According to the teaching of the Church, the state, place, or condition in the next world, which will continue until the last judgment, where the souls of those who die in the state of grace, but not yet free from all imperfection, make expiation for unforgiven venial sins or for the temporal punishment due to venial and mortal sins that have already been forgiven and, by so doing, are purified before they enter heaven.
In the Bible
Although the doctrine of purgatory is not explicitly stated in the Bible, belief in its existence is intimately related to the biblical doctrines of divine judgment [see judgment, divine (in the bible)], the forgiveness of sins [see forgiveness of sins (in the bible)], the mercy of God, and the temporal punishment due to sin. The essential truths known to the Israelites before the time of Christ and familiar to the writers of the New Testament were that the dead are to be judged according to their works; that their sins render it a terrible thing to be judged by God; that souls need God's mercy in order to enter heaven; and that their brethren ought to pray to God to show them mercy.
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 existed. (See R. De Vaux, Ancient Israel, Its Life and Institutions, tr. J. McHugh [New York 1961] 60.)
The only passage that can be cited in support of the doctrine of purgatory is 2 Mc 12.39–45. According to the text, when Judas Maccabee 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. Judas concluded that God had punished the soldiers for this sinful practice; God's just judgment was praised, and prayers were offered on behalf of the victims. A collection of 12,000 drachmas was then gathered and sent to Jerusalem to have expiatory sacrifices offered for those who had fallen in battle. The inspired author of 2 Maccabees, a firm believer himself in the resurrection of the dead (2 Mc 7.9, 11, 14, 23, 29), concludes that Judas also believed in the resurrection of the dead. He, therefore, praised Judas, who acted out of consideration for the resurrection of the dead, and argued that, if he had not hoped that the slain should rise again, it would have been useless and foolish to pray for them when dead; but if he did this with a view toward the splendid reward that awaited those who died in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore, Judas made atonement for the dead, that they might be freed from sin. see sin (in the bible).
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. The words of Sir 7.33, "withhold not your kindness from the dead," refer directly to proper mourning and burial of the dead; if, however, they are read in the light of 2 Mc 12.43–45, prayers for the deceased might also be recommended.
In Judaism. In rabbinical literature, besides the everlasting punishments of gehenna and the punishment of sinners, the idea was current that some people would remain only for a time in Gehenna, where they would be purified. Some rabbis interpreted the words of Zec 13.9 in this sense: "I will bring the one third through fire, and I will refine them as silver is refined, and I will test them as gold is tested." The school of Shammai attributed this purification to the eschatological place of torture, where certain people, through God's mercy and goodness, would be prepared to enjoy eternal life.
In the New Testament. The New Testament shows that the disciples of Jesus were familiar with His teaching on sin and judgment (Mt 12.32, 36; 16.27; Lk7.47;12.47–48). His words deepened their sense of God's holiness, kindled their hopes of merciful forgiveness, and inspired them to pray for the dead. He taught them the stern truths of death and judgment, and nothing suggests that only the spotlessly pure would escape hell (see Mt8.12; Lk 12.20; 16.22; Jn 9.4; 11.9; 12.35).
Several texts can be understood as referring to purgatory at least indirectly, e.g., Mt 12.32, where mention is made of certain sins "which will not be forgiven either in this world or in the world to come." Also, Paul's prayer for Onesiphorus (2 Tm 1.18), "may the Lord grant him to find mercy from the Lord on that day," seems to imply the existence of purgatory. St. Paul's parable in 1 Cor 3.10–15 on various Christian preachers working to spread the kingdom of God is not concerned about purgatory, except perhaps in an accommodated sense. In the final analysis, the Catholic doctrine on purgatory is based on tradition, not Sacred Scripture.
Bibliography: Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, tr. and adap. by l. hartman (New York 1963), from a. van den born, Bijbels Woordenboek 1964–65. j. gnilka, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche 2, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, (2d new ed. Freiburg 1957–65) 4:50–51. a. michel, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al. (Paris 1903–50; Tables générales 1951–) 13.1:1163–79. e. o'brien, "The Scriptural Proof for the Existence of Purgatory from 2 Mc. 12.43–45," Sciences ecclésiastiques 2 (1949) 80–108.
[j. f. x. cevetello]
The Catholic doctrine on purgatory may now be considered, along with indications of its basis in early tradition and in the councils. Also to be taken up is the theological speculation on the data of revelation; in the course of treating this latter, modern opinions about the nature of purgatory may be summarized.
