Purgatory Edward J. Hahnenberg, BA, MA, MA, Ed.S.
Purgatory – Part 2: Church Tradition in theological writings If one is Protestant today, and holds to Revelation being contained in the Scriptures (sola scriptura) ... and does not accept the Catholic canon of divinely-inspired books in the Bible spelled out in the Council of Trent ... wherein 2 Maccabees is one of the deuterocanonical writings upon which the idea of Purgatory is expressed in Jewish writings, then the doctrine of Purgatory is meaningless or at least difficult to accept.
Where Catholics find Purgatory before its definition as dogma in the Councils of Florence and Trent is in the writings of the early Church Fathers and later writers...in other words, in the Church’s Tradition.
In the document, Dei Verbum, Chapter II, Sections 8-9, Vatican II made clear for Catholics, and for the world, that dogmatic truth comes from two sources: Scripture and Tradition... “The words of the holy fathers witness to the presence of this living tradition, whose wealth is poured into the practice and life of the believing and praying Church. Through the same tradition the Church's full canon of the sacred books is known, and the sacred writings themselves are more profoundly understood and unceasingly made active in her…”
Tertullian, Origen, Cyril, Basil, Cyprian, Ephram, Ambrose, Augustine, John Chrysostom, Caesarius of Arles, and Gregory the Great ... all give witness to the early belief in Purgatory.
For example, in his Treatise on the Soul, Tertullian (160-235) explains:
All souls, therefore; are shut up within Hades: do you admit this? It is true, whether you say yes or no: moreover, there are already experienced there punishments and consolations... no one will hesitate to believe that the soul undergoes in Hades some compensatory discipline, without prejudice to the full process of the resurrection, when the recompense will be administered through the flesh besides.
Writings of the early Church Fathers - 2 Later, Origen (185-254), in Homilies on Jeremias, is more graphic in his description of Purgatory:
For if on the foundation of Christ you have built not only gold and silver and precious stones (1 Cor.,3); but also wood and hay and stubble, what do you expect when the soul shall be separated from the body? Would you enter into heaven with your wood and hay and stubble and thus defile the kingdom of God; or on account of these hindrances would you remain without and receive no reward for your gold and silver and precious stones; neither is this just. It remains then that you be committed to the fire which will burn the light materials; for our God to those who can comprehend heavenly things is called a cleansing fire. But this fire consumes not the creature, but what the creature has himself built, wood, and hay and stubble. It is manifest that the fire destroys the wood of our transgressions and then returns to us the reward of our great works.
Writings of the early Church Fathers – 3 St. Basil the Great (329-379) adds in his Homilies on the Psalms:
I think that the noble athletes of God, who have wrestled all their lives with the invisible enemies, after they have escaped all of their persecutions and have come to the end of life, are examined by the prince of this world; and if they are found to have any wounds from their wrestling, any stains or effects of sin, they are detained. If, however they are found unwounded and without stain, they are, as unconquered, brought by Christ into their rest.
Writings of the early Church Fathers – 4 St. Gregory of Nyssa (d. 385) wrote in his Sermon on the Dead:
When he has quitted his body and the difference between virtue and vice is known he cannot approach God till the purging fire shall have cleansed the stains with which his soul was infested. That same fire in others will cancel the corruption of matter, and the propensity to evil.
Writings of the early Church Fathers – 5 St. Augustine (354-430) in his famous City of God writes:
For our part, we recognize that even in this life some punishments are purgatorial,--not, indeed, to those whose life is none the better, but rather the worse for them, but to those who are constrained by them to amend their life. All other punishments, whether temporal or eternal, inflicted as they are on every one by divine providence, are sent either on account of past sins, or of sins presently allowed in the life, or to exercise and reveal a man's graces. They may be inflicted by the instrumentality of bad men and angels as well as of the good. For even if any one suffers some hurt through another's wickedness or mistake, the man indeed sins whose ignorance or injustice does the harm; but God, who by His just though hidden judgment permits it to be done, sins not. But temporary punishments are suffered by some in this life only, by others after death, by others both now and then; but all of them before that last and strictest judgment. But of those who suffer temporary punishments after death, all are not doomed to those everlasting pains which are to follow that judgment; for to some, as we have already said, what is not remitted in this world is remitted in the next, that is, they are not punished with the eternal punishment of the world to come.
Writings of the early Church Fathers – 6 Finally, Pope St. Gregory the Great (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 may remain to be purged away. Does not Christ, the Truth, say that if anyone blasphemes against the Holy Spirit he shall not be forgiven 'either in this world or in the world to come' (Mt. 12:32)? From this statement we learn that some sins can be forgiven in this world and some in the world to come. For, if forgiveness is refused for a particular sin, we conclude logically that it is granted for others. This must apply, as I said, to slight transgressions.
From the opinions of the early Church writers, by the sixth century, the belief in Purgatory in the Christian church was well established. By the end of the next century, theological opinion began to be translated into liturgical action.
Augustine’s influence - 1 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). For example, it was Augustine who embraced the concept of limbo, a state where unbaptized infants went after death. For a long time it was thought that an infant without baptism would go to hell, but would suffer a mitigated pain.
Augustine’s influence - 2 Augustine persuaded the Council of Carthage (418) to condemn the idea that children who pass out of this life unbaptized live in happiness. This means that Augustine believed that unbaptized infants share in the common positive misery of the damned, and the very most that Augustine concedes is that their punishment is the mildest of all, so mild indeed that one may not say that for them non-existence would be preferable to existence in such a state. (De peccat. meritis I, xxi; Contra Jul. V, 44; etc.)
