Thursday, June 02, 2005

What's the purpose of purgatory?

What’s the purpose of purgatory? Cardinal Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI, gives the following answer:


There will be few people whose lives are pure and fulfilled in all respects…In any case, we need a final cleansing, a cleaning b y fire, to be exact, in which they gaze of Christ, so to say, burns us free from everything, and only under this purifying gaze are we, as it were, fit to e with God and able, then, to make our home with him.

Purgatory basically means that God can put the pieces back together. That he can cleanse us in such a way that we are able to be with him and can stand there in the fullness of life.

I would say that from the human point of view one of the functions of purgatory is to get rid of these particularist attitudes. It strips off from one person what is unbearable and from another the inability to bear certain things, so that in each of them a pure heart is revealed, and we can see that we all belong together n one enormous symphony of being.

As far as the Buddhists are concerned…even here, though in a quite different way of looking at things-is to be found something like a hope for an ultimate rightness of being.

God and the World (Ignatius 2002), 129-30.


So, according to Ratzinger, purgatory serves two or three functions. It “basically” means that God can put the pieces back together. Likewise, it’s an extension of sanctification—a finish process that completes the work of sanctification. Finally, it’s a leveling or democratizing process.

In addition, notice that Ratzinger speaks of purgatory in relation to “persons” and “people” in general, not to baptized Catholics in particular. Indeed, it hold out hope for the Buddhist, who, depending on his brand of Buddhism, whether folk Buddhist or it’s more philosophical form, is either a pagan idolater (polytheist) or an atheist.

What is striking about all of this is that none of it figures in traditional Catholic dogma, according to which purgatory is reserved for Roman Catholics who died in a state of grace, and are consigned to purgatory in order to remit the penal debt of temporal guilt.

What Ratzinger has done is to take the sting out of purgatory by making it so readily available and eliminating the punitive dimension. This is not a logical development of dogma. Rather, it runs counter to traditional dogma.


The Council of Trent
The Sixth Session

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.

The Twenty-Second Session

That the Sacrifice of the Mass is propitiatory both for the living and the dead.

And forasmuch as, in this divine sacrifice which is celebrated in the mass, that same Christ is contained and immolated in an unbloody manner, who once offered Himself in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross; the holy Synod teaches, that this sacrifice is truly propritiatory and that by means thereof this is effected, that we obtain mercy, and find grace in seasonable aid, if we draw nigh unto God, contrite and penitent, with a sincere heart and upright faith, with fear and reverence. For the Lord, appeased by the oblation thereof, and granting the [Page 155] grace and gift of penitence, forgives even heinous crimes and sins. For the victim is one and the same, the same now offering by the ministry of priests, who then offered Himself on the cross, the manner alone of offering being different. The fruits indeed of which oblation, of that bloody one to wit, are received most plentifully through this unbloody one; so far is this (latter) from derogating in any way from that (former oblation). Wherefore, not only for the sins, punishments, satisfactions, and other necessities of the faithful who are living, but also for those who are departed in Christ, and who are not as yet fully purified, is it rightly offered, agreebly to a tradition of the apostles.

The Twenty-Fifth Session


Whereas the Catholic Church, instructed by the Holy Ghost, has, from the sacred writings and the ancient tradition of the Fathers, taught, in sacred councils, and very recently in this oecumenical Synod, that there is a Purgatory, and that the souls there detained are helped by the suffrages of the faithful, [Page 233] but principally by the acceptable sacrifice of the altar; the holy Synod enjoins on bishops that they diligently endeavour that the sound doctrine concerning Purgatory, transmitted by the holy Fathers and sacred councils, be believed, maintained, taught, and every where proclaimed by the faithful of Christ. But let the more difficult and subtle questions, and which tend not to edification, and from which for the most part there is no increase of piety, be excluded from popular discourses before the uneducated multitude. In like manner, such things as are uncertain, or which labour under an appearance of error, let them not allow to be made public and treated of. While those things which tend to a certain kind of curiosity or superstition, or which savour of filthy lucre, let them prohibit as scandals and stumbling-blocks of the faithful. But let the bishops take care, that the suffrages of the faithful who are living, to wit the sacrifices of masses, prayers, alms, and other works of piety, which have been wont to be performed by the faithful for the other faithful departed, be piously and devoutly performed, in accordance with the institutes of the church; and that whatsoever is due on their behalf, from the endowments of testators, or in other way, be discharged, not in a perfunctory manner, but diligently and accurately, by the priests and ministers of the church, and others who are bound to render this (service).



  1. Where in the bible does it say about purgatory? I thought the trials and sufferings we go through here on earth were cleansing us and trying us by fire. I don't understand. Please explain more clearer.

  2. Try reading C.S. Lewis's answer on this in his book, Letters to Malcolm (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1973), PP. 108-109.

    Relevant to this discussion are Steve Hays' critique of Philip Blosser's critique of sola scriptura, "By Scripture Alone," and Blosser's rebuttal, "Sola Scriptura revisited: a reply to Steve Hays (in 95 antitheses)."