Write Lightning is a blog from writer Deb Thompson.
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Fri, Oct 06 2006

Hell, no, they won't go (to Limbo, that is)

This week there was news that Pope Benedict XVI and other Roman Catholic clergy have been looking into abolishing the teaching of limbo for babies who have not been baptized. Get Religion posted an entry yesterday that drew some pointed comments. The post also points to other posts on other blogs, which also drew pointed comments. Emotions are going to run hot and heavy for some on this topic. The rest of you may be baffled, or even bored, by the discussion.

Like one particular commenter who spoke to the Get Religion post, I was taught as a child that Limbo was no theory, but was instead part of the Roman Catholic package of beliefs. (I was also taught that babies should be baptized as soon as possible, that "Jesus Loves Me" was a "Protestant" song that I was forbidden to sing in the Catholic School play yard and—that the Pope, whoever he might be at the time, came embued with some sort of infallibility that the rest of us could not possibly fathom and should not question.)

My elementary teachers were all from the order of School Sisters of Notre Dame. They wore black and white habits, carried large black rosaries, wore wedding bands as a symbol of their vows to Christ and rarely spoke very much of their earthly families or origins. Whenever we got new rosaries as a gift we were told that they were just beads and had no real power until they were blessed by the priest. We were taught, in addition to the doctrine of Limbo, that Hell was a place of eternal torment that already exists. So when loved ones died I was really, really hoping they had not gone to Hell. We were also told that our loved ones in Heaven could look down on us and watch over us. (That last idea was never comforting to me, because I could imgaine our departed loved ones watching our trials and tribulations (and big mistakes) here. How could anyone be happy in Heaven if they had to watch their grandchildren or other loved ones struggle with illness, crime and pain here on Earth? At some point later on it did occur to me that if the only way to end all this misery here in life was to die and be one of those admitted immediately to Heaven, the rest of us were real suckers to keep trying to make good here by living long lives. (Of course, suicide was a mortal sin from which you would probably never have time to repent or complete penance, so that option was out.

We were taught that you had to go to confession if you thought you had sinned. We took lessons to learn how to go to confession while we were still very young and didn't even really know what it meant. The confessional was a dark little booth with curtains where you knelt alone in one compartment while the priest stayed in another little compartment. He would slide a little door open when he was ready for you and there was a screen still between your compartment and his. He placed a folded, white handkerchief up to his face and looked somewhat away from you as you whispered your evil deeds to him. He prayed for you and gave you some prayers to say as penance. When it was over he slid the little door shut. It was not comforting to me. It was as frightening as any foreshadowing scene of any horror film I've ever watched.

And let's not forget Purgatory. There were degrees of sin. If you somehow had done enough penance for your venial sins, but mortal sin was still soiling you at the time of your death, you could be sent to Purgatory, where you might suffer for a little while before being allowed entrance into Heaven. It was therefore extrememly important, if you wanted immediate access to Heaven, that you confess every sin and get all that penance out of the way in this life so that you could avoid being punished forever in Hell or even temporarily in Purgatory. So you worried that you would forget to confess something and get hit by a car without being in a state of grace. And there was so much pressure to go to the confessional that, some of us at least, made things up so that we would measure up. Then we worried that we had told a lie and would be tossed into Hell and tortured by God anyway, for making up sins. (Want to know why the phrase "damned if you do and damned if you don't" is so powerful? Ask any ex-Catholic.)

All this (and much more) was being taught to children then. When you're 6 or 8 or even 11 years old and you've been taught to respect adult authority, particularly adult religious authority, it takes awhile to allow yourself the intellectual and emotional freedom to reason that all things are not as they seem at first. You've been spiritually indoctrinated by adults during the years when your own value systems are developing and your ability to deal with abstract principles is not yet mature.

I don't mean to insult anyone who is devout in their Roman Catholic beliefs. Your experience may be very different from mine. But for me, growing up in that era, the whole situation was too close to being like the things I've heard since then about cult mind control tactics.

So, if any of you reading this wonder what all the fuss is about because you never even knew what Limbo was, consider yourselves very blessed. And please have a wee bit of patience for those of us who may be getting old buttons pushed right now over all this talk about Roman Catholic clergy tossing out things that were taught to at least some of us children as being just as solid and indisputable as the rules governing math or English grammar.

posted at: 08:53 | category: /Religious and Spiritual | link to this entry

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