7 February 2010


It seems to me that the (old) question of Purgatory raises some interesting questions of dogmatic authority. I seek the help (this is not irony!) of readers in clarifying some problems.

(1) The Councils of Florence and Trent defined nothing beyond the fact that a Purgatory exists and that the souls detained there are assisted by the suffrages of the faithful, and especially by the acceptable sacrifice of the altar; and that the souls of the truly penitent are cleansed after death by purgatorial punishments.

(2) The Catechism of the Catholic Church apparently adds to this minimalism. It says that the purification after death of those who have died in the grace and friendship of God but imperfectly purified, is what the Church calls Purgatory: "the final purification of the of the Elect, which is totally different from the punishment of the damned". The inhabitants of Purgatory are "aeternae salutis certi".

Is this now proposed as de fide to all Catholics? Or, in view of Anglicanorum coetibus, is it only obligatory for members of Ordinariates to accept it?

The minimalist definition (1) would not exclude the possibility that some of those in Purgatory misuse free will and fall from grace, so that not every inhabitant of Purgatory is "sure of eternal salvation". But CCC does appear to exclude that. And (1) would not, I think, exclude the thesis advanced (I believe) by S Mark of Ephesus, that the souls of whom we write might be cleansed by a temporary sojourn in Hell. But (2) would.

I doubt if I am the only person to have wondered how some sections of the EF Missal are to be reconciled with the tighter definition in (2). " ...mereantur evadere judicium ultionis ... ne tradas eam in manus inimici ... " But especially the words of the Offertorium: " ... deliver their souls from the punishments of Hell (inferni) and from the deep lake, lest they sink into obscurity: deliver them from the mouth of the lion, lest Hell (Tartarus) absorb them ...".

Needless to say, such phrases disappeared from the Novus Ordo; it is not difficult to see why. But they are part of the Tradition, aren't they? The Church is not a "1984" style body in which these ancient Western texts have been expunged, as if they had never existed, by some Mgr Winston Smith?


Christian said...

I would look at what Trent teaches. I would assume that the ancient texts from the liturgy reflect the less developed idea of Purgatory still prevalent in the east (ie: that almost all go to hell but that some are lifted out of hell after they have been cleansed by its pains). To my understanding "Purgatory" only became thought of as a different place because some wag pointed out the metaphysical impossibility of Hell containing temporary inmates and eternal inmates simultaneously.

+David said...

... Purgatory is understood in a properly Christian way when it is grasped Christologically, in terms of the Lord himself as the judging fire which transforms us and conforms us to his own glorified body ....

... [T]he purification involved does not happen through some thing, but through the transforming power of the Lord himself, whose burning flame cuts free our closed-off heart, melting it, and pouring it into a new mold to make it fit for the living organism of his body[.]...

...A person's entry into the realm of manifest reality is an entry into his definitive destiny and thus an immersion in eschatological fire. The transforming "moment" of this encounter cannot be quantified by the measurements of earthly time. It is, indeed, not eternal but a transition, and yet trying to qualify it as of "short" or "long" duration on the basis of temporal measurements derived from physics would be naive and unproductive. The "temporal measure" of this encounter lies in the unsoundable depths of existence, in a passing-over where we are burned ere we are transformed. ...

The essential Christian understanding of Purgatory has now become clear. Purgatory is not, as Tertullian thought, some kind of supra-worldly concentration camp where one is forced to undergo punishment in a more or less arbitrary fashion. Rather is it the inwardly necessary process of transformation in which a person becomes capable of Christ, capable of God, and thus capable of unity with the whole communion of saints. Simply to look at people with any degree of realism at all is to grasp the necessity of such a process. It does not replace grace by works, but allows the former to achieve its full victory precisely as grace. What actually saves is the full assent of faith. But in most of us, that basic option is buried under a great deal of wood, hay and straw. Only with difficulty can it peer out from behind the latticework of an egoism we are powerless to pull down with our own hands. Man is the recipient of the divine mercy, yet this does not exonerate him from the need to be transformed. Encounter with the Lord is this transformation. It is the fire that burns away our dross and re-forms us to be vessels of eternal joy.*

*Joseph Ratzinger, Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life. Translated by Michael Waldstein; translation edited by Aidan Nichols, OP. Dogmatic Theology, volume 9. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1988. Pp. 229 ff. Translation of Eschatologie--Tod und ewiges Leben. Regensburg: Friedrich Pustet Verlag, 1977.

