Purgatory

by Fr Alvin Kimel

I

One of the great strengths of the Latin theological tradition has been the development and articulation of a Christian social and personal morality. Catholic theologians and philosophers have reflected deeply on divine law, justice, and the common good and have integrated this reflection into the spiritual life and practice of the Church. But this development has come at a price: God has been portrayed principally as Law-giver, soteriology interpreted through juridical categories, sin reduced to violation of commandment and preaching to moral exhortation. Consequently, Catholic spiritual life has often taken on an unhealthy legalistic cast.

Consider how the doctrine of Purgatory has been presented in the Catholic Church. If a person dies without having adequately satisfied the temporal punishment rightly due for his sins, he is consigned to purgatorial suffering. As we read in the Baltimore Catechism:

Q. 1381. What is Purgatory?

A. Purgatory is the state in which those suffer for a time who die guilty of venial sins, or without having satisfied for the punishment due to their sins.

Q. 1386. Since God loves the souls in Purgatory, why does He punish them?

A. Though God loves the souls in Purgatory, He punishes them because His holiness requires that nothing defiled may enter heaven and His justice requires that everyone be punished or rewarded according to what he deserves.

This penal understanding of a temporary post-mortem punishment has its roots in the Western patristic tradition and was elaborated with precision in the medieval period. It is grounded in the conviction that justice requires the perfect sanctification of sinners, achieved through penitence and suffering. St Bonaventure’s presentation may be considered representative. In his Breviloquium Bonaventure states that just as God, as supreme goodness, can suffer no good to remain unrewarded, so also he “cannot suffer any evil to remain unpunished.” Even the just, should they die before having completed their penance on earth, must endure a post-mortem penalty for their sins, “lest the beauty of universal order be disturbed.” However, while this sounds to modern ears as if God is punishing for punishment’s sake, this is not Bonaventure’s intent. The temporal punishment of sin is the sanctification and healing of the sinner. Sin distorts and corrupts the human being, attaching the will to lesser goods. While God forgives the offense of sin through the atoning sacrifice of Christ, in his justice he also requires the repentance, conversion, and healing of the sinner. The disorder of sin within the human heart must be rooted out, and because this sanctifying transformation involves suffering, it is metaphorically described as punishment:

Now, because actual sin offends God’s majesty, damages the Church, and distorts the divine image stamped on the soul—especially if the sin is mortal, although venial sin will tend to do the same; and because offense calls for punishment, damage for repair, and distortion for purification: therefore this penalty must be justly punitive, duly reparative, and properly cleansing.

Suffering is both the instrument and consequence of our sanctification. Just as the addict must experience, and indeed embrace, terrible pain in the process of withdrawing himself from his drugs, so the sinner suffers pain and distress as he detaches himself from bondage to worldly goods. When viewed from the perspective of God and his justice, how else can this suffering be understood except as “punishment.” But the punishment is not primarily or exclusively retributive: its purpose is the sanctification and perfection of the sinner. The punitive dimension of purgatorial suffering must be interpreted through its medicinal purpose. The person is truly being “punished” for his own good—to heal the disorder of his heart and liberate him completely from the power of sin. The language of “punishment” in this context should therefore be recognized as a form of figurative speech. The torment individuals suffer in Purgatory varies, Bonaventure explains, “according as they took with them from their earthly life more or less of what must be burned away. … The more deeply a man has loved the things of the world in the inner core of his heart, the harder it will be for him to be cleansed.” With Augustine and Caesarius of Arles, Bonaventure affirms that the sufferings of Purgatory exceed the sufferings of our present life, but “because those who are being cleansed possess grace which now they cannot lose, they neither can nor will be completely immersed in sorrow, or fall into despair, or be moved to blaspheme.” Two hundred years later St Catherine of Genoa would remind the Church that though the sufferings of the poor souls may be great, their joy and happiness is greater still: “No happiness can be found worthy to be compared with that of a soul in Purgatory except that of the saints in Paradise; and day by day this happiness grows as God flows into these souls, more and more as the hindrance to His entrance is consumed.”

Following long-standing Western opinion, Bonaventure believes that God has ordained a physical fire as the instrument of purification. “The fire of purgatory is a real fire,” he states, “which, however, affects the spirit of the just who, in their lifetime, did not sufficiently atone and make reparation for their sins.” The question of the nature of the purgatorial fire was raised at the Council of Florence, the Greeks insisting upon a symbolic understanding. The council wisely avoided settling this question.

The sufferings of Purgatory are punitive precisely as medicinal, sanctifying, and transformative. They effectively cleanse the soul and render it fit for glory. Punishment ends at the moment the soul is prepared for perfect union with the God who is love:

And because such spirits are fully prepared to receive God-conforming glory, the door being now open and the cleansing achieved, they must take flight, for there is within them a fire of love that lifts them up, and no impurity of the soul or any guilt to hold them down. Nor would it befit God’s mercy or His justice further to delay glory now that He finds the vessel to be suitable; great would be the pain if the reward were delayed, nor should a cleansed spirit be punished any longer.

