Author: Karl Keating


Karl Keating

This is the only full-length treatment of the issues arising between Catholics and Fundamentalists (and also Evangelicals). Anti-Catholic challenges are presented in the words of the challengers themselves. Then the Catholic teaching on each major issue in dispute—from infant baptism to inspiration, from the papacy to penance, from saints to salvation—is demonstrated from Scripture, the writings of the earliest Christians, and common sense. As a sample, we have selected the chapter on purgatory.

In 1769 James Boswell had this exchange with Samuel Johnson:

<Boswell:> "What do you think, Sir, of purgatory, as believed by the Roman Catholicks?"

<Johnson:> "Why, Sir, it is a very harmless doctrine. They are of the opinion that the generality of mankind are neither so obstinately wicked as to deserve everlasting punishment, nor so good as to merit being admitted into the society of blessed spirits; and therefore that God is graciously pleased to allow a middle state, where they may be purified by certain degrees of suffering. You see, Sir, there is nothing unreasonable in this."

<Boswell:> "But then, Sir, their Masses for the dead?"

<Johnson:> "Why, Sir, if it be at once established that there are souls in purgatory, it is as proper to pray for them, as for our brethren of mankind who are yet in this life."

Although Johnson was no "Catholick," he recognized that the doctrine of purgatory is not at odds with other tenets of Christianity. In fact, as he may have known, there is considerable scriptural warrant for it, even if the doctrine is not explicitly set out in the Bible.

The doctrine can be stated briefly. Purgatory is a state of purification, where the soul which has fully repented of its sins, but which has not fully expiated them, has removed from itself the last elements of uncleanliness. In purgatory all remaining love of self is transformed into love of God. At death one's soul goes to heaven, if it is completely fit for heaven; to purgatory, if it is not quite fit for heaven, but not worthy of condemnation; or to hell, if it is completely unfit for heaven. Purgatory is a temporary state. Everyone who enters it will get to heaven, and, after the last soul leaves purgatory for heaven, purgatory will cease to exist. There will remain only heaven and hell.

When we die, we undergo what is called the particular, or individual, judgment. We are judged instantly and receive our reward, for good or ill. We know at once what our final destiny will be. At the end of time, though, when the last people have died, there will come the general judgment which the Bible refers to. In it all ours sins will be revealed. Augustine said, in <The City of God>, that "temporary punishments are suffered by some in this life only, by others after death, by others both now and then; but all of them before that last and strictest judgment." It is between the particular and general judgments, then, that the soul expiates its sins: "I tell you, you will not get out till you have paid the very last penny" (Luke 12:59). If full expiation occurs before the general judgment, the soul is released from purgatory and goes to heaven.

Fundamentalists note that biblical references to the judgment refer only to heaven and hell. Quite true. That is because most of the references are to the general judgment, when all will be judged at once (which means, for those who died earlier and already underwent an individual judgment, a kind of re-judging, but one that is public). It is at the general judgment that the justice and mercy of God will be demonstrated to all. Opponents of the Catholic position are generally silent about what happens to the souls of people who die long before the Last Day.

There is no hint from Scripture that these souls remain in suspended animation. No, "men die only once, and after that comes judgment" (Heb. 9:27). Judgment is immediate—which, by the way, is one reason why reincarnation is impossible. It is here, between individual judgment and general judgment, that a soul may find itself in purgatory.

Fundamentalists are fond of saying the Catholic Church "invented" the doctrine of purgatory, but they have trouble 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 590-604. That hardly accounts for the request of Monica, mother of Augustine, who asked her son, in the fourth century, to remember her soul in his Masses. This would have made no sense if she thought her soul would not be able to be helped by prayers, if she thought there was no possibility of being somewhere other than heaven or hell. Still less does the ascription of the doctrine to Gregory account for the graffiti in the catacombs, where the earliest Christians, during the persecutions of the first three centuries, recorded prayers for the dead. Indeed, some of the earliest non-inspired Christian writings, such as the <Acts of Paul and Thecla> (second century), refer to the Christian custom of praying for the dead. Such prayers would have been made only if Christians believed in purgatory, even if they did not use that name for it.

No, the historical argument breaks down. Whenever a date is set for the "invention" of purgatory, one can point to something to show the doctrine was already old many years before that date. Besides, if at some point the doctrine was pulled out of a clerical hat, why does ecclesiastical history record no protest? A study of the history of doctrines shows Christians in the first centuries were up in arms, sometimes quite literally, if anyone suggested the least change in beliefs. They were extremely conservative people, their test of the truth of a doctrine being, Was this believed by our ancestors?