+David said...

Ooops . . . I meant to put quotation marks around the above, indicating that is is all from BXVI's book.

Thomas Pink said...

Whatever their origin, the ancient prayer texts are not strictly dependent on any outmoded eastern theology of Purgatory. They can perfectly well be understood as invoking Christ's sacrifice as what redeems us all from hell. On this basis the Tridentine prayers are not outmoded theology, but still valid - as well as amazingly beautiful.

Note the crucial and repeated invocation in the Old Rite Offertory prayer of the promises made to Abraham and his seed (from the Magnificat). These are just the promises of redemption, which we ritually call to mind and invoke on behalf of the dead person. The prayers remind us, more forcefully than do those of the 1970 Missal, that only Christ's redemptive work separates us from the deep lake. The New Rite essentially emphasises that the person in Purgatory is saved. The Old that each dead person is reliant on Christ's promises for his very salvation.

I doubt that at Trent any Catholic theologians thought that the souls in Purgatory were not saved. Yet theologians of the time of Trent did not find the Tridentine requiem prayers a problem. Nor should we. The present Catechism of the Catholic Church makes no difference here. Which is why the Pope regards the 1962 and 1970 liturgies as theologically consistent.

Michael McDonough said...

I believe that the Tradition holds (whether one uses #1 or #2) that the Holy Souls in Purgatory are in a state such that they cannot help themselves; they suffer passively, and hence may only be helped by the efforts of the glorious in Heaven, and the militant on earth. Thus, they are aeternae salutis certi, whence they do not despair like the souls in Hell, but unlike us who are still in this world, the purifications they undergo do not contribute to the "lessening" of their time of purification.

I believe that much is de fide.

What is, I think, not de fide are the various theologoumena, as the Greeks use the term, about what existence in Purgatory is like.

The idea of a "temporary sojourn in Hell" is not contradictory of the Catholic view, because the essence of Hell is knowing that one will always be separated from God. A temporary sojourn is not that. But this view is one of those theologoumena, and personally, I prefer Newman's view in the "Dream of Gerontius".

I disagree with your statement that "The minimalist definition (1) would not exclude the possibility that some of those in Purgatory misuse free will and fall from grace, so that not every inhabitant of Purgatory is 'sure of eternal salvation'".

My sense is that Catholics believe that death (human death, not "death" as mortal sin) marks the limit (until the Resurrection of the Body) of man's being able to make free choices as a man. That is why we address the souls in Purgatory as the "Holy Souls in Purgatory": ultimately their destiny is to see God, and that is no longer in doubt.

With respect to the Liturgy, I think one must take into account the eschatological nature of such prayers. The Church prays here and now for them, to a God whose being takes in that here and now from an eternal standpoint. In other words, when I pray, or the Church in the Liturgy prays, for the souls in Purgatory, and our prayers are "answered", might that not mean that for such-and-such a person, he or she received the mercy of God before dying, or at the moment of death, even if we are praying after that death occured? I, for one, very ardently hope so!

In this sense, such liturgical prayers are rather different, and far more tied up with the mystery of salvation, from praying, say, for a bountiful harvest this year.

The disappearance of such words from the Novus Ordo is nothing to be proud of, and the Pelagian (Teilhardian) wasteland is all around us!

And I agree with the views of those who have posted before me.

JB36 said...

From reading "Purgatory" by Fr. Shouppe S.J, I have learned the following: The location of Purgatory is thought to be in the interior of the earth in the location of Hell, and that the fire which punishes the damned also purified the souls in Purgatory (hence the prayers “deliver their souls from the punishments of Hell” & “and from the deep lake, lest they sink into obscurity: deliver them from the mouth of the lion, lest Hell (Tartarus) absorb them.”)

