July 3, 2009

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Basic Catholicism: Our belief in purgatory

John F. Fink(Twenty-first in a series of columns)

One of the most common criticisms that Protestants have about the Catholic faith is our belief in purgatory. They want to know why we believe in purgatory even though it is not mentioned in the Bible.

The Catholic doctrine of purgatory is misunderstood not only by Protestants, but also by many Catholics.

For example, they sometimes think of it as a place somewhere between heaven and hell, and it’s not. Purgatory is the name given to a process of purification, not to a place where the soul might go to after death.

Sacred Scripture says that nothing impure will enter the kingdom of heaven. But you and I know that not everyone who dies is worthy to enter into perfect and complete union with God. Nor has he or she rejected God’s mercy enough to sentence himself or herself to hell. In the process of purification we call purgatory, every trace of sin is eliminated and every imperfection is corrected.

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

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

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

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

Pope John Paul alluded to this in the same address when he said that the souls in purgatory are not separated from the saints in heaven or from us on Earth.

“We all remain united in the Mystical Body of Christ,” he said, “and we can therefore offer up prayers and good works on behalf of our brothers and sisters in purgatory.”

Belief in the efficacy of prayers for the dead goes back at least as far as the Second Book of Maccabees (2 Mc 12:39-46). After Judas Maccabeus had won a battle, he found that dead Jewish soldiers had committed a sin by wearing idolatrous amulets under their tunics. He and his men “prayed that the sinful deed might be fully blotted out.”

Then they took up a collection which he sent to Jerusalem for an expiatory sacrifice. “Thus he made atonement for the dead that they might be freed from this sin,” (2 Mc 12:46) the chapter concludes.

Thus, although the process of purgatory isn’t mentioned in the Bible, the idea of prayers for the dead that they might be cleansed from their sins is. (Admittedly, though, the Second Book of Maccabees is considered an apocryphal book in Protestant Bibles.) †

Local site Links: