First it Giveth – A tale of ashes and limbo

As described in Day 14’s post for #CaptureYourGrief I read an article about the Vatican’s statement about ashes.  Wanting to make sure that it hadn’t lost any nuance from The Guardian’s reporting I checked The Catholic Herald for the full story.

The Vatican has set out guidelines for Catholics who want to be cremated, saying their remains cannot be scattered, divided up or kept at home but rather stored in a sacred, Church-approved place.

It’s no small thing for an institution of such authority among its believers to issue such guidance.  It begs the question ‘why’?

It said it was doing so to counter what it called “new ideas contrary to the Church’s faith” that had emerged since 1963, including New Age ideas that death is a “fusion” with Mother Nature and the universe, or the “definitive liberation” from the prison of the body.

This is an interesting stance.  Many of these sneeringly derided ‘new age’ ideas precede Roman Catholicism by a good hundred years.  Let’s leave that aside though for now and see if there is more compelling reason behind this shift in stance.

The Vatican said ashes and bone fragments cannot be kept at home, since that would deprive the Christian community as a whole from remembering the dead. Rather, Church authorities should designate a sacred place, such as a cemetery or church area, to hold them.

As many bereaved parents are all too aware very often their lost children are not mourned by the wider community.  They are not remembered.  They are erased from history isolating the very people the community should be comforting.

The arrogance of assuming the Church has some divine right over the last physical remains, the only tangible proof that they were here is staggering.  Part of the reason we did not bury our sons’ ashes is that we knew that if we did we would never be able to leave.  We wouldn’t be able to move because to do so would be abandoning them and turn the simple act of being near them into an act of pilgrimage and guilt if we couldn’t make it.

But to the Vatican’s credit it does allow discretion.

Only in extraordinary cases can a bishop allow ashes to be kept at home, it said.

As I said to the hapless customer service representative when trying to return baby items that would never be worn – if a dead baby doesn’t qualify as an exceptional circumstance, what does?

The document said remains cannot be divided among family members or put in lockets or other mementoes. Nor can the ashes be scattered in the air, land or sea since doing so would give the appearance of “pantheism, naturalism or nihilism,” the guidelines said.

No shared memories.  No tributes.  Do they have any idea how much pain people have gone through to even get the ashes of their dead children?  Do they care?

The new instruction carries an August 15 date and says Pope Francis approved it on March 18. It wasn’t clear if the guidelines were retroactive or what Catholics should do if they have disposed of their loved ones in ways now deemed improper.

To inflict this mortal insult to the bereaved and then irony of ironies leave them in limbo (more of that later) as to whether the faithful are grieving in a way that is compliant with their arbitrary rule change is beyond contempt.  I repeat, I do not care about this on a personal level.  But members of my family do.  These statements hurt the people they should be comforting and for what reason?

The author of the text, Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, was asked at a Vatican briefing if Francis had any reservations about the text, particularly the refusal to let family members keep remains of their loved ones at home.

“The dead body isn’t the private property of relatives, but rather a son of God who is part of the people of God,” Mueller said. “We have to get over this individualistic thinking.”

No, we really don’t.  Is it that threatening to an institution that the bereaved keep or scatter ashes?  Have they had some divine message to indicate God’s dissatisfaction with one of the most personal choices?  Or is it more the case that this is born of some petty irritation.

In limbo

As mentioned earlier, the Vatican has form in this area but it hasn’t always been for the bad.

Babies who die before being baptised will no longer be trapped in limbo following a decision by the Pope to abolish the concept from Roman Catholic teaching.

How very generous.  A decision to be welcomed.  Again, what prompted this change of heart?

The decision was taken after Benedict XVI was presented with Vatican studies that said there were “serious” grounds that such souls could go to heaven, rather than exist between heaven and hell as they have done for almost 800 years.

Sorry?  800 years?

The 41-page report by the Vatican’s Theological Commission, which was compiled following a three-year study, said the concept was an “unduly restrictive view of salvation”.

Take a moment to consider that a moment.  It took three years of theological study and consideration and a 41 page report to conclude that unbaptised babies shouldn’t be condemned to an empty state of nothingness without chance of redemption or escape.

Three years.

“Our conclusion is that the many factors that we have considered… give serious theological and liturgical grounds for hope that unbaptised infants who die will be saved and enjoy the beatific vision. We emphasise that these are reasons for prayerful hope, rather than grounds for sure knowledge.”

In the fifth century, St Augustine concluded that infants who died without baptism were consigned to hell.

That was nice of him.

Later, theologians surmised that the “limbo of infants” was a state where they were deprived of the vision of God, but did not suffer because they did not know what they were deprived of.

I guess after hell at least limbo is a step up.  As long as they don’t suffer that’s ok then.

To summarise, we now have a position where dead unbaptised babies are no longer in limbo but their parents face divine censure for keeping their ashes or scattering them.

First it giveth…

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