Clarifying Purgatory

by Fr Alvin Kimel

The dogmatic teaching of the Catholic Church on the doctrine of Purgatory is limited and specific. In 1439 the Council of Florence declared:

It has likewise defined that, if those truly penitent have departed in the love of God, before they have made satisfaction by worthy fruits of penance for sins of commission and omission, the souls of these are cleansed after death by purgatorial punishments; and so that they may be released from punishments of this kind, the suffrages of the living faithful are of advantage to them, namely, the sacrifices of Masses, prayers, and almsgiving, and other works of piety, which are customarily performed by the faithful for other faithful according to the institutions of the Church.

Formulated in the Western idiom of satisfaction and punishment, it is unclear precisely how the Eastern participants might have interpreted the decree, but it is important to note the omission of spatial language (Purgatory is not referred to as a place) and of the instrument of purification (material fire is not mentioned). Fr Zachary Hayes summarizes the difference in approach between West and East:

In very broad terms, it can be said that Western theology, especially in its soteriology, has tended to develop a strong moral line of thought and to use juridical-legal categories and metaphors to express itself. This has led Western theology to deal with purgatory in terms of its penal character. The Eastern Church, on the other hand, has approached the doctrine of soteriology, grace, and fulfillment from the perspective of growth and maturation. This can be seen clearly in the traditional patristic doctrine of deification. Consistent with this understanding of the spiritual life, Eastern thought has tended to think of purgation in terms of growth and maturation rather than in terms of punishment. (Visions of a Future: A Study of Christian Eschatology [1989], p. 112)

The substance of the Florentine dogma was later reiterated by the Council of Trent in response to Protestant denials. The Catholic dogma of Purgatory may be succinctly stated under two points:

(1) Those who die in a state of grace but imperfect holiness and freedom must undergo a process of final purification.

(2) Those who undergo final purification are aided by the prayers, suffrages, and ascetical and charitable works of the Church.

This second point is crucial. While great latitude exists for reflection, debate, and speculation on the question of Purgatory, all must be normed by the apostolic practice of prayer for the faithful departed. As the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith declared in its 1979 Letter on Certain Questions Concerning Eschatology: “The Church excludes every way of thinking or speaking that would render meaningless or unintelligible her prayers, her funeral rites and the religious acts offered for the dead. All these are, in their substance, loci theologici.”

During the past fifty years a significant clarification of the doctrine of Purgatory has occurred. Moving away from the juridical categories in which the doctrine has typically been expressed, Catholic theologians have sought to interpret the doctrine in personalist terms that more adequately express the encounter between sinners and the God who is a trinitarian community of love. If one looks closely, one can see signs of this reinterpretation in both the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the writings of Pope John Paul II—specifically coalescing around the notion of “temporal punishment for sin.” In the Catechism we read:

To understand this doctrine and practice of the Church [indulgences], it is necessary to understand that sin has a double consequence. Grave sin deprives us of communion with God and therefore makes us incapable of eternal life, the privation of which is called the ‘eternal punishment’ of sin. On the other hand every sin, even venial, entails an unhealthy attachment to creatures, which must be purified either here on earth, or after death in the state called Purgatory. This purification frees one from what is called the ‘temporal punishment’ of sin. These two punishments must not be conceived of as a kind of vengeance inflicted by God from without, but as following from the very nature of sin. A conversion which proceeds from a fervent charity can attain the complete purification of the sinner in such a way that no punishment would remain.

The forgiveness of sin and restoration of communion with God entail the remission of the eternal punishment of sin, but temporal punishment of sin remains. While patiently bearing sufferings and trials of all kinds and, when the day comes, serenely facing death, the Christian must strive to accept this temporal punishment of sin as a grace. He should strive by works of mercy and charity, as well as by prayer and the various practices of penance, to put off completely the “old man” and to put on the “new man.” (CCC 1472-73)

Note here the insistence that the divine punishment of sin must not be considered as extrinsic or external to sin, as “a kind of vengeance inflicted by God from without,” but as the intrinsic consequences of sin. The punishment of sin is sin itself, with all of its terrible repercussions for the individual and for the world. The free decision to sin leads to an increasing attachment to sin, which in turn makes repentance more difficult and painful, in a spiraling descent into darkness and bondage. One is reminded of St Paul’s presentation of the wrath of God in Romans 1:24-32: God manifests his wrath by delivering sinners over to the lusts of their hearts. Disobedience brings its own retribution. As the Scripture teaches: “a man is punished by the very things through which he sins” (Wisdom 11:16).

