12 February 2017


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?


Joshua said...

Once you die, you are fixed either in grace or in sin: there is no chance of falling from grace, whether in heaven or purgatory, nor of repenting of sin in hell. For the Preacher rightly states in Ecclesiastes 11:3 that, "If the tree fall to the south, or to the north, in what place soever it shall fall, there shall it be."

The Douay-Rheims available online (drbo.org) has the following note on this verse:

[3] If the tree fall: The state of the soul is unchangeable when once she comes to heaven or hell: and a soul that departs this life in the state of grace, shall never fall from grace: as on the other side, a soul that dies out of the state of grace, shall never come to it. But this does not exclude a place of temporal punishments for such souls as die in the state of grace: yet not so as to be entirely pure: and therefore they shall be saved, indeed, yet so as by fire. 1 Cor. 3. 13, 14, 15.

The mention of fire in the last line answers your other query: the least pain of purgatory is greater than the greatest pain on earth (says, apparently, St Augustine - I've never verified this reference); and everyone knows (at least in the West) that purgatory is full of fire. St Catherine of Genoa has much very edifying to say about this. Our God is a consuming fire (Hebrews 12:29); and any who are not entirely purified will be as silver in the furnace, seven times refined (Ps. 11:7).

Belfry Bat said...

(I understand you are/were away; but since you ask a question...) About two small thoughts.

A) The distinction made in developed language may be essentially semantic; there is neither Limbus Patrum nor Purgatorium mentioned in the Apostles Creed, e.g., so Jesus' sojourn among the deceased patriarchs is called the "Harrowing of Hell"; but there is a big difference between suffering and knowing it is going to end vs. suffering and knowing it is eternal.

B) While the deceased destined for Heaven or for Hell may each be certain of their own individual fate, we here still un-shuffled-off do not really know which is which, our first inklings being the miraculous intercession of those who have actually reached Heaven. From our perspective, untill we know that someone has reached Heaven, we cannot even tell if their judgment is concluded. What we do not know to be decided against those we have loved, we can hope is decided in their favour, and we can certainly tell God our hopes. And again, the big difference notwithstanding, supernatural suffering is supernatural suffering, and nothing to sneeze at; so we are told it is much better to get our due suffering done in this life rather than let it come after.

Z) We have an old exclamation of praise "[O God] Thou art glorious in Heaven, terrible in Hell, but sweet, mild, and liberal in the Holy Eucharist". Does it mean that God is "in Hell"? Certainly not: rather, that the suffering of those in Hell is the proximity of the God they have refused; and the suffering of those in Purgatory is the proximity of the God for whom they are not yet ready.

Fr PJM said...

The texts you cite could be a prayer to eternal God, outside of time, to save "back then" the soul of the deceased person from eternal damnation.

Tomas said...

Thomas argues that purgatory is, in fact, simply the highest section of hell, that the torments of the damned and the purification of the elect are in substance the same (http://www.newadvent.org/summa/7001.htm#article2):

"I answer that, Nothing is clearly stated in Scripture about the situation of Purgatory, nor is it possible to offer convincing arguments on this question. It is probable, however, and more in keeping with the statements of holy men and the revelations made to many, that there is a twofold place of Purgatory. One, according to the common law; and thus the place of Purgatory is situated below and in proximity to hell, so that it is the same fire which torments the damned in hell and cleanses the just in Purgatory; although the damned being lower in merit, are to be consigned to a lower place. Another place of Purgatory is according to dispensation: and thus sometimes, as we read, some are punished in various places, either that the living may learn, or that the dead may be succored, seeing that their punishment being made known to the living may be mitigated through the prayers of the Church."

The "totally different" of the CCC would be in reference, I would say, to the subjective experience of the fire of hell - the damned, in a twisted way, embrace the torment (or at least do not reject it) in their perverse fleeing from God and all that may fulfill them; the elect bear the flames, knowing this to be purifying and that their beatitude is coming. Thus (2) could include Mark of Ephesus' thesis (though you have to do some wrangling).

I am unsure about the issue of (1) including a fall from grace. That just smells of all sorts of problems. Is there a tradition of such an interpretation? In the absence of such, I would think one should "fill in" the definition of Trent and Florence with Vincentian insight and say that the council fathers meant to exclude such a possibility.

Unknown said...

Might the words of the EF preserve something related to the tradition of the so called "toll houses" popular in some eastern Christian circles? It's the only thing that comes to mind when I read your post. God bless!

Kenneth said...

