The term Purgatory comes from the infinitive
form of the Latin “purgare”, to purify. The
belief in Purgatory is rooted in Roman
Catholic tradition. It is this author‟s purpose to
examine the teaching of the Church from its
earliest beginnings, tracing its historical and
theological development by the early Church
Fathers, and the political influences which led
to its codification as dogma in Church councils.
The concept of a place of purgation for souls
whose lives have been morally mediocre
should make sense philosophically for
Christians. The reasoning is simple: A person,
who, in his or her life has knowledge of
Christ‟s call to perfection (Matthew 5:48) and
chooses not to heed that call wholeheartedly,
enters into the next life hampered by a spiritual
uncleanness. This state of the soul who has not
rejected God totally demands cleansing.
Protestantism has dismissed the concept of
Purgatory, due to its belief that Christ‟s
redemptive act on the Cross assures salvation
for those who accept Christ as their savior.
Protestantism generally rejects the
effectiveness of good works as a necessary
condition for salvation, focusing instead on
faith in Christ and His love for those who
Luther, in his famous 95 theses, questioned the
abuses of indulgence-selling. On October 31,
1517 nailed 95 statements he wished
theologians to debate to the castle door, which
served as the “black-board” of the University
of Wittenberg on which all notices and
university functions were displayed. The same
day he sent a copy of the Theses with an
explanatory letter to Archbishop Albert
(Albrecht) of Magdeburg and Mainz.
This is a picture I took of the door when I was in Luther-Stadt
Wittenburg in 2005.
Later in his life, Luther espoused the doctrine of
the sleep of the soul upon one‟s death, using this
idea as a refutation of Purgatory and the
veneration of saints. While Luther is not always
consistent, the predominant note running all
through his writings is that the souls of the just
sleep in peace, without consciousness or pain.
Luther initially accepted the belief in Purgatory. In
1519 he even said that its existence was
undeniable. By 1530 he had changed his mind; he
said that Purgatory could not be proven to exist
from biblical passages. Later that year he rejected
the concept of Purgatory entirely.
Catholicism, while considering the existence of
Purgatory to be dogma, has, at least in its
liturgy, moved away from earlier concepts of
Purgatory as a temporary Hell to one of lesser
concern for the ordinary member of the
faithful. Purgatory is rarely, if ever, mentioned
at wakes or funerals. In the official liturgical
prayers, while implied, the term is never used.
The focus in the New Testament is the “Good
News” of Jesus‟ redemption found in the four
gospels, as well as the Gospel of Resurrection
found in the writings of St. Paul. The early
Christian preachers, especially St. Paul, simply
were not concerned with Purgatory.
In the Old Testament, prayer and sacrifice of
expiation for the dead appear only in the last two
centuries before Christ. Before this time no acts of
worship directed toward the dead seem to have
The only OT passage that can be cited in support of the
doctrine of Purgatory is 2 Mc 12.39-45. According to
the text, when Judas Machabee and his men made
arrangements for the fitting burial of the soldiers of his
army who had died near Adullam, it was discovered that
they had worn pagan amulets, contrary to the
prescriptions of the Mosaic Law.
According to the traditional interpretation of this
passage, the inspired author believed that those who
had otherwise led good lives were purified by prayer
and sacrifice from their sins. This essentially is the
Catholic doctrine on Purgatory. If, however, as
many modern exegetes hold, the author regarded
these sacrifices as necessary for the eschatological
resurrection of the dead soldiers, then these passages
do not directly refer to the doctrine of Purgatory.
It would be St. Augustine (354-430) who
would, among the Church Fathers, be
especially influential in promoting the idea of
Tertullian, Origen, Cyril, Basil, Cyprian,
Ephram, Ambrose, John Crysostom, Caesarius
of Arles, and Gregory the Great…all gave
witness to the early belief in Purgatory.
St. Gregory (540-604) gives a concise argument
in his “Dialogues” for the existence of Purgatory:
“Each one will be presented to the Judge exactly as he
was when he departed this life. Yet, there must be a
cleansing fire before judgment, because of some
minor faults that remain to be purged away….”
The period from Augustine and Gregory to the
appearance of Dante‟s “Divine Comedy” in the 14th
century was a time of stagnation in the development of
the eventual existence of Purgatory as dogma with the
Councils of Lyon II, Florence, and Trent.
Stagnant as the development of the dogma of
Purgatory was, it was also an age of imagination and
creative thought, with ideas ranging from two hells to
two heavens, to cleansing fire (not that of Hell) even
after the Day of Judgment. A museum was even
opened to house objects brought back from a cleansing
place by visionaries during this period. (How these
objects survived the cleansing fire is not clear…!)
For a particularly thorough and impressive
scholarly work on the growth of the concept of
Purgatory, from the time of the early Church
writers to the end of the 12th century, I
recommend “The Birth of Purgatory” written
in French by Jacques Le Goff, and translated
into English by Arthur
Goldhammer, published by the University of
Chicago Press in 1986.
Catholicism split into two parts in a major
development in 1054. Although there had always
been an uneasy relationship between Christians in
the Eastern Empire, with its capital in
Constantinople (today Istanbul, Turkey), and the
Western Empire, with its capital in Rome, an issue
of how the Holy Spirit “proceeded” from the other
persons in the Trinity (the filioque controvesy) plus
a confrontation as to who held primal authority in
the Christian church brought the Catholic church
to its first major split since the Oriental Orthodox
broke from the Church following the Council of
Chalcedon in 451.
Patriarch Michael I Celarius of Constantinople had a letter
written to a Eastern bishop which found its way to Pope
Leo IX wherein the patriarch claimed the title “ecumenical
patriarch” and referred to Pope Leo as a “brother” rather
than “father.” The major issue Michael wrote about
concerned the use of unleavened bread at the Eucharist,
which practice had been approved by the pope. Legates
from the pope were to meet with the dallying Michael, but
Pope Leo died on April 19, 1054. Although the legates‟
authority legally ceased at the pope‟s death, on July 16, the
three legates entered the church of the Hagia Sophia during
the liturgy on a Saturday afternoon and placed a Bull of
Excommunication on the altar. The legates left for Rome two
days later, leaving behind a city in a frenzy. The papal bull
was burned and the Great Schism began.
The filioque controversy preceded the excommunication. Filioque is
a Latin word meaning “and the Son” which was added to the
Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed by the Church of Rome in the
11th century. This inclusion in the creed regarding the Holy Spirit
thus states that the Spirit “proceeds from the Father and the Son.”
Its inclusion in the Creed would seem to have been a violation of
the canons of the Council at Ephesus in 431, which forbade and
anathematized any additions to the Creed of the Council of Nicea,
a prohibition which was reiterated at Constantinople IV in 879880. This word was not included by the Council of Nicea nor of
Constantinople, and most in the Orthodox Church consider this
inclusion to be heresy. However, a regional council in Persia in
410 introduced one of the earliest forms of the filioque in the Creed;
the council specified the Spirit proceeds from the Father “and
from the Son.” Coming from the rich theology of early East Syrian
Christianity, this expression in this context is authentically
Eastern. Therefore, the filioque cannot be attacked as a solely
Western innovation, nor as something created by the pope.
Before his death, Leo IX sent a letter to Michael,
in 1054, wherein he cites the "Donatio" to show
that the Holy See possessed both an earthly
and a heavenly imperium, the royal
priesthood."Leo IX assured the Patriarch that
the donation was completely genuine, not a
fable, so only the apostolic successor to Peter
possessed that primacy and was the rightful
head of all the Church.
(Donatio Constantini) is a forged decree by
which the emperor Constantine supposedly
transferred authority over Rome and
the Western part of the empire to the Pope.
Composed probably in the 8th century, it was
used, especially in the 13th century, in support
of claims of political authority by the papacy.
However, an Italian priest, Lorenzo Valla
and Renaissance humanist, is credited with
first exposing the forgery with
solid arguments in 1439–1440.