Catholic Doctrine. Underlying the teaching on purgatory are several presuppositions. (1) The Church solemnly teaches the difference between mortal sin, which causes the eternal loss of the soul in hell (Denz 1002), and venial sin, which does not cause eternal damnation and which even the just commit in daily life (Denz 1573). (2) The Church also teaches that the punishment due to sin, whether mortal or venial, is not always and necessarily forgiven along with the guilt of sin; hence this punishment is to be paid by the sinner either in this life or in the next before he can enter the kingdom of heaven (Denz 1580, 1712).
Magisterial Statements. The existence of purgatory as a state where those dying with such temporal punishment may be cleansed before being admitted to heaven and the direct vision of the divine essence is clear from the authoritative teaching of the First and Second Councils of Lyons (Denz 838, 856) and of the Council of Florence (Denz 1304), all of which expressed the common belief of both the East and the West. Finally, the Council of Trent reiterated the revealed character of the existence of purgatory against the reformers, who had denied that there was any basis for it in Sacred Scripture (Denz 1580,1820). Since there is no solemn statement of the Church about the existence of the guilt of venial sin in purgatory, the only thing certain is that at least the punishment due to forgiven sins is exacted from the soul. In addition to the certain existence of purgatory, the Church has also authoritatively defined that the souls detained there can be helped by the prayers and other good works of the faithful on earth (Denz 856, 1304, 1743, 1753, 1820, 1867; see indulgences). The manner in which these prayers and good works of the faithful are applied to the souls in purgatory has not been authentically determined by the Church.
Tradition. The Fathers in general are clear in their affirmation of the reality of purgation in some form. This is not to deny that some time was needed to formulate a clear and definitive idea of the purification to take place in the other world, for varying eschatological views prevented in the early centuries a uniform presentation of its nature. The witness of the Fathers to the fact of such purification after death, therefore, is beyond doubt; their explanation of the purifying process has as much validity as the reasons advanced by each one. One thing is certain: the primitive Church never accepted the belief that in each and every instance the eternal beatitude of the just began immediately after death. The widely held though false theory that heaven would begin, at least for those who were not martyrs, only at the resurrection of the dead excluded this. In addition, prayers and other good works were offered for the departed souls as a matter of common practice. There can be no doubt, then, that the widespread belief of the early Church, as shown by many of the Fathers (see tertullian, origen, cyprian, ephram, ambrose, augustine, chrysostom, caesari us of arles, and gregory the great; texts in Enchiridion patristicum, ed. M. J. Rouët de Journel [21st ed. Freiburg im Breisgau 1960] index 587–589) and as evidenced by the liturgy, demanded the existence of a state after death in which the souls of the just would be fully purified from any remains of sin before entering heaven.
The scholastic writers accepted this teaching of the Fathers and constructed a more consistent synthesis. They taught clearly the doctrines of the existence of purgatory and the finite duration of its punishments; there was general agreement on the presence of fire as the purifying agent. On secondary points, such as the remission of venial sins, the gravity and duration of the punishments, and the location where they took place, differences were apparent. The basic teaching was then incorporated into the Councils of Lyons, Florence, and Trent, and forms the nucleus of present Catholic belief about purgatory.
The teaching of the Eastern Church today displays some differences from that of the West. The dead find themselves in an intermediate state, awaiting the day of the final judgment. The good already enjoy some foretaste of heaven, while the evil experience some of the torments of hell. Beyond this, Eastern doctrine is not too clear, although their theologians in general reject the idea that the purification takes place by fire and that a special place is set aside for it. Since neither of these points was defined in the councils, the seeming opposition between East and West in the matter of purgatory is not insurmountable. In general, the teaching of the Eastern Church reflects the primitive and somewhat undeveloped doctrine of the Fathers on the status of the departed souls.
Nature of Purgatory. Questions relating to the punishments of purgatory and allied topics are much more obscure than the question of the existence of purgatory. All theologians hold that there will be some kind of purifying punishment there (from the very etymology of the word) that will cease with the last judgment. Of its very nature, therefore, the punishment is temporary.
Duration of Purgatory. It is a false question to inquire more precisely how long purgatory will endure. First, the separated soul no longer lives in the time of this world, but in aevum, where duration is not measured in days and years. Second, the soul becomes very conscious of its tremendous shortcomings, of the actions it has failed to perform, or performed poorly, or not done at all, and it is wholly intent on making good for these. Thus the intensity of the suffering could well take place in an instant, or could endure for some time, without the soul being aware of it. Because of these considerations theologians have abstained from speculating on the duration of the sufferings of purgatory.
