Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Thoughts on Purgatory

Purgatory presented Martin Luther with one of his early theological challenges.  I suspect that some Catholics today would claim that purgatory is among those practices of the past that possess little meaning for the modern believer.  In Luther's day purgatory featured prominently in the believer's mind.  It was also tied directly to indulgences which became a major fundraiser, especially for those trying to raise much needed capital to build St. Peters and pay off debts resulting from the purchase of titles and positions.  Given this state of affairs it makes sense that such a practice was ripe for abuse. 

However, past abuses aside, is purgatory a doctrine of the current Catholic Church?  The answer is yes.  Yet how central to Catholic teaching is purgatory?  Admittedly, purgatory also does not list among the primary and central teachings or truths of the church.  Alan Schreck (author of Catholic and Christian, 1984) sees part of the problem with Catholic-Protestant interaction coming either from non-Catholics who focus too heavily on these secondary truths, or from Catholics who make too much of them and thus unset the balance.  Rather than accusing Catholics of being 'un-Christian' he would like to see more charity in recognizing their shared commitment to such teachings as the divinity of Christ, and other more central doctrines.

 This is a reasonable request and Protestant-Catholic dialog will begin on a more positive note if common ground is first established.  That said, we still must wrestle with the reality of this teaching and what it means to the overall theological picture.  While doctrines may be ranked in a secondary manner, they must still be complimentary to the whole body of theological thought. 

So, let me present a brief summary of the essentials of purgatory as I understand them:
  • Purgatory is not for the condemned, or hell-bound soul.  Those in purgatory are said to have died in a "state of grace."  Thus, they are technically speaking, already heaven-bound.  It is not a 'second chance' for salvation for those who have already rejected God.  Prior faith is assumed.
  • Those who are in purgatory are not yet free from imperfection and therefore must make expiation for unforgiven venial sins and mortal sins which have been forgiven.  Another way this is expressed is to say that the person is still 'in bondage to sin.' 
  • As the name implies, purgatory is a place where heaven-bound souls are 'purified' or 'purged' of sinfulness and are then able to fully enter into the presence of God in heaven. Purgatory is presumed on the basis of God's holiness.  Nothing impure or unholy can enter into his presence. 
  • Direct scriptural support for purgatory comes primarily from the Apocrypha or Deutercanonical books which are included in Catholic bibles but usually omitted from Protestant ones.  (Note: Luther did include the Apocrypha in his Bible, but did not assign it the same canonical status as the other 66 books of the Old and New Testament.)  The Catholic church, however, does appeal to the other canonical books as well.
  • The Catholic church sees purgatory as a necessity to provide a place where "temporal punishment" for already forgiven sins can be accomplished.  Sin is said to possess a "double consequence."  In some cases it can result in the abandonment of faith altogether and thus result in the eternal consequence of hell.  On the other hand, it can have a more 'temporal' consequence of leaving the person with an unhealthy attachment to the things of this world.  Some saintly people can, in this life, live in such a way as to remove that attachment and die 'purified' of the effects of sin and thereby avoid further 'punishment.'   Through works of mercy and charity, as well as by prayer and the various practices of penance, the believer effectively "puts of the old man" and "puts on the new," as Paul notes in Ephesians 4.  
  • The Catholic Church sees support for the teaching of purgatory in the Church Fathers.  However, it seems that they appeal mainly to those of the 3rd century on.  
  • Purgatory is related to the practice of praying for the dead.  It is noted that praying for the dead would make no sense without purgatory.  They point to the practice of praying for the dead which they observe in the Early Church. 
Certainly others will be able to add to this list or even correct parts of it.  Please feel free to point out where I have missed the point.  I have consulted the Catechism of the Catholic Church, as well as popular works by Schreck, as mentioned above, and Fr. M.J. Stravinskas in The Catholic Answer Book (1990).