As a general rule, all Eastern Christians do not use
the word “Purgatory.” This includes both Eastern
Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians. The
word “Purgatory” is specific to the Latin tradition.
In the Medieval West, many popular theologians
defined Purgatory as a specific place of suffering.
It was popular to tally periods of time that people
spent in Purgatory for various offences, which led
to the practice, prior to the 95 theses of Luther, of
granting years, if not centuries, of exemption from
time spent in Purgatory through the purchase and
granting of indulgences.
In the Catholic understanding, two points are
necessary dogma concerning “Purgatory”.
1) There is a place of transition/transformation for
those en-route to Heaven.
2) Prayer and good works (including almsgiving) are
efficacious for the dead who are in that state. That the
second point was abused in the Catholic Church, there
is no doubt. This gave rise to Luther‟s wish to debate
The Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches
agree with the Latin Church fully on both of these
points (with the exception of the Western abuses.) In
practice, liturgies for the dead are celebrated and
prayers are offered on their behalf.
It is an understatement to say that St. Augustine was the most influential
theologian in the Western Church until the arrival of St. Thomas Aquinas
(1225-1274). It was Augustine, however, who embraced the concept of
limbo, a state where unbaptized infants went after death. For a long time it
was held that an infant without baptism would go to hell, but would
suffer a mitigated pain. Augustine even persuaded the Council of
Carthage (418) to condemn the idea that children who pass out of this life
unbaptized live in happiness.
In contrast, in our time, Pope John Paul II wished to do away with Limbo.
A theological commission with this purpose in view was instituted by
him before his death. Although the commission has not given the final
verdict, as Cardinal, Pope Benedict XVI had already voiced his opinion
on the dissolution of Limbo. Cardinal Ratzinger, now retired Benedict
XVI, presided over the commission‟s first sessions and said that Limbo
has no place in modern Catholicism.
Augustine‟s position on Limbo has been dismissed in paragraph 1261 of
the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
As regards children who have died without Baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God,, as she does in her funeral
rites for them. Indeed, the great mercy of god who desires that all men should be saved, and Jesus‟ tenderness toward children which
caused him to say: “Let the children come too me, do not hinder them,” allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children
who have died without Baptism…
This statement of the Catholic Church today, in
addition to the intentions of two modern papal
figures, would seem to indicate that Limbo will
disappear from any further discussion within
eschatological theology. This is particularly
important considering the hundreds of millions
of abortions world-wide….and a comfort to
those Christian parents who lose their children
through miscarriages or still-born births.
Western theologians continued to develop the concept of Purgatory, constructing a more consistent
synthesis. There was general agreement on the presence of fire as a purging agent. However, since the
body was removed from the soul at death, it is difficult to understand how a physical fire could affect
a spiritual being without some theological hypothesizing, none of which offered a definitive solution.
Eastern theologians rejected the idea of fire.
St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) explained the fire as a binding and hampering of the soul, but not as
physical fire. He also held that the least pain in Purgatory was greater than the worst in this life. St.
Bonaventure (1221-1274 ) said the worst suffering after death was greater than the worst on earth, but
the same could not be said regarding the least purgatorial suffering.
St. Robert Bellarmine (1524-1561) said that in some way the pains of Purgatory are greater than those
on earth. At least objectively the loss of the beatific vision after death, is worse than its non-possession
There was, and still is, no certainty concerning the intensity of the pain of Purgatory. However, St.
Catherine of Genoa‟s (1447-1510) description of Purgatory is compelling reading; however, it falls
into the category of mystical private revelation and Catholics are free to withhold belief in it, or any
other private revelation, if they so choose.
What is significant about Catherine‟s Treatise on Purgatory is her emphasis on the joy of those in
Purgatory. This joy seems to overshadow the pain of deprivation from the fullness of God‟s presence.
One of the greatest works of literature is the Divine Comedy, written by Dante Alighieri
(1265-1361). Born in Florence, Italy, Dante was educated in Italian and Latin poetry;
however, because of Florentine law, in order to participate in public life, one had to be
enrolled in a sort of workers‟ union. He chose to enroll in the apothecaries‟ guild. He did
not intend to actually be a pharmacist, but at that time books were sold from
apothecaries' shops. As a politician, he accomplished little, but he held various offices
over a number of years in a city undergoing political unrest. In his twenties, Dante
turned his attention to philosophy and took part in the disputes that the Franciscans and
Dominicans held in Florence, where he learned of the theological teachings of St.
Bonaventure and St. Thomas Aquinas concerning Purgatory.
Beginning in 1308, when he was in his early forties, Dante began work on the Divine
Comedy. The poem is written in the first person, and tells of Dante's journey through the
three realms of the dead. The Roman poet Virgil guides him through Hell and
Having survived the depths of Hell, Dante and Virgil ascend to the Mountain of
Purgatory on the far side of the world. The mountain is on an island, created with earth
taken from the excavation of hell. At the shores of the mountain, they meet Cato, a pagan
who has been placed by God as the general guardian of the approach to the mountain.
Dante and Virgil start the ascent of Mount Purgatory. On the lower slopes Dante meets
first a group of those excommunicated from the Church. Ascending higher, he
encounters those too lazy to repent until shortly before death. These souls will be
admitted to Purgatory thanks to their genuine repentance, but must wait outside for an
amount of time equal to their lives on earth. Finally, Dante is shown a beautiful valley
where he sees the kings of the great nations of Europe, and a number of other persons
whose attention to public and private duties hampered their faith. From this valley
Dante is transported asleep to the gates of Purgatory itself.
From there, Virgil guides Dante through the seven levels of Purgatory. These correspond
to the seven deadly sins, in which souls are purged of that particular sin in an
appropriate manner. Souls can leave their level whenever they like, but essentially there
is an honor system where no one leaves until they have corrected the nature within
themselves that caused them to commit that sin. Souls can ascend upwards but never
backwards, since Purgatory‟s purpose is for souls to ascend towards God in Heaven.
The visual imagery Dante uses is memorable. For example, on the first level, the proud
are purged by carrying giant stones on their backs, unable to stand up straight. On the
second, those who were envious are purged by having their eyes sewn shut. On the
third, those who were angry are blinded by smoke. On the fourth, the lazy must
continually run. On the fifth, the greedy are forced to lie with their faces in the dirt. On
the sixth, those who committed the sin of gluttony are unable to secure food or drink.
On the seventh, the lustful must burn in a wall of flames.
The effect of such imagery upon the medieval mind must have been
significant. Dante‟s poem inspired artists to visually represent these levels
and, thus, form an artistic tradition of Purgatory similar to the image of
Adam and Eve eating an apple in Eden. (The use of the apple in early
Christian art probably can be traced back to the Latin word malum, which
medieval monks translated both as “apple” and as “evil.” What a pun!
However, carved depictions of Adam and Eve with apples are found in
early Christian catacombs and on sarcophagi. The apple was the favored
representation of the forbidden fruit in Christian art in France and
Germany beginning around the 12th century. In his Areopagitica (1644),
John Milton explicitly described the fruit of the knowledge of good and
evil as an apple, and that was pretty much the ball game.)
However, as the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words, and
Dante‟s images of Purgatory no doubt influenced the uneducated and
The first Church council to address the issue of
Purgatory was not an ecumenical council. The
Council of Carthage, 394, was the first council
to uphold doctrines of prayers for the dead and
Purgatory. The first ecumenical council (#14) to
address the issue of Purgatory was Lyons II,
held in 1274.