Purgatory therefore must be seen as an expression of the divine goodness. God wills only the good of his creatures. In his infinite love, he purifies, sanctifies, and liberates sinners that they might perfectly enjoy eternal life in the beatific vision; in his infinite justice he refuses to allow evil to retain even the tiniest foothold within the souls destined for glory. As George MacDonald astutely observes, “There is no heaven with a little of hell in it.”

Yet given the legalistic idiom of the language of Purgatory (“temporal punishment,” “satisfaction,” “reparation,” “expiation,” “penance,” “debt”), combined with horrific medieval visions of the sufferings of the poor souls condemned to suffer the purgatorial flames, it is understandable why many Catholics have envisioned God as a stern and even cruel taskmaster. What is this Purgatory of popular imagination but a temporary torture-chamber? Hence the title of a popular 1936 tract: “How to Avoid Purgatory.” Not that the tract does not contain some helpful ascetical counsel, but the counsel is formulated so wrong-headedly as to render it pastorally dangerous. Should the spiritual life be focused on the avoidance of the future pain of final sanctification? I think not. Faith is the free interior movement of the soul toward the God who has captured us in grace and mercy; it is a movement of love toward Love, a movement lived in gratitude, contrition, praise, and joy. Perhaps the advice to embrace present suffering in order to avoid greater future suffering sounds commonsensical; but it violates the relationship of love God has established with us in Jesus Christ. Life in the Spirit is not driven by fear. As the Apostle John writes: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love” (1 John 4:18).

26 January 2008

II

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.”

28 January 2008

III

What does the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory mean? Pope Benedict XVI takes up this question in his most recent encyclical, Spe Salvi.

“With death,” writes the Holy Father, “our life-choice becomes definitive—our life stands before the judge.” We come into the holy presence of our creator as persons whose lives have taken on certain shape. Our stories have been written; our personal narratives have reached decisive conclusion; the trial is finished. We have become, in the most fundamental sense, the kind of persons we are and shall ever be. We stand before the living God as individuals who have either rejected his love and mercy or who have embraced his love and mercy.

There can be people, Benedict warns, who have destroyed in their hearts the desire for truth and the readiness to love. Hatred, greed, and mendacity control and determine them. Such individuals are truly damned; they have damned themselves. “In such people all would be beyond remedy and the destruction of good would be irrevocable: this is what we mean by the word Hell.” There can also be people who are completely permeated by God. Their hearts are filled with love. Their entire being is consecrated to God, who is the consummation of “what they already are.” These are the saints. They die into the immediate vision of God. But in between, as it were, are those who die in a deep interior openness to love, to truth, to God, but whose concrete choices have been “covered over by ever new compromises with evil—much filth covers purity, but the thirst for purity remains and it still constantly re-emerges from all that is base and remains present in the soul.” What happens to these individuals? Will their impurity suddenly cease to matter?

Following Western exegetical tradition, Benedict appeals to Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians for guidance:

For no other foundation can any one lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any one builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each man’s work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire. (1 Cor 3:11-15)

Paul is employing imagery to speak of that which we cannot literally describe. As Benedict notes, “we can neither see into the world beyond death nor do we have any experience of it.” But Paul is confident in the victory of the resurrection. When the final day arrives, those who have built the foundation of their lives upon Jesus Christ will endure. Much may be lost in the fire of God’s judgment, but the believer will survive. “In this text,” Benedict explains, “it is in any case evident that our salvation can take different forms, that some of what is built may be burned down, that in order to be saved we personally have to pass through ‘fire’ so as to become fully open to receiving God and able to take our place at the table of the eternal marriage-feast.”

But what is this fire? In the past many Western theologians have interpreted the purgatorial fire as a material fire, but Benedict chooses a symbolic interpretation—the fire is Christ Jesus himself!

Some recent theologians are of the opinion that the fire which both burns and saves is Christ himself, the Judge and Saviour. The encounter with him is the decisive act of judgement. Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves. All that we build during our lives can prove to be mere straw, pure bluster, and it collapses. Yet in the pain of this encounter, when the impurity and sickness of our lives become evident to us, there lies salvation. His gaze, the touch of his heart heals us through an undeniably painful transformation “as through fire”. But it is a blessed pain, in which the holy power of his love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves and thus totally of God. In this way the inter-relation between justice and grace also becomes clear: the way we live our lives is not immaterial, but our defilement does not stain us for ever if we have at least continued to reach out towards Christ, towards truth and towards love. Indeed, it has already been burned away through Christ’s Passion. At the moment of judgement we experience and we absorb the overwhelming power of his love over all the evil in the world and in ourselves. The pain of love becomes our salvation and our joy.

