November 23, 2012

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Year of Faith: The Catholic doctrine of purgatory

John F. FinkMany Protestant churches reject the Catholic doctrine of purgatory because, they say, there is nothing about purgatory in the Bible. Actually, the idea of praying for the dead, that they might be cleansed of the punishment due to their sins, is in the Catholic Bible. It is just not in the Protestant Bible.

The doctrine of purgatory is actually comforting. It is also widely misunderstood. Many Catholics tend to think of purgatory as a place between heaven and hell, and it’s not. Purgatory is the name given to a process of purification, not to a place the soul might go to after death.

Here’s how the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains it: “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. The Church gives the name purgatory to this final purification of the elect” (#1030-31).

Sacred Scripture says that nothing impure will enter the kingdom of heaven (Rev 21:27). But we know that not everyone who dies is worthy to enter into perfect and complete union with God. Nor has he or she rejected God’s mercy enough to sentence himself or herself to hell. He or she is neither a great sinner nor a great saint.

If God is perfect justice, it wouldn’t be right for him either to condemn that person to hell for all eternity, nor would it be right for him to just overlook those few imperfections. There must be some process of purification, and that’s what we call purgatory. During this purification, every trace of sin is eliminated and every imperfection is corrected. Thus is God’s justice tempered by his mercy.

The Catholic Church doesn’t say when this will occur since the concept of time is meaningless in eternity. Perhaps it occurs immediately after death or in the process of dying. We don’t know.

Unfortunately, some pious folklore has made purgatory seem like a mini-hell where people spend years and years of torture and pain before finally being allowed into heaven. That, though, is not Catholic teaching.

As Blessed Pope John Paul II said on Aug. 4, 1999, “Those who live in this state of purification after death are not separated from God, but are immersed in the love of Christ.”

Part of the doctrine of purgatory is our belief that we, the relatives and friends of the deceased, can assist those who have died with our prayers. This is part of the doctrine of the communion of saints that we say we believe in when we recite the Apostles’ Creed.

Where is this in the Bible? Read Chapter 12 in the Second Book of Maccabees. It tells about Judas Maccabeus taking up a collection that he sent to the temple in Jerusalem to provide for an expiatory sacrifice for the sins committed by some of his soldiers who had been killed in battle. As verse 46 says, “Thus, he made atonement for the dead that they might be freed from [their] sin” (2 Mc 12:46). †

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