The Catholic Thing
Purgatory: An Objection Answered Print E-mail
By Francis J. Beckwith   
Friday, 26 October 2012

In Catholic theology, Purgatory is a state (or a process, not necessarily a place) to which one’s soul travels if one has died in a state of grace, but nevertheless retains unremitted venial sins and certain ingrained bad habits and dispositions.

That is, Purgatory is a state for the redeemed who are not yet perfected. It is not a halfway house between Heaven and Hell. In Purgatory, you willingly undergo the quality and quantity of pain and suffering that is uniquely prepared for you so that you may enter Heaven unblemished.

But the dead in Purgatory do not go through this alone. Those of us who are living may provide assistance to them by offering prayers, alms, Masses, indulgences, etc. without, apparently, undermining the point of Purgatory. 

Some Protestants, even those who are Purgatory-friendly, have raised an objection to this account. They argue that, if undergoing the pains of Purgatory is necessary for a soul’s purification, then wouldn’t the assistance of the living impair that purification?

That is, if I fast and pray for the poor souls in Purgatory so that they may receive some relief from their suffering, how is that helping their purification if the process requires a particular amount of agony? 

The mistake the critic is making is that he is thinking of Purgatory in terms of distributive justice, that the assistance of the living is a rival to the performance of the deceased as if the entire enterprise were a zero-sum game.

He is, of course, not entirely to blame, since the Church and its theologians sometimes use the juridical language of satisfaction and debt to describe Purgatory, its punishments, and the role that the living play in diminishing those punishments.

Nevertheless, as a technical matter, the Church’s understanding of the justice exacted in Purgatory has always been teleological. “Justice,” writes St. Thomas Aquinas, “is so-called inasmuch as it implies a certain rectitude of order in the interior disposition of a man, in so far as what is highest in man is subject to God, and the inferior powers of the soul are subject to the superior.”

        Atonement from the Ship in Purgatory by Joseph Anton Koch, c. 1825

This is why two Church councils  Orange and Trent – employ the metaphor of the vine and the branches (John 15:1-17) in order to express the relationship between the members of Christ’s body, both living and dead, as they assist each other on the journey to Paradise. The Council of Trent affirms:

For since Christ Jesus Himself, as the head into the members and the vine into the branches, continually infuses strength into those justified, which strength always precedes, accompanies and follows their good works, and without which they could not in any manner be pleasing and meritorious before God, we must believe that nothing further is wanting to those justified to prevent them from being considered to have, by those very works which have been done in God, fully satisfied the divine law according to the state of this life and to have truly merited eternal life, to be obtained in its [due] time, provided they depart [this life] in grace….
So, however we may assist those in Purgatory – through fasting, praying, almsgiving, masses, indulgences, etc. – it is the consequence of cooperating grace, God working through us so that we may express our love, the virtue of charity, to the entirety of Christ’s body, both living and dead.

Perhaps a concrete example will help. Peter is a child growing up in the midst of a broken home. As a consequence, he develops vices that lead him to a life of crime and debauchery.

Suppose as a young adult he undergoes a conversion experience, though he finds it difficult to change his old habits. He often finds himself tempted to return to his former life, though he knows that it will destroy him.

Fed up with this internal struggle, he pursues a cloistered life of spiritual discipline that includes rigorous fasting, prayer, studying, meditation, devotion to the poor, and self-flagellation.

After many years, he has acquired a level of self-mastery that truly astounds him as well as the numerous friends he has made in the monastery. But then he has an epiphany that causes him to well up with tears of deep gratitude.

For he looks around and sees, really sees for the first time, what he had taken granted for the past decade: the wonderful architecture, the mountains of books, the opulent sanctuary, the scores of friends he now calls family, all expressions of the love and selfless giving that made his journey possible.

Although the donors, volunteers, and fellow monks that contributed to these magnificent surroundings are often described by others as having helped relieve the burdens of its residents, it would not be accurate to think of this assistance in merely distributive terms, and in fact Peter cannot bring himself to see it that way, or at least not anymore.

Yes, there was pain and suffering, all deserved, of course, and Peter knows that if not for this overabundance of charity his agony would have been worse. But he does not, indeed he cannot, view this charity as a mere amelioration of what could have been.

Rather, he sees his experience as an organic whole, ordered toward both his good and the good of those with whom he lives in fellowship. The charity and the suffering worked in concert for a proper end.

If you understand this story, you understand the Catholic account of Purgatory.

Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy and Church-State Studies at Baylor University, where he is also a Resident Fellow in the Institute for Studies of Religion. He is the author of Return to Rome: Confessions of an Evangelical Catholic and one of four primary contributors to Journeys of Faith: Evangelicalism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and Anglicanism.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (11)Add Comment
written by Kevin Orlin Johnson, October 26, 2012
What cracks me up is that so many Bible-believing fundamentalists object that Purgatory isn’t mentioned in the Bible--despite passages like Mt 5:25 f. “ … lest at any time the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison. Verily I say unto thee, Thou shalt by no means come out thence, till thou hast paid the uttermost farthing."
written by Grump, October 26, 2012
Can you tell me if the sentences run concurrently or consecutively? Also how is the "quantity and quality of pain" determined? Is there a venial sin chart available for quick reference?
written by W. P Dias, October 26, 2012
I have, within the past few days in fact, been contemplating the souls of my departed Father and uncles and aunts and others. I realized that there were opportunities to show them my love, of forgiveness for their short-comings which I did not take and that my rectification of these, my failures, is a hindrance to them too and my duty to set this right.
written by Bryan Martin, October 26, 2012
Kevin, I'm not making a statement about purgatory existing or not, but I think you just took that passage in Matthew and butchered the context. You see, Matthew 5 - in context - deals with a whole slew of human matters like divorce, adultery, swearing, revenge, murder etc. In Matthew 5:25, the verse starts with "Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court lest at any time he delivers you to the judge..." and you quoted the rest of the verse. You see, context is king and someone once said that a text without a context is a pretext for a post text. The verse you just quoted is all about earthly court. There is nothing that even hints at this being a reference to purgatory. I'm not Catholic, but I have a huge respect for the Catholic church and I'm sure there are more convincing references than this one.
written by dennis, October 26, 2012
why add to the scripture? "to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord." For God so loved the world that HE gave his only begotten son that whomsoever shall believe in him shall have eternal life....never die." WHY does certain parts of the church choose to ADD to what scripture says?
written by Dan in Chicago, October 26, 2012
"to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord."

Where is that in the Bible?
written by Steve S, October 27, 2012
Very simply, I think of Purgatory in these terms: if we understand God as the burning fire of Love, then Purgatory is the process whereby our souls are "burnt up" by that Love as we approach Him (or as He approaches us). What falls away is everything that lingers in our souls that cannot remain in God's presence. "These three remain, faith, hope, and love..."
written by Facile1, October 28, 2012
I did not pay attention to purgatory until my parents died. When my parents died (within eight months of each other), I honestly could not imagine either of them going to heaven. I don't want to discuss their sins here in a public forum. Let it suffice to say all sin is idolatry and my parents loved many things before God (especially their family, which unfortunately did not include each other.)

After the death of my mother (who died first), I could not enter a Catholic Church without throwing up. So I wandered about for almost half a decade looking for relief in other religions and mental healthcare services. Until I remembered "purgatory".

I was thinking about God --- more than praying to Him --- when it occurred to me that (if God is everywhere except in hell), HE must also be present in purgatory. Everyone in purgatory eventually goes to heaven.

I returned to the Catholic Church after that. And I continue to pray for God's mercy --- that if I don't make it to heaven on the first try, (LORD, PLEASE) make it purgatory.
written by Dewey, October 28, 2012
I was talking to the great Anglican priest, theoretical physicist and theologian Sir John Polkinghorn about four years back and we got on to the subject of Purgatory. He declared himself a great believer in it since it shows how God's justice and mercy can meet in a fitting way. He held that it was a great mercy that God would bring sinners to him, yet rehabilitate them from their sinful and unjust inclinations. I was surprised to hear him defend the doctrine of Purgatory, and remarked that Meister Eckhardt had held something similar. Sir John's views on Purgatory were very close to the Roman Catholic teaching on it. If only more Catholics could have this Anglican's perspicuity!
written by Jack,CT, October 29, 2012
Prayer;we beseech thee, O Lord!
grant us the graceto persevere in our
charity towards the souls in purgatory;
deign to look with eyes of mercy
upon these pentitent souls,deliver them
from there suffering,and open to them
from their suffering,and open to them
the portals of Heeaven. Through
Christ,our Lord Amen.
Special Intercession; Pray for the
souls who suffer for inconstancy in
the service of God.
Eternal rest grant unto them,O
Lord,and let perpetual light shine
upon them;may they rest in peace

The Purgatorian Manual
Francis Cardinal Spellman,
New York,July 28,1946
This wonderful manual is still in print,
I found originals on Ebay,Amazon still
has a print to buy,great for daily prayer
for the poor souls.
written by Steve, November 16, 2012
In Matthew 5:20-26 Jesus presented a parable which compared life under the "Law" and life in the Kingdom of Heaven. The Kingdom of Heaven or the New Covenant is one of the heart; the Old Covenant under the Law was one of works. So, all of the physical objects in this story are there to reflect spiritual principles. In the days of old, judgment resulted, many times, in a jail sentance until the crime was paid. That's what was being reference in Matthew 5:26. Also, the Old Covenant mentality was that you're guilty when you commit the crime; murder in this case. However, Jesus said that being angry, an attitude of the heart was just as serious as the physical crime. If we try to justify ourselves by our actions, Satan, our adversary, will take advantage of us because of our thoughts. Therefore, if we repent and put our fatih in Jesus, our Savior, it's like settling out of court with God. We don't have to appear before Him at the great white throne judgment (Revelation 20:11-15). And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:7). Amen :

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