Surely belief in purgatory would be considered a great change, if it had not been believed from the first—so where are the records of protests? They do not exist, and they never existed. There is no hint, in the oldest writings available to us (or in later ones, for that matter), that "true believers" in the immediate post-apostolic years complained about purgatory as a novel doctrine. They must have understood that the oral teaching of the apostles, what Catholics call Tradition, and the Bible not only did not contradict the doctrine, but endorsed it.

It is no wonder, then, that professional anti-Catholics spend little time on the history of the belief. (Who can blame them for avoiding an unpleasant subject?) They prefer to claim, instead, that the Bible speaks only of heaven and hell. Wrong again. It speaks quite plainly of a third place, where Christ went after his death, the place commonly called the Limbo of the Fathers, where the just who had died before the Redemption were waiting for heaven to be opened to them (1 Pet. 3:19). This place was neither heaven nor hell.

Even if the Limbo of the Fathers was not purgatory, its existence shows that a temporary, intermediate state is not contrary to Scripture. Look at it this way. If the Limbo of the Fathers was purgatory, then this one verse directly teaches the existence of purgatory. If the Limbo of the Fathers was a different temporary state, then the Bible at least says such a state can exist. It at least proves there can be more than just heaven and hell.

Fundamentalists also say, "We cannot find the word purgatory in Scripture." True, but that is hardly the point. The words Trinity and Incarnation are not in Scripture either, yet those doctrines are taught in it. Likewise, Scripture teaches that purgatory exists, even if it does not use that word and even if 1 Pet. 3:19 refers to a place other than purgatory.

Christ refers to the sinner for whom "there is no forgiveness, either in this world or in the world to come" (Matt. 12:32). This implies expiation can occur after death. Paul tells us that at the day of judgment each man's work will be tried. This trial happens after death. What happens if a man's work fails the test? "He will be the loser; and yet he himself will be saved, though only as men are saved by passing through fire" (1 Cor. 3:15).

Now this loss, this penalty, cannot refer to consignment to hell, since no one is saved there; and heaven cannot be meant, since there is no suffering ("fire") there. Purgatory alone explains this passage. Then there is the Bible's approbation of prayers for the dead: "It is a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they might be loosed from their sins" (2 Macc. 12:46). Prayers are not needed by those in heaven, and they cannot help those in hell. That means some people must be in a third place, at least temporarily.

Why would anyone go to purgatory? To be cleansed. "Nothing unclean shall enter heaven" (Apoc. 21:27). Anyone who has not completely expiated his sins—that is, not just had them forgiven, but "made up" for them, been punished for them—in this life is, to some extent, "unclean." Through repentance he may have gained the grace needed to qualify for heaven (which is to say his soul is spiritually alive), but that is not enough. He needs to be cleansed completely. By not admitting the doctrine of purgatory, one necessarily implies that even the slightest defilement results in the loss of the soul, yet even here below not every crime is a capital offense: "Not all sin is deadly" (1 John 5:17).

Fundamentalists claim, as an article in Jimmy Swaggart's magazine <The Evangelist> put it, that "Scripture clearly reveals that all the demands of divine justice on the sinner have been completely fulfilled in Jesus Christ. It also reveals that Christ has totally redeemed, or purchased back, that which was lost. The advocates of a purgatory (and the necessity of prayer for the dead) say, in effect, that the redemption of Christ was incomplete. ... It has all been done for us by Jesus Christ, there is nothing to be added or done by man."

This presumes there is a contradiction between the Redemption and our suffering in expiation for our sins. There is not, whether that suffering is in this life or in the next. Paul said he rejoiced "in my sufferings for you, and [I] fill up those things that are wanting in the suffering of Christ" (Col. 1:24). Ronald Knox explained this passage by noting that "the obvious meaning is that Christ's sufferings, although fully satisfactory on behalf of our sins, leave us under a debt of honour, as it were, to repay them by sufferings of our own." Paul did not imply there was something lacking in the Redemption, that Christ could not pull it off on his own, and no Fundamentalist misreads Col. 1:24 that way. Analogously, it is not contrary to the Redemption to say we must suffer for our sins; it is a matter of justice. We can suffer here, or hereafter, or in both places, as Augustine wrote.