The Council of Lyons II was truly ecumenical
and extremely well-attended. A Pope, Gregory
X, five hundred bishops, sixty abbots, more
than a thousand prelates, the ambassadors of
the Kings of France and England, the
ambassadors of the Emperor Michael
Palaeologus and the Greek clergy, and the
ambassadors of the Khan of the Tatars were in
attendance. Gregory called the council for two
purposes: The conquest of the Holy Land and
the union of the Orthodox and Roman Catholic
Lyons II encouraged crusaders to win back the Holy Land with the
We therefore, trusting in the mercy of almighty God and in the authority of
the blessed apostles Peter and Paul, do grant, by the power of binding and loosing
that God has conferred upon us, albeit unworthy, unto all those who undertake
this work of crossing the sea to aid the holy Land, in person and at their own
expense, full pardon for their sins about which they are truly and heartily
contrite and have spoken in confession, and we promise them an increase of
eternal life at the recompensing of the just. To those who do not go there in
person but send suitable men at their own expense, according to their means and
status, and likewise to those who go in person but at others' expense, we grant
full pardon for their sins. We wish to grant to share in this remission, according
to the nature of their help and the intensity of their devotion, all who shall
contribute suitably from their goods to the aid of the said Land, or who give
useful advice and help regarding the above, and all who make available their own
ships for the help of the holy Land or who undertake to build ships for this
Lyons II, interestingly, was also first council to enact rules
speeding up papal elections, calling for the removal of food
and even the roof of the room they met in if the election
process went on too long. However, the above quote from
Constitution I raises the issue of plenary indulgences (or full
remission of temporal punishment due to forgiven sin) for
those who went to liberate the Holy Land at their own
expense. Not only that, but plenary indulgences are granted
to those princes who, at their own expense, send suitable
soldiers. Finally, plenary indulgences are granted to those
who provide or build ships for the crusade‟s purpose.
The definition of a plenary indulgence, even today in Catholic
parlance, is meant the remission of the entire temporal
punishment due to sin so that no further expiation is
required in Purgatory.
Catholic theology teaches that there are two punishments for sin;
one is called eternal and is inflicted in hell, and the other is called
temporal and is inflicted in this world or in Purgatory. According
to Catholic theology, the sacrament of penance remits the eternal
punishment and only part of the temporal. Doing penance
(prayer, fasting, almsgiving, works of mercy and patient suffering)
remits temporal punishment. The purpose for temporal
punishment is a satisfaction for sin, and to teach the penitent the
great evil of sin and to prevent him or her from falling again.
But the plot thickens. If one could gain a plenary indulgence for
almsgiving to the crusade effort, outlined in Lyons II, then it was
not a big leap for Luther to want debated the entire practice of
indulgence-granting when money was involved.
The story is still promulgated to this day of the
Dominican Friar from Germany, Johann Tetzel (14651519), who apocryphally spoke the couplet "As soon as
a coin in the coffer rings, the rescued soul from
Purgatory springs." Apparently, though, Tetzel even
went as far as creating a chart that listed a price for
each type of sin. However, remission of “temporal
punishment” due to forgiven sin is different than what
Tetzel was accused of ... namely forgiveness of past or
future sins for a price. The charge that the forgiveness
of sins was sold for money regardless of contrition or
that absolution for sins to be committed in the future
could be purchased is baseless. A careful reading of the
above quote from Lyons II makes that clear.
As was just noted, Johann Tetzel became the focus of what might be called “Indulgencegate” today. Tetzel was the Vatican's "Apostolic Commissary for all Germany and
Inquisitor of Heretical Pravity" during the reign of Pope Leo X (1513-1521). Tetzel‟s
indulgence-brokering activities, which soon aroused Luther's righteous indignation,
were part of an ambitious plan of Leo‟s to provide funds for the reconstruction of St.
Peter's in Rome. St. Peter‟s Basilica would take 111 years to build, and would consume
huge amounts of money. Leo was advised by Cardinal Pucci to publish a sale of
indulgences throughout Europe for the purpose of replenishing pontifical funds and
finishing the work on St. Peter's begun by Julius II (1503-1513). Never mind that Leo
himself was given to providing lavish parties for his friends...
The practice of doling out severe physical penances for apostasy, murder, or adultery in
the early Church, which might involve several years of dressing in sackcloth at the
church door or other humiliating practices, led to eventual mitigation of these penances.
From the seventh century on, beginning in Ireland and England, redemptio, a sort of
commutation of penance to less demanding works, such as prayers, alms, fasts and even
the payment of fixed sums of money depending on the various kinds of offences (tariff
penances) became fashionable. However, this practice was considered a mitigation of the
penance imposed on the penitent in the Sacrament of Penance (today called Sacrament of
However, reducing a physical penance within the Sacrament was not an indulgence.
Beginning in the 11th century, the possibility of providing for the multiple works of
piety through the imposition of a donation as a condition for the remission of
punishment, even outside the sacrament, led the way to indulgences in the strict sense of
the term, i.e., apart from sacramental Penance.
As seen from Constitution I of Lyons II, plenary indulgences, outside of the sacrament of
Penance, were granted. However, indulgences had taken up a portion of the four
ecumenical councils: Lateran I (1123), II (1139), III (1179), and IV(1215).
In 1095, Pope Urban II had called for a crusade to rescue the Holy Land from the
Muslims. Thirty years later, Lateran I pardoned the sins of crusaders. In the 1100s, the
custom of seeking an absolution in every circumstance and on every occasion, and
before any work, became widespread in medieval society. In other words, the faithful
were administered a prayer formula, so that God would forgive their sins. Absolutions
entered the liturgy of the Mass and the Office (this is the meaning of the Confiteor), and
were used on various other occasions not only for the living but also for the dead as a
prayer on their behalf.
According to Fr. Enrico dal Covolo, writing in L'Osservatore Romano, 1999:
In any case, by the end of the 11th century indulgences in the strict sense of the word are
found with all their essential elements. It remains difficult, however, to identify the precise point
of transition from the reduction or commutation of sacramental penance to the extrasacramental
remission of temporal punishment due to sins committed: with the 11th and 12th centuries it is
still hard in many cases to determine whether we are dealing with one or the other practice.
The granting of indulgences, outside of the sacrament of Penance, came to become
common-place, inviting abuses, many of which have been recorded.
Fr. Enrico dal Covolo continues:
Indulgences were attached to many works that were not only good but also served the
common good, both religious and civil. Many churches were built or restored — at least in part
— with the revenue from indulgences; this also explains the impressive architectural and artistic
activity of the Middle Ages. Moreover, hospitals, leprosariums, charitable institutions and schools
were built with support from the receipts of special indulgences. Along the same lines is the wellknown construction of roads and bridges. Sometimes an indulgence was also granted for certain
Permission began to be granted to Catholic kings and princes,
particularly on the occasion of Crusades, to retain for themselves a rather
considerable part of the alms collected for the gaining of indulgences.
Later on, similar permission was frequently granted for many other
projects, and princes were not always too scrupulous.
The door had been opened for the abuse of indulgences.
Almsgiving is, and always, has been a good work. However,
when money became the trading currency for delivery from God‟s
justice, the stage was set for a whole series of consequences.
Ecclesiastical powers, comfortable with income from the
uneducated faithful for good works done, did not want to see this
source of wealth dry up...and so it continued. Meanwhile the idea
of Purgatory was about to get more official recognition in the
Council of Florence.
Often quoted as an authoritative declaration on the dogma of Purgatory
is the Council of Florence. The declaration on Purgatory was almost an
after-thought considering the mess the papacy had gone through, and
was still going through. Actually the Council of Florence was part of a
quad-council endeavor known as Basel-Ferrara-Florence-Rome (14311445), which came on the heels of the Great Western Schism (1378-1417 ).
The Great Western Schism does not refer to the split between the eastern
(Greek) and western (Latin) churches, but to a period of almost forty
years in the western church when two, and then three, popes claimed to
be the true successor to Peter and the real bishop of Rome. Driven by
politics rather than any real theological disagreement, the schism was
ended by the Council of Constance (1414-1418).
What emerged from Constance was a view held by some conciliarists
who believed the highest authority in the church was ultimately a general
council, and that a church council could supercede the authority of the
Pope, whether he attended or not.
