Q. Does the Church still teach about Purgatory?

A. The Church does indeed still teach about purgatory. Many people think that the Second Vatican Council abolished the teaching on Purgatory, or at least that post-Vatican II theology has moved beyond it. These people may even see purgatory as an archaic concept, focusing too much on punishment and sin rather than on God’s love. However, Second Vatican Council actually affirmed the belief in Purgatory. In the seventh chapter of the Vatican II document Lumen Gentium (The Sacred Constitution on the Church), the Council states:

Until the Lord shall come in his majesty, and all the angels with him (cf. Mt 25:31) and death being destroyed, all things are subject to him (cf. 1Cor 15:26-27), some of his disciples are exiles on earth, some having died are purified, and others are in glory beholding ‘clearly God himself triune and one, as he is”; but all in various ways and degrees are in communion in the same charity of God and neighbor and all sing the same hymn of glory to our God (LG 49).

Fully conscious of this communion of the whole Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, the pilgrim Church from the very first ages of the Christian religion has cultivated with great piety the memory of the dead, and “because it is a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead that they may be loosed from their sins” (2Mc 12:46), also offering suffrages for them (LG 50).

Furthermore, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, instituted by Pope John Paul II in response to the Second Vatican Council’s call for a renewal in catechesis, explicitly teaches about Purgatory in articles 1030-1032 & 1472. The second edition includes the term “Purgatory” in its glossary, defining it as:

A state of final purification after death and before entrance into heaven for those who died in God’s friendship, but were only imperfectly purified; a final cleansing of human imperfection before one is able to enter the joy of heaven.

So why do some people believe that the Church no longer teaches about Purgatory? I believe that there are a couple points of confusion. The first point of confusion is between Purgatory and “Limbo.  The concept of Limbo is a theological theoretical construct to try to explain what happens to babies who die without the benefit of baptism. The concept of Limbo is an attempt to explain the apparent paradox between the necessity of baptism for salvation, as stated by Christ himself, and the great merciful love of God, which we find it hard to believe would allow him to condemn innocent but unbaptized babies to the eternal loneliness of hell. Limbo was thought to be a place of eternal bliss, where these unbaptized souls enjoy the goodness that comes to us through creation as a sign of God’s love, but are unable to fulfill their happiness by being in God’s presence in an intimate and personal way.This concept was never officially taught by the Church. It was a model used by theologians to account for both sides of the paradox. Therefore, people have always been free to accept or reject it (and as far as I know, people are still free to make this choice). This concept has fallen out of favor with theologians, and is rarely taught today. The truth is that we really don’t know much about God’s judgments – and the Church is always hesitant to define what specific people are in heaven or hell since only God can truly judge the heart. That is why the process of canonization of a saint, which declares that the saint is definitely in heaven, is so complex and careful. We do not know what happens to unbaptized babies. We can only speculate because this is not something that God has chosen to reveal to us. However, the Church does officially teach about Purgatory.

The second point of confusion is between the Church’s teaching about what Purgatory is and theological speculation about how Purgatory will be experienced. Sacred Scripture reveals to us that nothing that is imperfect can be in God’s presence. However, we also know that most of us will die somewhat short of perfection (did you catch the understatement?). Since the effects of grace include healing our sin-damaged nature and elevating it to perfection so that an intimate relationship with God is made possible, we believe that we will truly be perfect as we stand in God’s presence. If we die before the process of conversion to perfection is complete, we believe that God, in His mercy, will complete the process of perfection within us as long as we die in “friendship with God” – without mortal sin. This process of completion is what Purgatory is. Our belief in this act of Grace is validated by Sacred Scripture. The fact that the term Purgatory does not appear in the Bible is beside the point. The term is just a label the Church placed on this concept that is indeed found in the Bible (I’ll post the scripture verses here in the near future). What we do not know, and can only speculate on, is the experience of Purgatory. Purgatory used to be seen as a waiting room or a jail cell where the soul pays reparation for the “temporal punishment for sin” by “doing time.  In fact, some devotionals used to assign a specific number of years in Purgatory for each sin, and a certain number of years that could be taken off of our sentence in Purgatory for an act of indulgence. I do not know much about this practice, and if anyone knows more about it I would really appreciate if you could explain it more clearly by leaving a comment for this post. The vision of Purgatory as a waiting room or a jail cell has somewhat fallen out of favor among post-Vatican II theologians. One reason is the awareness that Purgatory is experienced before the resurrection of our bodies. Without a body, a soul does not experience time in the same way we do now.

