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Eschatology or the Catholic Doctrine of the Last Things
A Dogmatic Treatise
Rev. Joseph Pohle Ph.D. D.D

1. DEFINITION.—Purgatory (purgatorium) signifies a process of cleansing.

a) Whether Purgatory is a place or a state is a controverted question. The poor souls are in a state of transition, but it is not necessary to hold that they are confined in any particular place. St. Thomas intimates that Purgatory is somehow “connected with Hell.” We might with equal probability argue that it is connected with Heaven, because the poor souls are children of God, who are sure to be admitted sooner or later to the abode of the Blessed.

b) Not all who depart this life in the state of grace are fit to enter at once into the beatific vision of God. Some are burdened with venial transgressions. Others have not yet fully expiated the temporal punishments due to their sins. It Would be repugnant to divine justice to admit such souls to Heaven, into which, according to Holy Writ, nothing defiled shall enter. Nor can God in his justice consign these souls to Hell. Hence there must be a middle state in which they are cleansed of venial sins, or, if they have not yet fully paid the temporal punishments due to their forgiven sins, must expiate the remainder of them. St. Thomas says: “There may be some impediment on the part of the good in the way of their souls receiving their final reward in the vision of God immediately upon their departure from the body. To that vision, transcending as it does all natural created capacity, the creature cannot be raised before it is entirely purified: hence it is said that nothing defiled can enter into it (Wisd. 7:25), and that the polluted shall not pass through it (Is. 35:8). Now the pollution of the soul is by sin, which is an inordinate union with lower things; from which pollution it is purified in this life by Penance and other Sacraments. Now it happens sometimes that this process of purification is not entirely accomplished in this life, and the offender remains still a debtor with a debt of punishment upon him, owing to some negligence or distraction, or to death overtaking him before his debt is paid. Not for this does he deserve to be entirely shut out from reward: because all this may happen without mortal sin, and it is only mortal sin that occasions the loss of charity, to which the reward of life everlasting is due. Such persons, then, must be cleansed in the next life, before entering upon their eternal reward. This cleansing is done by penal inflictions, as even in this life it might have been completed by penal works of satisfaction: otherwise the negligent would be better off than the careful, if the penalty that men do not pay here for their sins is not to be undergone by them in the life to come. The souls, then, of the good, who have upon them in this world something that needs cleansing, are kept back from their reward, while they endure cleansing purgatorial pains. And this is the reason why we posit a purgatory or place of cleansing.”

Purgatory may therefore be defined as a state of temporary punishment for those who, departing this life in the grace of God, are not entirely free from venial sins or have not yet fully paid the satisfaction due to their transgressions.

2. PROOF FROM REVELATION.—The existence of Purgatory was denied by Aërius in the fourth century, by the Albigenses, Waldenses, and Hussites in the Middle Ages, and more recently by Luther and Calvin. Calvin termed the Catholic dogma “a pernicious invention of Satan, which renders the cross of Christ useless.” This teaching of the Reformers is quite consistent with their false idea of justification. If a man is justified by faith alone, and all his sins are “covered up” by the grace of Christ, there can be nothing left for him to expiate after death.

The Church defined the existence of Purgatory in the Decree of Union adopted at Florence (1439), saying that “the souls are cleansed by purgatorial pains after death, and in order that they may be rescued from these pains, they are benefitted by the suffrages of the living faithful, viz.: the sacrifice of the Mass, prayers, alms, and other works of piety.” The Council of Trent repeated this definition in substance: “… 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 ecumenical Synod, that there is a Purgatory, and that the souls detained in it are helped by the suffrages of the faithful.” Pope Leo X solemnly condemned Luther’s assertion that “Purgatory cannot be proved from the canonical Scriptures.”

a) The scriptural locus classicus for our dogma is 2 Mach. 12:43 sqq. When Judas had put Gorgias to flight, and came with his company to take away the bodies of the slain, he found that some of them had under their coats treasures of which they had robbed the idols at Jamnia. In committing this robbery the soldiers had probably been moved by avarice rather than idolatrous intent. Yet their conduct was plainly a transgression of the Mosaic law, which said: “Their graven things thou shalt burn with fire; thou shalt not covet the silver and gold of which they are made, neither shalt thou make to thee any thing thereof, lest thou offend, because it is an abomination to the Lord thy God.” However, what these soldiers had done was not necessarily a mortal sin, and so Judas and his men, after blessing the just judgment of God, betook themselves to prayer, and “making a gathering [taking up a collection], he sent twelve thousand drachmas of silver to Jerusalem for sacrifice to be offered for the sins of the dead.” Both Judas and his people, as well as the priests of the Temple, evidently believed that those who die in the grace of God can obtain forgiveness of venial sins and temporal punishments through the suffrages of the living. This belief is confirmed by the sacred writer when he adds: “It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sins.”

Protestants deny the cogency of this argument on the ground that the Book of Machabees is apocryphal. But the historical authenticity of the incident sufficiently proves that belief in Purgatory, so far from being an invention of the “Papists,” was common among the Jews long before the beginning of the Christian era.

From the New Testament we will quote the remarkable utterance of our Lord recorded in Matth. 12:32: “Whosoever shall speak … against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him neither in this world, nor in the world to come.” The “world to come” (αἰὼν μέλλων) plainly means life after death. Hence, according to our Saviour’s own testimony, there must be some sins that are forgiven after death.

b) The belief of the early Church is evident from the immemorial custom of praying for the dead, offering the Holy Sacrifice, and giving alms for their benefit.

Tertullian mentions anniversary masses for the dead. That he had Purgatory in mind appears from his advice to a widow, “to pray for the soul of her husband, begging repose for him, and … to have sacrifice offered up for him every year on the day of his death.”

This pious custom is confirmed by many sepulchral inscriptions found in the catacombs, in which the departed ask for the prayers of their surviving friends or beg God for “peace and refreshment.”

The Fathers expressly inculcate the doctrine which inspired these pious practices. In the Acts of St. Perpetua we read that she beheld her brother Dinocrates, who had died a heathen and was “suffering terrible torments, released from the place of punishment through her prayers.” St. Basil affirms the existence of “a place for the purification of souls” and of “a cleansing fire.” St. Augustine appeals to his friends to pray for his pious mother, St. Monica, and instructs them as to the most effective way of helping her soul. There is no doubt,” he says in another place, “that the dead are aided by the prayers of holy Church, by the salutary sacrifice, and by the alms which are poured out for their souls.”

These passages from the writings of the Fathers could easily be multiplied. Even Calvin was constrained to admit that the custom of praying for the dead may be traced to the early days of Christianity. Thinking Protestants keenly feel the gap in their theological system caused by the denial of Purgatory. Thus Dr. Hase says: “Most people when they die are probably too good for Hell, yet surely too bad for Heaven. It must be frankly confessed that the Protestantism of the Reformers is unclear on this point, its justified denial [?] not yet having advanced to the stage of affirmation.” The Catholic dogma in this as in so many other cases agrees perfectly with the postulates of reason.








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