While there is no explicit reference in the Scriptures to purgatory, there are many passages in the sacred books on which the Catholic doctrine on purgatory is based. Our purpose here is not to demonstrate the existence of purgatory, but rather to examine a few things that theology can tell us about that place or state of purification that most humans must encounter before their entrance into heaven.
In general, Protestant theology is opposed to Catholic theology in regard to the doctrine of purgatory. A central tenet of the Reformers was that when the repentant sinner receives God's justifying grace, the debt of eternal punishment is so totally blotted out that no debt of temporal punishment remains to be paid, either in this life or in the next. This teaching was condemned by the Council of Trent.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church refers to purgatory as follows:
The souls in purgatory are on the way to heaven. They have arrived at a stage where their salvation is sure. They passed from this life loving God, and the degree of that love for each individual person is fixed for all eternity. It will neither grow nor diminish. Yet, while they left this world in God's friendship, there can be a number of things that can prevent them from being admitted to the face to face vision of God. The obstacles that delay their entrance into heaven are the following:
When one dies in the state of grace, but with unrepented venial sins, it is the common opinion of theologians that those sins are repented and forgiven immediately after death. Why is this? With the separation of the soul from the body, at the moment of death there is an immediate and enormous change in one's knowledge, and in the manner of knowing. The soul no longer arrives at truth through the slow process of reasoning, but like the angels, it knows all that it knows intuitively and immediately. Once the soul is no longer burdened by the many distractions and needs of the body, its love is directed only to God, ceaselessly and with the full intensity of its capacity in a way never experienced on earth. That love dominates all the soul's activities, and one is aware as never before of God's love and goodness. This brings unspeakable happiness, and an intense yearning for the face to face vision of God.
But at the same time the soul is held back because of punishment due to sin and attachments to creatures. This delay is most painful, and the greater the degree of love at the moment of death, the more painful the agony in being held back, and the greater the remorse for having offended God. This intense longing for God and hatred for one's sins causes the soul to turn to God with a completeness of surrender that is not comprehensible to man here on earth. In this way the soul withdraws its consent to all unrepented venial sins, and thus their guilt is remitted.
Purgatory, therefore, is a strange combination of joy and pain, neither of which cancels out the other because both proceed from a thirst for God. Even in this life one can willingly undergo some painful experience for one who is dearly loved, and can be happy to do so for the beloved. But in purgatory, where the knowledge of God's love and goodness and of our own unworthiness and ingratitude are immeasurably greater, that happiness and that pain can both increase a hundredfold.
If, however, the soul's turning to God is an act of charity sufficient to remit all unrepented venial sins, it is no longer a meritorious act, i.e. it does not merit an increase of grace. And what is more, as we shall see, the soul must still endure the punishment (suffering) due to those sins.
Every sin merits a twofold evil effect, the first is guilt for having violated divine justice; and the second is the temporal punishment due to sin. Since sin consists in seeking some pleasure or satisfaction against God's will, divine justice demands that reparation be made by undergoing some pain or suffering against our will. St. Thomas expresses this as follows:
The sufferings of daily life can serve to pay the debt for venial sins repented during this life, but for venial sins unrepented at the moment of death, that debt must be paid in purgatory. Too, it could be that for many of the sins forgiven in this life (e.g. through sacramental confession), some of the debt of temporal punishment due to sin remains to be paid in purgatory.
We must not confuse the two effects of sin mentioned above. Forgiveness of sin does not mean (in the divine scheme of things) that it will not be punished. The guilt is removed when the sinner sincerely repents, but the offense still deserves to be punished. This is often expressed in the Scriptures: "For them you were a God who forgives; yet you punished all their offenses" (Ps. 99:8). And we see how God dealt with David who ordered the death of Uriah, of whose wife David had fathered a child: "Nathan (the prophet) said to David: 'The Lord on his part has forgiven your sin; you shall not die. But since you have utterly spurned the Lord by this deed, the child born to you must surely die" (2 Sam. 12:13).
Many a parent would do well to reflect on God's merciful love that forgives, but punishes as well to help check the fault. For some, the notion of forgiveness is forgiving punishment. Such makes for a spoiled child.
As regards the extent of suffering in purgatory, St. Thomas Aquinas answers:
It is clear from the above that all do not suffer to the same degree in purgatory, for all do not come to that stage of their salvation with the same debt of punishment to undergo. And theologians tell us sin is punished more severely in purgatory than on earth, because the separated soul, released from the dependence on the body, knows far better than it did on earth the goodness, love and majesty of the God it has offended, and is much more aware of its self-love and unworthiness. From the moment of death love of God is the overpowering activity of the soul; and from this love springs all the painful longings of the soul: the longing to atone for sin, and to make amends to God Who out of infinite love created and redeemed him; the longing to suffer all that God wishes even though, as theologians declare, it is greater than any suffering we know on earth.
Consequently, intense as the suffering of purgatory may be, the soul sees it as just; and since the soul sees it as the means appointed by God to remove all hindrances to the complete possession and enjoyment of God, the soul happily accepts it. Though the soul on earth did not have the courage to impose this deep interior suffering, it now accepts that suffering willingly. Consequently, as Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P. explains, all in purgatory have perfect peace, perfect abandonment into the hands of the Lord. There is no anxiety, for all are sure of their salvation; no impatience, for there is perfect union with the divine will; no envy, for they love all souls as themselves; no terror, for they adore the divine justice (Everlasting Life, p. 184, 185).