The Pope thus proposes an understanding of Purgatory as personal encounter with the Savior who is infinite love and grace. In the eschatological moment, the duration of which transcends earthly reckoning, we are liberated from self-deception and bondage. Christ pulls us to himself, as through fire. The dross of guilt is burnt away. We are purified of all remaining egoism. The purgatorial transformation necessarily implies suffering, as we submit to the fire of love and surrender our sins and attachments, yet in the midst of this suffering we rejoice in the gift of our healing and deliverance.

Benedict elaborated this understanding of Christ’s fiery love in his book Eschatology, originally published in 1977:

Purgatory is not, as Tertullian thought, some kind of supra-worldly concentration camp where man is forced to undergo punishment in a more or less arbitrary fashion. Rather is it the inwardly necessary process of transformation in which a person becomes capable of Christ, capable of God and thus capable of unity with the whole communion of saints. Simply to look at people with any degree of realism at all is to grasp the necessity of such a process. It does not replace grace by works, but allows the former to achieve its full victory precisely as grace. What actually saves is the full assent of faith. But in most of us, that basic option is buried under a great deal of wood, hay and straw. Only with difficulty can it peer out from behind the latticework of an egoism we are powerless to pull down with our own hands. Man is the recipient of the divine mercy, yet this does not exonerate him from the need to be transformed. Encounter with the Lord is this transformation. It is the fire that burns away our dross and re-forms us to be vessels of eternal joy. (pp. 230-231)

Though the Latin tradition has typically construed the period of purgatorial transformation in temporal terms, Benedict recognizes the inappropriateness of this construal. The duration of transformation cannot be quantified according to any measure that we can understand. The transformation is indeed a transition, but its measure “lies in the unsoundable depths of existence, in a passing-over where we are burned ere we are transformed” (p. 230). Benedict would also have us understand that the first judgment at the moment of death is ultimately identical to the final judgment at the Great Assize; the two are indistinguishable. “A person’s entry into the realm of manifest reality,” Benedict writes, “is an entry into his definitive destiny and thus an immersion in eschatological fire” (p. 230).

1 February 2008

IV

“God is the Last Thing of the creature. Gained, He is its paradise; lost, He is its hell; as demanding, He is its judgment; as cleansing, He is its purgatory” (Hans Urs von Balthasar).

This statement succinctly states the fundamental approach of contemporary Catholicism to eschatology: the Last Things are understood as aspects and dimensions of the final encounter with the Triune God. The result has been a movement away from the juridical metaphors that have dominated Catholic imagination for the past millenium. “The court room scene,” writes Fr Zachary Hayes, “is replaced with an interpretation in which the primary metaphors are derived from the experience of personal encounter. The traditional symbols are not lost but are given a new interpretation which stands fully within the framework of theological possibilities left open by the church’s magisterial teaching” (Visions of a Future, pp. 115-116).

The interpretation of the Last Things in terms of personal encounter has been widely received within the Catholic Church. A good example is philosopher Peter Kreeft’s popular and insightful work Every Thing You Ever Wanted to Know About Heaven, but Never Dreamed of Asking [Heaven]. Kreeft devotes a chapter to the theme of Purgatory. He also briefly discusses Purgatory in his book Catholic Christianity [CC].

Kreeft notes that the disagreement between Catholics and Protestants on Purgatory seems to be intractable, yet he believes it is resolvable, “if we will only look at Purgatory as the saints do” (Heaven, p. 62). Purgatory, argues Kreeft, logically follows from two facts: our imperfection on earth and our perfection in Heaven. “At the moment of death,” he writes, “most of us are not completely sanctified (purified, made holy), even though we are justified, or saved by having been baptized into Christ’s Body and having thereby received God’s supernatural life into our souls, having accepted him by faith and not having rejected him by unrepented mortal sin” (CC, p. 149). But Heaven requires perfect holiness, not as an arbitrarily-imposed condition, but because Heaven simply is a perfect communion of love and self-giving. No one can love God with all of his heart and soul and body until he has been purified of twisted self-love and liberated from attachments and delusion. If we are not ready for Heaven when we die, then we must somehow be made ready beyond death. Purgatory refers to this process of being made ready for Heaven. Kreeft identifies four essential notes of Purgatory (Heaven, pp. 62-63):

1) Purgatory is a part of Heaven. It is not a distinct “place” between Heaven and Hell. Purgatory is Heaven’s anteroom in which the elect are prepared, cleansed, healed, matured, and sanctified. It is the wash-room, where we shed our dirty clothes and plunge into a hot bath before entering the majestic palace of the King. Purgatory is therefore temporary. There are only two eternal destinies—Heaven and Hell.

