Catholic Encyclopedia
Church Fathers
Classics Library
Church Documents
Prayer Requests
Ray of Hope
Social Doctrine

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

1. THE COMMUNION OF SAINTS.—The Council of Trent says that the poor souls in Purgatory “are aided by the suffrages of the faithful, and principally by the acceptable sacrifice of the altar.” The efficacy of this intercession is based on the Communion of Saints.

a) By the Communion of Saints we understand the spiritual union of the faithful with one another, with the blessed Angels, the Elect in Heaven, and the poor souls in Purgatory, under the supernatural headship of Christ, who is the font and well-spring of all grace; or, to put it somewhat differently, the mystic union of the militant, the triumphant, and the suffering Church of Christ.

b) The ninth article of the Apostles’ Creed teaches that there is a visible communion on earth, as well as an invisible interchange of blessings between the militant and the triumphant Church, of which latter Purgatory is a preparatory stage. This has always been Catholic teaching. Whereas an impassible gulf separates the Blessed in Heaven from the demons, the members of Christ’s mystic body in Heaven and on earth are closely bound together by a supernatural communion of blessings, of which the innermost essence and principle is sanctifying grace, or theological love, and, to some extent, theological faith. For this reason even those Catholics who are guilty of mortal sin belong to the militant Church and consequently, in a restricted sense, also to the Communion of Saints. As for the angels, they form part of the ecclesia triumphans, and as such participate in the communio sanctorum.

Through the Communion of Saints the faithful on earth, especially those who are in the state of sanctifying grace, share in all the Masses, prayers, and good works offered up by the militant Church. They are moreover benefitted by the intercession of the angels and the just in Heaven, and they can aid the poor souls in Purgatory by prayers, indulgences, alms, and other good works, especially by having the Sacrifice of the Mass offered for them. The first and second of the above-mentioned propositions having been dealt with in previous volumes of this series, it remains to prove the third, viz.: that the living faithful can succor the dead by works of satisfaction.

2. THE DOGMA.—That the souls of the faithful departed are aided by the suffrages of the living follows as a corollary from the dogma of Purgatory.

Theologians are wont to quote in confirmation of this teaching certain scriptural texts, which are not, however, entirely convincing. Such a text is, e. g., Tob. 4:18: “Lay out thy bread and thy wine upon the burial of a just man, and do not eat and drink thereof with the wicked.” Some exegetes interpret this passage as inculcating the usefulness to the dead of a meal given to the poor in their memory. But this is by no means certain. Another, equally inconclusive text often quoted in this connection is 1 Cor. 15:29, where the Apostle speaks of persons “who are baptized for the dead.” As Dr. MacRory points out, “this metaphorical sense of Baptism (as a baptism of mortification and affliction for the dead) is very rare, being found only in the two passages just referred to, and there in the mouth of Christ in reference, not to ordinary mortifications, but to His baptism in His blood. This being so, is it likely that the Corinthians could be expected to think of a metaphorical baptism here? Besides, if this were the sense, the Apostle, as Estius points out, should have written, ‘who baptize themselves,’ i. e. undergo voluntary mortifications, rather than ‘who are baptized.’ ”

3. SUFFRAGES FOR THE DEAD.—In regard to suffrages for the dead (suffragia pro mortuis) we may ask four questions: (a) How many kinds of suffrages are there? (b) Who profits by them? (c) In what manner do they advantage the dead? and (d) By whom can they be offered?

a) There are three different kinds of suffrages by which the living can assist the dead, viz.: the Mass, prayers, and good works. This distinction is very old.

While good works are mostly typified by alms, there are others, such as fasting, scourging, making pilgrimages, etc. The shedding of tears alone is not effective. St. Chrysostom says, “the dead are not aided by tears, but by prayer, intercession, and alms.”

If a man has forgotten or neglected to make restitution for some injury done to his neighbor, and others make it for him after his death, does he derive any spiritual benefit from the act? D. Soto and Bellarmine answer this question in the negative, and they are probably right. For the dead man, in omitting to make restitution, either committed a sin or he did not. If he committed a sin, he must expiate that sin, regardless of what his heirs or friends may do. If he did not sin, he incurred no punishment.

Offering up indulgences for the dead is not a distinct class of good works, because the efficacy of indulgences is conditioned upon prayer and good works. Neither are the ceremonies of Christian burial to be regarded as a special kind of suffrage, for to bury the dead is an act of corporal mercy and therefore belongs to the category of good works. The same applies to the preparation of corpses for burial, the burning of candles at the bier, sprinkling dead bodies with holy water, accompanying them to their last resting-place, decorating the graves, etc., etc. All these are good works which help the dead if performed with the right intention.

Cremation is not a good work but “a detestable abuse” in which the Church forbids Catholics to coöperate. The practice of burning dead bodies, though in itself not opposed to Catholic dogma, was prohibited because it was originally introduced and is now advocated chiefly by avowed enemies of religion.

b) Suffrages offered for the dead cannot benefit the just in Heaven or the damned in Hell, but they can and do benefit the poor souls in Purgatory. The just do not need human assistance. This is especially true of baptized infants and the blessed martyrs. St. Augustine says it is an insult to pray for a martyr. The ancient practice, evidenced by the teaching of the Fathers and the early liturgies, of praying and offering sacrifice for deceased Apostles, martyrs, prophets, and saints, was inspired by a desire to thank God for having glorified them in Heaven. We pray for them, says St. Cyril of Jerusalem, “in order that through their prayers and supplications God may receive our own.” And St. Augustine: “When sacrifices … are offered on behalf of the very good, they are thank-offerings, … and in the case of the very bad, even though they do not help the dead, [these sacrifices] afford consolation to the living.”

c) To understand how the suffrages of the living can benefit the poor souls we must recall the distinction between the meritorious and the satisfactory value of good works. The meritorious value of a good work consists in an increase of sanctifying grace and is not transferable. Its satisfactory value consists in an expiation of punishment due, and may be surrendered in favor of another. It is the satisfactory value alone that God accepts on behalf of the dead.