The clarification of temporal punishment becomes explicit in the teaching of John Paul II. In his catechetical lecture on indulgences, the Pope speaks of the negative effects which sin causes in the sinner—“what the theological tradition calls the ‘punishments’ and ‘remains’ of sin.” Absolution restores the relationship between God and man, but it does not immediately and perfectly repair the damage sin has done to the sinner himself:

At first sight, to speak of punishment after sacramental forgiveness might seem inconsistent. The Old Testament, however, shows us how normal it is to undergo reparative punishment after forgiveness. God, after describing himself as “a God merciful and gracious … forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin”, adds: “yet not without punishing” (Ex 34:6-7). In the Second Book of Samuel, King David’s humble confession after his grave sin obtains God’s forgiveness (cf. 2 Sm 12:13), but not the prevention of the foretold chastisement (cf. ibid., 12:11; 16:21). God’s fatherly love does not rule out punishment, even if the latter must always be understood as part of a merciful justice that re-establishes the violated order for the sake of man’s own good (cf. Heb 12:4-11).

In this context temporal punishment expresses the condition of suffering of those who, although reconciled with God, are still marked by those “remains” of sin which do not leave them totally open to grace. Precisely for the sake of complete healing, the sinner is called to undertake a journey of conversion towards the fullness of love.

In this process God’s mercy comes to his aid in special ways. The temporal punishment itself serves as “medicine” to the extent that the person allows it to challenge him to undertake his own profound conversion. This is the meaning of the “satisfaction” required in the sacrament of Penance.

Once it becomes clear that the temporal punishment of sin is not a punishment externally imposed by God but rather is identical to the deleterious effects of sin upon the sinner, then it becomes clear that indulgences, for example, can no longer be understood as a mechanical removal of sanction or the cancellation of debt. Indulgences are perhaps better understood as an ecclesial form of intercession within the communion of saints:

The Church has a treasury, then, which is “dispensed” as it were through indulgences. This “distribution” should not be understood as a sort of automatic transfer, as if we were speaking of “things.” It is instead the expression of the Church’s full confidence of being heard by the Father when—in view of Christ’s merits and, by his gift, those of Our Lady and the saints—she asks him to mitigate or cancel the painful aspect of punishment by fostering its medicinal aspect through other channels of grace. In the unfathomable mystery of divine wisdom, this gift of intercession can also benefit the faithful departed, who receive its fruits in a way appropriate to their condition.

To obtain an indulgence is to invoke, with the authority of the Church, the prayers and merits of the saints for the sanctification of oneself and others; it is to participate in the mystical co-inherence of the body of Christ. The mystery of indulgence is the mystery of communion with the saints and martyrs. Indulgences express the deep intuition of the Church that the prayers and works of others may assist us in our conversion to God and that our prayers and works may assist others in their conversion to God. In a transcendent web of exchange we share each other’s burdens and gifts. The vicarious involvement of the saints in the process of sanctification is beautifully stated in John Paul’s Jubilee Bull, Incarnationis Mysterium:

Revelation also teaches that the Christian is not alone on the path of conversion. In Christ and through Christ, his life is linked by a mysterious bond to the lives of all other Christians in the supernatural union of the Mystical Body. This establishes among the faithful a marvellous exchange of spiritual gifts, in virtue of which the holiness of one benefits others in a way far exceeding the harm which the sin of one has inflicted upon others. There are people who leave in their wake a surfeit of love, of suffering borne well, of purity and truth, which involves and sustains others. This is the reality of “vicariousness”, upon which the entire mystery of Christ is founded. His superabundant love saves us all. Yet it is part of the grandeur of Christ’s love not to leave us in the condition of passive recipients, but to draw us into his saving work and, in particular, into his Passion. This is said in the famous passage of the Letter to the Colossians: “In my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his Body, that is, the Church” (1:24).

The language of punishment, debt, and satisfaction awkwardly and imperfectly expresses the penitential life consummated in Purgatory. Within Western culture this language no doubt assisted the faithful in living out lives of holiness and repentance; but it also distorted the Church’s proclamation of the love and mercy of God—hence the necessity today to clarify the inherited terminology of Purgatory. Nor is it surprising that many Catholic theologians and teachers find that they may, and perhaps must, now speak of Purgatory without employing the juridical categories of the past. I reference, for example, Pope John Paul II’s catechesis on Purgatory. In his teaching the Pope avoids altogether the language of punishment and debt. He speaks rather of imperfect openness to God and the need for perfect integrity and purity of heart if we are to realize our communion with our Creator. “Every trace of attachment to evil must be eliminated, every imperfection of the soul corrected,” he states. “Purification must be complete, and indeed this is precisely what is meant by the Church’s teaching on purgatory. The term does not indicate a place, but a condition of existence. Those who, after death, exist in a state of purification, are already in the love of Christ who removes from them the remnants of imperfection.”

(To be continued)

[Join the discussion at De Cura Animarum]

~ by Fr Aidan Kimel on 28 January 2008.

 
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