2) Purgatory is joyful, not gloomy. Whatever pain may attend the process of purification, it does not diminish the profound joy and triumph of Purgatory. The holy souls have passed through death into life and know that their ultimate destiny is now secure. The sufferings of Purgatory are more desirable than the most ecstatic pleasures on earth.

3) Purgtory is a place of sanctification, not justification. Only the forgiven and justified enter into the final purification. Sin is not paid for in Purgatory but surgically removed. The doctrine of Purgatory neither challenges nor diminishes the finished work of Christ on the cross.

4) Purgatory is a place of education, not works. Purgatory is not a second chance to merit salvation through good deeds but an opportunity to acquire “a full understanding of deeds already done during our first and only chance, and a full disposal of all that needs to be disposed.”

Kreeft acknowledges the long-standing tradition that speaks of Purgatory as the expiation of the temporal punishment due to our sins, but he insists that this punishment must be interpreted by its eschatological purpose—the transformation of sinners into saints:

The reason for purgatory is not the past, not an external, legal punishment for past sins, as if our relationship with God were still under the old law. Rather, its reason is the future; it is our rehabilitation, it is training for heaven. For our relationship with God has been radically changed by Christ; we are adopted as his children, and our relationship is now fundamentally filial and familial, not legal. Purgatory is God’s loving parental discipline (see Heb 12:5-14). (CC, pp. 149-150)

Kreeft’s favorite image of Purgatory is that of reading a book: “Purgatory is reading the already-written book of your life with total understanding and acceptance—the total understanding that comes only from total acceptance” (Heaven, 65). With the story of our mortal lives having reached conclusion, we can step back and read and re-read our stories from God’s perspective, without fear of condemnation, without rationalization and self-deception. Purgatory provides us the freedom to confront our histories and understand our choices and their consequences for ourselves and most importantly for others. “Since in Purgatory,” Kreeft explains, “we do not make different choices but only see and understand clearly all our past choices, the only virtue there is knowledge, and education there does cure all moral ills” (p. 64).

“Human kind,” T. S. Elliot wrote, “cannot bear very much reality.” Humankind cannot bear to see the destruction and horror that it brings into the world, cannot bear to accept the responsibility for the injuries it has afflicted on others. Our offenses, infidelities, greed, lust, and violence ripple through families and communities, affecting people unto the third and fourth generation. We spend much of our time, both individually and corporately, protecting ourselves against this knowledge; but in Purgatory God reveals to us the truth of our lives. Denial is no longer a possibility. God delivers us from our delusions and brings us into reality, into knowledge, into responsibility. This is the suffering of Purgatory.

Sin is purged by sharing in our destiny as light. We see the meaning and the effects of all our sins in Purgatory—their effects on others as well as ourselves, both directly and indirectly, through chains of influence presently invisible, chains so long and effectual that we would be overwhelmed with responsibility if we saw them now. Only a few can endure the saint’s insight that “we are each responsible for all.” … In Purgatory I will experience all the harm I have done, with sensitized and mature conscience. This is a suffering both more intense and more useful than fire or merely physical pain. But I will experience it also with the compassion and forgiveness of God, forgiving myself as God forgives me. … After we remember sin, we can forget it; after we take it seriously, we can laugh at it: after we share in the sufferings of the God Who experienced Hell for us (“My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?”), we can share in His “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Our experience and forgiveness will be perfect in Purgatory because there we will know. (pp. 68-69)

In C. S. Lewis’s parable The Great Divorce, the visitors from the grey town are met in Heaven by old friends and relatives, who seek to assist them in their journey to God. In love, honesty, and frankness, each speak truth to the visitors. Alas, only one visitor decides to remain in Heaven. The others choose to deny their sins and to return to the grey town. Perhaps this is one of the important functions of the communion of saints—to assist us in the apprehension of our sins. The support of the saints may well be crucial as we read the book of our lives. Reading is most effective when exercised in community. And perhaps in some mysterious way our penitent acceptance of our sins will be instrumental in the healing and final sanctification of those whom we have injured. Perhaps we will even be allowed to ask and receive their forgiveness. The communion of saints, suggests Kreeft, is essential to the process of purgatorial transformation, “for there is no more effective method of religious education than the presence of saints” (p. 72). Even in Purgatory, especially in Purgatory, we need teachers and communicators of holiness. Sanctity is a dynamic, contagious, revelatory power.

“Purgatory, like Heaven,” concludes Kreeft, “is joy and truth. Heaven is the perfection of joy and truth. Hell is the refusal to accept truth and therefore the refusal of joy” (p. 71).

