Clarifying Purgatory

•28 January 2008 • Comments Off on 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)

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Purifying Purgatory

•26 January 2008 • Comments Off on Purifying Purgatory

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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•28 July 2007 • Comments Off on Closed

Thank you for visiting Pontifications. This blog is now closed. Unfortunately, the database exists on a computer beyond my reach. Much of Pontifications, though, has been archived at the Internet Archive: here and here. I have also copied some of my articles under various topics, located in the sidebar.

God bless you.

The Justification of Robert Koons

•4 June 2007 • 56 Comments

Robert C. Koons, professor of philosophy at the University of Texas, has announced his decision to leave the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and enter into full communion with the Catholic Church. Dr Koons explains that critical to his decision has been a reevaluation of the Reformation construal of justification. He has made available a lucid analysis of the key issues: “A Lutheran’s Case for Roman Catholicism.”

Comparing the Catholic and Lutheran understandings of justification is not an easy matter, despite the confident polemics of the past four hundred and fifty years. Key terms (justification, grace, faith, merit) possess different meanings within the respective systems. As a result, the two traditions appear to agree when they do not in fact agree and to disagree when they in fact do agree. Identification of the authentic differences between the Catholic and Lutheran understandings thus requires patient and charitable analysis.

Koons argues that the difference between the Catholic and Lutheran understandings is more subtle than usually recognized:

• Is the difference one between a righteousness in us (in nobis) and a righteousness outside of us (extra nobis), or between an inherent and an imputed righteousness? As we have seen, both sides admit that we are really made righteous by God’s imputation, and both admit that this righteousness consists in a right relation to Christ.

• Does the difference consist in the issue of whether our works can be said to ‘merit’ grace and eternal life? As we have seen, both sides admit that God can be said to ‘reward’ our works with eternal life, and both admit that some of our works can be ‘means’ of grace. This amounts to our works having a kind of ‘merit’ (in the Roman sense).

• Does the difference concern the question of whether our works can play any causal role in securing our final glorification. As we have seen, both sides affirm Peter’s injunction that we do good works to make our calling secure. (2 Peter 1:10) (p. 39)

The crucial difference, Koons asserts, is grounded in the way in which each tradition construes the relation between objective and subjective justification. Both sides agree that humanity is justified by the merits of Christ alone. Both reject the Calvinist error that Christ died only for the elect. Both reject the universalist error that all will ultimately be saved. Humanity is objectively justified in Christ, yet we may not say that each individual is subjectively justified. Wherein lies the difference between the unjustified man and the justified man? What must happen to us, within us, that we may become subjectively justified?

Lutheranism identifies the justified man as he who has received the gift of faith in Jesus Christ through the preaching of the gospel. Catholicism identifies the justified man as he who has been been regenerated in the Holy Spirit and supernaturally restored to a relationship of love with the Father through the incarnate Son. Which is the superior explanation? Koons has become persuaded that the Catholic view best states the reality of our justification:

In order to be able to benefit from our objective justification, we must undergo an internal transformation that enables us to enjoy eternal life with God. Eternal life in God’s presence would be no benefit to a sinful man, whose heart and mind are at enmity with God. C. S. Lewis illustrates this fact beautifully in his masterpiece, The Great Divorce. Unregenerate people would find heaven more intolerable even than hell.

How does this internal transformation take place? It begins with faith, which is itself a free gift of God, dependent on no prior works or merits. However, merely believing God is not sufficient for being able to enjoy communion with God: faith must reach its natural end or completion, in the form of the love of God. Only when, through the gift of the Holy Spirit, we begin to love God are we in a state in which we can begin to enjoy the benefits of Christ’s redemption. It is true, of course, that we never love as we ought, but neither do we ever trust as we ought. The process of sanctification is a long and gradual process: the attainment of perfection is not a prerequisite of friendship with God, but the natural result of that friendship. (p. 40)

The two positions are not in fact far apart. “The difference (faith alone versus faith completed in love),” Koons elaborates, “is a subtle one, since Lutherans admit that saving faith is never ‘alone’, that is, that it is always accompanied by an inward renewal and by good works that flow from this renewed nature and that are pleasing to God. The Scriptures describe eternal life as a reward for these good works, and without good works one’s perseverance in grace cannot be secure” (p. 39).