The view was still around during Basel-Ferrara-Florence-Rome, and this partly accounts
for Pope Eugene IV‟s movement from Basel, where conciliarists continued to meet, to
Ferrara and then to Florence which the Orthodox representatives favored. Although the
Pope had convened the council in Basel, once he decided to move the council to
Ferrara, he declared that those remaining in Basel had no authority and were a group of
agitators. He then excommunicated the hold-outs at Basel, but they continued to meet
until 1449. The Orthodox were promised all-expenses-paid travel to Florence. Several
issues were brought up in Florence beside the filioque issue and the use of unleavened
bread in the Eucharist.
One issue of interest was discussion on whether souls in Purgatory were burned by fire.
Matters were settled by compromises, which, in the long run, did not last. For
example, the Orthodox and pope agreed that some souls burned in Purgatory, while
others did not. The use of leavened bread was approved for the East, and unleavened for
the West. The Orthodox looked at the filioque issue with the same arguments that had
preceded, namely that the Councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon had already forbidden
any additions to the Nicene Creed. However, finally the addition to the Nicene Creed of
filioque was accepted by both sides because of examination of the writings of the Greek
and Latin fathers, and, after arduous discussion, papal primacy was accepted by the
Greek Orthodox. In any case, the Pope had other things than Purgatory on his
mind, especially rapprochement with the Orthodox ... and all this with conciliarism still
holding significant influence in the “rump council” which continued in Basil.
In Session 6, on July 6, 1439, the following statement was accepted
in the Council of Florence:
If truly penitent people die in the love of God before they have made
satisfaction for acts and omissions by worthy fruits of repentance, their
souls are cleansed after death by cleansing pains; and the suffrages of the
living faithful avail them in giving relief from such pains, that is,
sacrifices of masses, prayers, almsgiving and other acts of devotion which
have been customarily performed by some of the faithful for others of the
faithful in accordance with the church's ordinances.
Also, the souls of those who have incurred no stain of sin whatsoever
after baptism, as well as souls who after incurring the stain of sin have
been cleansed whether in their bodies or outside their bodies, as was
stated above, are straightaway received into heaven and clearly behold the
triune God as he is, yet one person more perfectly than another according
to the difference of their merits.
Detailed disciplinary statements were also issued in the conglomerate Council of Basel-FerraraFlorence-Rome. Some interesting samples from Basel in 1435, while the Pope was still in attendance:
Noisy comings and goings in the church should not be allowed to impede or disturb the divine service.
There are abuses in some churches (where) ...secular songs are sung in the church, or masses are said
without a server, or the secret prayers are said in so low a voice that they cannot be heard by the people nearby.
These abuses are to stop and we decree that any transgressors shall be duly punished by their superiors.
In some churches, during certain celebrations of the year, there are carried on various scandalous practices.
Some people with mitre, crozier and pontifical vestments give blessings after the manner of bishops. Others are
robed like kings and dukes; in some regions this is called the feast of fools or innocents, or of children. Some put
on masked and theatrical comedies, others organize dances for men and women, attracting people to amusement
and buffoonery. Others prepare meals and banquets there. This holy synod detests these abuses.
On a more innocent and wholesome note, many Catholic youngsters are encouraged today in the
celebration of All Saints‟ day Masses to dress up as saints, complete with nun‟s garb, priestly
vestments, and even bishops‟ attire of mitre and crozier.
In any case, an ecumenical council had pronounced, not only on the existence of Purgatory, but on the
belief that Sacrifices of Masses, prayers, almsgiving, and other acts of devotion remedied the souls in
Purgatory ... a belief and practice still held today in the Catholic Church.
Who could imagine today the kind of papacy the dawn of the sixteenth century would
see? Giuliano Della Rovere was born in 1443. He was the nephew of Pope Sixtus
IV, becoming a Franciscan as his uncle had before.
On December 15, 1471, the same year his uncle became pope, he was created a cardinalpriest and was given several benefices. Giuliano was a patron of the arts, and spent
much of his wealth in the erection of magnificent palaces and fortresses. Still his early
private life was far from exemplary, in that before he became Pope Julius II in 1503 he
fathered three daughters. He had his enemies, having led papal armies into battle and
having a distaste for the influential Borgia family. His opportunity to follow in his
uncle‟s footsteps came in 1503, but his bid was rejected by his fellow cardinals who chose
a sickly and aged Francesco Piccolomini as Pius III. The new pope died twenty-six days
later, and the ambitious cardinal made inviting promises and bribed his fellow cardinals
which paid off in his election as Julius II at the end of the year.
However, some dissatisfied cardinals, with political support from the French
royalty, called their own council at Pisa in 1511, suspending Julius II. He was not
intimidated, however, and called his own council which came to be known as Lateran
V, calling the Pisa attendees “schismatics and heretics.”
The agenda for Lateran V concerned the issue of
conciliarism again, with the papal assertion that general
councils must meet and act only under papal approval.
Other items discussed were reforms involving simony,
concubinage, and lay control of church money and property.
An interesting innovation concerned the forbidding of the
publishing of pamphlets and books without the permission
of diocesan bishop ... this involved excommunication. The
appeal for another Crusade against the Turks met with no
enthusiasm, and the situation in Europe relegated such a
venture to oblivion.
Julius II was undeniably involved in simony in his election,
and the council issued this statement in Session 5, 1513 in
the form of a papal bull. Notice the reform was to take place
in future elections of popes!
During the Council, Julius II died in 1513, and his
successor, 38-year old Leo X, continued Lateran V.
Leo was a Medici, and is reported to have said
after his election: “Let us enjoy the papacy, since
God has given it to us.” And enjoy it he did. He
loved music, dance, the theater, games, and
spending money. It is not surprising that the large
amount of money left by Julius was entirely spent
in two years. In the spring of 1515 Leo was broke.
He created new offices and dignities, and sold
Church property. Indulgences became almost
entirely financial transactions, yet without avail, as
the treasury was ruined.
In all, Leo spent about four and a half million
ducats during his pontificate and left a debt
amounting to 400,000 ducats. (A ducat, in
today‟s US dollars would be worth about $800.)
Leo spent about 3.6 billion dollars…
On his unexpected death in 1521 his creditors
faced financial ruin. A lampoon proclaimed
that "Leo X had consumed three pontificates;
the treasure of Julius, the revenues of his own
reign, and those of his successor."
Leo was basically oblivious to the fomenting dissatisfaction of a
certain German theologian, Martin Luther, once calling him “that
drunken German.” However, the “drunken German” was about to
shake the Western church to its core.
Lateran V could have addressed the abuses of indulgence selling;
however, considering the turmoil the Catholic church had been
through involving conciliarism and the papal
primacy, indulgences were at the bottom of the list of concerns.
What came to be high on the list, despite Leo X‟s squandering of
the money Julius II had accumulated for the purpose of its
rebuilding, was the completion of the largest Catholic church in
the world, St. Peter‟s Basilica in Rome.
Who would have known that northern Europe was about to break
away from the Church in the Protestant Reformation, due in part
to the way in which funds were gathered for the project.
One of the items on Lateran V‟s agenda had gotten it right...the
power of the printed word. The Catholic Church feared that its
teachings would be compromised by unheard of access to
controversial doctrinal pamphlets and books which could be
disseminated in Europe with relative ease.
Johannes Gutenberg was a German goldsmith and inventor best
known for the Gutenberg press, an innovative printing machine
that used movable type. Gutenberg was born between 1394 and
1400 and died in 1468. The Gutenberg printing press developed
from the technology of the screw-type wine presses of the Rhine
Valley. It was there in 1440 that Johannes Gutenberg created his
printing press, a hand press, in which ink was rolled over the
raised surfaces of moveable hand-set block letters held within a
wooden form and the form was then pressed against a sheet of
The motivation for Luther‟s posting of his 95 theses sprang from a host of reasons.
Luther was well-educated, having earned his doctorate in theology at Wittenberg in
1512. He had been ordained a priest in 1507, suffering from a severe case of moral
scrupulosity, which today might better be classified as “obsessive-compulsive-disorder,”
or OCD. His morbid fear of mortal sin in saying Mass correctly, led to his starting the
Mass over on occasion, if he felt he had not said the Mass prayers with due attention. His
frequent use of the Sacrament of Penance, sometimes lasting six hours, gave him no
peace. This psychological hell Luther endured with increasing frustration. He would lay
out in the snow as a form of penitential satisfaction for his imagined sins.