4 February 2008

V

Protestants and Purgatory do not go together. Of course, there are exceptions—C. S. Lewis immediately comes to mind—but as a rule, Protestant Christians firmly reject the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory. Many reject it because they do not find it clearly taught in Holy Scripture. Others reject it because they believe that it contradicts the Reformation doctrine of justification. But does it contradict this doctrine? must it? It all depends, suggests Wesleyan philosopher Jerry Walls, on how we relate justification to sanctification. This relationship has been a matter of intractable dispute between Catholics and Protestants but also between Protestants and Protestants. Walls believes, though, that if we begin our reflection with Heaven we may discover possibilities for resolution.

“Salvation, such as it shall be in the world to come, shall itself be our final happiness,” declares St Augustine. Eternal life with God is the goal and fulfillment of our existence. God is our supreme good, consummation, and end. We were made to live with him and to find in him satisfaction and joy. “This point,” insists Walls, “must be emphasized: Salvation itself is our final happiness. There is a tight, integral connection between moral renewal, salvation, and human fulfillment and happiness. … Salvation is much more than mere morality. It is finally a matter of knowing God as fully as we are capable of knowing him and thereby experiencing the fullness of life” (Heaven: The Logic of Eternal Joy, pp. 37-38).

But we are not presently the kind of persons capable of Heaven. We are at war with our Creator and at war with our selves. In our fallen condition we are not disposed to love and worship God. We are inclined, rather, to self-centeredness, ingratitude, and disobedience. Our salvation therefore requires our personal transformation and the healing of our disordered desires. We must become persons who love God as their supreme good, who believe that he is infinitely praiseworthy, who desire to be eternally united to him in mutual self-giving. Becoming persons who find their ultimate felicity in Heaven is the heart and center of salvation:

The joy and happiness of heaven is precisely the joy and happiness of salvation. Salvation is essentially a matter of loving God and being rightly related to him. This relationship is the source of our deepest delight and satisfaction. Heaven is not a place that could be enjoyed apart from loving God in the way made possible by salvation. There is no question of “going to” heaven if one is not the sort of person who has the sort of desires and affections for God that heaven satisfies. (p. 40)

Walls is thus critical of forensic construals of justification that neatly cordon off sanctification. “The essence of salvation,” he explains, “is the real transformation that allows us to love God and enjoy fellowship with him. The element of forgiveness, although crucial, is secondary to this” (p. 50). To be declared righteous but never to become righteous is no salvation at all. The best in Reformation theology has always recognized the inseparable union of justification and sanctification, but this unity is often broken, he avers, in popular preaching and piety. The result is a portrayal of faith in Christ that “seems magical and void of moral and intellectual seriousness” (p. 41). Justification and sanctification cannot be divorced. We cannot honestly plead the atoning sacrifice of Christ and simultaneously refuse to become the kind of persons we are called by God to be, to become the kind of persons who are capable of enjoying Heaven. “To plead the atonement,” Walls continues, “we must acknowledge God as God. We must own his purposes for our lives and recognize them as good. That is, God’s purposes for us are indeed for our well-being and ultimate happiness and satisfaction. But we cannot merely ask God’s forgiveness and proceed with our purposes apart from God. To attempt to do this is to operate with a false valuation of both ourselves and of God” (p. 51). Human cooperation with grace would therefore seem to be indispensable in the process of salvation. We cannot by our own powers convert and heal ourselves. God must convert and heal us; yet he must do so, and does do so, in a way that elicits our free cooperation and involvement. In the words of Augustine: “But He who made you without your consent does not justify you without your consent. He made you without your knowledge but He does not justify you without your willing it.”

But how does God transform us in the depths of our being without violating our freedom and personhood? Here Walls appeals to the reflections of Eleonore Stump. If we understand the human self as a unity of hierarchically ordered desires, then we can distinguish between first-order and second-order desires. First-order desires are our basic desires; second-order desires are our desires about our desires. Stump cites the character of Rosamond Lydgate in George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch. Rosamond is selfish and manipulative. How, speculates Stump, might God effect her conversion without compromising her personhood? Rosamund must begin to see the wickedness of her actions and the disorder of her primary desires. She must form, in response to grace and in grace, second-order desires that God will change her first-order desires and bring them into conformity with his will. This transformation, as we know from personal experience, simply takes time. Our sanctification is not completed the instant we form a second-order desire to be sanctified. Our volition at this point is vague, says Stump, and insufficiently powerful to effect an immediate conversion of our primary desires:

It consists in a general submission to God and an effective desire to let God remake one’s character. But a willingness of this sort is psychologically compatible with stubbornly holding on to any number of sins. … Making a sinner righteous, then, will be a process in which a believer’s specific volitions are brought into harmony with the governing second-order volition assenting to God’s bringing her to righteousness, with the consequent gradual alteration in first-order volitions, as well as in intellect and emotions. (Quoted on p. 56)

We may broadly desire to be made holy. We may desire that God would change one or more of our primary desires. But it is possible for us to desire all of this and yet not recognize all of our sins as sins or “perceive their destructiveness to the point of truly wishing to be delivered from them” (p. 56). We must grow into this knowledge and freedom. It takes time for grace to penetrate into the deepest recesses of our characters. It takes time for us to pierce the levels of our selfishness and self-deception and to accept the truth of ourselves and, most importantly, to accept the full-range of God’s will for us.