Trent issued a decree in 1563 which "...commands the the bishops to be diligently on guard that the true doctrine about purgatory, the doctrine handed down from the holy Fathers and the sacred councils, be preached everywhere and the Christians be instructed in it to believe it, and adhere to it...." While not published in the de fide form, purgatory would seem to be, minimally, census certa. All Catholics ought to "believe it and adhere to it".

Janol said...

Dom Vagaggini in Theological Dimensions of the Liturgy (Chapt. 13: The Two Cities: The Struggle Against Satan in the Liturgy) regards the patristic references on the struggle of the soul after death with Satan as merely the Fathers "imaginative way of representing the particular judgment"and have never been considered doctrinal statements.

Jesse said...

It seems to me that a reconciliation of Florence/Trent with the Catechism may already be anticipated in Dante. The residents of his Purgatory are all fully assured of eventual salvation. And yet the dwellers in the Valley of the Negligent Rulers face the nightly threat of a serpent, who must be repelled by the two angels (VIII.25-108). The serpent, Dante says, may be the same one that tempted Eve, so there is every possibility here that, as you have put it, Father, "some of those in Purgatory misuse free will and fall from grace."

There is therefore every need for the angelic defenders, and I wonder if they are the answer to the petitions in the traditional chants for the deliverance of the departed. They come, after all, "from Mary's bosom" (VIII.37).

But even here, the narrower teaching of the Catechism is perhaps included. The angels are invariably victorious. And their flaming swords are "broken short and deprived of their points" (VIII.27), which suggests that the battle is already won.

(On the subject of the efficacy of prayer "beyond the veil," it is worth noting that those in the valley themselves chant the Te lucis ante terminum, which Dante flags as a puzzle to be solved by the reader (VIII.12-21). The commentators I have read say that this is because the final petition of the hymn, Ne polluantur corpora, cannot apply to these disembodied spirits, and so must be directed to the benefit of those still in the flesh. Intercessory prayer works in both directions.)

The problem of the battle still to be fought but already won is connected with reconciling the problem of the suggestion of Mark of Ephesus (that our purgation may involve a sojourn in Hades) with the teaching of the Catechism (that Purgatory is completely other than Hell). C. S. Lewis's The Great Divorce (following in the tradition of Boethius's Consolatio) might be helpful in making clear that much of our confusion has to do with our only being able to perceive reality through the limiting lens of time:

"If they leave that grey town behind it will not have been Hell. To any that leaves it, it is Purgatory. And perhaps ye had better not call this country Heaven. Not Deep Heaven, ye understand. . . . Both good and evil, when they are full grown, become retrospective. Not only in this valley but all their earthly past will have been Heaven to those who are saved. Not only the twilight in that town, but all their life on earth too, will then be seen by the damned to have been Hell. . . . Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory. . . . Damnation will spread back and back into their past and contaminate the pleasure of the sin. . . . At the end of all things, when the sun rises here and the twilight turns to blackness down there, the Blessed will say 'We have never lived anywhere except in Heaven', and the Lost, 'We were always in Hell.' And both will speak truly."

Fr.Nathan said...

I was taught in the pre-Vatican II days with the Baltimore Catechism. I recall that the discussion of Purgatory was part of the Four Last Things: what happens after the particular judgement. While the catechism did not go beyond Trent's formulation, it would seem logical that if the soul is already judged to be saved (but needing the salutary effects of Purgatory), then salvation is assured. That is certainly how I understood the teaching in my pre-Vatican II boyhood.

Janol said...

I should think that (1) and (2) should be accepted as De fide by all the faithful, and that the objections raised would be refuted by the theologically certain teaching (Ott) that all "possiblity of merit or demerit or conversion ceases" at death. See CCC 1021. I think some of the early Fathers interpreted their spiritual experiences of asceticism as representative of what the soul endures after death and were only proposing such scenarios as pure speculation.

Janol said...

By the way, Mark of Ephesus, "Defender of Orthodoxy" is not considered a saint by the Church because of his stance against the Council of Florence and the doctrines of the Church.

Of course, if conversion were possible after death then one could argue that those at first condemned, not liking hell and thinking better of it would repent, and then...

Anita Moore said...

1. Doesn't Tradition hold that our will is fixed at death, either for salvation or for damnation, and that we are judged immediately after death? Wouldn't that rule out the possibility of the souls in Purgatory forfeiting salvation?

2. Is it really true that a temporary sojourn in hell for those in Purgatory is necessarily excluded by the proposition that the punishment of Purgatory is totally different than the punishment of the damned? The punishment of the damned will never end, while the punishment of Purgatory is temporary; isn't that enough to make them totally different? I would think that even if the fires of Purgatory are the same as those of hell (which I believe Aquinas thought), the prospect of reprieve and the hope of afterward attaining heaven would make the punishment of Purgatory qualitatively different from that of the damned. The knowledge that there is no reprieve, that the punishment is without end, must surely make for much more severe suffering for the damned.

