Part 2: The Mystery of Purgatory

EDITOR'S NOTE: The following is part 2 of Dr. Robert Stackpole's response to a Protestant student in one of his theology classes who recently asked him to defend the Catholic doctrine of purgatory. Read part one.

By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD

All who die in God's grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve that holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.
— Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1030

Stated in its simplest form, as the Catechism does in entry 1030 above, the doctrine of purgatory is "common ground" between the Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodoxy, as we said last week. The trouble begins, however, when we unpack what each side means by the nature of the "purification" that happens in this intermediate state between earth and heaven. The ecumenical Council of Lyons of 1274, for example, defined that purification process as follows:

If those who are truly penitent die in charity before they have done sufficient penance for their sins of omission and commission, their souls are cleansed after death in purgatorial or cleansing punishments. [Emphasis mine]

So purgatory is not only for the further healing and sanctification of the soul, but also for the completion of "penance" and cleansing "punishments." The ecumenical Council of Florence of 1439 was equally clear:

And if they are truly penitent and die in God's love before having satisfied by worthy fruits of penance for their sins of commission and omission, their souls are cleansed after death by purgatorial penalties [emphasis mine]. In order that they be relieved from such penalties, the acts of intercession of the living benefit them, namely the sacrifices of the Mass, prayers, alms, and other works of piety which the faithful are wont to do for the other faithful, according to the Church's practice.

It is this "penal" or "judicial" side of the purification process in purgatory that seems to be absent from Eastern Orthodox teaching — and, indeed, from most Catholic teaching on purgatory today as well! But as we shall see, this aspect of purgatorial purification also has its roots in Scripture, and in the ancient Fathers, and as we have just seen, it is also the solemn teaching of two ecumenical councils of the Church. Thus, we are duty bound to accept and try to understand this much neglected aspect of the mystery of purgatory, even if we think that the emphasis should be placed elsewhere (that is, on purgatory as a place of spiritual healing and sanctification, which is certainly what the Catechism stresses). In fact, ecumenical councils of the Church can sometimes truly express the Church's teachings in ways that are somewhat imbalanced, needing further clarification and "rounding out" so to speak, by future authoritative magisterial documents. But that is not to say that they were wrong: their definitions of doctrine are at least "true as far as they go," and need to be taken seriously.

First, let us look at what is implied in Scripture. In II Maccabees 12:42-46, Judas Maccabeus ordered prayers and sacrifices to be offered to the Lord for His slain soldiers to make "atonement" for them, "that they may be delivered from their sin," biblical phrases surely implying that they still needed to find a measure of divine pardon for those sins. Jesus once said, "For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get" (Mt 7:2). In other words, what goes around comes around. But where is this supposed to take place? Surely Jesus knew that in this life the merciless often go unpunished for their crimes. Perhaps He was referring then only to those who will suffer eternal loss in hell? But what about those who were merciless to others at times, and who attained imperfect and half-hearted repentance for their sins? Will they receive a blanket divine pardon after death? Do they not still have some measure of moral debt owing to God?

Quite often Protestant theologians will object to this judicial aspect of the doctrine of purgatory on the grounds that Jesus died on the Cross to completely take away our sins, and all penalty and punishment due to them. To be clear, the Catholic Church certainly does not deny this, but in the New Testament, the merits of Christ's sacrifice on the Cross are promised to those who repent in faith. The real question is, What about those whose repentance was weak and half-hearted, those who died in what the Church calls a state of "imperfect contrition," for example, contrite more out of fear of hell or disgust with oneself, than out of love for God and sorrow at having let Him down? Are these souls fully united to Jesus Christ and to the merits of His redeeming sacrifice? Do they, too, receive a blanket pardon for their moral debts to God at the time of their death?

Let's continue with Scripture. Our Lord said, "And whoever says a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or the age to come" (Mt 12:32). In his book Charity for the Holy Souls, Fr. Nagaleisen tells us:

From these words St. Augustine (De Civ. Dei, lib. 21, c.13), St. Gregory the Great (dialogue 4, c. 39) St. Bernard, St. Bede, and others conclude as follows... this passage proves convincingly that certain sins are forgiven in the next world. Now this forgiveness is not obtainable in heaven, because sin does not gain admittance there (Rev 21:27), nor in hell, whence there is no redemption. There is only one possibility: These sins are forgiven in purgatory. [Note: by "forgiveness" he means pardon for sin here]. (pp. 28-29)

Jesus exhorts his hearers to settle their accounts in this life, lest we be delivered to the Judge, who will cast us in prison: "Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny" (Mt 5:25-26). This is repeated in his parable in Matthew chapter 18: 32-35, where he adds, "So also my heavenly father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart." On this Nagaleisen writes (pp.29):

Many holy Fathers, among them Origen, St. Jerome, St. Ambrose, and others, declare that this passage is to be understood not only as referring to a place of eternal punishment [hell], but also to one of temporal punishment in the next world, because deliverance is promised to those who repay the last farthing" [there is no deliverance at all from hell, and none needed from heaven: purgatory must be what Jesus is referring to here, by process of elimination! Jesus seems to be referring to a cleansing from one's remaining moral debt to God beyond death].

The most intriguing passage in the New Testament in this regard, however, comes from St. Paul's First Epistle to the Corinthians, 3:11-15:

For no one can lay another foundation but that which is laid: which is Christ Jesus. Now if any man builds upon this foundation gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble, every man's work will be manifest: for the day of the Lord shall declare it, because it shall be revealed in fire, and the fire shall try every man's work, of what sort it is. If any man's work abides, which he hath built upon, he shall receive a reward. If any man's work burn, he shall suffer loss; but he himself shall be saved, yet so as by fire.

