Dr. Philip Blosser posts an entry attributed to one “Ralph Roiter-Doister” on the subject of purgatory, commenting upon a bizarre book by Fr. F. X. Schouppe, SJ, Purgatory Explained By the Lives and Legends of the Saints. I say “bizarre,” because it is filled with silly little legends like the one of St. Gregory the Great hearing a “poor soul” cry out from a block of ice upon which he was resting his feet on a hot summer day. These are nothing but religious “ghost stories,” the telling of which Schouppe piously defends.

And then Schouppe gets into trying to calculate the time of purgatory:

According to the common opinion of the doctors, the expiatory pains are of long duration. “There is no doubt, ” says Bellarmine (De Gemitu, lib. 2, c. 9), “that the pains of Purgatory are not limited to ten and twenty years, and that they last in some cases entire centuries. But allowing it to be true that their duration did not exceed ten or twenty years, can we account it as nothing to have to endure for ten or twenty years the most excruciating sufferings without the least alleviation? . . . . Shall we then find any difficulty in embracing labor and penance to free ourselves from the sufferings of Purgatory? Shall we fear to practice the most painful exercises: vigils, fasts, almsgiving, long prayers, and especially contrition, accompanied with sighs and tears? …

Let us take a moderate estimate, and suppose that you commit about ten faults a day; at the end of 365 days you will have the sum of 3,650 faults. Let us . . . facilitate the calculation [by reducing the number to] 3,000 per year. At the end of ten years this will amount to 30,000, and at the end of twenty years to 60,000.

Let us continue our hypothesis: You die after these twenty years of virtuous life, and appear before God with a debt of 30,000 faults [presumably having worked off the other half], which you must discharge in Purgatory. How much time will you need to accomplish this expiation? Suppose, on the average, each fault requires one hour of Purgatory. This measure is very moderate, if we judge by the revelations of the saints; but at any rate this will give you a Purgatory of 30,000 hours. . . . Thus, a good Christian who watches over himself, who applies himself to penance and good works, finds himself liable to three years, three months, and fifteen days of Purgatory.

“Roiter-Doister” concludes:

Fr. Shouppe has no problem with clarity, and no need for relativistic accomodation of various “readings” of purgatorial metaphors. He is just a simpleminded priest of the old school, using the mind God gave him to illuminate His truth in the clearest way possible.

For my own part, I’m going to say simply that I can’t see how Schouppe’s theology can be considered Christian. There seems to be no place for grace, mercy, forgiveness, the blood of Jesus Christ, the sacrifice of the cross … in short, the Gospel! You shall do your own expiation by suffering away in flames of torment for years greater than your life upon earth.

I prefer those theologians who do, in fact, see purgatory as a metaphor, and one that can only be understood Christologically. For example, consider this author:

… Purgatory is understood in a properly Christian way when it is grasped christologically, in terms of the Lord himself as the judging fire which transforms us and conforms us to his own glorified body ….

… [T]he purification involved does not happen through some thing, but through the transforming power of the Lord himself, whose burning flame cuts free our closed-off heart, melting it, and pouring it into a new mold to make it fit for the living organism of his body[.]…

…A person’s entry into the realm of manifest reality is an entry into his definitive destiny and thus an immersion in eschatological fire. The transforming “moment” of this encounter cannot be quantified by the measurements of earthly time. It is, indeed, not eternal but a transition, and yet trying to qualify it as of “short” or “long” duration on the basis of temporal measurments derived from physics would be naive and unproductive. The “temporal measure” of this encounter lies in the unsoundable depths of existence, in a passing-over where we are burned ere we are transformed. …

The essential Christian understanding of Purgatory has now become clear. Purgatory is not, as Tertullian thought, some kind of supra-worldly concentration camp where one is forced to undergo punishment in a more or less arbitrary fashion. Rather is it the inwardly necessary process of transformation in which a person becomes capable of Christ, capable of God, and thus capable of unity with the whole communion of saints. Simply to look at people with any degree of realism at all is to grasp the necessity of such a process. It does not replace grace by works, but allows the former to achieve its full victory precisely as grace. What actually saves is the full assent of faith. But in most of us, that basic option is buried under a great deal of wood, hay and straw. Only with difficulty can it peer out from behind the latticework of an egoism we are powerless to pull down with our own hands. Man is the recipient of the divine mercy, yet this does not exonerate him from the need to be transformed. Encounter with the Lord is this transformation. It is the fire that burns away our dross and re-forms us to be vessels of eternal joy.