The turning point to his interior hell came on a trip to Rome in 1510, in climbing the
Scala Santa, on his knees, near St. John Lateran. Half-way up, he came to the conclusion
that the penitential works he had been doing were not getting him closer to God, but
that, since Christ had died for his sins, all he had to do was trust in God‟s mercy and
love. While in Rome he met priests who were ill-trained in theology, which contributed
to his negative attitude of anything coming from Rome. Knowledge of Leo X‟s partying
habits and abuse of money raised by buying and selling of indulgences, coupled with the
still-unsettled influence of conciliarism, made the pilgrimage to Rome an eye-opener for
Back at the University of Wittenberg, Luther taught courses on St. Paul‟s epistles.
In 1515, while teaching a course on St. Paul‟s Letter to the Romans, his sense of
interior peace was reinforced by chapter 1, verse 17: Justitia enim Dei in eo revelatur
ex fide in fidem sicut scriptum est iustus autem ex fide vivit.
The key words were: “The just shall live by faith.”
Luther, having found his peace with God, focused on what he saw were abuses in
the sale of indulgences. As mentioned above, this issue came to a head with the
financial operations of Archbishop Albert.
Albert of Brandenburg (1490 -1545) became bishop of Magdeburg in 1513 and
Archbishop of Mainz in 1514. At the time he was only 24 years of age, below the
prescribed age for a bishop. A papal dispensation was required, along with a large
payment, to acquire the high ecclesiastical offices. Needing over 20,000 ducats to
pay Pope Leo X in exchange for the title of Archbishop of Mainz, Albert borrowed
the money from a south German banking house, the Fuggers, and then set about to
pay back the loan, with an agent of the Fuggers virtually at his side, cashbox in
To raise the necessary funds, Archbishop
Albert promoted the sale of indulgences for the
rebuilding of St. Peter's in Rome. Half the
collected funds went to Rome for the building
of St. Peter's and half went into Albert's pocket.
Johann Tetzel, the Dominican monk employed
by Albert, sold these indulgences in Germany
with the official permission of the young
Archbishop Albert, after Luther sent him his 95 theses, submitted the copy of them to his
councilors at Aschaffenburg and to the professors of the University of Mainz. The
councilors were of the unanimous opinion that they were of an heretical nature, and that
proceedings against the Luther should be taken. This report, with a copy of the Theses,
was then transmitted to Leo X.
Leo was reluctant to push the issue. In what was to become of the most serious of all the
crises which threatened the Roman Church, he failed to be the proper guide for her. He
recognized neither the gravity of the situation nor the underlying causes of the revolt.
True reform might have helped preserve Catholicism in Europe, but Leo was entangled
in political affairs and partying.
However, on June 15th, 1520, the Pope warned Luther with the bull, Exsurge Domine,that
he risked excommunication unless he recanted 41 sentences drawn from his writings,
including the ninety-five theses, within 60 days.
Rather than recanting, Luther publicly set fire to the bull at Wittenberg on December
10th, 1520. As a consequence, Luther was excommunicated by the pope on January 3rd,
1521, in the bull Decet Romanum Pontificem.
For the remainder of the personal history of Martin Luther and his
increasing hostility toward the papacy, this author refers the
reader to his own work: Table Talk With Martin Luther,
Authorhouse Press, 2005, available on Amazon.com.
For the final development of Luther‟s views on Purgatory, one can
turn to Luther‟s Small Catechism:
Question 201 of Luther's Small Catechism with Explanation
answers the question "For whom should we pray?" as follows:
"We should pray for ourselves and for all other people, even for our
enemies, but not for the souls of the dead." Hebrews 9:27 is cited in this
connection: Since individuals are judged by God immediately after their
death and enter either heaven or hell, there is no reason to pray for them.
Those in hell cannot be helped by prayer, and those in heaven have no
need of our prayers.”
On several occasions, Martin Luther and his friend Phillip Melanchthon
appealed for a general council to discuss dogmatic and disciplinary issues
which divided Europe. Pope Paul III, yielding at last to the request of the
German Emperor, Charles V, and the pressure of public opinion,
convoked a general Council, to be opened May 23, 1537, at Mantua. It did
not convene there, the reasons for which will be explored later.
In 1530, Charles V, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, called together
the princes and cities of his German territories in a Diet at Augsburg. He
sought unity among them to fend of the attacks of Turkish armies in
Eastern Austria. He called upon the Lutheran nobility to explain their
religious convictions, with the hope that the controversy swirling around
the challenge of the Reformation might be resolved. To this end, Philip
Melanchthon, a close friend of Martin Luther and a Professor of New
Testament at Wittenberg University, was called upon to draft a common
confession for the Lutheran Lords and Free Territories. The resulting
document, the Augsburg Confession was presented to the emperor on June
Article VI of the Augsburg Confession contains the following reference to Purgatory, temporal punishment, and
satisfaction for sin by good works:
These customs have long since grown obsolete. Neither is it necessary to restore them, because they are not necessary
for the remission of sins before God. 17] Neither did the Fathers hold this, namely, that men merit the remission of sins
through such customs or such works, although these spectacles (such outward ceremonies] usually lead astray the
ignorant to think that by these works they merit the remission of sins before God. But if any one thus holds, he holds to the
faith of a Jew and heathen. For also the heathen had certain expiations for offenses through which they imagined 18] to be
reconciled to God. Now, however, although the custom has become obsolete, the name satisfaction still remains, and a trace
of the custom also remains of prescribing in confession certain satisfactions, which they define as works that are not due.
We call them canonical satisfactions. 19] Of these we hold, just as of the enumeration, that canonical satisfactions (these
public ceremonies] are not necessary by divine Law for the remission of sins; just as those ancient exhibitions of
satisfactions in public repentance were not necessary by divine Law for the remission of sins. For the belief concerning
faith must be retained, that by faith we obtain remission of sins for Christ's sake, and not for the sake of our works that
precede or follow [when we are converted or born anew in Christ]. And for this reason we have discussed especially the
question of satisfactions, that by submitting to them the righteousness of faith be not obscured, or men think that for the
sake of these works they obtain remission of sins. 20] And many sayings that are current in the schools aid the error, such
as that which they give in the definition of satisfaction, namely, that it is wrought for the purpose of appeasing the divine
displeasure. 21] But, nevertheless, the adversaries acknowledge that satisfactions are of no profit for the remission of guilt.
Yet they imagine that satisfactions are of profit in redeeming from the punishments, whether of Purgatory or other
punishments. For thus they teach that in the remission of sins, God [without means, alone] remits the guilt, and
yet, because it belongs to divine justice to punish sin, that He commutes eternal into temporal punishment. They add
further that a part of this temporal punishment is remitted by the power of the keys, but that the rest is redeemed by means
of satisfactions. Neither can it be understood of what punishments a part is remitted by the power of the keys, unless they
say that a part of the punishments of Purgatory is remitted, from which it would follow that satisfactions are only
punishments redeeming from Purgatory. And these satisfactions, they say, avail even though they are rendered by those
who have relapsed into mortal sin, as though indeed the divine displeasure could be appeased by those who are in mortal
sin. 22] This entire matter is fictitious, and recently fabricated without the authority of Scripture and the old writers of the
In effect, the Augsburg Confession threw out the need for the sacrament of
Penance, sacramental penances, temporal punishment due to forgiven
sins, indulgences, and Purgatory.
In 1537, Luther published a significant work, the Smalcald Articles, requesting a
“Christian” council to discuss the beliefs of himself and other reformers, although
by this time Luther had become increasingly hostile toward any action of any
pope, and considered the papacy the “Antichrist.”