Nature of the Punishment. The temporary deprivation of the beatific vision, for which the soul would otherwise be prepared, is surely one of the keenest punishments of purgatory. Some theologians wish to call this the pain of loss, seeing that the consciousness of being separated from the Creator, who is so near and yet so far, causes terrible suffering and longing for Him, which is heightened still more by the knowledge that the venial sins and punishment due to sin could have been expiated so easily by contrition, prayer, and other good works in this life. Others maintain that there is no pain of loss in the proper sense of the word. In regard to the pain of sense there is likewise great diversity of opinion. Many think that the total suffering of purgatory is identified with the awareness of the temporary postponement of the beatific vision, although the more common view holds that, in addition to this, there is some positive punishment, intended to repair the disorder caused by the partial aversion from God and the turning toward creatures that is the result of venial sin.
An entirely different question concerns the constitution of this pain of sense. In the Latin Church it has been generally maintained that this pain is imposed through real fire. This is not, however, essential to belief in purgatory. It is not even certain. The Greeks explicitly rejected the notion that the punishment was by means of fire, a view they were not required to change before subscribing to the statements of faith in the councils of reunion. St. Thomas explained the fire as a binding and hampering of the soul. Others hold for fire in the real sense. When the objection is raised that real fire could have no effect on the spiritual soul, these theologians are ready with an answer. The soul in purgatory, even though separated from the body, remains in some mysterious way related to the material world and open to its influence, so much so that it attains its ultimate fulfillment only at the resurrection, that is, when it is again rejoined to the body. This relationship of the soul to matter, lasting even after death, furnishes a metaphysical and salvific basis for its purification by a material agent. Even if one chooses, with the theologians of the East, to reject the idea of suffering induced by fire, one should be careful not to exclude all positive suffering from purgatory. There are still real affliction, sorrow, chagrin, shame of conscience, and other spiritual sorrows capable of inflicting true pain on the soul.
Intensity of the Punishment. This question is less discussed today than it was in medieval times. St. Bonaventure thought that the deprivation of the beatific vision was the most intense and painful suffering encountered in purgatory. Suárez was inclined to agree with him, but at the same time saw a difficulty in the case of a very holy person who entered purgatory with only the slightest punishment for which to atone. This holy soul, because it was soon to attain to a very high degree of union with God, would suffer more from the postponement of this union than another soul who was destined for a lower place in heaven. Suárez, therefore, made the following modifications: first, although the deprivation of the glory of heaven ought of its very nature to bring more suffering to the souls who are most holy, because of the mercy of God this suffering is tempered by the perfect love with which these souls accept it; second, the sorrow of the souls in purgatory also stems from the degree of glory that they have failed to attain, which makes the suffering of a less perfect soul more intense precisely because it realizes it has attained less perfection than it could have.
A veil of mystery prevents any accurate assessment of the intensity of the pain of purgatory. St. Catherine of Genoa wrote that the desire of the soul for God was an ardent fire more consuming and painful than any earthly fire. SS. Thomas and Bonaventure held that the slightest fire of purgatory was more painful than the greatest sufferings of this world. Modern authors adhere more closely to the view of Suárez, who denied the validity of such comparisons, since they deal with two entirely different orders, one of which is beyond our present experience and hence incapable of being compared with that which we know here. One should remember, at any rate, that in the midst of their sufferings these souls also experience great joy over the certainty of salvation. This point will be treated below.
It is not out of place to remark here that the terrifying descriptions of purgatory sometimes found in popular writing, sermons, and other such material are not based on the teaching of the Church. As has been shown, even the idea of fire is not universally accepted. Certain conceptions, then, stressing too much the horror and misery of purgatory, running counter to the incomparable dignity of the children of God who are detained there, and causing scandal to the faithful, should be discountenanced. They either arise from the indiscreet use of private revelations, which generally do not rise above the theological level of the recipient of such alleged apparitions, or they mirror the thought of the time. In this matter the advice of the Council of Trent is wise, insisting upon the exclusion from sermons not only of difficult and subtle questions that do not edify the people, but also of what savors of idle curiosity and superstition, and of what is scandalous and repulsive (Denz 1820). It is to the interests of both theological precision and of the dignity of this mystery to avoid all fantastic imagery in speaking of the nature of purgatory.
Purpose of the Suffering. The soul in purgatory must be freed of certain defects: (1) the guilt of venial sin; (2) inclination toward sin (inordinate desires); and (3) temporal punishment due to sin. Until quite recent times the preponderance of theological thought denied that the suffering of purgatory had as its purpose the forgiveness of the guilt of venial sin. Authors held that the guilt of venial sin was forgiven by the intense act of love of God that the soul elicited at its entrance into purgatory, an act of love that is the more intense now that the soul, freed from the trammels and drag of the body, turns toward God with the full powers of its spiritual faculties. In this state a divided, partial allegiance to God would be unthinkable. Thus the soul in purgatory is freed from the guilt of sin from the beginning and suffers only the temporal punishment due to his sins. Many authors, however, question this view.