3. I think you are quoting from the Requiem Mass in the Extraordinary Form. Isn't the funeral Mass efficacious retroactively (from our perspective) for the moment of the person's death? In other words, aren't we praying in those lines that the person was saved at the last? Because, except for canonized saints, we really don't know the eternal fate of particular souls after death. These lines you quote, I think, keep us from taking a presumptuous stand one way or the other.

Dcn Anton said...

Fr Hunwicke,

Not that it's directly relevant to your observations, but it seems to me that the minimalist definition might also have to advert to temporal poena, per Trent on penance:

“CANON XXX.-If any one saith, that, after the grace of Justification has been received, to every penitent sinner the guilt is remitted, and the debt of eternal punishment is blotted out in such wise, that there remains not any debt of temporal punishment to be discharged either in this world, or in the next in Purgatory, before the entrance to the kingdom of heaven can be opened (to him); let him be anathema.”

CE User said...

At the particular judgement immediately after death we will know our eternal fate.

A Daughter of Mary said...

I'm not sure about "some souls in Purgatory mis-using free will…" When we die we are frozen in our will. There cannot be any change. Otherwise would not every soul after death choose to change their wills and bring them into accordance with God's? Could the translations say "hell" be at fault? Does our Creed not say that "He descended into hell"? Surely Jesus did not go to the realm of the damned but to those who were waiting for the gates of Heaven to be re-opened?

I'm not a scholar but it seems plain to me that once one's will is set at death - that's it. Mortal sin kills the soul and there is no reinvigoration after death. Those who die with punishment due to sin are punished until the debt is paid. Why is this controversial?

AJ said...

I turn to Pope Benedict in Spe salvi. In paragraph 45 he espouses the view of the Catechism with regard to death being the moment of decision. This looks to me to be a case of ordinary magisterial teaching.

Which makes us wonder what the liturgical prayers were so concerned about. I would venture to suggest that from the point of view of the Church militant the uncertainty of the moment of death is prolonged indefinitely. As such it is reasonable to pray for those whose final dispositions we do not know (everyone except the saints) that they are not eternally lost.

Thomas Lackey said...

If I am reading your post correctly as suggesting that souls in Purgatory might go to hell, I am quite certain that is incompatible with Tradition.

I am not aware of *any* writings of Fathers or Councils that say a soul in Purgatory can commit new sins and so fall from Purgatory into Hell.

"It is appointed unto men once to die, and after this the judgment," has always been taken to mean that the particular judgment of the soul is immediate at death. Souls which die in a state of mortal sin go to Hell, not Purgatory. So only a soul with venial sins would go to Purgatory. For that soul while in Purgatory to sin again mortally and go to Hell, that soul would have had to be judged individually at least twice, but more accurately Purgatory would have to be a state of constantly suspended judgement, God waiting for the soul to sin again (or not). If the soul sinned again, it would be immediately cast into Hell, as there is no chance of fresh repentance.

Such a view of Purgatory is completely wrong. For the same reasons a soul is not capable of new merit, it is not capable of new demerit either.

As St Thomas puts it, "It were unjust that he who has triumphed over someone, should be subjected to him after victory. Now those who are in Purgatory have triumphed over the demons, since they died without mortal sin. Therefore they will not be subjected to them through being punished by them."

They have triumphed over the demons already and been judged. This view would imply they have not triumphed yet, so may not only be subjected to them in Purgatory, but may be subjected to them yet in Hell.

That view also seems also to mistake the nature of the the afflictions of Purgatory, which are punishments only in a salutary sense, eg, as St Thomas says: "The punishment of hell is for the purpose of affliction, wherefore it is called by the names of things that are wont to afflict us here. But the chief purpose of the punishment of Purgatory is to cleanse us from the remains of sin; and consequently the pain of fire only is ascribed to Purgatory, because fire cleanses and consumes."

I would recommend Fr Garrigou-Lagrange's book Life Everlasting for a more detailed philosophical and theological analysis of the Four Last Things, but no, it is not possible from the very nature of Purgatory that a soul in Purgatory should sin and go to Hell, and the CCC is accordance with Tradition.

Fr M. Kirby said...


Your question seems to rest upon a dubious premise, i.e., the phrases quoted were originally written in reference to an intermediate and temporary state of purification. But "sink into obscurity" and "absorbed", for example, are more naturally redolent of final punishment. Reading the whole of the All Souls Sequence, "Day of wrath", makes it very clear that what is in view there is the Last Day and what is the object of supplication is deliverance from woe "unbounded", Hell itself. Yet this is the great supplicatory hymn for the Christian dead.