Philip Melanchthon, who had authored the Augsburg Confession, signed the Articles
with the almost conciliatory qualification: “I, Philip Melanchthon, approve the
foregoing Articles as pious and Christian. But in regard to the Pope, I hold that, if
he would admit the Gospel, we might also permit him, for the sake of peace and
the common concord of Christendom, to exercise, by human right, his present
jurisdiction over the bishops, who are now or may hereafter be under his
Despite the fact the Melanchthon and Luther took different directions later in
life, with Melanchthon hoping for reunion with the Catholic church, the beginning
of the Protestant rejection of Purgatory had been doctrinalized.
The Catholic Church‟s response was indeed a general council as Luther
had requested, but on its terms, not those of Luther. Pope Paul III (14681549) who reigned from 1534-1549 attempted to convene a general
council, planning it first to begin in Mantua in May, 1537, but because of
opposition of the Lutheran princes and the refusal of the Duke of Mantua
to assume the responsibility of maintaining order Paul convoked, for a
second time, a council at Vicenza, scheduled to begin May 1, 1538.
Political frustrations again delayed the Vicenza council‟s opening, since
the Lutherans would have no part in a council presided over by the pope,
Emperor Charles V was resolved to reduce the princes to obedience by
force of arms. To this Paul did not object, and promised to aid him with
three hundred thousand ducats and twenty thousand infantry.
Interestingly, in 1520, Charles, who began as Charles I of Spain, left Spain
to take possession of the German Empire to which he had been elected.
The French king, Francis I, had been his rival for the dignity; Leo had
thought that his interests in Italy were endangered by Charles' election. In
spite of the opposition of Rome and France, Charles was elected (June,
1519), and everywhere received the title of "Emperor Elect.”
The death of Leo X in 1521, brought Adrian VI to the papacy. He
inherited the debts of Leo, as well as the corruption of the Roman
Curia, which he openly acknowledged, to the delight of the
Protestant movement. He truly stood alone, ignored in his appeals
to prevent the eventual fall of Rhodes to the Muslims. His energies
depleted, Adrian died after only two years in the papacy. His
successor was Clement VII (1478-1534), who reigned as pope from
1523 to his death in 1534.
If there was a weaker pope in a time of multiple crises within the
Church, it would be difficult to name one. Clement was a
vacillating political leader for one thing. His on-again, off-again
alliance with Charles led to the famous Sack of Rome in 1527.
When Clement assumed the papacy, Francis I and Charles were at
It is difficult to imagine the distractions that being head of the Papal States led to
Clement‟s ineffectiveness in dealing with the Protestant revolt. The Pope's
wavering politics also caused the rise of military factions inside his own Curia:
Pompeo Cardinal Colonna‟s soldiers pillaged the Vatican and gained control of the
whole of Rome in his name. Totally humiliated by his own cardinal, Clement
promised therefore to bring the Papal States to the military cardinal‟s side. But
soon after, Colonna left the siege and went to Naples, leaving Clement alone in
Italy to face the horde of Landsknechts. It seems probable that the Landsknechte, a
very large proportion of whom were followers of Luther, had really got completely
out of hand, and that they practically forced the Constable Bourbon, now in
supreme command, to lead them against Rome. On May 5, 1527, they reached the
walls, which, owing to Clement‟s confidence in the truce he had concluded, were
defended by only 5000 soldiers. Clement had barely time to take refuge in the
Castle of Sant‟ Angelo, and for eight days the "Sack of Rome" continued. After the
execution of some 1,000 defenders, the pillage began. Churches and
monasteries, but also palaces of prelates and cardinals, were destroyed and robbed.
Nuns and other women were raped; surviving men were tortured and killed. Even
cardinals had to pay to save their riches from the invading mercenaries.
It is possible that Charles was really not aware of the horrors
which took place, but he should have had an idea of what
mostly Protestant mercenaries under his authority might do.
Still he had no objection against Clement bearing the full
consequences of his shifty diplomacy, and he allowed him
to remain a virtual prisoner in the Castle of Sant‟ Angelo for
more than seven months. After having bribed some soldiers,
Clement escaped disguised as a peddler, and took shelter in
Orvieto, and then in Viterbo. He came back to a
depopulated and devastated Rome in October, 1528.
However, before the end of July, 1529, terms favorable to the
pope were arranged with Charles. Clement solemnly
crowned Charles as Emperor on February 24, 1530, and, by
whatever motives the pontiff was swayed, this settlement
certainly had the effect of restoring to Italy a much-needed
Meanwhile in England in 1527, Henry VIII sought a divorce from Catherine of Aragon,
whom he had married in 1509 with a dispensation from Julius II, following the
Catherine‟s short-lived marriage to Henry‟s older brother Arthur who died. Henry‟s
representative went to Rome to seek an annulment of Julius II‟s dispensation, but since
Clement was imprisoned and Henry‟s wife Catherine strongly objected to the idea,
claiming that her brief marriage to Arthur had not been consummated, not much was
However, Clement met at Orvieto with the king„s envoy. Clement was anxious to gratify
Henry, and he opted for a preliminary decision by the English episcopate. However, the
Emperor Charles, whose origins lay in Spain, home to Catherine, put Clement between a
rock and a hard place. How far the pope was influenced by Charles in his resistance, it is
difficult to say; but it is clear that his own sense of justice tipped his vacillation toward
the pleas of Queen Catherine.
Clement ultimately decided not to withdraw the dispensation granted by Julius, and so
Henry followed Thomas Cromwell‟s suggestion to throw off papal supremacy, and
make himself the supreme head of his own religion. This was in fact the course which
from the latter part of 1529 Henry undeviatingly followed.
Thus began the Anglican Church.
Obviously, because of the chaotic state of Europe during the first half of
the sixteenth century, little thought was given by popes to the issue of
Purgatory or to its rejection by Lutherans in the Augsburg Confessions. This
turmoil is well to remember as one looks to the eventual general council,
the Council of Trent, which reaffirmed both Lyons and Florence in the
matter of Purgatory. In other words, Purgatory was not on top of the list
of Protestant heresies which would be evaluated and judged.
After the death of Pope Clement VII in 1534, Emperor Charles informed
the newly-elected Pope Paul that only the immediate summoning of a
general council could bring about peace. He had always desired this;
henceforth it became one of his principal aims, of which he never lost
sight. Throughout Charles‟ reign, he had to deal with much political and
religious unrest in Europe as well as an attack of the Turks, which came
in 1532, on land. Charles was successful in forcing them back, and in
recovering a large part of Hungary.
Finally, the Council of Trent opened on December 13, 1545.
After the most historic general council ever to convene in such extremely difficult
circumstances, and after eighteen years of deliberations on a wide scope of dogmatic and
disciplinary issues, the doctrine of Purgatory was clearly defined December 4, 1563 in
Whereas the Catholic Church, instructed by the Holy Ghost, has, from the sacred writings
and the ancient tradition of the Fathers, taught, in sacred councils, and very recently in this
ecumenical Synod, that there is a Purgatory, and that the souls there detained are helped by the
suffrages of the faithful, but principally by the acceptable sacrifice of the altar; the holy Synod
enjoins on bishops that they diligently endeavor that the sound doctrine concerning
Purgatory, transmitted by the holy Fathers and sacred councils, be
believed, maintained, taught, and every where proclaimed by the faithful of Christ. But let the
more difficult and subtle questions, and which tend not to edification, and from which for the
most part there is no increase of piety, be excluded from popular discourses before the uneducated
multitude. In like manner, such things as are uncertain, or which labor under an appearance of
error, let them not allow to be made public and treated of. While those things which tend to a
certain kind of curiosity or superstition, or which savor of filthy lucre, let them prohibit as
scandals and stumbling-blocks of the faithful. But let the bishops take care, that the suffrages of
the faithful who are living, to wit the sacrifices of masses, prayers, alms, and other works of
piety, which have been wont to be performed by the faithful for the other faithful departed, be
piously and devoutly performed, in accordance with the institutes of the church; and that
whatsoever is due on their behalf, from the endowments of testators, or in other way, be
discharged, not in a perfunctory manner, but diligently and accurately, by the priests and
ministers of the church, and others who are bound to render this (service).