It does not seem to take into consideration the weakness of the soul induced by lifelong habits of sin, habits acquired, it is true, through the body, but many of which affect the powers of the soul itself. The opinion also overlooks the fact that Scripture, when it refers to purification after death, speaks of the forgiveness of the guilt of venial sin in purgatory. The authority of St. Thomas is claimed by both sides of this dispute, but it is noteworthy that only after the 16th century did the view become prevalent that the guilt of sin was removed at entry into purgatory. The liturgy seems to favor the modern view also, as in the prayer for the blessing of a cemetery: "Absolve the souls of all whose bodies are laid to rest here from every bond of sin." Again: "We beseech You, O Lord, grant to the souls of your faithful whose bodies rest here the forgiveness of all their sins." While the probative force of these prayers may be questioned by contending that no distinction is made between the guilt of sin and punishment due to sin, they do serve as a strong confirmation for the view that the guilt of sin itself is forgiven in purgatory.
This latter opinion is also in greater conformity with the sanctity of God and the dignity of the human person. It seems more in keeping with the holiness of God that He would progressively transform and perfect the soul until it was ready for heaven than that He would continue to punish a soul otherwise worthy of the beatific vision. Of course, even if God were to punish one already freed from the guilt of sin, this would serve as an explicit revelation of the mystery of God's justice and bring once more to the consciousness of the sinner, as he stood at the threshold of heaven, the heinousness and gravity of even venial sin. But the image of God presented in Holy Scripture inclines modern authors to see the divine love, holiness, and justice combining to punish the soul still guilty of venial sins as the soul is transformed and cleansed. This would also respect the personal dignity of the created person, depriving him of the vision of God only as long as the guilt of sin remained in the soul. As soon as the last of this disappeared, the person would be ready to enter the eternal happiness of heaven.
Recent theological speculation about the nature of sin and its effects upon the whole of the human personality gives further reason for thinking that purgatory is a gradual process whereby the soul is not only punished, but also freed from the guilt of sin and especially from the evil consequences that sin has left imprinted in its very substance. The soul of the just, presuming that it is not ready for immediate admission to the sight of God, is weighed down with impurities and imperfections of varying degrees. The number and gravity of unforgiven venial sins can vary greatly, as can the punishment due to these and other forgiven sins. Even more, the ravages of concupiscence will have made themselves felt more or less deeply in the soul. Persistent habits of sin or uncontrolled desires may have left deep spiritual scars on the faculties of the soul, scars that penetrate below the level of consciousness into the very fibers of the personality. Before the person is fully ready to enter heaven and face the unspeakable holiness and majesty of God, all of these must be removed. The whole person, in other words, must be made over, formed again in the image of God to which it was made and which sin has tried to efface by its onslaughts. Granted these deep–rooted effects of sin on the soul, one can see more clearly why modern authors do not favor the theory of the forgiveness of sins immediately upon entry to purgatory. This guilt of sin, the remains of sin in the soul, is more deeply imbedded than the person is aware. There must be quite literally a process, a purification that lays bare, so to speak, the successive layers of the personality and exposes to view the faults buried in the depths of the nature. As this purification progresses, the full personality of the individual emerges for the first time. On earth concupiscence and ingrained, subconscious habits prevented the person from acting to the fullest extent as a child of God and from displaying the wonders of its varied talents; now the person is enabled to live as its own self to the utmost for the first time and to reveal the richness of its personality. Thus purgatory is not a place of negative suffering, designed only to punish the soul, but a state of positive progress where the person is enabled to possess God by first truly possessing itself.
Manner of Suffering. Theologians distinguish the suffering endured in purgatory from that undertaken on earth in reparation for sin. The latter is called satisfaction, because the human person freely and voluntarily "makes good" to God the injury done by sin; such reparation is an action that is also meritorious of grace. But the soul of the departed person is no longer in the state of the wayfarer and can no longer perform satisfactory or meritorious works. Such a soul can only give satisfaction for its sins, that is, accept willingly the sufferings imposed by God for its sins. This is not to say that the sufferings of purgatory imply only passivity on the part of the souls detained there. They are rather an activity of the person under the influence of God. But there is a passive acceptance of this purification because it does not depend upon the free decision of the departed soul, but is dispensed by divine decree. This suffering, however, does not fall upon the soul as if it were a stone or a piece of wood. It is rather accepted readily and even joyfully.
