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Pope Benedict XVI has reversed centuries of traditional Roman Catholic teaching on so-called limbo, approving a Vatican report released Friday that says there were "serious" grounds to hope that children who die without being baptized can go to heaven.
Theologians said the move was highly significant - both for what it says about Benedict's willingness to buck a long-standing tenet of Catholic belief and for what it means theologically about the Church's views on heaven, hell and original sin - the sin that the faithful believe all children are born with.
Although Catholics have long believed that children who die without being baptized are with original sin and thus excluded from heaven, the Church has no formal doctrine on the matter. Theologians, however, have long taught that such children enjoy an eternal state of perfect natural happiness, a state commonly called limbo, but without being in communion with God.
"If there's no limbo and we're not going to revert to St. Augustine's teaching that unbaptized infants go to hell, we're left with only one option, namely, that everyone is born in the state of grace," said the Rev. Richard McBrien, professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.
"Baptism does not exist to wipe away the 'stain' of original sin, but to initiate one into the Church," he said in an e-mailed response.
Benedict approved the findings of the International Theological Commission, a Vatican advisory panel, which said it was reassessing traditional teaching on limbo in light of "pressing" pastoral needs - primarily the growing number of abortions and infants born to non-believers who die without being baptized.
While the report does not carry the authority of a papal encyclical or even the weight of a formal document from the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, it was approved by the pope on Jan. 19 and was published on the Internet - an indication that it was intended to be widely read by the faithful.
"We can say we have many reasons to hope that there is salvation for these babies," the Rev. Luis Ladaria, a Jesuit who is the commission's secretary-general, told The Associated Press. He stressed that there was no certainty, just hope.
The Commission posted its document Friday on Origins, the documentary service of Catholic News Service, the news agency of the American Bishop's Conference.
The document traces centuries of Church views on the fate of unbaptized infants, paying particular attention to the writings of St. Augustine - the 4th century bishop who is particularly dear to Benedict. Augustine wrote that such infants do go to hell, but they suffer only the "mildest condemnation."
In the document, the commission said that such views are now out of date and that there were "serious theological and liturgical grounds for hope that unbaptized infants who die will be saved and enjoy the beatific vision."
It stressed, however, that "these are reasons for prayerful hope, rather than grounds for sure knowledge."
No one can know for certain what becomes of unbaptized babies since Scripture is largely silent on the matter, the report said.
It stressed that none of its findings should be taken as diminishing the need for parents to baptize infants.
"Rather ... they provide strong grounds for hope that God will save infants when we have not been able to do for them what we would have wished to do, namely, to baptize them into the faith and life of the church."
Vatican watchers hailed the decision as both a sensitive and significant move by Benedict.
"Parents who are mourning the death of their child are no longer going to be burdened with the added guilt of not having gotten their child baptized," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University.
He said the document also had implications for non-Christians, since it could be seen as suggesting that non-baptized adults could go to heaven if they led a good life.
"I think it shows that Benedict is trying to balance his view of Jesus as being central as the savior of the world ... but at the same time not saying what the Evangelicals say, that anyone who doesn't accept Jesus is going to hell," he said in a phone interview.
The International Theological Commission is a body of Vatican-appointed theologians who advise the pope and the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Benedict headed the Congregation for two decades before becoming pope in 2005.