The Council of Trent is often cited as offering the final definitive magisterial teaching on
Purgatory. With regard to indulgences, Trent offered this statement in the same Session:
Whereas the power of conferring Indulgences was granted by Christ to the Church; and she has,
even in the most ancient times, used the said power, delivered unto her of God; the sacred holy
Synod teaches, and enjoins, that the use of Indulgences, for the Christian people most salutary,
and approved of by the authority of sacred Councils, is to be retained in the Church; and It
condemns with anathema those who either assert, that they are useless; or who deny that there is
in the Church the power of granting them. In granting them, however, It desires that, in
accordance with the ancient and approved custom in the Church, moderation be observed; lest, by
excessive facility, ecclesiastical discipline be enervated. And being desirous that the abuses which
have crept therein, and by occasion of which this honorable name of Indulgences is blasphemed by
heretics, be amended and corrected, It ordains generally by this decree, that all evil gains for the
obtaining thereof,--whence a most prolific cause of abuses among the Christian people has been
derived,--be wholly abolished. But as regards the other abuses which have proceeded from
superstition, ignorance, irreverence, or from whatsoever other source, since, by reason of the
manifold corruptions in the places and provinces where the said abuses are committed, they
cannot conveniently be specially prohibited; It commands all bishops, diligently to collect, each in
his own church, all abuses of this nature, and to report them in the first provincial Synod; that,
after having been reviewed by the opinions of the other bishops also, they may forthwith be
referred to the Sovereign Roman Pontiff, by whose authority and prudence that which may be
expedient for the universal Church will be ordained; that this the gift of holy Indulgences may be
dispensed to all the faithful, piously, holily, and incorruptly.
From official Catholic Church teaching, therefore, the doctrine of Purgatory is to be accepted
by Roman and Eastern Rite Catholics, as is the efficacy of indulgences. How many souls there
are in Purgatory, no one knows ... nor is there any definitive teaching about the manner of
The Second Vatican Council recognized a certain ordering of church dogma in its teaching on
the “hierarchy of truths.” In Chapter II, section 11, of Unitatis Redintegratio (the Decree on
Ecumenism), the council offered the following guidelines to theologians in their discussion
with other non-Catholic Christians:
“The way and method in which the Catholic faith is expressed should never become an obstacle to
dialogue with our brethren. It is, of course, essential that the doctrine should be clearly presented in its
entirety. Nothing is so foreign to the spirit of ecumenism as a false irenicism, in which the purity of
Catholic doctrine suffers loss and its genuine and certain meaning is clouded. At the same time, the
Catholic faith must be explained more profoundly and precisely, in such a way and in such terms as our
separated brethren can also really understand.”
“Moreover, in ecumenical dialogue, Catholic theologians standing fast by the teaching of the
Church and investigating the divine mysteries with the separated brethren must proceed with love for
the truth, with charity, and with humility. When comparing doctrines with one another, they should
remember that in Catholic doctrine there exists a "hierarchy" of truths, since they vary in their relation
to the fundamental Christian faith. Thus the way will be opened by which through fraternal rivalry all
will be stirred to a deeper understanding and a clearer presentation of the unfathomable riches of
The buying and selling of indulgences came to a long overdue halt
following Trent. However, the belief in indulgences continued in
Catholic practice. So did the belief in the remission of temporal
punishment to be satisfied in Purgatory, or expiated by
indulgences gained in this life for oneself or by the living for those
in Purgatory. Books were printed with prayer formulas, listing the
number of days or years of purgatorial time removed. And so did
plenary indulgences continue to be granted, the most famous of
which were the “Toties Quoties” plenary indulgences to be gained
for those in Purgatory on All Souls‟ Day.
The book, though no longer officially recognized by the Church
after 1967 as in force, contains indulgenced prayers and is still
reprinted today. Called The Raccolta, the book is available from
Amazon.com. The latest edition of The Raccolta or A Manual of
Indulgences is published by Athanasius Press, with a copyright
date of 2003.
More recently, Pope John Paul II, on September 29, 1999, gave an address which gave his explanation of the
continued use of indulgences, noting that indulgences are still “a sensitive subject.”:
1. In close connection with the sacrament of Penance, our reflection today turns to a theme particularly related to
the celebration of the Jubilee: I am referring to the gift of indulgences, which are offered in particular abundance during the
Jubilee Year, as indicated in the Bull Incarnationis mysterium and the attached decree of the Apostolic Penitentiary.
It is a sensitive subject, which has suffered historical misunderstandings that have had a negative impact on
communion between Christians. In the present ecumenical context, the Church is aware of the need for this ancient
practice to be properly understood and accepted as a significant expression of God's mercy. Experience shows, in fact, that
indulgences are sometimes received with superficial attitudes that ultimately frustrate God's gift and cast a shadow on the
very truths and values taught by the Church.
2. The starting-point for understanding indulgences is the abundance of God's mercy revealed in the Cross of
Christ. The crucified Jesus is the great "indulgence" that the Father has offered humanity through the forgiveness of sins
and the possibility of living as children (cf. Jn 1:12-13) in the Holy Spirit (cf. Cal 4:6; Rom 5:5; 8:15-16).
However, in the logic of the covenant, which is the heart of the whole economy of salvation, this gift does not reach
us without our acceptance and response.
In the light of this principle, it is not difficult to understand how reconciliation with God, although based on a free
and abundant offer of mercy, at the same time implies an arduous process which involves the individual's personal effort
and the Church's sacramental work. For the forgiveness of sins committed after Baptism, this process is centered on the
sacrament of Penance, but it continues after the sacramental celebration. The person must be gradually "healed" of the
negative effects which sin has caused in him (what the theological tradition calls the "punishments" and "remains" of
3. At first sight, to speak of punishment after sacramental forgiveness might seem inconsistent. The Old
Testament, however, shows us how normal it is to undergo reparative punishment after forgiveness.
God, after describing himself as "a God merciful and gracious ... forgiving iniquity and transgression
and sin", adds: "yet not without punishing" (Ex 34:6-7). In the Second Book of Samuel, King David's
humble confession after his grave sin obtains God's forgiveness (cf. 2 Sm 12:13), but not the prevention
of the foretold chastisement (cf. ibid., 12:11; 16:21). God's fatherly love does not rule out punishment,
even if the latter must always be understood as part of a merciful justice that re-establishes the violated
order for the sake of man's own good (cf. Heb 12:4-11).
In this context temporal punishment expresses the condition of suffering of those who, although
reconciled with God, are still marked by those "remains" of sin which do not leave them totally open to
grace. Precisely for the sake of complete healing, the sinner is called to undertake a journey of conversion
towards the fullness of love.
In this process God's mercy comes to his aid in special ways. The temporal punishment itself serves
as "medicine" to the extent that the person allows it to challenge him to undertake his own profound
conversion. This is the meaning of the "satisfaction" required in the sacrament of Penance.
4. The meaning of indulgences must be seen against this background of man's total renewal by the
grace of Christ the Redeemer through the Church's ministry. They began historically with the ancient
Church's awareness of being able to express the mercy of God by mitigating the canonical penances
imposed for the sacramental remission of sins. The mitigation was offset, however, by personal and
community obligations as a substitute for the punishment's "medicinal" purpose.
We can now understand how an indulgence is "a remission before God of the temporal punishment due
to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains
under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of
redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the
saints" (Enchiridion Indulgentiarum, Normae de Indulgentiis, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1999, p. 21;
cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1471).
The Church has a treasury, then, which is "dispensed" as it were through indulgences. This
"distribution" should not be understood as a sort of automatic transfer, as if we were speaking of
"things". It is instead the expression of the Church's full confidence of being heard by the Father when—
in view of Christ's merits and, by his gift, those of Our Lady and the saints—she asks him to mitigate or
cancel the painful aspect of punishment by fostering its medicinal aspect through other channels of
grace. In the unfathomable mystery of divine wisdom, this gift of intercession can also benefit the faithful
departed, who receive its fruits in a way appropriate to their condition.
