But it’s not in Scripture! So went the familiar kneejerk response from friends over yet another Catholic belief, namely Purgatory. The word alone guaranteed a vehement reaction from my Protestant colleagues in the Army. To be quite candid, I always found their shock at the notion to be…well, shocking; for me the teaching always seemed to make eminent sense. The argument against the teaching is that it somehow denies the doctrine of justification by faith (alone), which is central to Protestant Christianity. The rationale goes that the righteousness that is ours in Christ by means of faith is “not enough” to make us acceptable before God, in which case we must “also” undergo the process of purification in Purgatory. That, and the lack of Jesus (or anyone else) explicitly stating the existence of an actual “place/time” by the name pretty much comprise the case against Purgatory. So much for All Souls day…
Notwithstanding the likelihood that my fellow chaplains would get to Heaven eons before I am admitted to Purgatory by the backdoor, I respectfully disagree. I find the idea that righteousness is “imputed” to Christians immediately by faith to be, not so much incorrect as a bit inflexible. The notion that Christ throws his cloak over our naked sinfulness, without bringing about a real, inner transformation by which we “become” (i.e. come to be, over time) holy is inconsistent with human development. Instead, it is much more compelling to think that that God really does forgive us, but we leave this world with unfinished business: and we have to reckon with it.
The teaching from the Council of Florence (1438-1445), explaining a similar teaching from the Council of Trent, states that
The Catholic Church, instructed by the Holy Ghost, has from the Sacred Scriptures and the ancient tradition of the Fathers taught in Councils and very recently in this Ecumenical synod that there is a purgatory, and that the souls therein are helped by the suffrages of the faithful, but principally by the acceptable Sacrifice of the Altar…
As for the lack of Scriptural evidence, there are dozens of passages in the Bible pointing, more or less indirectly, to Purgatory. The Fathers of the Church attest that the Scriptures acknowledge a process (time and space do not apply when we consider what lies beyond this life) by which the forgiven yet imperfect human soul is made fit for Heaven. One of my favorites comes from the second book of Maccabees (12:44-45) in which Jewish soldiers who were killed had sinned by wearing amulets dedicated to pagan gods. The faithful were advised to pray for and make sacrifice to atone for their sins. (Protestants do not consider the books of Maccabees to be inspired Scripture.) The prophet Malachi (3:3) declares that the Lord will purify the “sons of Levi” so they may make sacrifice to the Lord. Indeed Jesus, in his parable about forgiveness with the two servants (Mt. 5:26), states that we will not be free (from condemnation) until we have “paid the last penny.” Of course Catholics believe that salvation is from Christ alone; at the same time, forgiveness does not reverse the damage caused by sin. Human actions have consequences that follow one even after this life. Let us pray that we may allow the grace of God to purify us, and therefore be “made worthy of the promises of Christ.”