Why do Catholics believe in Purgatory?
By Paul Dion, STL
This question is actually a Burning Question. It came by email to our parish and was forwarded to me. This topic covers a wide scope of interest to all Catholics.
We all believe in Purgatory because the Church teaches us that it is a reality. Since it is in the Catechism and since we have been raised to accept the existence of Purgatory, we believe.
Now comes this question from a Catholic, we presume, asking why?
The answer to the “why” questions in life are rarely short. So as we get away from the cultural answer in the first paragraph, please be patient. We will travel through Scripture, Tradition and Catholic Church Pronouncements on the subject. The last paragraph or two will be some serious commentary by me.
Scripture, Old Testament
The word “purgatory” is not to be found in Sacred Scripture. There are however, some words that have been judged by the Church for centuries as indicating that purgatory must be a middle option for souls passing from earthly life to heavenly life.
The one traditionally accepted text comes from 2 Maccabees, chapter 12, verses 38 to 46. It shows that there was a segment of the Jews in the Old Testament who certainly believed in a middle state of existence where the dead could profit from the sacrifices and prayers of the living.
Remember that the books of the Maccabees are stories of how the Jews fought to get the freedom to worship according to the Law during the Greek occupation.
"After Esdris and his men had been fighting for a long time and were weary, Judas called upon the Lord to show himself their ally and leader in the battle.
37 Then, raising a battle cry in his ancestral language, and with songs, he charged Gorgias' men when they were not expecting it and put them to flight.
38 Judas rallied his army and went to the city of Adullam. As the week was ending, they purified themselves according to custom and kept the sabbath there.
39 On the following day, since the task had now become urgent, Judas and his men went to gather up the bodies of the slain and bury them with their kinsmen in their ancestral tombs.
40 But under the tunic of each of the dead they found amulets sacred to the idols of Jamnia, which the law forbids the Jews to wear. So it was clear to all that this was why these men had been slain.
41 They all therefore praised the ways of the Lord, the just judge who brings to light the things that are hidden.
42 Turning to supplication, they prayed that the sinful deed might be fully blotted out. The noble Judas warned the soldiers to keep themselves free from sin, for they had seen with their own eyes what had happened because of the sin of those who had fallen.
43 He then took up a collection among all his soldiers, amounting to two thousand silver drachmas, which he sent to Jerusalem to provide for an expiatory sacrifice. In doing this he acted in a very excellent and noble way, inasmuch as he had the resurrection of the dead in view;
44 for if he were not expecting the fallen to rise again, it would have been useless and foolish to pray for them in death.
45 But if he did this with a view to the splendid reward that awaits those who had gone to rest in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought.
46 Thus he made atonement for the dead that they might be freed from this sin."
This highly emotional story is what has guided the Catholic Church in its faith that there is indeed a middle state of existence after death when the dead can profit by the spiritual intercession of the living.
The books of the Maccabees do not form a part of the Protestant bible, so this reading does not mean anything to them.
Scripture, New Testament
Once again we will consider some texts of the Gospel that point to the logic of believing in the existence of a middle stage of purification on the way to heaven.
The Book of Revelation is quite clear about what it takes to get to heaven when it states in chapter 21, verses 25 to 27, “Its gates shall not be shut by day (there will be no night there).
And they shall bring the glory and the honor of the nations into it.
But there shall by no means enter it anything that defiles, or causes an abomination or a lie, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life.”
We consider this quotation of Jesus by Luke, Chapter 12 when Jesus is talking about appearing before the Master for judgment makes the final statement,
“I tell you, you shall not depart from there until you have paid the very last mite.” (Verse 59)
In St. Matthew, chapter 12, verse 32 we read,
"Whosoever shall speak a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but he that shall speak against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world nor in the World to come."
The logic here is that if there is one thing that will not be forgiven in the World to come, there must be others that will be.
Further, St. Paul writing his first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 3, verses 13 to 15 says,
"each man's work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man's work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire."
His soul will be saved but only after spending time in the purifying flames of purgatory.
Throughout the centuries the Catholic Church has developed its doctrine of Purgatory based on serious, meditative consideration of the meaning of the Scriptures that I have quoted here.
All of these texts carry a message that leads us to realize that there is a place for final purification before we can enjoy seeing God face-to-face in the Beatific Vision.
Catholics believe that God unveils Himself to human beings through actions that He has inspired them to perform along the path of Salvation History.
Communities of believers existed before the Bible was written. These believers were inspired by God to behave in certain ways so as to be worthy of His love and guidance.
Not all of the religious behaviors that existed in the religious communities of faith-filled believers found their way into the written revelation. That’s just the way that humans are.
That doesn’t mean that God doesn’t use us to reveal Who He is and what He wants.
We believe that Jesus is the highest manifestation of God’s revelation of Himself to us. We also know from reading the Gospels that Jesus condemned many of the religious practices of the Jews. There is absolutely no record of Jesus condemning prayers and sacrifices offered up for the dead.
In fact in the gospel of St. John (Chapter 11) it is abundantly clear by the story of Lazarus that Jesus and His friends believed in life after death and in the resurrection into heaven after death. Did He believe in a purification site on the way to heaven? We do not know, but we do know that He did not condemn those who did.
Even though Protestants deny the canonicity (Recognized as being divinely inspired) of the Maccabean books, their historical value cannot be denied, and even Jewish prayer books today contain such prayers. If the doctrine of purgatory had been invented by the Jews, undoubtedly, it would have been condemned by Jesus Christ, as He condemned them for a long list of changes in doctrine and discipline in St. Matthew, chapter 23.
Tradition of Faith in the Catholic Church
For Catholics the strongest argument for the existence of purgatory is the constant and universal writings of the early Church Fathers, the ancient liturgies of the East and West, the numerous inscriptions on the walls of the Catacombs, and in the pronouncements of the Councils of Florence (1438-45) and Trent (1545-63).
The “Church Fathers” are certain persons who are so designated because of their special spiritual insights into the Faith that Jesus came to enlighten. Some of these people go back several centuries and their statements have withstood the test of time.
Catholics are quite comfortable with their Faith in the existence of Purgatory.
My Personal comments
"But purgatory is unnecessary, for Christ’s death on the Cross has paid all debt of punishment for sin."
Christ’s death on the Cross sufficed to redeem humanity and free us from the eternal damnation of hell, but it did not free us from the need to undergo temporal punishments for sin. For example, humanity is still subject to the temporal punishments of labor, pain, sickness and death even though we have now been redeemed.
St. Paul makes this point clear when writing to the Colossians: "I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church" (1, 24).
This being the case, And as we have read in the quotations from the Bible, faith in a “halfway” station for purification is not at all in vain. Catholics believe, as St. Paul wrote, that we complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.
Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992)
No. 1030: All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.
Let me call you attention to the clause, “but still imperfectly purified”. This tells us that Purgatory is not a necessary stop between earth and heaven. We believe that there are those who are perfectly purified and therefore, are destined directly to heaven.
Catholicism is a complex religion. Catholicism mines its religious beliefs from more than one source. Catholicism is a dynamic religion with a divinely driven mission to offer the disciples of Jesus Christ the best tools possible on their way to Eternal Life.
The Catholic Church, as the Bride of Christ, continues His teaching mission by having a dynamic, communitarian relationship with His people all over the world.
It is because we believe in the validity of revelation as contained in Sacred Scripture, Tradition and the Church itself, that we are One, Holy, Universal and Apostolic.
Thank you for your question. I hope that I have helped you.