Pope Francis I, groovy social media savvy and seemingly unconventional new leader of the Roman Catholic religion has put Purgatory in the news, with his offer of indulgences to those who follow the Pope's tweets. Although I have been an atheist almost my entire life, I have had plenty of exposure to Protestant doctrine, other religious traditions, and I have studied the history of the Reformation in Europe during the 1500's. But I've had very little exposure to specifically Roman Catholic doctrine, particularly on Purgatory. The story of the Pope's tweets motivated me to tickling the Google to see what I could find out about Purgatory in Roman Catholicism. I already knew from history that the Doctrine of Purgatory and the selling of indulgences were major points of contention during the Reformation. Come out into the tall grass if you want to know what else I learned.
According to Catholic doctrine, Purgatory is sort of Heaven's Shower Room, where, redeemed and forgiven, but nevertheless unclean, souls abide undergoing purification and awaiting the admission of their purified souls to Heaven. I learned this from a really readable website called Catholic Answers, "one of the nation’s largest lay-run apostolates of Catholic apologetics and evangelization." Here is how Catholic Answers describes Purgatory:
The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines purgatory as a "purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven," which is experienced by those "who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified" (CCC 1030). It notes that "this final purification of the elect . . . is entirely different from the punishment of the damned"BTW, please, to anyone who actually knows something about this subject, please correct any mistakes I make or report here, in the comments. Thanks.
Many Protestants don't recognize the existence of any kind of Purgatory, believing instead that their salvation affords them a direct admission to Heaven. A heated dispute over Purgatory between the Catholics and some Protestants didn't end after the Reformation fractured European Christians. It is still going on today. This is reflected in the defensive character of the Catholic Answers article on Purgatory, as in these examples:
One argument anti-Catholics often use to attack purgatory is the idea that the Catholic Church makes money from promulgating the doctrine. Without purgatory, the claim asserts, the Church would go broke. Any number of anti-Catholic books claim the Church owes the majority of its wealth to this doctrine. But the numbers just don’t add up.I recommend the entire article. It bulges with insight and irony. Meanwhile, the news story today is, basically, that the new fashioned Pope Francis I claims he can still shorten the time souls must undergo purification before they can be allowed to go into the purity of Heaven. He is adhering to ancient doctrine.
Fundamentalists may be fond of saying the Catholic Church "invented" the doctrine of purgatory to make money, but they have difficulty saying just when. Most professional anti-Catholics—the ones who make their living attacking "Romanism"—seem to place the blame on Pope Gregory the Great, who reigned from A.D. 590–604.
Some Fundamentalists also charge, as though it actually proved something, "The word purgatory is nowhere found in Scripture." This is true, and yet it does not disprove the existence of purgatory or the fact that belief in it has always been part of Church teaching
Meanwhile, Protestant souls are shoving past the more fastidious Catholic souls and are entering Heaven without showering. I've seen a lot of the same people doing that at the public swimming pool. Ick.
The most interesting part to me, though, was the discussion in the article about praying for the dead. Catholic Answers argued that prayer for a deceased soul is pointless unless Purgatory exists:
Prayers are not needed by those in heaven, and no one can help those in hell. That means some people must be in a third condition, at least temporarily.Any soul finding itself in Purgatory needs to be careful, though. According to St. Paul, those soul purification showers are hot, hot, hot:
Paul tells us that, when we are judged, each man’s work will be tried. And what happens if a righteous man’s work fails the test? "He will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire" (1 Cor 3:15).I hope no one is offended by the shower room metaphor. Once I read the discussion of Roman Catholics doctrine says about forgiven souls bound for Heaven, but still unclean and requiring fiery purification, a mental image of God's Shower Room took hold of my thinking on this subject. The other strong image for me is of the ongoing intellectual and doctrinal disputes still raging between Rome and some Protestants, more than 400 years after the Reformation. Personally, I don't have a dog in that fight. But, I find it interesting to observe.