Rather than see this language as the effect and expression of purgatorial concepts originally, it would seem more sensible to see it as one causal factor in such reflection as Christians,facing an increasingly delayed Parousia, shifted their focus from Final to Particular Judgement and the interval between them: and thus applied the language by analogy to the earlier phases. If this is the case, then, since analagous language involves both similarity and dissimilarity, there is no need to try to force teachings about Purgatory into literal and absolute conformity with the liturgical elements cited.

As for the question of "freedom" to exit Purgatory into Hell, it would be contrary to the consensual teaching of the Church to allow for that kind of freedom as possible after dying in a state of grace, as that would require the possibility of meriting eternal damnation via mortal sin after death, which is excluded by the traditional doctrine, as is positive meriting post mortem.

Pulex said...

Actually, the only piece of magisterium indexed in Denzinger (edition 1948) that supports the sure salvation of those in Purgatory is the bull "Exsurge Domine" by Leo X where the comndemned error of Luther no. 38 reads thus: "Animae in purgatorio non sunt securae de earum salute, saltem omnes: nec probatum est ullis aut rationibus aut Scripturis, ipsas esse extra statum merendi vel augendae caritatis." Unfortunately, there is no indication which of the censures enumerated together at the end of the bull ("haereticos, aut scandalosos, aut falsos, ..." etc) are attached to each of the condemned proposals. Cathechism (CEC no. 1030) has no reference for this thesis, neither Exsurge, nor any other.

Likewise CEC no. 1031 saying that the purgatorial punishment is totally different from that of Hell has no references. Neither I found anything on this in the Denzinger.

Indeed, there is very little 'purgatorial' in the traditional Mass and Office of the Dead. Catholic Encyclopedia suggests that some of the texts originally were prayers for the dying. The sequence could be meant as the warning to those still alive. Still, it is strange that even the collect for the Mass of the Dead (in die obitus seu depositionis) survived Trent.

Fr M. Kirby said...


If by Magisterium you mean papal or conciliar statements, fair enough. But the Ordinary Magisterium or Holy Tradition is bigger than that. The teaching that one can neither merit nor demerit after death has, as far as I can tell, been universal and explicit in the West for over a millenium. The corollary of this is that one dying in a state of grace is assured of final salvation. I am aware of no contrary Patristic evidence apart from Origen's condemned thesis assuming an unending repetition of a redemption cycle for souls.

Confitebor said...

". . . 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 ...'."

Hmm. I've always seen the Offertorium of the Requiem Mass as a prayer that God save the souls from final damnation -- that He would have granted the souls of the departed saving grace so that they not go to "Gehenna," the hell of the damned. This wouldn't mean that the souls would instead go immediately to Heaven, but, given the doctrine of Purgatory, they might go to "Hades" or Sheol for purification. The Requiem Mass' Offertorium, I think, evokes the extremely dire state of fallen man subject to the punishment of death -- all of us are in real danger of the fate depicted in the Offertorium, and it is where we would all certainly go if it weren't for Christ's atonement and the action of grace in our souls. I don't read the Offertorium as a reference to Purgatory nor implying that the souls undergoing torments there have the possibility of losing their faith, hope, and charity and sinking permanently into Gehenna.

As for the nature of the punishments that the faithful departed undergo in Purgatory, Father John A. Nageleisen's "Charity for the Suffering Souls" gives an account of what Catholics have traditionally believed -- that the souls experience both a pain of loss and a pain of sense, and that these pains are greater than any pain we can experience in this life. In this way, Purgatory is much like Hell (Gehenna), as Aquinas indicated -- only Purgatory is not of infinite duration, whereas the souls in Hell will be tormented forever.

Don Camillo SSC said...

I have read somewhere that the fire of hell is simply the love of God, as experienced by those who reject it. The fire of Purgatory would be that same love as experienced by those who embrace it and allow it to purify them.

fiddlerwoaroof said...

Exsurge Domine holds that the souls in purgatory are sure of their salvation, listing as errors:

37. Purgatory cannot be proved from Sacred Scripture which is in the canon.

38. The souls in purgatory are not sure of their salvation, at least not all; nor is it proved by any arguments or by the Scriptures that they are beyond the state of meriting or of increasing in charity.

39. The souls in purgatory sin without intermission, as long as they seek rest and abhor punishment.

40. The souls freed from purgatory by the suffrages of the living are less happy than if they had made satisfactions by themselves.