Some say, "God does not demand expiation after having forgiven sins." Tell that to King David. When David repented, God sent Nathan with a message for him: "The Lord on his part has forgiven your sin: you shall not die. But since you have utterly spurned the Lord by this deed, the child born to you must surely die" (2 Sam. 12:14). Even after David's sin was forgiven, he had to undergo expiation. Can we expect less? Fundamentalists think the answer is Yes, because Christ obviated the need for any expiation on our part, but the Bible nowhere teaches that. Having one's sins forgiven is not the same thing as having the punishment for them wiped out.

The main reason for opposition to purgatory is that it cannot coexist with Fundamentalism's notion of salvation. For Fundamentalists, salvation comes by "accepting Christ as one's personal savior." Aside from that one act of acceptance, no acts—meaning no good deeds and no sins—make any difference with respect to one's salvation. If one is "born again" in Fundamentalism's sense, salvation has already occurred, and nothing can keep one from heaven. If not "born again," one is damned. In Fundamentalism's scheme of things, purgatory would be superfluous, since cleansing before entering heaven would be unnecessary, on the notion that every soul is unclean and God ignores the uncleanliness by "covering" the soul's sinfulness.

Purgatory makes sense only if there is a requirement that a soul not just be <declared> to be clean, but actually <be> clean. After all, if a guilty soul is merely "covered," if its sinful state still exists but is officially ignored, then, for all the protestations that may be given, it is still a guilty soul. It is still unclean. A man who has not bathed in a month is not cleansed merely by putting on clean clothes; clean clothes will not remove the dirt. Likewise, "covering" a soul will not purify it; its dirty state is merely hidden from view. Catholic theology takes literally the notion that "nothing unclean shall enter heaven." From this it is inferred that a dirty soul, even if "covered," remains a dirty soul and is not fit for heaven. It needs to be cleansed or purged of its dirtiness. The purging comes in purgatory.

There is another argument commonly used against purgatory. It is that the Catholic Church makes money off the doctrine. Without purgatory, the claim goes, the Church would go broke. Any number of anti-Catholic books, from the tamest to the most bizarre, claim the Church owes the majority of its wealth to this doctrine. The numbers do not add up.

When a Catholic requests a memorial Mass for the dead—that is, a Mass said for the benefit of someone in purgatory—it is customary to give the parish a stipend, on the principle that the laborer is worth his hire (Luke 10:7) and those who preside at the altar share the altar's offerings (1 Cor. 9:13-14). In the United States, a stipend is commonly around five dollars, but the indigent do not have to pay anything, and no parish maintains a "schedule of fees." A few people, of course, freely offer more. On average, though, a parish can expect to receive something less than five dollars by way of stipend for each memorial Mass said. These Masses are usually said on weekdays.

Look at what happens on a Sunday. There are often hundreds of people at Mass. In a crowded parish, there may be thousands. Many families and individuals deposit five dollars or more into the collection basket; others deposit less. A few give much more. A parish might have four or five or six Masses on a Sunday. The total from the Sunday collections far outstrips the paltry amount received from the memorial Masses. The facts are that no Catholic parish gets rich off Mass stipends—or even gets much at all.

In interpreting the Bible, in determining whether the doctrine of purgatory contradicts or confirms what is found in its pages, we come upon a recurring question: "Who is to decide?" It hardly suffices to say, "Let the Bible itself decide," since it is the interpretation of the Bible that is in question and no book, not even the Bible, can be self-interpreting. Either we interpret it ourselves, using our own resources, or we listen to the word of a divinely-appointed interpreter, if one has been established. Catholics hold that Christ empowered the Church to give infallible interpretations of the Bible. "I have still much to say to you, but it is beyond your reach as yet. It will be for him, the truth-giving Spirit, when he comes, to guide you in all truth" (John 16:12). This Jesus said to the apostles.

This takes us, of course, to the rule of faith—is it to be found in the Bible alone or in the Bible and Tradition, as handed down by the Church? That question was examined in an earlier chapter, and there is no need to repeat the arguments here. The reader just needs to keep in mind that the controversy about purgatory is really a controversy about much more than purgatory. Purgatory has just been a convenient warring ground. The ultimate disagreement concerns the doctrine of <sola scriptura>. If Fundamentalists understood why that doctrine will not wash—why, in fact, it is contrary to Scripture—they would have little difficulty in accepting purgatory and other Catholic beliefs, such as the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption, which are not explicitly stated in the Bible.

The above is excerpted from " Catholicism and Fundamentalism"; 1988 Ignatius Press, which is available from Catholic Answers for $14.95 postpaid. California residents should add $0.91 sales tax.