Limbo today… 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 their final verdict, as Cardinal, Pope Benedict XVI had already voiced his opinion on the dissolution of Limbo. Cardinal Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI, presided over the commission's first sessions and said that Limbo has no place in modern Catholicism. In Ratzinger Report: An Exclusive Interview on the State of the Church, he told VittorioMessori that Limbo had “never been a definitive truth of the faith ... Personally, I would let it drop, since it has always been only a theological hypothesis.”
Limbo dismissed… Considering the influence Augustine had on the belief in Limbo, and his previously stated position on Purgatory, how much of Tradition does the opinion of one theologian make? 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 to me, do not hinder them," allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without Baptism. All the more urgent is the Church's call not to prevent little children coming to Christ through the gift of holy Baptism.
Abortion and Limbo… 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.
Can Augustine’s theological position on Purgatory also be called into question? No theologian, not even an Augustine or an Aquinas, can speak, on his own authority, for official Catholic belief. What they offer to the Church is theological opinion, important as it may be to the development of Tradition.
Further development of concept of Purgatory 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.
Aquinas & Purgatory 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 now.
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.
St. Catherine of Genoa (1447-1510) What is significant about the 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. Portions of the first three chapters follow:
Catherine of Genoa - Ch.1 This holy Soul found herself, while still in the flesh, placed by the fiery love of God in Purgatory, which burnt her, cleansing whatever in her needed cleansing, to the end that when she passed from this life she might be presented to the sight of God, her dear Love. By means of this loving fire, she understood in her soul the state of the souls of the faithful who are placed in Purgatory to purge them of all the rust and stains of sin of which they have not rid themselves in this life. And since this Soul, placed by the divine fire in this loving Purgatory, was united to that divine love and content with all that was wrought in her, she understood the state of the souls who are in Purgatory. And she said: The souls who are in Purgatory cannot, as I understand, choose but be there, and this is by God's ordinance who therein has done justly. They cannot turn their thoughts back to themselves, nor can they say, "Such sins I have committed for which I deserve to be here ", nor, "I would that I had not committed them for then I would go now to Paradise", nor, "That one will leave sooner than I", nor, "I will leave sooner than he". They can have neither of themselves nor of others any memory, whether of good or evil, whence they would have greater pain than they suffer ordinarily. So happy are they to be within God's ordinance, and that He should do all which pleases Him, as it pleases Him that in their greatest pain they cannot think of themselves. They see only the working of the divine goodness, which leads man to itself mercifully, so that he no longer sees aught of the pain or good which may befall him.
Catherine of Genoa – Ch. 2 I believe no happiness can be found worthy to be compared with that of a soul in Purgatory except that of the saints in Paradise; and day by day this happiness grows as God flows into these souls, more and more as the hindrance to His entrance is consumed. Sin's rust is the hindrance, and the fire burns the rust away so that more and more the soul opens itself up to the divine inflowing. A thing which is covered cannot respond to the sun's rays, not because of any defect in the sun, which is shining all the time, but because the cover is an obstacle; if the cover be burnt away, this thing is open to the sun; more and more as the cover is consumed does it respond to the rays of the sun It is in this way that rust, which is sin, covers souls, and in Purgatory is burnt away by fire; the more it is consumed, the more do the souls respond to God, the true sun. As the rust lessens and the soul is opened up to the divine ray, happiness grows; until the time be accomplished the one wanes and the other waxes.
Catherine of Genoa – Ch. 2 cont’d Pain however does not lessen but only the time for which pain is endured. As for will: never can the souls say these pains are pains, so contented are they with God's ordaining with which, in pure charity, their will is united. But, on the other hand, they endure a pain so extreme that no tongue can be found to tell it, nor could the mind understand its least pang if God by special grace did not show so much. Which least pang God of His grace showed to this Soul, but with her tongue she cannot say what it is. This sight which the Lord revealed to me has never since left my mind and I will tell what I can of it. They will understand whose mind God deigns to open.
Catherine of Genoa – Ch. 3 There can be no good save by participation in God, who meets the needs of irrational creatures as He wills and has ordained, never failing them, and answers to a rational soul in the measure in which He finds it cleansed of sin's hindrance. When therefore a soul has come near to the pure and clear state in which it was created, its beatific instinct discovers itself and grows unceasingly, so impetuously and with such fierce charity (drawing it to its last end) that any hindrance seems to this soul a thing past bearing. The more it sees, the more extreme is its pain.
Catherine of Genoa – Ch. 3 cont’d Because the souls in Purgatory are without the guilt of sin, there is no hindrance between them and God except their pain, which holds them back so that they cannot reach perfection. Clearly they see the grievousness of every least hindrance in their way, and see too that their instinct is hindered by a necessity of justice: thence is born a raging fire, like that of Hell save that guilt is lacking to it. Guilt it is which makes the will of the damned in Hell malignant, on whom God does not bestow His goodness and who remain therefore in desperate ill will, opposed to the will of God.
Word pictures of Purgatory Arguably one of the most influential works on Purgatory was not the writings of saints or the early Church Fathers, but rather a work of written art…The Divine Comedy written by Dante Alighieri (1265-1361). Its influence was rooted in the Roman classics but also in the Church’s Tradition. It gave graphic pictorial images of the stages of Purgatory…and pictures painted in the imagination were difficult to forget.