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

The Church has defined nothing with regard to the nature of Purgatory except that the poor souls detained there are in a passing state of punishment and suffer “purgatorial pains.” Like the pains of Hell, those of Purgatory are twofold, viz.: pain of loss (poena damni) and pain of sense (poena sensus).

1. THE PAIN OF LOSS.—The poena damni for the poor souls in Purgatory consists in their being deprived of the beatific vision of God. This temporary deprivation constitutes the essence of the state of purgation. It is the severest punishment that can be inflicted upon a disembodied soul. The consciousness of being separated from the Creator, who is so near and yet so far, causes terrible suffering, which is enhanced still more by the knowledge that the venial sins and punishments due to sin could have been expiated by contrition, confession, prayer, almsgiving, and other good works so easily performed in the wayfaring state.

Nevertheless, their sad condition does not drive the suffering souls to despair or to commit new sins, as Luther falsely claimed.

For the rest, it would be no easier to write a psychology of the poor souls in Purgatory than of the damned in Hell. We earthly pilgrims are incapable of forming an adequate conception of the spiritual suffering involved in even a temporary privation of the beatific vision. Shorn of all earthly impediments, and placed beyond the world of sense which veils the things of the spirit, the poor souls in Purgatory concentrate their attention on God. But God hides and withdraws from them, which causes them to be tormented incessantly by a veritable agony of love. There is nothing improbable in St. Bonaventure’s conjecture that “the severest pain of Purgatory exceeds the most violent known on earth,” but we need not necessarily adopt the opinion of St. Thomas that “even the slightest torture of Purgatory is worse than all the sufferings one can endure in this world.” There is no certainty to be had in these matters.

2. THE PAIN OF SENSE.—Whether besides the poena damni the poor souls suffer a poena sensus, is doubtful. Still more difficult is it to answer the question whether this additional punishment, if it exist, is caused by a material medium similar to the fire of Hell. Theologians consider it extremely probable that such is the case.

a) The phrase employed by the Florentine Council, “animas poenis purgatoriis purgari,” seems to point to the existence of some positive torment over and above the poena damni. This assumption gains strength from the concurrent teaching of the Fathers and Schoolmen.

The difficulty begins when we attempt to ascertain the precise nature of the sensitive pain experienced by the poor souls. The Church has issued no definition with regard to the existence of a purgatorial fire, and hence nothing can be asserted on this head as of faith or even as fidei proximum. When Cardinal Bessarion at the Council of Florence argued against the existence of a real fire in Purgatory, the Greeks were assured that the Roman Church had never pronounced dogmatically on the subject, and nothing was said about it in the Decree of Union. The Greek view that Purgatory is a place of darkness, smoke, and mourning (locus caliginis, tenebrarum, turbinis, moeroris) is too vague to enable us to form any positive idea as to its nature.

b) In the Western Church belief in the existence of a material purgatorial fire, analogous to the fire of Hell, is common. Hence the name “ignis purgatorius” (German, Fegefeuer). This view derives a certain probability from 1 Cor. 3:11 sqq.

α) In warning the faithful of Corinth against certain dangerous doctrines that were propagated among them, the Apostle says: “Foundation can no man lay other than that which is [already] laid, which is Jesus Christ. But if a man buildeth upon the foundation, [whether it be] gold, silver, precious stones, wood, grass [or] straw,—the work of each man shall become manifest. For the Day shall declare it, because [that day] is to be disclosed in fire, and the worth of each man’s work shall that fire assay. If any man’s work abide, which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive reward: if any man’s work be burnt up, he shall lose his reward, but himself shall be saved, yet as [one that hath passed] through fire.” No doubt the test by fire is quite as much a figure of speech as building upon a foundation of gold, silver, precious stones, wood, grass or straw. But the concluding sentence, which asserts that a man shall be saved as through fire, seems to indicate that there is a real fire in Purgatory.

β) The Pauline passage is interpreted literally by some of the Fathers. Thus St. Ambrose writes: “When Paul says, ‘yet as through fire,’ he means that he will indeed be saved, but will have to suffer the pain of fire, in order that, purged by fire, he be saved.” St. Augustine, on the other hand, interprets the phrase “quasi per ignem” figuratively, applying it to “the fiery furnace of earthly tribulation,” Origen says: “Whoever is saved, is saved through fire, in order that, if he contains an admixture of dross, it be dissolved by fire, so that all may become solid gold.” This passage and another similar one in Origen’s writings show that he regarded the purgatorial fire as a figure of speech. In this he followed his master, Clement of Alexandria, who called Purgatory “a spiritual fire.” On the whole it may be said that the number of Greek Fathers who believe in the existence of a real fire in Purgatory is quite small. Among the Fathers of the Latin Church some favor the literal interpretation. Thus St. Gregory the Great speaks of those who after this life “will expiate their faults by purgatorial flames,” and adds that the pain will be more intense than any that can be suffered in this life. In another place he says: “But it must be believed that there is a purgatorial fire for [the expiation of] venial sins before the [General] Judgment.” But even in the West there is not a sufficient consensus patrum for a solid argument from Tradition.

