The Ever-Changing Afterlife and Pope Benedict

The twists and turns and about faces of our ideas of the afterlife and the nature of the soul that lives it have changed ceaselessly in the last two millennia and continue to change. As astonishing as it may seem, as recently as the nineteenth century a debate in the western world was held to determine whether or not women had souls! Needless to say the debaters were all men.  In the face of a global population boom and legalized abortion The Roman Catholic Church is currently reconsidering its position on non-baptized infants and children who die and go to limbo rather than heaven. The wording of Pope Benedict’s statement is illuminating; apparently they have just discovered “theological grounds” for “hope that unbaptized infants who die will be saved and enjoy beatific vision” (Vatican Report, April 21st 2007). Why are those “theological grounds” suddenly coming to light? After all, some of the greatest minds have intensely analyzed theological doctrine over the last centuries. Did they miss something? Situating the “serious” grounds as hitherto unrecognized truths embedded in ancient official theology preserve’s the church’s claims of flawlessness. It is also a strategy to legitimize change. We are to believe it is not really change but a closer conformance to divinely inspired and therefore timeless and fixed doctrine. It was always there; we just didn’t see it. The move toward change at the Vatican is slow and cumbersome. The pope cannot come right out and say that these infants go to heaven. He can only say there is reason to hope that they will enjoy beatific vision, presumably meaning the presence of god, as if to smooth over any possible contradictions to former church policy. No doubt, as the church adjusts its followers to this idea, the wording will become more direct.  At the same time as innocent infants are gaining official entry into heaven, there is unofficial popular discussion about animal heaven and animal consciousness surviving after death. Since women, children and animals have historically been lumped together and marginalized as inferior to men, our entrance into the Kingdom to Come has been uncertain or even forbidden. Hopefully in the not too distant future we will be generous enough to broaden the discussion to include all creatures on our tiny planet.