Reflecting on the point listed above, I offer my thoughts and questions as reasoned by a Luthean:
  •  The concept of 'punishment' for sin, biblically speaking, is an aspect of God's justice, the result of which is complete condemnation of the sinner.  The heart of the gospel is that God's Son took all this upon Himself on the cross making total expiation for the sinner.  Forgiveness means that the guilt of this sin is removed from the sinner for the sake of Christ's prior sacrifice.  Isaiah is 'purged' of the guilt of his sin by God's declaration of forgiveness. 
  • Holiness in the presence of God comes through our putting on of Christ (Gal. 3:27) through baptism.  Our life is "hid with Christ in God" (Col. 3:3).  When Jesus talks about heaven as a wedding banquet he refers to those accepted in as the ones properly clothed with the wedding garment, which obviously is the garment of salvation, the very holiness of Jesus himself.  If we needed to be purged of all sinfulness before entering into the presence of God, how were prior believers able to stand in God's presence even during their living years? 
I will offer additional thoughts in future posts as I continue to study and read.  Chemnitz is on my list (Examination of the Council of Trent).  Future posts will also address prayers for the dead. 


Pr Mark Henderson said...

I believe that the downplaying of purgatory is a direct consequence of the Reformation's impact upon 20th century Catholicism. However, as the Reformation churches become weaker, I expect to see a corresponding highlighting of purgatory and the practices associated with it - masses for the dead, etc.

It's very interesting that Ratzinger has said that 'if purgatory did not exist, we would have to invent it'! Not least, perhaps, because it's been such a good money spinner for the RC church.

The Rev. Donald V. Engebretson said...

I suspect that Ratzinger's comments are related to the Roman Catholicism's teaching regarding praying/interceding for the dead, along with the masses. Purgatory necessitates such a practice. Otherwise, what motivation would one have to pray unless the dead needed those prayers to shorten the time spent in this place?

Marilyn Lingenfelter said...

I offer the following from the blogspot, Canterbury Tales by Taylor Marshall (an Episcopal convert to Catholicism) on purgatory who cites Scriptural references:

"Our Savior Christ also mentions that there is opportunity for forgiveness in this life and after death:
Matthew 12:32 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 in the age to come.

But the most convincing passage for me was 1 Corinthians 3:13-15:

[13] 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.
[14] If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward.
[15] If any man's work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.

First of all, each man will be judged and his work "will be revealed with fire." The good we have done will survive the fire and will be our "reward." The evil we have done will be "burned up" and "he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire."

Here we see that this kind of fire is not Hell, but "he himself will be saved, but only as through fire." The Greek word for fire is "pur" and it is the same Indo-European root from which "PUR-gatory" derives. Purgatory is that state of purification by fire for those who are already saved.

The Protestant might ask at this point, "Well if somebody is already saved, then why do that have to pass through this fire? Didn't Christ die for all their sins?"

Yes, Christ died for their sins and has redeemed them. But He died that we might become actually holy. "Be holy as I am holy." The fire of Purgatory is the fire of God's love causing us to "suffer loss" by a sort of final repentance from our sins. It is therefore painful because we must let go of the desires of the flesh and face our failings. This is what it means to "suffer loss". We can't get around the words of St Paul who says that Christians must pass through fire after death."

Marilyn Lingenfelter said...


The previous quote, as I said, was from Canterbury Tales by Taylor Marshall from his archived posts, this one being from Nov 2, 2010. There are others there too on the different aspects of purgatory, such as the prayers for dead, masses, etc. He's also the author of a book, "The Catholic Perspective on Paul" and the "Crucified Rabbi", and he's also an alum from Nashtowah.

Marilyn Lingenfelter said...

Darn it, it's Nashotah! I always get it wrong! ;-D

Pr Mark Henderson said...


Ratzinger based it on the universal human desire to pray for the dead (I'll have to try and find the quite).

Btw, I believe the standard donation for a Mass to be said for a dead relative believed to be in purgatory ranges from $10-$50, according to the requestor's means. It is my understanding that more than one name can be prayed for at each Mass. This certainly still happens in the more conservative RC parishes in my neck of the woods.

Marilyn Lingenfelter said...

From the CatholicExchange.com
under Canon Law Q&A Re: Mass Stipends by Cathy Caridi, J.C.L. a licensed canonist who practices law and teaches in the Washington, D.C. area.

Historically, the purpose of offering a Mass stipend for a particular Mass intention has been twofold. On the one hand, the money that a priest received for saying his daily Mass for a specific intention was essentially his source of income . . .

Nowadays, of course, priests generally are not reliant on their daily Mass stipends to pay for their basic necessities, but the laws surrounding the whole notion remain basically the same. This tradition is referenced in canon 946, which states that those members of the faithful who give Mass stipends are contributing to the good of the Church, for they share in the Church’s concern for the support of its ministers.