From Purgatory by Fr. F.X Shouppe S.J:

According to St. Robert Bellarmine, "Theologians are almost unanimous in teaching that Purgatory, at least the ordinary place of expiation, is situated in the interior of the earth; that the souls in purgatory and the reprobate are in the same subterranean space in the deep abyss which scripture calls hell” (Catech. Rom., chap. 6, §1.)

"A very probable opinion" says St. Thomas, (Aquinas I presume) "and one which, moreover, corresponds with the words of the saints in particular revelation, is that Purgatory has a double place for expiation. The first will be destined for the generality of souls, and is situated below, near hell; the second will be for particular cases, and it is from thence that so many apparitions occur” (Suppl., part 3, ques. Ult.)

JB36 said...

Re: the teaching that the Holy Souls are saved and incapable of damnation. This isn't something new from the CCC. From the pre- Vatican II catechism "My Catholic Faith" by Bishop Morrow (page 156):

"The poor souls, however, have much to console them. They are certain of their salvation and the love of God. They are free from temptation: they cannot commit the slightest sin, even of impatience. They have no worry, anxiety, or distress of mind, for they are sure of their deliverance....

All the souls in purgatory will go to Heaven some day; they will stay in Purgatory only as long as they have not atoned for their sins.”

Geoff said...

the purifications they undergo do not contribute to the "lessening" of their time of purification.

Of course not: there's no "time" in purgatory to "lessen."

Joshua said...

After death comes judgement: there is no possibility that a soul in Purgatory could fall from grace, since this would entail a second particular judgement - which is not possible. The soul after death is fixed in the state in which it died, either in grace or out of it.

radex33 said...

I happened to be reading Dean Farrar on the subject of Purgatory. In his 'Eternal Hope' (1879) he said that he accepted the Council of Trent's view and argued that the Reformers only rejected it because of its association with "all the 16th C devices of Tetzel and Leo X."
He agreed with "the opinion of the Fathers that there is some intermediate state wherein souls which, at the time of death, are still imperfect and unworthy, and not yet in a state of grace - and of such are the vast majority of us all - may still be reached by God's mercy beyond the grave". The Orthodox, according to McBrien, rejected the approach of the Western Church "and stressed instead the more mystical nature of purgatory, as a process of maturation and spiritual growth". Rather like Dean Farrar's view in fact.

Michael McDonough said...


If time is metaphysically the measure of change, and there is any change to a soul in Purgatory, there is time in Purgatory!

When one of the children at Fatima asked Our Lady whether a woman of their village who had died was in Heaven, she replied, "No, she will have to spend the rest of time in Purgatory, but then she will go to Heaven."

Perhaps it's just a way of speaking, perhaps not.

Christian said...


No time in Purgatory!!!??? Of course there is time in Purgatory. The whole concept of Purgatory is based on the idea that an eternal state cannot be interrupted and so it is impossible for souls in Hell to be removed therefrom. Purgatory must have time otherwise there can be no change. If there is no change in Purgatory then how can souls exit it to enter heaven?

I would recommend Ludwig Ott to any layman interested in this subject.

Kiran said...

I can't see how it makes sense to speak of a "temporary sojourn in hell". Also, the idea of people in hell being redeemed smacks of 'Origenist' universalism. I do like the Orthodox idea (which I think St. Therese of Liseux repeats) that there is only one fire, but different ways of meeting it.

My own reading (and this is just my opinion) of "Ne Cadant in obscurum" etc... is not that the souls in purgatory are in danger of damnation, but as relating to the state of the souls in the instant between death and judgment. Since earthly time and eternity do not quite mesh, I would think that one offers prayers for a soul that is about to meet its maker.

Geoff said...

I think there's a danger of ambition in speculative theology, especially when finer philosophical methods are applied. We know that nothing unclean can enter into the Kingdom of God, and that we are imperfect, so we can infer a state of purgation following death. Trying to enumerate it in terms of our own conception of space-time has the air of impiety.