Today my exploration of Catholic theology will focus (by request) on the doctrine of purgatory. As you may have gathered from previous posts I’m taking a course in Christian Doctrine at Notre Dame, a Catholic university. Each day our assignment is to explain a section of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) to an audience of our choosing, and I picked you (don’t you feel special?). My hope is that all of us will end up with a fuller understanding of what Catholics believe, and why.
According to Catholic teaching, what happens when we die?
Reflecting on the final phrase from the Apostles’ Creed, “I believe in . . . the life everlasting,” the CCC offers assurance to each one who “unites his own death to that of Jesus” and therefore enters “into everlasting life” (§1020). Catholics believe that each of us is “rewarded immediately . . . in accordance with his works and faith” (§1021; cf. 1051). Unlike Jehovah’s Witnesses, who envision a time of soul sleep before the millennium, at which time all will be given another opportunity to repent, Catholics limit the possibility of trusting Christ to this earthly life. At death we face one of three destinies: heaven, delayed heaven (i.e. Purgatory), or hell (§1022).
First, a word about heaven. “Those who die in God’s grace and friendship and are perfectly purified live for ever with Christ” (§1023). Their entrance into heaven is entrance into eternal communion with Christ on the basis of his death and resurrection (§1026). Catholics have a special name for the gift of seeing God in heavenly glory: “the beatific vision” (§1028, 1053). Spiritual contemplation and meditation on earth anticipate the beatific vision (though faith is the “essential foretaste” of it, according to Dr. Cavadini). Catholics are particularly noted for this aspect of spirituality.
Some, however, are not ready for heaven. “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 the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven” (§1030; cf. 1054). Purgatory must not be confused with hell (§1031). While the fires of hell bring eternal punishment to the unrepentant (§1035), those in purgatory bring cleansing to the redeemed (§1031). Those in Purgatory are on their way to heaven, but need purification first. Don’t miss this. Our final destination cannot change after death, even in response to someone’s prayers. One bound for hell does not end up in Purgatory and cannot be brought there through prayers of those still living. Purgatory is for saints who need a bit more time to become like Jesus. One of my classmates put it something like this: “Purgatory is a useful doctrine, because most of us won’t be ready for heaven yet when we die.”
Purgatory is later explained this way: “every sin . . . 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,” which flows naturally from the sin itself (§1472). Dr. Cavadini imagines that for every minute he goes overtime in class, he will spend a week in Purgatory listening to himself talk. While he is only joking (I think!), it’s a good illustration of how Purgatory is designed to refine us. The purification directly relates to the sin.
Gregory the Great based his understanding of Purgatory on Matthew 12:31, which speaks of forgiveness both in the present age and the one to come (§1031). The CCC teaches that this doctrine “is also based on the practice of prayer for the dead, already mentioned in Sacred Scripture” (§1032). The passage cited is 2 Maccabees 12:45, where Judas Maccabeus takes up a collection on behalf of Jews who had fallen in battle while possessing idols. Evidently he sees them as redeemed but in need of a sin offering. Though they are dead, Judas believes they will rise again and commune with God in the life to come. Job also serves as an example, in that he offers sacrifices for his children (Job 1:5). In the words of John Chrysostom, “Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and to offer our prayers for them” (§1032).
The clearest source of this teaching—the Apocryphal book of 2 Maccabees—is telling. No wonder the Catholic Church has found solid footing for Purgatory while Protestants have not! It largely depends on which canon is used. Second Maccabees is an Apocryphal book, not accepted by Protestants as Scripture. What Catholics believe about Purgatory is based on the canon they have received by faith, just as our denial of this doctrine is based on the canon we have received by faith, which does not contain clear teaching on this matter.
However, shadows of this doctrine may be discerned in other passages. In 1 Corinthians 3:13, Paul describes the fire that will “test the quality of each person’s work” at the judgment day. First Peter 1:7 speaks of a similar fire for believers. The Bible is not explicit about what happens “in the meantime” as we await final judgment and the full revelation of the kingdom of God. For this reason, we should hold our opinions on the subject with a looser grip. Until we experience it ourselves, none of us can really be sure what will happen in the time between death and final resurrection. The Bible is very clear, though, on our final destiny. It’s either life with God (i.e. heaven) or life without him (i.e. hell).
Hell is an unpopular doctrine in our time. Long gone are the days of “fire and brimstone” preaching. But what the CCC has to say about hell is important. Based on the teaching of Jesus (§1034; 1056), Catholics affirm that hell lasts forever (§1035), and that it is freely chosen, not predestined by God, who wants all to be saved (§1037; 1058). Hell is a “state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed” (§1033, emphasis mine). When we die without repenting and receiving the love and mercy of God for us, we choose to be separated from him forever (§1033; cf. 1057). The reality of hell should move us to repentance (§1036; cf. 1041) and motivate us to share the good news of God’s love with as many as possible. A final judgment awaits all people where we must “render an account of [our] own deeds” (§1059; cf. 1038–1039). After that Christ will reign over God’s kingdom with the help of the redeemed (§1042), “and the material universe itself will be transformed” (§1060; cf. 1043, 1047).
Catholics and Protestants together look forward to the day when all will be made right. We long to see our Savior face to face and spend eternity with him. And we each, in our own ways, strive to become more like him in preparation for life everlasting. Whether that process of sanctification continues after we die is a matter of debate, but on the end result we’re in full agreement. Ultimately we’ll enjoy the presence of God forevermore.
My next post will treat a related subject, the “communion of saints,” which for Catholics involves prayers for and to those who have died. Stay tuned!