In the brouhaha over a testosterone-fuelled Dick Cheney filling his friend full of buckshot meant for little birds, a far larger story is being overlooked: according to an editorial in yesterday's Los Angeles Times, a group of Vatican theological advisors plan to recommend eliminating the concept of limbo and Pope Benedict XVI is going to sign off on it. This troubles me deeply. Although I am not a Catholic, I have great admiration for that religion. Their art collection is unsurpassed, their clergy know how to put on an excellent show, and they own better real estate than David Geffen. As far as institutions go, the Catholic Church is hard to beat. The reason for this, I believe, is their easy-to-understand cosmology. Although I am not an expert in Catholic theology, as far as I understand it goes something like this: Heaven is good. Hell is bad. Purgatory is not a nice place to spend eternity so don't think you got away with anything if you wind up there. And Limbo is where un-Baptized babies are sent.
The Jewish afterlife, as far as I know, is a little vague, which is one of the reasons there are not a lot of Jews. As far as the Muslim afterlife is concerned, apparently there's a lot of sex if you're a suicide bomber, although I don't know what the women who aren't virgins get to do. And they're really not clear about what happens when a virgin has sex with a suicide bomber and then is no longer a virgin. (Memo to Western feminists who think the chador is a problem: investigate this issue).
Clearly, the Catholics have the easiest to understand afterlife. This set up has worked for two millennia and now they want to change it? Not so fast, you people!
Apparently, this whole let's-abolish-Limbo thing has to do with recruitment in Africa. The problem is that infant mortality there is so high, a lot of babies die before they get baptized; hence the Limbo concept is a hard sell in native villages. In other words, it's a marketing problem. The Catholics in America took a lot of flack from more conservative elements (and friendly observers like me) when they introduced the folk mass. Somehow, it was felt, the music didn't have the same theological kick when sung in English by an Italian-American woman who looked like Cher. Although I personally enjoy certain kinds of folk music, I understand the objection. How will these folks react to the rescinding of Limbo? I can tell you right now, they're not going to like it.
But this issue goes way beyond the Catholics. What are the ramifications for the other monotheistic faiths if Limbo gets unceremoniously tossed on the slag heap? What if next they decide Hell doesn't exist? Perhaps the Vatican can declare Hell is just someplace where Republicans outnumber Democrats, or Al Sharpton is the President (it would be a personal Hell where you would be assigned depending on your point of view). And if Hell is declared to be an outdated concept that can't be sold in an African village to someone who might be more comfortable worshipping a tree (which I also support), then how safe is Heaven?
It would be a tragedy for the Islamists if their leaders get it in their excitable heads that they can send their religion back for a re-write. Say they're running short of suicide bombers. The mullahs get together with their sales force and someone says "Seventy virgins for blowing yourself up? We're stinting on the Virgins!" The next thing you know, Osama bin Laden releases a tape that where he declares "The number seventy is a typo. It's seven hundred Virgins!" The Islamo-fascist recruitment office would look like Christmas at Macy's.
Once we lock into a dogma, let's stick to it. For Heaven's sake, isn't that one thing we can all agree on?