State of the Souls in Purgatory. The treatment of this point can be divided into two parts: (1) the souls are confirmed in grace; (2) they are certain of salvation.
Confirmation in Grace. The theological ground for this assertion is the condemned proposition of Luther that states: "The souls in purgatory sin without intermission so long as they crave for rest or shrink from pain" (Denz 1489). Merit and demerit are no longer possible for the soul; the end of the earthly pilgrimage has been reached and the soul is assured that it will possess God. This assurance excludes any feelings of anguish or horror in the soul. The earliest Christian inscriptions and the liturgy constantly repeat that the departed souls "rest in the sleep of peace." Thus Luther was mistaken in attributing to them despair, anguish, and horror at the punishments they undergo. Their sufferings, as noted above, are rather undergone voluntarily and accepted as the means that will enable them to join God. This does not lessen the pain they endure, but it does render impossible any anguish or despair on their part.
Certitude of Salvation. Whether the fact of their salvation becomes known to the departed souls through the particular judgment or by any other means, it is plain that this awareness is one of the greatest joys of purgatory, preventing it from being merely a place of torture and suffering. These souls have, in substance, already achieved salvation; nothing more can imperil their final happiness, though they are not yet in possession of the beatific vision. The fact that they must still undergo a period of suffering to remove the last dross and imperfection remaining from their mortal life does not prevent an intense joy in the near anticipation of their full union with God. If they are suffering from a purifying fire, these souls are nonetheless inflamed by the Holy Spirit, who animates them as members of Christ's Mystical Body wholly given over to the Spirit. It is His strength and love that have taken complete hold of their souls and nothing can disengage them from His grasp. The suffering is there, indeed, but it is tempered by a joy and a love that literally place it beyond the power of earthly language or concepts.
Prayers for the Dead. Besides the existence of purgatory, the only other revealed dogma concerning it is that the souls in purgatory can be helped by the prayers of the faithful on earth. The basis for this assertion is the communion of saints, the community of all those who are joined in Christ, whether in heaven, purgatory, or on earth. This means that the action of any member of this community affects all others in it, although the manner in which this is accomplished is hidden in the mystery of the divine wisdom. Concretely, the souls in purgatory can be helped by works of piety, such as prayer, indulgences, alms, fasting, and sacrifices. These works are undertaken by the faithful on earth in the Spirit of Love, who also fills and animates the souls in purgatory, and they are performed for the benefit of these souls. While one cannot dictate that God apply the satisfactory value of one's personal works to the poor souls, one may certainly hope that God will hear one's petitions and help the members of the Church suffering. Because the application of these good works depends on one's petition to God, there is no infallible assurance that one's prayers help an individual soul in purgatory, or any one of them, here and now. But the mercy and love of God for the souls in purgatory, who are already so close to God, surely prompt God to speed their release from the period of purification when the faithful on earth direct their prayers to this purpose.
See Also: dead, prayers for the; fire of judgment; guilt (theology of); judgment, divine (in theology); poor souls; sanction, divine; eschatology, articles on.
Bibliography: For further information consult esp. the first three works. a. michael, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al. (Paris 1903–50; Tables générales 1951–) 13.1:1164–1326. k. rahner et al., Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche 2, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, (2d new ed. Freiburg 1957–65) 4:49–55. j. f. sagÜÉs, De novissimis, Sacrae theologiae summa, ed. fathers of the society of jesus. professors of the theological faculties in spain (4th ed. Madrid 1962) 4:861–1061. m. schmaus, Von den letzten Dingen (his Katholische Dogmatik 4.2; 5th ed. Munich 1959) 511–541. j. p. arendzen, Purgatory and Heaven (New York 1960). r. garrigou-lagrange, Life Everlasting, tr. p. cummins (St. Louis 1952). r. w. gleason, The World to Come (New York 1958). m. jugie, Purgatory and the Means to Avoid It, tr. m. g. carroll (Westminster, Md. 1949). a. winklhofer, The Coming of His Kingdom, tr. a. v. littledale (New York 1963). m. f. egan, "The Two Theories of Purgatory," The Irish Theological Quarterly 17 (Dublin 1922) 24–34. p. fransen, "The Doctrine of Purgatory," The Eastern Churches Quarterly 13 (Ramsgate 1959) 99–112. v. kerns, "The Traditional Doctrine of Purgatory," The Irish Ecclesiastical Record 80 (Dublin 1953) 326–342. j. le goff, The Birth of Purgatory tr. a. goldhammer (Chicago 1984).
