbo]remains an interesting relic, strangely relevant to what the Roman Catholic Church has been and what it wants to be. The theory of limbo bumps up against one of the most contentious issues for the church: abortion. If fetuses are human beings, what happens to their souls if they are aborted? It raises questions of how broadly the church - and its new leader - view the idea of salvation.

And it has some real-life consequences. The church is growing most in poor places like Africa and Asia where infant mortality remains high. While the concerns of the experts reconsidering limbo are more theological, it does not hurt the church's future if an African mother who has lost a baby can receive more hopeful news from her priest in 2005 than, say, an Italian mother did 100 years ago.
More evidence that religion -- faith in God organized around a particular, exclusivist set of beliefs -- is just another human construction to make us feel better in the silence of night and on the verge of death. Its darker side is constructing others not as worthy or as deserving of life and salvation as those of the believers. Being a human construction it is also motivated by the most salient characteristic of humanity: greed for life and fear of death. The Catholic Church, a human organization, is no different. It adapts itself in the interest of existence over principle when convenient.