Our free response to grace is necessary for our transformation. God does not impose himself. He does not coerce our acceptance of his gift of love, nor does he overrule our wills in the process of sanctification. God respects our constitution as free beings and graciously guides us into full communion with him. “God enables our transformation each step of the way,” Walls writes, “but our cooperation is necessary for our sanctification to go forward” (p. 55). But what if we die imperfectly sanctified? If in this life God respects and works within our freedom, is it not reasonable to think that he will continue to do so in the next? Walls suggests that the point needs to be made even stronger: “If God is willing to dispense with our free cooperation in the next life, it is hard to see why he would not do so now, particularly in view of the high price of freedom in terms of evil and suffering” (p. 55). Hence Walls believes there are good reasons for Protestants to reconsider the doctrine of Purgatory (also see “Purgatory for Everyone”).

Walls finds unconvincing the Protestant claim that death itself effects an immediate movement into immaculate sanctity. Such a radical conversion would seem to violate our nature as temporal beings. Would we even recognize ourselves after such a dramatic change? If I were to wake up tomorrow perfectly and completely holy, would I in fact be the same person? No doubt friends and family would welcome the change, but might I not experience myself as a stranger, given the absence of historical and personal continuity? This does not mean that time after death must work in the same way as time in our world; yet it does seem appropriate that God would provide a way, transcending our present understanding, for the process of sanctification to continue in an intermediate state. Walls is particularly critical of the quasi-gnostic assertion that we are liberated from sin merely by being delivered from our present bodies and given new bodies. The most deadly sins are spiritual, and they are not cured by resurrection alone. Sanctification is never a purely passive affair. There are no short-cuts to holiness.

Is Purgatory, therefore, compatible with a forensic understanding of justification? Absolutely, answers Walls. Since forensic justification is concerned with our acceptance by God, and not with our being internally made righteous, it does not, in principle, provide a basis for objecting to the proposal of purgatorial sanctification.

The words of C. S. Lewis provide a fitting conclusion:

Our souls demand purgatory, don’t they? Would it not break the heart if God said to us, “It is true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here and no one will upbraid you with these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into the joy”? Should we not reply, “With submission, sir, and if there is no objection, I’d rather be cleansed first”? “It may hurt, you know.”—“Even so, sir.”

7 February 2008

VI

How many souls will be lost? How many saved? As Avery Cardinal Dulles observes in his article “The Population of Hell,” this question has fascinated and haunted Christians from the earliest days of the Church. Will all be saved? many? few? An answer is not given in the divine revelation, yet theologians and preachers have not been able to restrain themselves from speculating. “Among thousands of people,” St John Chrysostom declared, “there are not a hundred who will arrive at their salvation, and I am not even certain of that number, so much perversity is there among the young and so much negligence among the old.” We look out at the world and assess the lives of those we see—and we count. We count to warn ourselves and each other. We count to encourage ourselves and each other. But we count. Even Popes count.

In his recent encyclical the Holy Father states his personal hope that the damned will be few. At the moment of death our decision for or against God is definitively set. This decision can take many different forms. At one end of the spectrum are those who have destroyed within themselves all love—these are the damned; at the other end are those who are utterly permeated by love and given to love—these are the saints. But in between are those who possess an ultimate interior openness to God yet an openness imperfectly realized. Like the saints, these individuals too are saved, yet they still need to undergo further purification in order to perfect their capacity to enjoy and love God. “We may suppose,” opines Benedict, that this group constitutes “the great majority of people.” And if most will be saved, then we may therefore infer that the damned will be few. Though Benedict does not in fact explicitly claim to know that any specific individual is damned, he acknowledges that “alarming profiles of this type can be seen in certain figures of our own history.” Names such as Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot immediately come to mind. Unlike his predecessor John Paul II, who left open the possibility that God might save all, Benedict appears to believe that Hell is probably populated; but hopefully it will be a relatively small community. In a recent question and answer session with the priests of Rome, Benedict elaborated:

I tried to say: perhaps there are not so many who have destroyed themselves so completely, who are irreparable forever, who no longer have any element upon which the love of God can rest, who no longer have the slightest capacity to love within themselves. This would be hell.

On the other hand, they are certainly few—or at least not very many—who are so pure that they can immediately enter into communion with God.

Very many of us hope that there might be something salvageable within us, a final willingness to serve God and to serve men, to live according to God. But there are so many, many wounds, so much filth. We need to be prepared, to be purified. This is our hope: even with so much filth in our soul, in the end the Lord gives us the possibility, He washes us finally with his goodness that comes from his cross. He thus makes us capable of living for Him forever.

