On Benedict’s silence about limbo and on his theological method

In all the hype about limbo these days, keep some things in mind. When he met with the International theological Commission at the end of their work, Benedict XVI didn’t do two things: he didn’t give them a normal post-meeting meeting or a normal post-meeting address. Instead, he celebrated Mass with them and gave them a sermon about the work of the theologian.

In his sermon, the Pope spoke about silence as a necessary part of doing theology. Reminding everyone that in theology God is not the "object" but rather the "subject", he stated that for God to be able to speak to the world through theology in truth, the theologian must also be silent and contemplative before adding the veritable flood or words that innundates the world today. The theologian and theology must be purified in and by silence. This helps the theologian be obedient to the Word (remember logos? both "Word" and "reason"?) and become a "coworker of the Truth".

The Pope underscored his points with the example of St. Thomas Aquinas who, before he died, ceased speaking and writing with with the explanation that everything he had produced was like so much "straw". Benedict marvelously and optimistically turns this famous phrase, quoting Jean-Pierre Torrel, with the wonderful phrase: "La paglia non è niente … Straw isn’t nothing." In fact, dried stalks bear grain. Dried stalks have value in that they bear grain. At the same time, this image shows both how insufficient human efforts are and, at the same times, it gives those efforts real value. Our job, my job, as a theologian, the Pope is saying, is to make sure that our work is really bearing the grain of the Word of God ("…porti realmente il grano della Parola di Dio").

On a personal note, years ago when I worked in the Palace of the Holy Office, a couple days after he released his instruction On the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian I encountered Cardinal Ratzinger in the hallway and had a pleasant and very fruitful chat with him. I told him I had read the document through a couple times and he, with his characteristic kindness, asked my opinion about it. I responded to his surprise that I wasn’t satisified. "Why", he asked. I said, "There are quite a few pages there, but nowhere do you identify who a theologian is." He regarded me for a few seconds and then said, "Why don’t you tell us. You are working at the Augustinianum [the Patristic Institute literally across the street from the Holy Office building]. You are studying St. Augustine. Find out what St. Augustine thought a theologian is." That became the basis of my first thesis and I have him to thank for it. My point is that the Pope approaches the issue of theology and who the theologian is with great humility. I give this personal example as a tiny flicker of light to illuminate his own theological method.

Benedict XVI is always taking the time to interrogate the past about today’s burning questions. In helping me to a thesis topic, he did what a professor had done for him when he was young as he steered the young Ratzinger to go back to Augustine to explore what was meant by the "People of God", a much discussed question of those years. Even in his Regensburg Address, the Pope uses something of the past as a crowbar to pry open the difficult questions we face today.

He pries and prays and then pronounces.

This more than likely why, in his present role as Supreme Pontiff, he did not breathe even a single word about limbo in a sermon to the Theological Commission. He didn’t even mention it as something they had studied!

He is going to pry and pray before making a pronouncement and he wants everyone else to do the same. Let us not forget that he also told those theologians present (as well as other theologians in the world together with himself) that theological pronouncements must be subject first to silence and God’s will, rather than the bombastic pressure of the world’s expectations.

The world probably expected the Pope to be poltically correct about Islam. He was not. The Pope spoke. The Pope has probably figured out his best approach to Islam and to Europe and Christianity and, after considerable thought and prayer, he spoke boldly something he must have known would anger many people. On the other hand, limbo, being a theological solution proposed about the question of the effects of original sin, also is going to cause the politically correct to flare up. After all, the very idea of original sin, and consequences for any sort of sin is going to make some relativists and that ilk see red. In this case, however, rather than say something that might be pleasing to that side, the Pope spoke not even the word "limbo", though he could have very easily said at least something.

If you want a hammer with which to drive home my point, the Pope in these days announced the topic of the next Synod of Bishops: The Word of God in the Life and the Mission of the Church. I imagine that everyone is going to be thinking that this will focus on Scripture.

I think he has something more in mind.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. terry nelson says:

    The absolute best post I have read on the subject thus far. Thanks Father.

  2. Fr Arsenius says:

    Clear and insightful analysis, as usual – thanks! His Holiness well understands and appreciates the power of the Word that comes out of silence to speak volumes to a world awash in a sea of words that amount to a hill of straw ash.

    >I imagine that everyone is going to be thinking that this will focus on Scripture. I think he has something more in mind.

    I believe you’re right on track.

  3. Beautiful post. Thanks for this!

  4. Kathryn says:


    Great post. It reminds me to value of silence in doing my housework.


  5. Great post. Nice to see a real perspective on the whole situation.
    It makes me think if we in the modern world often get too focused on minute details, and miss the bigger picture. Your comments about the Pope’s actions remind me of what Saint Francis of Assisi once said “to preach always … and when necessary, use words.”

  6. Thomas Shawn says:

    Shedding light to cut through the fog. The Catholic street will await word from the Pontiff.

  7. Matthew says:

    Roman Sacristan:
    Side note to the main topic: St. Francis of Assisi NEVER said that, at least it does not apper does not appear in any of his works.

  8. Paulus says:

    Indeed, we ought not to get side tracked….

    At chapter 50’s conclusion, in T. Okey’s English translation (1951), St. Francis is quoted to have said:

    But as for me, I desire this privilege from the Lord, that never may I have any privilege from man, except to do reverence to all, and to convert the world by obedience to the Holy Rule rather by example than by word.

  9. Janice says:

    I think this is what I appreciate the most about Benedict XVI: his silence and hisprayer.

  10. Boko Fittleworth says:

    You think he has something more in mind? Hints?

  11. Joseph Hazboun says:

    Dear Father,

    I was puzzled for sometime regarding the Limbo issue as stated in the “catechism of the Catholic Church”. I felt I was reading “non-sense”. Especially as the Catechism leaves the way open to heaven in front of non-christians.

    I hope that the Church would confront the dogma or teaching regarding “Original Sin” with the same courage for the whole idea of the Original Sin is a direct insult to God’s love and mercy.

    Maybe this is not the right place to post this issue, but you did bring both up in this wonderful and singular reflection on Pope Benedictus which I admire very much.



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