Pontifications

Purifying Purgatory

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by Fr Alvin Kimel

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).

(To be continued)

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