This is a difficult passage to interpret, but it seems to have been the unanimous testimony of the ancient Fathers of the Latin-speaking churches — for example, St. Cyprian, St. Ambrose, St. Jerome, St. Augustine, and St. Gregory the Great — that the metaphorical "flames" referred to here are the flames suffered by souls at their particular judgment immediately following death. Some people build their lives upon the right "foundation"— faith in Christ, according to verse 11— yet they live out that faith only in very imperfect ways. Their good works are mixed with many lesser sins, which is why St. Paul says their works consist merely of "wood, hay, or stubble." After their death, these deeds are tried and burned up (so to speak) in the fires of God's judgment (verse 13).

The works, therefore, "burn" up in that fire. In other words, they are condemned. But of course, works cannot actually burn. That is why St. Paul clarifies in verse 15 that if any man's works "burn" he shall "suffer loss." This is not the loss of eternal damnation, however, for St. Paul goes on to say "but he himself shall be saved, yet so as by fire."

Most Protestant Bible scholars say that this phrase merely means "he shall be saved out of the midst of fire," which is certainly a possible reading of the text here on grammatical grounds. That would imply that this passage is talking about the final judgment day, as the soul escapes the judgment of his works on the Last Day without being scorched by the flames of judgment himself. But such is not the probable meaning of the passage, given the unanimous testimony of the western Fathers of the Church (along with some of the eastern Fathers, as we shall see).

Moreover, it is hard for the Protestant reading of this passage to make sense of verse 15: "he shall suffer loss." What can this suffering and loss be? Are souls on the final judgment day to go weeping into heaven, suffering loss in the sense of penitential sorrow because of their imperfect works and imperfect repentance during their time on earth? There is no hint of such a spectacle on the Last Day in Scripture! It seems more likely that the traditional reading of the western Fathers is the correct one here: The passage refers not to the final judgment day, but to the particular judgment that each soul faces at the moment of death, as a preparation for the final judgment. The "loss" that such imperfect Christian souls will "suffer" at their particular judgment is therefore their penitential sorrow at that time, mixed with ardent longing for God, as the soul is made to realize, in the light of God's particular judgment, that its earthly service of God, and its love for Him, was weak, partial, and compromised. Such are the purifying sufferings of souls in purgatory.

Notice again, however, that these purgatorial sufferings are mentioned by St. Paul as a matter of divine judgment and justice, as well as a matter of purifying and salvation. There is a mystery here, indeed. There seems to be an intermediate state after death where souls receive cleansing, purifying punishment after death, to make up their moral debt to God for their imperfect service and half-hearted repentance while on earth (on the order of divine justice). And yet at the same time (on the order of God's merciful love) this state also heals and purifies the soul of its remaining spiritual defects, in order to prepare the soul for the joys of heaven!

And lest you think that this teaching is merely a peculiarity of the Latin-speaking Fathers of the Church, let me close this installment with some quotes from some of the ancient Fathers of the Greek-speaking east, who state or imply the same teaching.

Take, for example, St. Cyril of Jerusalem (4th century): "By offering God our supplications for those who have fallen asleep, if they have sinned, we ... offer Christ sacrificed for the sins of all, and so render favorable for them and for us the God who loves man" (Catechetical Lectures 23.10, Myst. 5). Notice that we are said by St. Cyril to offer Christ (in the Eucharist) for the sins of the faithful departed, to render God "favorable" to them, in other words, to obtain the completion of their divine pardon.

Saint John Chrysostom (5th century) wrote in his Third Homily: "The apostles did not ordain, without good reason, a commemoration of the departed to be made during the celebration of the mysteries; for from it the deceased draw great gain and help. Why should our prayers for them not placate God, when besides the priest, the whole people stand with uplifted hands while the august Victim [that is, Jesus Christ in the Eucharist] is presented on the altar? True, it is offered only for such as departed hence in faith."

Notice that according to this saint and Father of the Church, we are to "placate" divine justice by offering prayers at Mass for the faithful departed.

Finally, St. Maximus the Confessor (7th century) wrote in his work Questions and Doubts (page 90, 792-793): "Those departing this life not fully perfect must expiate that which is bad in their balance of good and bad as if by fire" (the Greek here literally says, "as if they were being burned").

All this should be evidence enough, from both Scripture and Sacred Tradition, that the teaching of the Church concerning purgatory includes both a "penal" and a "remedial" dimension. In other words, it involves both the clearing of our remaining moral debt to God and the final healing and sanctification of the soul on its journey into the Heart of Divine Love.

How can both of these things be true at once? In the old days, Catholic catechists sometimes so heavily emphasized the "penal" aspect of purgatory that it seemed a matter of divine justice alone, and not of God's merciful love (I have even heard elderly friends tell me how their Catholic schoolteachers would threaten unruly schoolboys with lurid descriptions of the fires of purgatory!). On the other hand, many contemporary presentations of the doctrine do not mention its "judicial" aspect at all. They view purgatory as just a happy place for getting cleaned up on the way to heaven!

The mystery of purgatory is deeper than either of these caricatures.

We will continue next week to explore the wonder of purgatory, with the help of the saints, the Fathers, and the Magisterium of the Catholic Church. We shall need to explore more carefully what this remaining "moral debt" to God might be that is taken away in purgatory, what the tradition means by the purifying "fire" of purgatory, how we can help the souls in purgatory, and what all this tells us about the merciful love of our Savior.S

Learn about the efforts of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception to assist the Holy Souls in Purgatory.

Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy. His latest book is Divine Mercy: A Guide from Genesis to Benedict XVI (Marian Press). Got a question? E-mail him at [email protected].

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