Whenever good-hearted theological debate ensues among my non-Catholic Christian friends and I, I’ve noticed that the topic of Purgatory inevitably seems to arise. It appears to be a crowd favorite — a topic of much wonder and equal controversy.
Interestingly, and despite the fact Purgatory is a prized topic of friendly ecumenical quarrel, very few Protestants actually seem to know what the doctrine actually is that they are saying “no” to. Full of assumptions they often object without pause only to find after careful correction that their true understanding of Purgatory was, in fact, lacking..
All too often, however, we Catholics are no better in understanding this same doctrine to which we say “yes”.
This is a problem that can easily be corrected.
Problem With Purgatory #1
Too often Catholics have an inadequate understanding of what the Church teaches and does not teach on Purgatory.
Maybe you fall into this category. Maybe you don’t. If you do — no matter. We’re going to change that.
A Primer On Purgatory
Purgatory is not a Catholic invention. It has its roots in pre-Christian Judaism. Neither is it a “massive” Catholic doctrine; in fact, the Catechism of the Catholic Church devotes only three paragraphs to the specific topic of Purgatory (CCC 1030-1032). Compare this with the almost one hundred paragraphs on the Eucharist. Purgatory, thus, need not be a complicated or worrisome doctrine for us.
The Catholic Church teaches:
1. After death, one undergoes a final purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven (Rev 21:27). This purification is called Purgatory.
2. This final purification occurs after judgement. Therefore it has nothing to do with determining whether or not one will be saved — by then the state of one’s eternity has already been determined.
3. The purification consists of some form of pain or discomfort that “refines” or “cleanses” the soul. Think “feeling the burn” while out for a jog, rather than the agony of cutting the tip of your thumb off. Caveat: this is my own humble speculation.
4. God assists or supports those in Purgatory according to the actions of the living. This includes such acts of charity by the living such as prayer, giving alms or offering one’s suffering for the dead.
These points are essentially what we can know about Purgatory through the official teachings of the Church.
It is a common assumption that Purgatory is a place where you spend time. But notice that nothing is said about time or space in the Catechism, “a sure norm” for Catholic teaching according to St. John Paul the Great. Thus, these particular details have not actually been revealed to the faithful and remain areas of theological research, thought and discernment.
Remember — this final purification does not take place in our physical universe; so the laws governing us that pertain to time, space, matter or energy are not necessarily “in effect” in such a spiritual state as Purgatory.
The Church, therefore, does not insist that time or space are applicable to one’s experience in Purgatory.
A Question For An Answer
The next time you are challenged or asked to explain the Catholic (and Jewish) doctrine of Purgatory, I recommend you begin your answer in this way:
“I am happy to answer your question about Purgatory, and I’ll do so in a moment. First, however, could you explain to me what you understand Purgatory to be?”
This inquisitive method for meeting an objection about Purgatory can accomplish several things at once:
1. It will help you see the issue from your friend’s perspective (this is always helpful).
2. It will allow you to clear up any misconceptions you hear.
3. It will expose whether your friend even knows what he is objecting to (or whether he is just “jumping on the non-Catholic bandwagon.”)
4. It invites dialogue (evangelization is a thousand times more effective as a dialogue rather than a monologue).
Properly understood, Purgatory is perhaps one of the easiest doctrines to explain. After all, you’ve only got three paragraphs in the Catechism to consult! And the essential details of these paragraphs are summarized in the four simple points above.
Note, however, that an explanation from the Catechism will likely only suffice in clearing up basic Protestant misconceptions. It will not convince the Protestant of the truth of the doctrine. To do that you will required to provide biblical evidence. No worries, though — this next step will be covered in Problems With Purgatory: Part II.
Stay tuned and in the meantime — grab your Catechism and get to work!