|Hieronymus Bosch, "Christus in de Limbus," 1575|
Here's what St. Augustine meant when he spoke of the limbo (the limbus, the border region) to which the souls of unbaptized children are consigned:
Augustine taught that unbaptized infants share in the "common positive misery of the damned," though their punishment (for having been born, having lived, but having failed to be baptized, you understand) is at the most mild, so mild that one may not say that for them non-existence would be preferable to existence in their state of mild punishment.
Having an itch and being perpetually unable to scratch it. That's what limbo is. We should rejoice that we have a body in that it allows us to experience the itch. But we grieve that our hands are bound and we're unable to deal with the tormenting misery of the blasted itch.
That's limbo. Being made aware we're alive through the very misery inflicted on us as the price of being alive. Being alive and commanded to rejoice in the fact that we're alive, yet sharing the "common positive misery of the damned" as the very condition of being alive.
And here's what Yael T. Abouhalkah thinks that the slap on the wrist a judge gave Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City yesterday will accomplish for Catholics in general:
Finn could and should have resigned months ago, to have allowed this entire diocese to move forward, to remove the stench of this long-running episode.
He failed to do that and - with today’s verdict - appears ready to stay in power for more years to come.
That means controversy over his leadership will remain, embroiling Catholics in their own kind of limbo.
Embroiling Catholics in their own kind of limbo: it strikes me that Abouhalkah is precisely correct with this formulation. We lay Catholics who have looked for real, credible pastoral leadership on the part of our church leaders have just been delivered a slap in the face in Kansas City, while a bishop who knew that one of his priests was endangering minors and who protected that priest is given a sweet slap on the wrist.
On the one hand, there's at least the precedent: a sitting bishop has now been held accountable for his crime of placing children in harm's way by protecting a priest who endangers children. We're alive!
But on the other hand, church leaders have proven again and again that they will not police themselves, and that they will, whenever possible, collude with powerful economic and political players to thwart the mechanisms of the criminal justice system, which has never been oblivious to the interests of the rich and powerful while it's deaf to the needs of the weak and vulnerable (read, in this case: children). We're alive, but we itch. And we cannot scratch the itch.
Limbo's precisely where we Catholics live and have lived for some time now.
Limbo: watching the most powerful bishop in the U.S., the leader of our episcopal conference, His Eminence Timothy Cardinal Dolan, stride blandly and boldly every bit like butter slipping down the side of a hot dish onto the stage of both national political parties' conventions to deliver a smart slap to one party's face and a mild slap on the wrist to the other. A kingmaker bland and bold and insubstantial as melting butter . . . . One who--and isn't this astonishing?--imagines he retains moral credibility even as he lies boldly about payoffs to pedophile priests in his former diocese, and refuses to entertain a single question from the media about this matter.
Limbo: being told that our salvation is mediated to us by men whose moral credibility is patently lower than that of just about any fussy old teacher who taught us throughout our grade-school years. Or of the maiden aunt who lovingly cooked our family's meals. Or the man hired to sweep and clean our parish church. Or the woman driving the bus on which we ride to work. Or our beloved corgi Flora.
Limbo: being alive enough to feel the common misery of the damned. And being unable, at the same time, to do anything at all about that misery.
Limbo: being subjected to sermon after sermon by self-appointed Catholic media gurus who claim to speak on our behalf as Catholics, and who claim an intense concern about what it means to be Catholic and about all the brother and sister Catholics exiting the church of late. But who, given any chance at all, leap at the opportunity to slap away at the hierarchy's target du jour.
Doing the hierarchy's dirty work of informing entire sectors of the church, brother and sister Catholics, that they're unwelcome in the church. Not wanted. Don't belong.
Don't let the door hit you in the rear on your way out.
Limbo: being alive enough to believe that a welcoming, affirming, blessing, and loving church counts. But having to deal with the misery of living in a real-life church in which the very same people who inform us that they care more intently about Catholicity than the rest of us and define it on our behalf tell the media that some of us are the enemy.
Dirty and unwelcome. Don't let the door hit you in the rear on your way out.
Limbo: living in a church one of whose most significant media outlets actively promotes a journalist who, on the very day in which that shoddy excuse for a bona fide journalistic enterprise, CNN, is under fire for the blatant misogyny of one of its reporters, hops on over to that very same shoddy and misogynistic journalistic venue to explain to the world that real Catholics all agree that women are the problem. Women are the enemy.
That the Democrats have made a dire mistake insofar as they listen to women and not to real Catholics. To a community in which women know their real place in the world.
Limbo: having self-important and self-appointed definers of the Catholic identity who in no shape, form, or fashion represent authentic Catholic values slide into bully pulpits to bless our enemy and slap our friend. Or to read this group in and that group out of Catholic communion, all the while professing the most perfervid interest possible to serve Catholic values and staunch the bleeding out of the Catholic church at this dreadful moment in its history.
Limbo: being alive, at least. But experiencing nothing much other than misery as a precondition for being alive. Itching all over and without any means to scratch the itch.
Praying: "Oh that I had wings like a dove! for then would I fly away, and be at rest."
Lamenting: "How shall we sing the LORD'S song in a strange land?"
Pleading: "O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?"
And never, ever ceasing to burn with the torment that reminds us we're alive. While doomed to share the common positive misery of the damned as a precondition for being Catholics alive and breathing A.D. 2012.