A major concern of the Church is that there be no appearance that Masses are being bought or sold. Canon 947 notes that even the semblance of trafficking or trading in Mass offerings is to be entirely avoided; and someone who traffics in Mass stipends for profit may actually be punished with a censure (c. 1385). If perchance the monetary donation that was accepted along with the Mass intention is lost, canon 949 specifies that the priest is still obliged to offer a Mass for that intention.

Still, any priest who celebrates Mass is entitled to accept an offering to apply it for a particular intention (c. 945.1), although he is not required to obtain either a stipend or an intention from anyone in order to say Mass. Note that it is also quite possible for a priest to say Mass for the intention for which a stipend has been given, and simultaneously for other intentions as well.

. . . so long as he has accepted a stipend for no more than one of them.

As a rule, a priest may only offer one Mass per day, although there are occasions when he is permitted to offer more than one Mass in a single day (c. 905.1). On Sundays and holy-days, for example, a priest may celebrate as many as three Masses in one day; and in areas where there is a shortage of priests, a bishop may permit his priests to say two Masses on an ordinary weekday if pastoral necessity requires it (c. 905.2).
. . . Does this mean that a priest may accept multiple stipends on those days when he offers multiple Masses? Absolutely not. Canon 951.1 is very clear that, while a priest may celebrate multiple Masses, with a different intention for each one, he may keep only the stipend for one Mass. The diocesan bishop determines what is to be done with the stipend that was received for any subsequent Mass(es). While the ultimate use to which this money is put might conceivably vary from diocese to diocese, it must not be given to the celebrating priest. Thus there can never be any financial incentive for a priest to say more than one Mass per day-which rule greatly helps the Church to avoid any possible misconceptions that Masses are for sale, and/or that priests offer Masses primarily for monetary gain.

The Rev. Donald V. Engebretson said...

Thank you, Marilyn for your detailed responses.

Regarding Matthew 12:32, if this passage proved the reality of a purgatory, it would be interesting to see other corroborating words from Jesus supporting this interpretation. It would seem, on the other hand, that the words could also be a way of emphasizing a point, as if to say, "speaking against [blaspheming against] the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven." Speaking against the Spirit, the so called "sin against the Holy Spirit," is usually interpreted as unbelief,the refusal to accept any revelation from the Spirit, thus a refusal to believe the Word of God. It is a sin which is by its very nature unforgivable for the simple reason that unbelief refuses to repent and thus cuts off all chance for forgiveness.

As for the "fire" of 1 Cor. 3:13ff, it appears that the reference is with respect to "the Day," that is, the Final Judgment. The greater context concerns Paul's work of building the church, laying a foundation which is none other than Jesus Christ. Obviously Paul was challenged by some in Corinth and he warns about not building a foundation made of perishable materials, but rather the eternal and enduring Word.

Dr. Gregory Lockwood in his commentary on 1 Corinthians writes: "1 Cor. 3:15 has often been used in support of the doctrine of purgatory. However, the text does not speak of a slow process but of the instantaneous purgation and transformation which takes place at Christ's return, when what is mortal puts on immortality (15:54. In a flash the Lord will 'reduce to ashes the superstructure raised by the careless or unskilled builder.' At the same time the text is remarkably emphatic that 'he himself will be saved' (3:15). A Christian's salvation depends not at all on his works or deeds, not even on his most important actions in the building of God's kingdom. His portion in the life to come is secured solely and completely by the accomplished work of Christ on the cross (1:18-23; 2:8-9)." (120-121)

It is also suggested that the phrase in 3:15 might be a proverbial phrase in the Greek meaning "by a narrow escape." One escapes "through the flames" as all that is false is destroyed, but the person is ultimately saved despite their own weaknesses and sin.

For me the determining point is that the passage from this life to the next does not reveal an intermediate state, but rather we "depart to be with Christ" following death (Phil. 1:23.) In 2 Corinthians 5 Paul notes that being "away from the body" is essentially being "at home with the Lord." The only intermediate state is that which exists prior to the final day of judgment when the soul is apart from the body, a state often described as a "sleep," but not because we are unaware, but we exist in a state unaware of the passage of time.

