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.
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?