I was, I must admit, surprised to find Benedict speculating, even tentatively, in this way and must respectfully submit my disagreement. I believe all such speculating on the numbers of the saved and the damned to be unhelpful, both to the spiritual growth of the faithful and to the evangelistic mission of the Church.

How does Benedict know, how can anyone know, what percentage of humanity will be saved? We believe with the Church that the Blessed Virgin Mary and the canonical saints are saved and now enjoying the beatific vision; but what about the rest of humanity? How does Benedict know about them? In fact, he doesn’t. No one does. Perhaps the Lord has privately revealed such information to someone, but the Pope is not relying on private revelation.

Given that I do not have the opportunity to ask the Holy Father about the grounds of his conjecture, I have asked myself: If I were to propose that the large majority of humanity will be saved, on what grounds would I do so? I would do so, I think, on the basis of my personal experience of other people, both Christian and non-Christian, then extrapolating to the whole of humanity. In my experience, most people are decent folk. They work hard for a living. They try to live moral lives. They sacrifice for family and friends. They avoid hurting others, at least until desire, passion, or need strongly asserts itself in their lives. Most people are decent. Most people are nice. Most people certainly do not appear to be evil, when compared to the truly wicked few. And most of the people I know are open, in some way or another, to transcendence. They do not appear to have definitively closed their hearts to God. Of course, my experience of people is fairly limited. I have spent most of the past thirty years in the company of practicing Christians. But as far as I can tell, most Christians are not significantly more decent than non-Christians.

But does this natural goodness allow me to infer that they are saved or will be saved? Does this decency in fact amount to being supernaturally oriented to God, i.e., in a state of grace? Surely not.

I have omitted one important fact: as decent as most people I know may be, I have to admit that every person I know is also selfish, even the nicest ones. My experience, in other words, confirms a fundamental teaching of the Catholic Church—the doctrine of original sin.

According to magisterial teaching, every human being is born into a state of spiritual death and alienation from God. Every human being is born into a world dominated by Satan and corrupted by death and sin. And in a mysterious way which I at least cannot explain, these three elements—spiritual alienation from God, oppression by Satan, and deformation by a sinful world—coincide. To put it simply, every human being begins his life heading away from God, with Satan and the world conspiring to keep it that way. Every person thus needs to be regenerated by a sovereign act of grace and incorporated into the divine life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Against the reality of original sin is the commitment of the Holy Trinity to restore mankind to himself through Jesus Christ. God desires the salvation of every human being and provides sufficient grace for each person to find him and turn to him. Catholic Christians confess that God’s saving grace is communicated through the preaching of the gospel and the sacraments of the Church. The Church is the ordinary means of salvation, and on this basis she commits herself to the vigorous evangelization of all peoples; but we also believe that God does not restrict his grace to the ministry of the visible Church. In the words of Vatican II:

This missionary activity derives its reason from the will of God, “who wishes all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, Himself a man, Jesus Christ, who gave Himself as a ransom for all” (1 Tim. 2:45), “neither is there salvation in any other” (Acts 4:12). Therefore, all must be converted to Him, made known by the Church’s preaching, and all must be incorporated into Him by baptism and into the Church which is His body. … Therefore though God in ways known to Himself can lead those inculpably ignorant of the Gospel to find that faith without which it is impossible to please Him (Heb. 11:6), yet a necessity lies upon the Church (1 Cor. 9:16), and at the same time a sacred duty, to preach the Gospel. (Ad gentes 7)

Nor is God far distant from those who in shadows and images seek the unknown God, for it is He who gives to all men life and breath and all things, and as Saviour wills that all men be saved. Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience. Nor does Divine Providence deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life. (Lumen gentium 16; cf. Gaudium et spes 22)

Original sin, the necessity of gospel and Church, and the universality of God’s salvific will—how do we coordinate these teachings? Their coordination has been the task of Catholic theologians since Vatican II. It is beyond my competence to assess the theories advanced, but such an assessment is unnecessary for present purposes. However we may articulate the interior self-communication of God to sinners, we are not permitted to assert as fact that by his Spirit God has regenerated, and thus overcome original sin in, every unbaptized human being. This would reduce the Sacrament of Holy Baptism to symbolic announcement. We may and must proclaim, with John Paul II, that “man—every man without any exception whatever—has been redeemed by Christ” and that therefore “with man—with each man without exception whatever—Christ is in a way united, even when man is unaware of it” (Redemptor hominis 14); and again: “We are dealing with ‘each’ man, for each one is included in the mystery of the Redemption and with each one Christ has united himself for ever through this mystery” (13). We may and must proclaim the work of salvation objectively accomplished in the incarnate Word, who has regenerated human nature by sufferings, death, and resurrection. Yet divine revelation does not allow us to take that further step and announce that the work of salvation is subjectively accomplished in every human being or even most human beings. There is mystery here that must be respected.