γ) This fact did not, however, prevent the Scholastics from confidently asserting the existence of a material fire in Purgatory. The value of their teaching is discounted by the fact that they were uncritical, ascribed too much importance to unauthenticated visions and private revelations, and tried to prove the reality of the purgatorial fire from the existence of volcanoes, and so forth. We need not wonder, in view of such insufficient arguments, that a number of modern theologians (e. g. Klee, Möhler, Dieringer) deny, or at least doubt, the existence of a material fire in Purgatory. However, it is well to remember, in the words of Cardinal Bellarmine, that “If there is no real fire, there will be something much more terrible, which God has prepared in order to demonstrate His power.”

3. How THE POOR SOULS ARE CLEANSED IN PURGATORY.—Clement of Alexandria taught that the poor souls can effect their own spiritual amendment by submitting patiently to the torments of Purgatory. Whatever we may hold on this subject, one thing is certain, namely, that no merits can be acquired in Purgatory.

A more important and more practical problem is, how the poor souls expiate their venial sins and the punishments due to their forgiven mortal sins, and how they get rid of their evil habits.

a) Forgiveness of venial sins can be obtained in three different ways: (1) by unconditional remission on the part of God; (2) by suffering and the performance of penitential works, and (3) by an act of contrition.

(1) Absolutely speaking, God can forgive all sins unconditionally. But in the present economy He has chosen to make contrition a condition of forgiveness, and hence it is not reasonable to suppose that venial sins are forgiven unconditionally in Purgatory.

(2) What does God demand of the poor souls as a condition of forgiveness? Can it be mere passive suffering (satispassio)? This might wipe out the reatus poenae, but it could never expunge the reatus culpae, of which a sinner can rid himself only by an act of contrition (motus displicentiae). Hence the only means by which venial sins can be forgiven in Purgatory is contrition. St. Thomas says: “Venial sins are remitted after this life, even with regard to guilt, in the same way in which they are remitted in this life, namely, by an act of charity towards God, expressing repugnance for the venial sins committed in this life. However, since it is no longer possible to acquire merits in the world beyond, such an act of love, while it removes the impediment of venial guilt, does not deserve absolution or a decrease of punishment.”

When does the soul make the act of contrition which wipes out venial sin? Most probably immediately after its separation from the body, when the soul is for the first time alone with God. Some theologians, however, think that the process of purgation is gradual.

b) It is not difficult to understand how the temporal punishments due to sin are expiated in Purgatory. The soul is no longer able to make satisfaction, and hence can atone only by suffering. This suffering, technically called satispassio, has neither meritorious nor satisfactory value because the poor souls are no longer able to do anything for themselves, but have entered into the night “in which no man can labor.”

The duration of Purgatory is entirely a matter of conjecture. Some theologians think that the poor souls are detained for a long time; others, that the period of purgation is brief. The truth probably lies between these two extremes. God, being infinitely just, owes it to Himself to punish every sin according to its guilt and to exclude from Heaven whatever is unclean. But He is also infinitely merciful, and His mercy has provided an effective means of shortening the sufferings of the poor souls through the intercession of the Church and the faithful on earth.

Dominicus Soto and Maldonatus maintained that no one remains in Purgatory longer than ten years. This view is untenable, and one of the practical conclusions drawn from it, namely, that legacies for the saying of masses for the dead become invalid after ten years, has been formally condemned by Alexander VII. However, from her acceptance of unlimited mass stipends it does not follow that the Church believes the sufferings of the poor souls in Purgatory to be of extremely long duration. God, in consideration of a great number of masses and suffrages which He has foreseen from all eternity, may release a soul immediately after death. On the other hand, no one can be sure that Purgatory does not last for centuries in the case of souls who enter eternity with an exceptionally heavy load of venial sins and temporal punishments.

The faithful who will be alive at the second coming of our Lord will not, of course, be able to expiate their venial sins and temporal punishments in Purgatory, for there will be no Purgatory after the Last Judgment. With regard to these survivors it is piously believed that God will grant them a general indulgence, or that the tribulations and sufferings they will have to undergo in the flesh will make up for their deficiencies.

c) A word concerning the evil habits which remain in the soul after conversion.

There are two classes of evil habits (habitus), viz.: those which are rooted in the sensitive faculties (drunkenness, impurity, etc.), and those which are based on the spiritual powers of the will (pride, excessive ambition, etc.). The former are eradicated as it were automatically at the moment of death, when the sensitive faculties become inoperative. The latter accompany the soul into Purgatory, but are probably destroyed by an act of love elicited at the threshold of eternity. Should these habits continue to exist in Purgatory, there can be no doubt that they are eventually cast off at the gate of Heaven. They cannot be expiated by suffering because they have already been the subject of contrition, and, like concupiscence, are neither sins nor deserving of punishment.

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