One theory that I am personally attracted to is that perhaps Purgatory is actually the experience of the Beatific Vision before our souls are perfectly able to accept God’s love. The effect is like walking outside into the brilliance of a sunny day, especially in winter when the sun reflects off the snow (this happened to me just today). Until our eyes adjust, the light hurts our eyes and causes us pain. Once our eyes adjust, we are able to appreciate the beauty of the sunny day and we are hesitant to go back into the relative darkness of the house. In the same way, God’s glory burns into our imperfect soul and causes suffering because we are not perfectly oriented to receive God’s love. Once our imperfections are burned away, then we are able to enjoy the glory of God’s love. I like this theory because it seems to make sense within human relationships. God intended marriage to be a sign of His relationship with us. When I am not perfectly in tuned to my relationship with my wife (in other words, when I am loving her imperfectly), I sometimes find her love annoying. I cringe when she interrupts my activity and tries to talk with me. I balk when she asks me to do things that are good for me, such as not to forget to take something with me or to do something (and anyone who knows me knows that I need such reminders frequently). In other words, because I am not loving my wife perfectly, her love for me causes me suffering. Only when I focus on burning away the imperfections in my love for her am I able to fully appreciate the beauty of the love that she has for us. Since God’s love for us is infinitely more intense, it stands to reason that it would cause infinitely more suffering as it forces us to face the imperfections of our love for Him. However, this is not a suffering of evil, and it is not eternal suffering. It is a suffering that burns away our imperfections in the fires of love and drives us to attune ourselves to love Him more perfectly, and therefore to receive His love more perfectly. Once this process is done, our “time” in Purgatory is over and we are able to “enter into” the Beatific Vision and enjoy His glory. Keep in mind that this is just a theory to explain how we might experience Purgatory. The important thing is that what Purgatory is has been defined for us by the Church.

Lastly, I must mention that the Church also still teaches the concepts of “temporal punishment for sin” and “indulgences. Properly understanding what these things are is extremely important. To explain temporal punishment for sin, I give my students an analogy. Let’s say you are playing baseball with your friends in the back yard. Your parents have told you many times not to play baseball in the back yard because your yard is too small and you would be playing too close to the house. Sure enough, your disobedience results in the baseball breaking through one of the windows of the house. When your parents confront you with it, you are truly sorry for your disobedience and you beg their forgiveness. Despite their justified anger with you, your parents decide not to disown you. In other words, they forgive you. In fact, they may even be moved by your sincere tears to give you a hug and to bring you comfort in your obvious moral suffering. However, even though they forgive you, the consequences of your sin remain. There is still a broken window that needs to be paid for. A good parent is going to hold you accountable for these consequences, and make you pay for the window. More importantly, a good parent also realizes that the deeper issue than the broken window is that you have a tendency to disobedience. This tendency does not easily go away just because you “learned your lesson” this one time. In fact, without consequences for your disobedience this time, the tendency to disobey may actually increase. Therefore, you parents ground you for a month or two. Far from being a sign of unforgiveness, this punishment is an act of love that shows you that disobedience has consequences on your relationship with your parents. The punishment is intended to motivate you to change that relationship, to get rid of the tendency to disobedience.

These consequences of sin, the direct consequences, the consequence for our own nature and the consequences on our relationship with God, make up temporal punishment for sin. God tells us that we must pay restitution for our sins, and then he adds another punishment (somewhat mysterious in form) to motivate us to get rid of our sinful tendencies to selfishness and disobedience so that we can perfect our relationship with Him. This is the punishment that must be made up for in this world or in Purgatory after we die. How can we make up for this punishment in this life? That’s where indulgences come in. The historical stain on the term indulgences makes people think of them as a payment to the Church that paves our way to heaven. This was a very real abuse of the practice of indulgences that Martin Luther and other protestors (many who did not separate with the Church but worked from within the Church to make the change) were right to protest. However, the historical abuse of indulgences does not remove the validity of the use of indulgences in the Church. Indulgences are simply spiritual practices that are designed to train our hearts to unite ourselves to God and to the Church. These practices are efficacious (I love that term) in giving us extra grace to form our hearts to love and to erase our temporal punishment for sin.

Why do they give us more grace? This is the point that many of our Protestant and Evangelical friends will have trouble with. The truth is that every spiritual exercise (prayer, devotion, sacrifice, suffering, etc.) can be a path to grace thanks to God’s mercy. However, Christ made the apostles, and therefore the Church, the stewards of grace that comes from Christ: “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven. Whatever you loosen on earth will be loosened in heaven.  Therefore, the Church has the ability to determine specific spiritual exercises to be especially efficacious in giving us grace.

Receiving these graces is very easy. The acts of indulgence are all explained in a little book called the Handbook of Indulgences. To receive the indulgence, one needs to:

  • Go to the sacrament of Reconciliation (to gain forgiveness for your sins)
  • Receive the Holy Eucharist (to be intimately united to Christ, the source of all grace)
  • Pray the Creed (to reaffirm your faith in all that God has revealed about Himself)
  • Pray for the intentions of the Holy Father (to unite yourself to the Church)
  • Have no attraction to sin (while this phrase is a bit vague, in moral theology it typically means that you have fully chosen to renounce sin through an act of the will – even if your sense appetite is still attracted to it)
  • Perform the act prescribed by the Church (the act is usually an act of prayer or devotion done in unity with the Church – for example, praying the Rosary in a Church building, going on a pilgrimage to a designated Church or cathedral)

That’s it! Christ’s grace is available to all so very easily! I hope you can see that the Church’s beliefs in Purgatory, Temporal Punishment, and Indulgences are not beliefs that dwell on sin and punishment. While it is important to be reminded of sin and its dangers and consequences, it is more important to move from an awareness of sin to an awareness of the Good News of God’s mercy and grace. These doctrines do just that. They are all about the abundance of God’s merciful love and healing grace.

Related Links

Catholics United for the Faith
Faith Facts: Purgatory

Catechism of the Catholic Church
The Final Purification, or Purgatory

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