Mr. Marshall refers to a "final repentance" which purgatory supplies the opportunity, but again scripture always seems insistent on redeeming the time now as there are no second chances in death. We either repent now and believe unto salvation, or we do not live in repentance and are lost. To live in faith is to live a life of repentance.

Marilyn Lingenfelter said...

Your comment: Regarding Matthew 12:32: “if this passage proved the reality of a purgatory, it would be interesting to see other corroborating words from Jesus supporting this interpretation. It would seem, on the other hand, that the words could also be a way of emphasizing a point, as if to say, "speaking against [blaspheming against] the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven.”

I agree. This is a reasonable interpretation. Catholics also see in this passage an implied temporal, third state after death where sins may yet be forgiven. They see “this age” our time on earth now; the “age to come” to the time after death; but not referring to hell since hell is an eternal state where no sins are forgiven, nor to heaven because all who enter heaven will already be cleansed of all sin.

Another ‘corroborating word from Jesus” is seen in Matt 5:21,22; 25,26

“You have learned that our forefathers were told, ‘Do not commit murder; anyone who commits murder must be brought to judgment.’ But what I tell you is this: Anyone who nurses anger against his brother must be brought to judgment. If he abuses his brother he must answer for it to the court; if he sneers at him he will have to answer for it in the fires of hell. . . ."

[25,26] ‘If someone sues you, come to terms with him promptly while you are both on your way to court; otherwise he may hand you over to the judge, the judge to the constable, and you will be put in jail. I tell you, once you are there you will not be let out till you have paid the last farthing.”

A treatise on purgatory written by James Akin entitled, “How to Explain Purgatory to Protestants” summarizes the above passage better than I can:

“In this parable God is the Judge, and if we have not reconciled with our neighbors before we see God, God will hold us accountable for the wrong we did to them. This is what the Bible means when it says that God will take our revenge for us, so we should not take it ourselves, because God will defend the cause of the poor and uphold the case of the widow. Whenever a poor person or widow (or anyone else) is oppressed or wronged, God will hold the oppressor accountable for what he did -- unless the wronged person freely chooses to forgive the offender. In that case, God will not hold the offender accountable for the wrong he did on a human level (i.e., against the human he wronged), but unless he has obtained forgiveness from God for the wrong he did against God, he will still be held accountable.”

Marilyn Lingenfelter said...

Another paragraph which touches on Dr. Lockwood’s Commentary:

“Purgatory is the name that Catholics give to the final purification which occurs at the end of life. Because we still sin in this life, but will not be sinning when we are in glory, between death and glorification must come purification. . . . Purgatory is thus the final rush of our sanctification It is our transition into glory. All through the Christian life God is purifying our hearts, giving us greater holiness, but this sanctifying process is not complete (or anything like complete) until the end of life. Thus what God did not choose to give us in this life, he chooses to give us once we are dead."

"The only additional points on which the Catholic Church insists concerning the final purification are that, like sanctification in this life, it can involve pain or discomfort, and that, as when someone is being sanctified in this life, we can pray for someone being sanctified in purgatory. The Church does not teach that purgatory occurs in a special region of the afterlife or even that it takes place over time, for we have little idea how time works in the afterlife, and purgatory may be instantaneous from our point of view.”

In re Dr Lockwood's comments:

"At the same time the text is remarkably emphatic that he himself will be saved' (3:15). A Christian's salvation depends not at all on his works or deeds, not even on his most important actions in the building of God's kingdom. His portion in the life to come is secured solely and completely by the accomplished work of Christ on the cross."

Catholics whole-heartedly agree. Souls in purgatory are Heaven bound. They are saved. They are confronted by the Refiner's Fire of God's Love and their works of hay, stubble and straw are burned away. Their good works remain. It's not a "second chance" for salvation, but an opportunity to be holy as God is holy.

Taylor Marshall's comment of "a a sort of final repentance from our sins" refers to any lingering attachment to sins and/or desires not fully rooted out of our lives at the time of death that weren't repented from because our death was untimely, sudden, etc. These kinds of sins would be the non-mortal ones referred to in 1 Jo 5:16, 17:

"If a man sees his brother committing a sin which is not a deadly sin, he should pray to God for him, and he will grant him life --that is, when men are not guilty of deadly sin. There is such a thing as deadly sin, and I do not suggest that he should pray about that; but although all wrongdoing is sin, not all sin is deadly sin."