Yet despite the relative closeness of the two construals of justification, the confessional Lutheran continues to insist that the difference remains church-dividing. He fears that the Catholic identification of justification and regeneration undercuts our assurance before God. If to be justified is to be transformed by the Spirit, necessarily manifested in good works, are we not in fact thrown back upon ourselves and forced to trust in our deeds, thus leading to either self-righteousness or despair? But this concern, Koons says, is unwarranted, for the very nature of our regeneration disallows the attempt to secure our justification in our works:

We cannot trust in our outward works, since the merit of any work depends on its supernatural quality as a fruit of the Holy Spirit. This supernatural quality is not under our control. In the end, we must place our faith wholly in the promise of the gift of the Spirit to us for Christ’s sake. One cannot assess the merits of his own life in terms of the visible or introspectible character of one’s deeds. (p. 35)

In its own way, in other words, the Catholic construal of justification achieves the Lutheran goal of absolute reliance upon God. Like the Lutheran, the Catholic must ultimately look away from himself and throw himself upon the mercy and grace of the Father. While it is descriptively true that, in Christ and by the Spirit, our good works merit final salvation, no human being can introspectively examine himself and know with absolute certainty that the salvific description obtains. No one can see himself as God sees him. And so the Catholic, like the Lutheran, looks to the promises of Christ sealed to him in the sacraments. In this respect, Koons believes that the Catholic sacramental principle of ex opere operato actually provides a stronger basis for assurance than the Lutheran understanding of sacramental efficacy:

There is one respect in which Lutheran assurance is decidedly inferior to its Roman counterpart. Lutherans deny that the sacraments (of baptism and of absolution/penance) are effective unless the individual exercises saving faith, while Romans stipulate that the sacraments are effective unless the individual actively intends to use them for base purposes. The technical term for this dispute is ex opere operata (Romans affirm this and Lutherans deny it). The logical consequence of the Lutheran position is that I cannot be sure that I am now in a state of grace, reconciled to God, unless I am sure that I have saving faith. In contrast, the Catholic can be assured that his sins are forgiven, so long as he as not intentionally created some inner obstacle to the efficacy of the sacrament. This means that when the Catholic exercises faith or trust, the object of the trust is simply the grace and mercy of God, whereas when the Lutheran does so, he must to a certain degree rely on the quality of his own trust. This subjective, self-referential character of the Lutheran conception of trust can place a serious obstacle to one’s assurance of one’s present state of grace. To their credit, Lutheran theologians urge their laymen to direct their faith solely toward God’s faithfulness as its object, but this instruction is inconsistent with the theory that the beneficial efficacy (although not the validity) of the sacrament depends on the genuineness of the believer’s faith. (p. 36)

I’m not sure if Koons does justice here to the Lutheran position. At least as interpreted by non-Lutheran Phillip Cary, the Lutheran understanding of the gospel grounds faith in the external word and short-circuits the introspective move to reflective faith (also see Cary’s essay “Why Luther is Not Quite Protestant,” Pro Ecclesia [Fall 2005], pp. 447-486. I briefly discuss Cary’s argument in “Believe and you have it [or maybe not]”). Koons has neglected, perhaps, the Lutheran reinterpretation of sacrament as word-event: sacraments accomplish their purpose by visibly enacting the unconditional promises of the gospel. When God in Holy Baptism says to me “I love and forgive you,” I do not need to reflectively know whether I believe it or not; I just need to believe it—and in believing it I receive my assurance. Yet I also see Koons’s point, for it is descriptively true that only those who trust in Christ are in fact justified. In some sense faith is a condition for salvation, and if so, then it seems inevitable that the troubled sinner will seek to know whether that condition has been fulfilled within himself. I’ll leave it to Lutherans to defend themselves against Koons’s criticism. At a practical level, I am confident that Lutherans are in no better and no worse position than Catholics on the matter of salvific assurance. Just as Lutherans cannot determine through introspective analysis whether they in fact believe, so Catholics cannot determine through introspsective analysis whether they in fact possess the supernatural life of God. Both are ultimately compelled to cast themselves on the merciful God who slays them in baptism and raises them to new life in the eucharistic Christ. Only in the actual living of Christian discipleship, in prayer, worship, repentance, and good works, can authentic assurance be achieved. Assurance is neither abstract nor static. It is a personal knowing, and unknowing, gained through daily self-surrender to the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit. “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (Col 3:3-4).

I also commend to you Pastor Adam Cooper’s recent response to Koon’s reflections on justification.