[r. j. bastian]
Purgatory comes from the Latin word, purgatio, which means purification, cleansing or expiation. Many religions affirm the need for moral and spiritual purification. Purgatory, though, is chiefly identified with the Catholic doctrine that maintains, first, that some souls after death require purification (purgatio ) before reaching heaven, and second, that the prayers and intercessions of the living can assist souls in purgatory.
The word purgatory as such, is not found in the Bible, though variations of katharsis, the Greek equivalent of purgatio, can be found (e.g., katharoi, Matt 5:8, and katharismou, 2 Pet. 1:9). Church fathers such as Augustine (354–430) found support for purgatory in 2 Maccabees 12:43–46, a passage (not considered canonical by Protestants) that mentions an expiatory sacrifice offered in the temple to atone for the sins of Jewish soldiers who died wearing pagan amulets. The inference is that there is expiation for some sins after death.
Various Church fathers, such as Gregory of Nyssa (c. 330–395), affirmed a postmortem purgation by “purifying fire” (tou katharsíou purós ) based on 1 Corinthians 3:11–15 (some will be saved “only as through fire”). Patristic writers such as Augustine and Pope Gregory I (c. 540–604) also believed that Matthew 12:32 implies that certain sins will only be forgiven in the age to come (i.e., after death).
Under the influence of neo-Platonism, some early Christian writers, such as Origen (c. 185–254), suggested an ongoing purification after death leading to a universal restoration (apokatastasis ) of all humans (and possibly demons) with God. The local Council of Constantinople condemned apokatastasis in 543.
The doctrine of purgatory underwent more systematic development in the West than in the East. As its penitential system developed, Latin theology saw purgatory as the postmortem expiation of the temporal punishment due to sins. According to this theology, temporal effects or “punishments” of sin (e.g., wounds to oneself and others) remain even after the guilt (culpa ) of sin is taken away by confession. Such temporal “punishments” require penances for adequate purification, satisfaction, or expiation. When the temporal effects of sin have not been purified prior to death, the person must undergo purgatory.
Because penances during the Middle Ages were often severe, the Church offered various indulgences, that is, extrasacramental ways (e.g., prayers, pilgrimages, and almsgiving) for gaining remission of the temporal punishments due to sin. These indulgences were granted by the Church via her access to the “treasury” of the merits of Christ and the saints. The faithful could apply these indulgences to themselves for their own purification or to souls in purgatory by means of suffrage or intercession (per modum suffragii ).
Although purgatory was often seen as a temporary hell, the Italian poet Dante Alighieri (1265–1321) offered a more positive understanding of the doctrine. In the Purgatorio, the second part of his Divine Comedy, Dante describes the purifying rather than penal aspects of punishment. The souls ascend “Mount Purgatory” while receiving penances, practicing virtues, and reciting prayers designed to purge the root causes of the seven capital sins. Those in “lower purgatory” are purified of sins or vices related to “love perverted,” namely pride, envy, and wrath. Those in “mid-purgatory” overcome sloth, which is associated with “love defective.” Finally, those in “upper purgatory” are purged of “love excessive,” linked to the sins of avarice, gluttony, and lust. For Dante, the purpose of purgatory is the interior purification of one’s love for God and neighbor before entering heaven.
Only the Roman Catholic Church teaches purgatory as dogma. The Profession of Faith, read before the Second Council of Lyons (1274), distinguished between the souls who go immediately to hell after death, those who go immediately to heaven, and those who die in charity but are cleansed after death by “purgatorial and cleansing penalties” (poenis purgatoriis seu catharteriis ). The Council of Florence repeated this doctrine in 1439 and reaffirmed that sacrifices of the mass, as well as prayers and offerings of the faithful, can alleviate the penalties of those in purgatory. In the wake of the Protestant denial of the doctrine, the Council of Trent, in 1563, upheld the reality of purgatory but warned bishops to exclude from popular sermons “the more difficult and subtle questions” not useful for edification and to prohibit all that belongs to curiosity, superstition, or unseemly gain.
The Catholic Church has never defined purgatory as a specific place. The exact nature and duration of the purgatorial punishments is open to speculation, and some, such as Catherine of Genoa (1447–1510), describe the fire of purgatory as the fire of God’s love. Traditional Catholic theology specifies two forms of suffering in purgatory: the pain of loss (poena damni ), because of the temporary deprivation of heaven; and the pain of sense (poena sensus ), experienced by souls in a manner analogous to sensible pain. Whatever suffering the souls in purgatory experience is mitigated by their assurance of heaven once their purification is complete. The common Catholic teaching is that, after the general judgment, there will be only heaven and hell, and purgatory will cease.
The Protestant Reformers of the sixteenth century rejected purgatory as an unscriptural doctrine that obscures the atonement of Christ as the only satisfaction for sin. Moreover, they linked purgatory to “false practices” such as indulgences, private masses, and prayers for the dead.