5. We can see, then, how indulgences, far from being a sort of "discount" on the duty of conversion,
are instead an aid to its prompt, generous and radical fulfillment. This is required to such an extent that
the spiritual condition for receiving a plenary indulgence is the exclusion "of all attachment to sin, even
venial sin" (Enchiridion Indulgentiarum, p. 25).
Therefore, it would be a mistake to think that we can receive this gift by simply performing certain
outward acts. On the contrary, they are required as the expression and support of our progress in
conversion. They particularly show our faith in God's mercy and in the marvelous reality of
communion, which Christ has achieved by indissolubly uniting the Church to himself as his Body and
Although papal addresses to weekly general audiences given by popes in modern
times are obviously not infallible, they carry a certain authoritative character. The
content of such addresses can be debated, and certainly can and do, on occasion,
contain errors of an historical nature. However, this address was reprinted here to
give the reader a sense of the rather recent view of a very knowledgeable pope.
What is particularly of interest is the pope‟s admission in part 3: At first sight, to
speak of punishment after sacramental forgiveness might seem inconsistent.
It does seem inconsistent in that the Sacrament of Reconciliation removes the guilt
of sin by confession of sins, contrition, absolution by the priest, and penance
performed. One would think that the Sacrament would suffice for complete
reunion with God. Yet, as one leaves church, with penance performed, there is a
little sticky note on one‟s back with the reminder that one is not quite finished with
God‟s justice...temporal punishment still has to be taken care of, in this life, or the
John Paul II stated, as many popes and theologians have explained, there are
reasons for the residue of temporal punishment on the soul...and thus the need for
a purgatorial condition in this life or the next.
It is important to remind the reader, that in the
view of the Catholic Church, private revelation
does not have to be believed. Indeed, private
revelation can be dismissed sine causa, since, as we
have seen, the two sources of importance to the
Church are Scripture and Tradition. So, Mary‟s
eighteen appearances to Bernadette Soubirous at
Lourdes, France, in 1858, or the six mystical visits
of Mary to three children in Fatima, Portugal, in
1917, may be dismissed as psychic phenomena by
Catholics without prejudice to their faith.
In any case, there is a curiosity about what Mary confided to these
visionaries. This author visited Lourdes in 2006, having long been aware
of the impact Lourdes has had on the faithful, including Pope John Paul II
and Benedict XVI. There is something other-worldliness about the
place, and, on the early April morning before the crowds of tourists who
came that day, this writer found there a peace and sense of the sacred. No
visions of Purgatory, however, were granted to Bernadette. The
revelation of Mary as the Immaculate Conception was an important
message; four years before the visions at Lourdes the doctrine of the
Immaculate Conception had been defined in Ineffabilis Deus on December
8, 1854, by Pope Pius IX. In the proclamation by the Pope was stated that
the Virgin Mary “in the first instance of her conception, by a singular
privilege and grace granted by God, in view of the merits of Jesus
Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved exempt from all stain
of original sin.”
However, Hell and Purgatory were the subjects of one of the visions at
On June 13, 1917, at Fatima, the child Lucia was
told by Mary:
I want you to come here on the thirteenth of next
month; to recite the rosary every day.” Then she added
something the children had never heard before. “After
the Gloria Patri of each decade, you will say, „O my
Jesus, forgive us our sins! Deliver us from the fires of
hell! Have pity on the souls in Purgatory, especially the
When Our Lady of Fatima told us about a young girl
who will remain in Purgatory until the end of time she
wanted to remind us of our own possible place in the life
to come; she wanted to help us.
The Catholic Church today offers simple
opportunities for the gaining of indulgences.
The best reference is the “Manual of
Indulgences.” USCCB Publishing ISBN-10: 157455-474-3 available at Catholic bookstores or
online at Amazon.com.
Gone are the days of indulgences in terms of
“days, months, or years.”
There still are partial and plenary indulgences,
however, and the “Manual of Indulgences”
explains them very clearly.
The doctrine of Purgatory is well-established in the Roman Catholic
Church. There is no need for the faithful to challenge the Church‟s
Tradition. However, the historical evolution of the doctrine leads one to
question some of its implications. The scriptural basis for the doctrine is
weak, with chief reliance on the deuterocanonical book of 2 Maccabees.
The early Church was not focused on Purgatory, nor was there any
directly recorded mention of such a place or condition in apostolic times.
However, from the first section of the Apostolic Constitution of Pope Paul
VI, Indulgentiarum Doctrina, 1967, wherein the Pope states: The doctrine and
practice of indulgences which have been in force for many centuries in the
Catholic Church have a solid foundation in divine revelation which comes from
the Apostles ... it would seem that there is a connection to the apostolic era.
Paul VI‟s assertion aside, the early Church rejoiced in the coming to earth
of Jesus Christ, his salvific mission, and His Resurrection from the
dead, certainly not dwelling anywhere in the Gospels on the concept of
What is persuasive from the New Testament are Jesus‟ own words about
those who have died.
In two gospels, Matthew and Luke, Jesus is confronted with the request
from a prospective disciple to allow the individual to bury his father. To
which Jesus states, somewhat hyperbolically, “Let the dead bury the
Another of (his) disciples said to him, "Lord, let me go first and
my father." But Jesus answered him, "Follow me, and let the dead bury their
dead." (Matt. 8-21, 22)
And to another he said, "Follow me." But he replied, "(Lord,) let me go first
and bury my father." But he answered him, "Let the dead bury their dead. But
you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God." (Luke 9: 59-60)
In Luke, Jesus prioritizes the proclamation of the kingdom of God over
remembrance of the dead. This was the apostolic focus of his disciples,
not grief or even concern for those close relatives who died.
Has the Church put too much emphasis on the justice of God,
rather than on His mercy and love? Has the Magisterium of the
Church, which can be fallible, in response to the Reformation,
skewed the importance of “good works” to the neglect of trust in
the infinite, perfect love of God for his imperfect creatures?
During the Reformation, the Catholic Church was pushed into a
corner. The scandals of selling indulgences have only partially
been mentioned above. From a Catholic‟s perspective, Luther had
it right to question the practices of Archbishop Albert. Where the
reformer went too far was in his condemnation of the pope as the
„antichrist,‟ and in his failure to recognize Peter‟s successors as
having the power of “binding and loosing,” the basis of the
authority to grant indulgences or the authority to speak infallibly
when he speaks “ex cathedra.”
As regards private revelation...it is just that, private. Private revelations are constantly
occurring among Christians. When the Church approves private revelations, she declares only
that there is nothing in them contrary to faith or morals, and that they may be read without
danger or even with profit; no obligation is thereby imposed on the faithful to believe them. It
indeed may be God‟s way, through different individuals at different times in history, to bring
his creatures back to the two great commandments: Love God and love one‟s neighbor as
oneself. God may use private revelation to reawaken the need of the times to refocus on
eschatological themes found in Scripture. Such private revelations as those made to the
recently-canonized St. Faustina, and the popular Divine Mercy Chaplet, wherein souls in
Purgatory are remembered, is an example of a modern devotion. Times change. What worked
in apostolic times may take on a different look in the medieval period. What worked in the
Post-Reformation era had to be updated in the modern era.
One does not have to deny the existence of Purgatory as many other Christians do. What one
should reflect on is how much God loves us, and that all things are possible with Him.
It is this author‟s opinion that Trent got it right when it warned the Church not to delve too
deeply into the issues surrounding the existence of Purgatory. Trust in divine providence and
complete abandonment to God‟s will is a timeless bit of good advice. Our Lord had it totally
right when he said in Matthew 6: 34:
Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself. Sufficient for a day is its own evil.
Personally, I abhor citing references. I rather
read the text without footnotes. However, if
you are interested in all the quotes used in this
presentation, you will find them in my book
“Purgatory: An Historical and Contemporary
Analysis” published by Wingspan Press in
You can email me for further information at
Edward J. Hahnenberg, February 20, 2014.