(This is based, in part, on John Gerstner’s Primer on Roman Catholicism from a compilation of his primers in the book Primitive Theology. I am using Primitive Theology for my Sunday School class. For this lesson, I will also draw from James R. White’s The Roman Catholic Controversy, (Bethany House, 1996).There is a growing list of links on the left for the posts for this class.
PurgatoryAs usual, we begin a study of a Catholic doctrine by referring to official pronouncements. From the Council of Florence (1439):
It has likewise defined, that, if those truly penitent have departed in the love of God, before they have made satisfaction by worthy fruits of penance for sins of commission and omission, the souls of these are cleansed after death by purgatorial punishments; and so that they may be released from punishments of this kind, the suffrages of the living faithful are of advantage to them, namely, the sacrifices of Masses, prayers, and almsgiving, and other works of piety, which are customarily performed by the faithful for other faithful according to the institutions of the Church.From the Council of Trent (1563):
Since the Catholic Church, instructed by the Holy Spirit, in conformity with the sacred writings and the ancient tradition of the Fathers in sacred councils, and very recently in this ecumenical Synod, has taught that there is a purgatory, and that the souls detained there are assisted by the suffrages of the faithful, and especially by the acceptable sacrifice of the altar, the holy Synod commands the bishops that they insist that the sound doctrine of purgatory, which has been transmitted by the holy Fathers and holy Councils, be believed by the faithful of Christ, be maintained, taught, and everywhere preached.Fr. John Hardon, author of the respected work The Catholic Catechism (1981), explains:
If anyone shall say that after the reception of the grace of justification, to every penitent sinner the guilt is so remitted and the penalty of eternal punishment so blotted out that no penalty of temporal punishment remains to be discharged either in this world or in the world to come in purgatory before the entrance to the kingdom of heaven can be opened: let him be anathema.
The reason of faith is that nothing defiled can enter heaven, and therefore anyone less than perfect must first be purified before he can be admitted to the vision of God. In more concrete terms, which have been carved out of centuries of the Church's reflection on revelation, there exists purgatory, in which the souls of the just who die with the stains of sins are cleansed by expiation before they are admitted to heaven. They can be helped, however, by the intercession of the faithful on earth.Fr. Hardon is attempting to explain one of the complexities of the doctrine. It has to do with the distinction between mortal and venial sin, and the distinction between forgiven and “paid for” (expiated) through temporal punishment.
“Who are the souls of the just? They are those that leave the body in the state of sanctifying grace and are therefore destined by right to enter heavenly glory. Their particular judgment was favorable, although conditional. They must first be cleansed before they can see the face of God. The condition is always fulfilled.
“When we speak of "stains of sins," the expression is consciously ambivalent. It first means the temporal punishment due to venial or mortal sins already forgiven as to guilt but not fully remitted as to penalty when a person dies. It may also mean the venial sins themselves, not forgiven either as to guilt or punishment before death.
Venial sin is a sin which meets at least one of the following criteria:
- it does not concern a "grave matter",
- it is not committed with full knowledge, or
- it is not committed with both deliberate and complete consent.
In short, mortal sins are very serious-- a mortal sin is a sin that results in a loss of one’s salvation if it goes unrepented. It is called "mortal" because it kills the eternal life in a soul that is first given in baptism. A less serious venial sin adds to one's time in purgatory. So what Fr. Hardon is telling us is:
- Sins must be forgiven in order to be saved.
- Sins that are forgiven must also be paid for by temporal punishment.
- Mortal sins must be forgiven in this life, but some or all of their punishment can be exacted in purgatory.
- Similarly for venial sins, except it may be possible that some venial sins are actually forgiven in purgatory (as opposed to just “paid for.”)
1030 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.We note that a scripture passage used to support purgatory is the unpardonable sin:
1031 The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned. The Church formulated her doctrine of faith on Purgatory especially at the Councils of Florence and Trent. The tradition of the Church, by reference to certain texts of Scripture, speaks of a cleansing fire: As for certain lesser faults, we must believe that, before the Final Judgment, there is a purifying fire. He who is truth says that whoever utters blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will be pardoned neither in this age nor in the age to come. From this sentence we understand that certain offenses can be forgiven in this age, but certain others in the age to come.
And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come. (Matt. 12:32)The idea being that this passage obliquely proves that there is the possibility of some sin being forgiven in an age to come—which is identified with purgatory.
John Calvin wrote, regarding Matt. 12:32:
With regard to the inference drawn by the Papists, that the sins of men are forgiven after death, there is no difficulty in refuting their slander. First, they act foolishly in torturing the expression, future life, to mean an intermediate period, while any one may perceive that it denotes "the last judgment." But it is likewise a proof of their dishonesty; for the objection which they sophistically urge is inconsistent with their own doctrine. Who knows not their distinction, that sins are freely pardoned in respect of guilt, but that punishment and satisfaction are demanded? This is an acknowledgment, that there is no hope of salvation to any one whose guilt is not pardoned before death. To the dead, therefore, there remains no forgiveness, except as regards punishment; and surely they will not venture to deny that the subject of this discourse is guilt. Let them now go and light their fire of purgatory with these cold materials, if ice can kindle a flame.Calvin’s criticism is a subtle but deadly one: Catholic doctrine teaches that all mortal sin must be forgiven (via penance) in this life. Clearly the unpardonable sin is a mortal sin. In order for Matt. 12:32 to speak of purgatory, it must be allowed that this mortal sin is an exception—and so the implication is that some mortal sin can be forgiven in purgatory. Calvin takes the simpler view: blasphemy of the Holy Spirit will neither be forgiven in this age nor at the final judgment—stated to emphasize the serious of the transgression. Other Protestant commentators suggest that this sin is neither forgivable in under the Old Covenant (still in effect as Jesus spoke these words) or the New Covenant (the age to come) initiated at Calvary.
The Catholic Catechism goes on to speak of prayer for the dead:
1032 This teaching is also based on the practice of prayer for the dead, already mentioned in Sacred Scripture:We see that some of their scriptural support comes from the Apocryphal book of 2 Maccabees. We see also that indulgences are explicitly mentioned in the Catechism.
"Therefore [Judas Maccabeus] made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin." (2 Maccabees 12:46)
From the beginning the Church has honored the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God. The Church also commends almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead: Let us help and commemorate them. If Job's sons were purified by their father's sacrifice, why would we doubt that our offerings for the dead bring them some consolation? Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and to offer our prayers for them.
This may come as a surprise to those who thought indulgences were an “ancient” doctrine. Not so—here are some excerpts from the post-Vatican II document: Indulgentarium Doctrina (Paul VI, 1967):
It is a divinely revealed truth that sins bring punishments inflicted by God's sanctity and justice. These must be expiated either on this earth through the sorrows, miseries and calamities of this life and above all through death, or else in the life beyond through fire and torments or "purifying" punishments…The reasons for their imposition are that our souls need to be purified.What we see is that there are three Catholic doctrines that are closely related: Purgatory, indulgences, and the “treasury of merit.”
That punishment or the vestiges of sin may remain to be expiated or cleansed and that they in fact frequently do even after the remission of guilt is clearly demonstrated by the doctrine on purgatory. In purgatory, in fact, the souls of those "who died in the charity of God and truly repentant, but before satisfying with worthy fruits of penance for sins committed and for omissions" are cleansed after death with purgatorial punishments.
Next time we will look at indulgences and the complex Catholic view of merit.