The Eastern Orthodox churches have prayers for the departed in their liturgies, but they have never defined purgatory as a doctrine. Several Orthodox confessions of faith, such as the original ones of Peter Moghila (1596–1647), the metropolitan of Kiev, and Dositheus (1641–1707), the patriarch of Jerusalem, affirmed the reality of postmortem purification. Some Orthodox theologians have also posited the existence of two hells, one for the damned and another for those needing further purification. Still others have mentioned a middle state of souls after death (mesi katastasis ), where they receive comfort from the prayers of the living. In general, though, Eastern Orthodox churches regard the whole matter as too mysterious for dogmatic formulations.
The Catholic Church continues to teach the reality of purgatory. Vatican II (1962–1965) and the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992/1997), however, limit themselves to general affirmations of postmortem purification through the grace of God (cf. Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium, 49 and the Catechism, 1030 and 1472).
Daley, Brian E. 2003. The Hope of the Early Church: A Handbook of Patristic Eschatology. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishing.
Jugie, M. 1936. Purgatoire dans l’Église Greco-Russe après le Concile de Florence. In Vol. 13, Part 1 of Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique, 1326–1352. Paris: Librairie Letouzey et Ané.
Michel, A. 1936. Purgatoire. In Vol. 13, Part 1 of Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique, 1163–1326. Paris: Librairie Letouzey et Ané.
Ombres, Robert. 1978. Theology of Purgatory. Butler, WI: Clergy Book Service.
Tsirpanlis, Constantine N. 1991. Introduction to Eastern Patristic Thought and Orthodox Theology. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press.
From the third century onward, Christian theologians developed a theory of psychic postdeath purification on the basis of the words of St. Paul: "Fire shall try every person's work." He continues by saying that those who have built their lives upon shoddy foundations "shall be saved, yet saved through fire" (1 Cor. 3:11–15). Paul's was a doctrine of postdeath purification that was shared with late Judaism and early rabbinic thought. From the beginning of their organized existence, therefore, both the synagogue and the early Christian church prayed extensively for their dead, and many of the most ancient prayers to this effect are still found in the liturgies of the Greek and Latin churches.
Several early theologians reflected on the obscurities of the primitive Christian teaching on the state of the soul after death and deduced that between the death of the individual and the final judgment at the end of time there would be an intermediate state. During this state the souls of the dead inhabited a place where, according to their deeds, they were either happy or wretched. Those souls who required purification of their past lives would experience the purifying fire (in Latin purgatorium ) more drastically than those who were more advanced in holiness before their death. The Greek theologians generally regarded the posthumous purification by fire in the "spiritual" or symbolic sense of psychic transfiguration into a higher condition. Clement and Origen of Alexandria had envisaged that the soul of the departed would be made to learn all the things it had refused to learn on the earth through the strenuous ministrations of correcting angels until it had been purified enough to ascend closer to God. The fourth-century teacher Gregory of Nyssa expressed the idea more generically: "We must either be purified in the present life by prayer and the love of wisdom (philosophias ) or, after our departure from this world, in the furnace of the purifying fire." And Gregory of Nazianzus, his contemporary, writes in his poetry of the "fearful river of fire" that will purify the sinner after death.
The idea of purgatorium as a place of after-death purification distinct from the finality of the place of the elect and the damned (heaven or hell) that would be determined by God only on Judgment Day was put forward as a learned opinion by leading Western theologians, particularly Jerome, Augustine, and Gregory the Great. These thinkers seemed to wish more than the Easterners to bring some systematic order into the diffuse doctrine of the afterlife and judgment. It was Pope Gregory in the seventh century who elevated the opinion of the earlier thinkers into a more or less formulated doctrine: "Purgatorial fire will cleanse every elect soul before they come into the Last Judgement." So began the divergent thought that developed over the course of centuries between the Byzantines and Latins.
The Eastern Christian world retained a simpler doctrine of the afterlife that maintained that the souls of the elect, even those who were not particularly holy, would be retained in "a place of light, a place of refreshment, a place from which all sorrow and sighing have been banished." This view reflected the statement in Revelation 14:13 that "those who die in the Lord rest from their labors." In short, the state of afterlife as it was envisaged in the Eastern church was generally a happy and restful condition in which the departed souls of the faithful were not divorced from God, but waited on Judgment Day with hopeful anticipation, as the time when they would be admitted to a transfigured and paradisial condition in proximity to God.
The Latin church, on the other hand, developed its doctrine of purgatory with a more marked stress on that state of painful purification that would attend the souls of all those who had not reached a state of purity before their death.