From this point of view we can appreciate the “heroic act of charity” approved by Pius IX, which consists in the voluntary relinquishment for the benefit of the poor souls of all claim to the satisfactory fruits of one’s good works as well as to the suffrages of one’s friends after death. However, it is doubtful whether God accepts such a sacrifice and actually deprives those who make it of the satisfactory values which they surrender. That He approves of the heroism that dictates such a noble act goes without saying, for it is in full accord with St. Paul’s exclamation, “I wished myself to be an anathema from Christ, for my brethren.”

Over and above their meritorious and satisfactory value, prayers for the dead have an impetratory value, inasmuch as they move God to hear the petitioner’s prayer, qua prayer, regardless of the value of the satisfaction offered.

With regard to indulgences it is commonly held that they may be applied to the poor souls “by way of suffrage” (per modum suffragii).

d) We can offer suffrages for the dead either by performing, or causing others to perform, a good work that produces its effects ex opere operato (e. g. the Mass); or by creating satisfactory or impetratory values for the benefit of the poor souls by giving alms, reciting the office of the dead, etc. In the former case it is sufficient that the good work be performed to secure its effects; whereas in the latter case all those conditions must be fulfilled which are required to render a good work meritorious, principally this, that the applicant be in the state of sanctifying grace. An act by which no merits or satisfactions are gained for the doer himself, cannot apply such merits or satisfactions to others.

Can the just, who have arrived at the status termini, intercede for the poor souls in Purgatory?

The just who have arrived at the status termini are divided into two classes: (1) the Angels and Saints in Heaven, and (2) the poor souls in Purgatory.

The liturgical prayers of the Church show that the Angels and Saints, especially the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Michael, are powerful intercessors for the dead. Whether the poor souls can assist one another is a more difficult question to answer. We know that, being in a state of punishment, they need assistance themselves. To assume that they can obtain release from Purgatory by their own prayers, would seem to contradict the revealed teaching that they are unable to acquire merits or even quasi-merits. However, expressly excluding this untenable corollary, we may hold that the poor souls are able to pray for one another effectively. Suarez and Bellarmine furthermore maintain that the poor souls can aid the faithful on earth by their intercession. This is, however, opposed to the teaching of St. Thomas, who in reply to the objection that the poor souls can help us because they are friends of God says: “Those who are in Purgatory do not yet enjoy the vision of the Divine Logos, which would enable them to know what we think and speak, and therefore we do not implore their suffrages, but those of the living.” The further objection that the poor souls must have power with God because they are impeccable, he refutes thus: “Though they are superior to us in as far as they can no longer sin, they are inferior to us as regards the punishments which they suffer, and therefore they are in no condition to pray [for others], but rather in a state where they need the prayers of others.”

Nevertheless those who piously invoke the poor souls, or promise them Masses, need not be disturbed, because it is probable that they can aid us by their intercession, and quite possible that God may aid both the poor souls and those who pray for them without the knowledge of the former. Let us not forget our Saviour’s dictum: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.” The Church in her liturgy prays for the poor souls, but never invokes their intercession.

READINGS:—S. J. Hunter, S. J., Outlines of Dogmatic Theology, Vol. III, pp. 442 sqq.—Wilhelm-Scannell, A Manual of Catholic Theology, Vol. II, pp. 553 sqq.—Wiseman, Lectures on the Principal Doctrines and Practices of the Catholic Church, Sect. XI, London 1836 (frequently reprinted).—Coleridge, The Prisoners of the King, London 1897.—Canty, Purgatory, Dogmatic and Scholastic, Dublin, 1886.—Loch, Das Dogma der griechischen Kirche vom Purgatorium, Ratisbon 1842.—Redner, Das Fegefeuer, Ratisbon 1856.—Bautz, Das Fegefeuer, Mayence 1883.—Tappehorn, Das Fegefeuer, Dillingen 1891.—St. Binet, S. J., Der Freund der armen Seelen oder die kath. Lehre vom jenseitigen Reinigungsorte, Freiburg 1896.—Fr. Schmid, Das Fegefeuer nach kath. Lehre, Brixen 1904.—IDEM, Die Seelenläuterung im Jenseits, Brixen 1907.—Bellarmine, De Purgatorio.—Casaccia, Il Purgatorio, Biella 1863.—B. Jungmann, De Novissimis, Ratisbon 1871.—Oxenham, Catholic Eschatology, London 1878.—Sadlier, Purgatory: Doctrinal, Historical, Practical, New York 1886.—L. Rouzic, Le Purgatoire, Paris 1918.—Atzberger, Geschichte der christlichen Eschatologie, Freiburg 1896.—E. J. Hanna, art. “Purgatory,” in Vol. XII of the Catholic Encyclopedia, pp. 375–380.—H. Thurston, S. J., The Memory of the Dead, London 1916 (contains a brief but fairly comprehensive sketch of the Catholic practice of prayer for the dead from the first centuries of Christianity to the close of the Middle Ages).—Delloue-Leahy, Solution of the Great Problem, New York 1917, pp. 214 sqq.—B. J. Otten, S. J., A Manual of the History of Dogmas, Vol. I, St. Louis 1917, pp. 452 sqq.

On the reasonableness of the doctrine of Purgatory see J. S. Vaughan, Thoughts for All Times, 23rd Am. ed., Springfield, Mass., 1916, pp. 156–171.

Copyright ©1999-2018 e-Catholic2000.com