In other words, we are not permitted to count either the damned or the saved. As Dulles writes, “The search for numbers in the demography of hell is futile. God in His wisdom has seen fit not to disclose any statistics.” I would add that searching for numbers in the demography of purgatory is equally futile.

Jesus was once asked the question, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” Our Lord’s answer is instructive: “Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able” (Luke 13:23-24). Jesus refuses to answer the question and instead turns it back on the head of the questioner. He will not entertain the speculation, because it draws attention from the only thing that matters, namely, the call to faith that is spoken to us by Christ at this very moment. Why are you worried about all the others? Jesus asks. Look at me. Listen to my words. Heed my summons. Convert. The time for decision is now.

All conjecture on the number of the saved and the damned directs us away from Christ. Look at everyone else, we say. Most are pretty good people, are they not? They do not appear to have damned themselves by a definitive destruction of love and denial of truth. Yes, they aren’t saints. Yes, they will probably need to undergo purgatorial purification. But isn’t it encouraging that most will be saved? And if the majority, perhaps the large majority, of folks will be saved, then odds are I am included in their number! After all, I’m not nearly as wicked as Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin. And thus I decline, without even realizing it, the summons to faith.

In a letter to Dom Bede Griffiths (19 November 1950), C. S. Lewis wrote of the need for spiritual regeneration and warned against inferring a state of regeneration based on behavior and moral goodness:

The bad (material) tree cannot produce good fruit. But oddly, it can produce fruits that by all external tests are indistinguishable from the good ones: the act done from one’s own separate and unredeemed, tho’ “moral” will, looks exactly like the act done by Christ in us. And oddly enough it is the tree’s real duty to go on producing these imitation fruits till it recognizes this futility and despairs and is made a new (spiritual) tree. (Quoted in Leanne Payne, Real Presence [1979], p. 100)

Lewis, I am sure, would agree that true sanctity is discernible in others, for those who have eyes to see; yet as Pope Benedict states, the saints are few. For the rest of us, it is all too easy to confuse moral decency and goodness, or at least absence of grievous sin, with spiritual life. Christians presume a state of grace for those involved in the sacramental life of the Church, yet the Church has always warned her members of the mortality of sin and the need for continual conversion to Christ. We may not presume that others are saved or in the process of being saved because they are decent or at least not truly wicked people. We may not presume that we are saved or in the process of being saved because we are decent or at least not truly wicked people. There is no substitute for gospel, repentance, and prayer. We must cast ourselves upon the mercy of Christ and pray for the anointing of the Spirit. We must seek to be found in Christ, for he alone is the assurance that we are on the right path.

It is thus unhelpful and indeed misleading to think of damnation in terms of the alarming profiles that always come to mind. The Hitlers and Stalins remind us of the frightening conclusion of damnation, but what is important is the road we are on. We are each headed in one of two directions. We are each becoming either a person of Heaven or a person of Hell.

In George MacDonald’s fairy tale The Princess and Curdie, Curdie is given a great gift. He is instructed to place his hands into a fire of roses. Upon withdrawing his hands, the Princess explains that people are either traveling humanward or beastward, and which direction they are moving is not easily discerned. “Two people may be at the same spot in manners and behaviour,” she says, “and yet one may be getting better and the other worse, which is just the greatest of all differences that could possibly exist between them.” The kind of person they are becoming is always first evident in their hands, in their “inside hands” of which the outside hands are but the gloves. Sadly, those who are becoming beasts are unaware of their fate:

Now listen. Since it is always what they do, whether in their minds or their bodies, that makes men go down to be less than men, that is, beasts, the change always comes first in their hands—and first of all in the inside hands, to which the outside ones are but as the gloves. They do not know it of course; for a beast does not know that he is a beast, and the nearer a man gets to being a beast the less he knows it. Neither can their best friends, or their worst enemies indeed, see any difference in their hands, for they see only the living gloves of them.

The Princess then tells Curdie that he has been given the magical gift of discerning by a handshake whether a person is becoming a beast and if so what kind of beast he is becoming. Curdie asks if it will be his job then to warn everyone “whose hand tells me that he is growing a beast.” Alas, replies the Princess, most will not listen to the truth, for they are ceasing to be human.

This is the great danger that lies before us, and that danger is exponentially magnified if we begin to think we are safe because we are not like the truly wicked. Perhaps we do not boast of our virtues, as did the Pharisee after comparing himself to the publican. We rely instead on our relative lack of wickedness. “I thank thee, O Lord, that I have not committed as many mortal sins as Osama bin Ladin.” But as Uncle Screwtape tells his nephew Wormwood: “It does not matter how small the sins are, provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts” (The Screwtape Letters, XII).

Strive to enter through the narrow door!

16 February 2008


 
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