In the preceding section we were looking more at the intensity of the suffering of purgatory. This section considers the length of that purification. Even after the debt of temporal punishment due to sin has been paid, there can still remain what St. Thomas calls the "remains of sin" (De Malo, Q.7,a.11,ad 4). It was to this that he was referring in the words quoted above: "the length of punishment corresponds to the firmness with which sin has taken root in its subject." The Angelic Doctor comments further:
Although, as we have pointed out, after death the soul no longer has to battle with the inclinations, habits and passions of the body, the habits of thought and will are in the soul, and their corruptions are not shed by merely shedding the body. Speaking of this Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange explains:
By frequently weakening and consenting even to small venial sins, the soul gives the "law of sin" a hold on the will, so that it can become more deeply rooted in the soul. St. Paul, holy as he was, complained about "another law in my members fighting against the law of my mind, captivating me in the law of sin," so that "I do not the good that I will, but the evil I hate, that I do" (Rom. 7).
Insofar as the "law of sin" has a hold on the will, the soul remains divided within itself. In regard to God, it delights in his law. Yet, in regard to creatures that have captivated it, occasionally they draw the will to delight in them in disregard of God's law. The roots of this division remain after death and render the soul unfit for heaven until they are entirely eliminated.
God could remove these "remains of sin" in the soul in an instant, raising the soul's love for Him to such an intensity as to burn out instantly all other loves and attractions. This He may do in the case of martyrs. But in other souls it is fitting that they should go through the long agony of painfully detaching their souls from the wrong affections to creatures which they have willfully and persistently encouraged to take root in their souls.
The sacrament of extreme unction fortifies the soul for the last struggle, and hinders disordered inclinations and attachments from harming us at the supreme moment. However, those defective dispositions still remain, and must be purified in purgatory. In this way egoism, selfishness, lust, envy, pride, etc. are "burned away" (as spiritual writers express it) until charity reigns completely in the soul.
How are we to understand the expression that these dispositions are "burned away?" The early Fathers spoke of a purifying fire. Theologians are not in agreement as to the nature of that fire. The word fire is used in the Scriptures (sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively) as a punishing and purifying element. In the Sacred Books fire is often used as a symbol of God, e.g. God speaking to Moses from the flaming bush, and the Holy Spirit (the Love of the Father and the Son) appearing over each of the apostles on Pentecost as small flames of fire. Could it be that, since sinners refuse to love God by obedience to His law, in some mysterious way the fire of divine love which they have spurned, is the very instrument of their punishment or purification? At any rate, the Church has made no pronouncements concerning the existence of a real fire in purgatory. Perhaps the image of fire best expresses the painful purification that takes place in the gradual liberation from sinful attachments, and the suffering in payment for the temporal punishment due to sin.
By reason of the Mystical Body of Christ, the souls in purgatory are our neighbors just as truly as those in our neighborhood. And these departed souls can do nothing for themselves. They can no longer merit an increase of grace, nor gain indulgences which would remit temporal punishment due to sin, nor receive cleansing and strengthening graces of the sacraments. They can only suffer to satisfy the debt of punishment due to their sins.
We, on the other hand, can assist them by our prayer, by offering on their behalf the satisfactory value of our good works, sacrifices and trials, by almsdeeds, by gaining indulgences for them, and especially by the sacrifice of the Mass. In all these ways we help ourselves as well as the poor souls, for the charity which motivates our actions merits for ourselves an increase of grace. As regards the gaining of indulgences, we have to keep in mind that the Church has the power of "binding and loosing" only for the living, not for the dead. Consequently we can only fulfill the requisites for gaining an indulgence and entreat Our Blessed Lord to apply their fruits to the souls of the departed. And we can well believe that in the measure that we help them now in their need, when we come to that stage of our salvation we will be helped by others. And those we have helped will be grateful to us in heaven for all eternity.
In the light of all that we have discussed, it seems that many Catholics have a very erroneous opinion as to the duration of purgatory. Some, perhaps reflecting on the repentant thief on Calvary, or relying on a plenary indulgence at the moment of death, or on the tradition of what is called the sabbatine privilege, seem confident that they will be in heaven very shortly after death. And for the same reason they believe too easily in the prompt deliverance of their loved ones, and after a period of a month or so no longer pray for them. Solid theologians discourage that kind of thinking. In this regard, Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange comments:
Quoting several theologians who contended that purgatory is so severe, and the suffrages of the Church are so efficacious that no soul remains in purgatory more than ten or twenty years, Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange explains: "Theologians all but unanimously reject that view. Souls converted at the last moment, after a life of grave disorder, remain in purgatory much longer than ten or twenty years. Theological opinion, in general, is that purgatorial purification is of long duration" (Ibid.).
Yet, with all this their interior love for God transfigures their sufferings and fills their souls with a peace and surrender to God's will which we on earth cannot imagine. As someone has expressed it: "Purgatory is not an antechamber to hell; it is the waiting room for heaven."
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