In the tradition of both churches, the state of the souls after death called out to the living to assist them in prayers, both public and private, so that God would show them mercy. In the tenth century, under the influence of Odilo of Cluny, the Feast of All Souls (November 2) was established in the Western calendar as a time when the living prayed for the release from sufferings of all departed Christians. The popularity of this feast helped to fix the idea of purgatory in the religious imagination of Latin Christians. After the twelfth century, Western theology further rationalized the state and purpose of purgatory in arguing that it was a cleansing by fire of the lesser sins and faults committed by Christians (venial sins), and the payment of the debt of "temporal punishment," which medieval theologians taught was still owed by those who had committed grave offenses (mortal sins) even though the penalty of such sins (condemnation to an eternity in hell) had been remitted by God before death. The later rationalization for purgatory, therefore, stood in close relation to the highly developed Western church's penitential theory, as the latter had devolved from feudal ideas of penal debt and remission. The theological tendency is best seen in the work of the scholastic theologian Anselm, who reflects on the nature of eternal penalties incurred by mortals who offend against the prescripts of the deity, in his influential study of the atonement Cur Deus Homo (On Why God was Made Man), published in 1098.
Purgatory, as it developed in the West through the later Middle Ages, became more and more of a dismal idea, linked to the understanding of redemption as a penal substitutionary sacrifice, and increasingly distanced from the early Christian notion that the redemption represented God's glorious victory given as a gift to liberate the world. The medieval obsession with the state of the souls after death led to a flourishing of legends and popular narratives of the sufferings of the souls in purgatory. They were, in a sense, the prelude to the greatest medieval work of graphic imagination relating to the subject, Dante's Purgatory, the second book of the Divine Comedy. Mystics such as Catherine of Genoa also made it a central theme of their visionary teachings, further fixing the idea in the Western mind. In the medieval Latin church the desire to assist the departed souls in their time of sorrow led to a thriving demand for masses and intercessions for the dead, and for "indulgences," which were held to lessen the time of suffering that the souls in purgatory would be required to undergo. This led soon enough to the concept of purgatory being one of the early points of contention in the great religious crisis known subsequently as the Reformation.
Protestant theologians rejected the doctrine of purgatory as one of their first public departures from medieval theological speculation, and the English church censured the "Romish doctrine of Purgatory" outright in its Article 22. The Orthodox churches had much earlier censured the whole idea when ecumenical union was being contemplated in the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries. On each occasion, the Latin Church defended its position in conciliar statements (the Council of Lyons in 1274 and the Council of Florence in 1439). The rejection of the idea by the Reformation teachers led to its defense once again in the sixteenth-century Council of Trent, which led to renewed focus on the idea of purgatory as a distinguishing mark of the authority of the Roman Catholic Church in the domain of defining dogmas not clearly distinguished in the scriptural accounts.
As an idea it lives on in Dante's writings, and in dramatic poems such as John Henry Newman's nineteenth-century "Dream of Gerontius." As a religious factor it is still very much alive in Western Catholicism in the celebration of various Feasts of the Dead, and in the liturgical commemorations of the departed on November 2. Modern Roman Catholic theology, after Trent, has clearly moved away from emphasizing the purifying pains of purgatorial fire and instead highlights the need for the living to commemorate the dead who have preceded them.
See also: Afterlife in Cross-Cultural Perspective; Heaven; Hell
Atwell, Robert. "From Augustine to Gregory the Great: An Evaluation of the Emergence of the Doctrine of Purgatory." Journal of Ecclesiastical History 38 (1987):173–186.
d'E Jesse, Eustace T. Prayers for the Departed, Purgatory, Pardons, Invocations of Saints, Images, Relics: Some Remarks and Notes on the 22nd Article of Religion. London: Skeffington & Sons, 1900.
Hubert, Father. The Mystery of Purgatory. Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1975.
Le Goff, Jacques The Birth of Purgatory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.
Ombres, Robert. The Theology of Purgatory. Cork: Merces Press, 1979.
J. A. McGUCKIN
pur·ga·to·ry / ˈpərgəˌtôrē/ • n. (pl. -ries) (in Roman Catholic doctrine) a place or state of suffering inhabited by the souls of sinners who are expiating their sins before going to heaven. ∎ mental anguish or suffering: this was purgatory, worse than anything she'd faced in her life. • adj. archaic having the quality of cleansing or purifying: infernal punishments are purgatory and medicinal. DERIVATIVES: pur·ga·to·ri·al / ˌpərgəˈtôrēəl/ adj.
For a Buddhist equivalent, see YAMA.