Joseph Ratzinger, Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life. Translated by Michael Waldstein; translation edited by Aidan Nichols, OP. Dogmatic Theology, volume 9. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1988. Pp. 229 ff. Translation of Eschatologie–Tod und ewiges Leben. Regensburg: Friedrich Pustet Verlag, 1977.

31 thoughts on “Purgatory

  1. Bill, I don’t see anything metaphorical about Purgatory in B16’s quote on eschatology, it seems to be a quite real “place” to me, he does not deny any temporal suffering, rather he affirms it. If we hold dogmas like Purgatory to be merely “metaphorical”, what shall we say of other realities like the Mystical Body of Christ, hell, etc.?

  2. “The “temporal measure” of this encounter lies in the unsoundable depths of existence, in a passing-over where we are burned ere we are transformed. ”

    I guess I should ask you how you believe purgatory to be only a “metaphor”? Purgatory is more than a figure of speech, I think the Ratzinger’s quote shows that. He denies “time” as in duration from instant to instant, he does not deny the temporal aspect of the suffering. If it is only metaphor, why do we pray for the dead at Mass? Where are those souls? As with all doctrines, there is a Trinitarian and Christocentric focus, but if it is an encounter with Christ, it has to occur as a “place” within “creation”. Obviously, it is not hell, nor heaven thus there would be no need for the purgation, logically it must be somewhere. Place does not have to have a duration from instant to instant unless matter is involved.

  3. Oh, it has a place? Do you think it on the moon, as some fathers did, or in the belly of the earth, as others? No, it is not a place nor is it a time. It is, says Ratzinger, a transition. It is a change. St. Paul said we would be changed “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye.” The Catholic Church has only officially said that 1) this purification exists and 2) the dead are helped by our prayers. The rest is speculation. If it gets away from what we know to be sure about Christ and grace and forgiveness and the mercy of God, then it is impious speculation.

  4. No, he affirms it is a place (“the realm of manifest reality”), but he does reject the traditional explanation that Christ’s purification of the redeemed in purgatory is temporal — or at least is temporal as we experience temporality. Thus, he affirms that there is some kind of “temporal measure” of purgatory. You’re misreading this passage, as you seem to be misreading the passages of Fr. Shouppe’s book that Ralph Roister-Doister quoted.

    But then, in one of those old, old Catholic stories told to help explain purgatory, the point is made that what might actually be just a few hours in purgatory could be experienced as centuries.

  5. He speaks quite plainly, and he is specifically arguing against any temporal measure (pace FXS) and against the idea that there is some physically locatable space where one might find these presumably disembodied souls being burned by a supposedly literal fire.

    And FXS seems quite plain, too, both in what was quoted and in the silly passages I’ve alluded to about souls trapped in blocks of ice and similar “ghost stories.”

  6. “Oh, it has a place? Do you think it on the moon, as some fathers did, or in the belly of the earth, as others? No, it is not a place nor is it a time. ”

    Is heaven a place?

    Bill, where is Jesus’ body? Does it still exist, and if so, can you tell us the place where it is?

    You referred to the way most Catholics have understood purgatory throughout history (something the Church has never condemned) as impious speculation. Why then is it not impious speculation for you to insist, contrary to the Church’s common teaching, that purgatory is not a place and has no temporality at all?

  7. Do you believe in the resurrection of the body, something consistently proclaimed by Jesus, the apostles, and Christians for 2000 years?

    I’m not speculating. I’m actually basing that on what is official Catholic teaching on the subject. The only things the Catholic Church has ever said officially about purgatory is that 1) there is such a purification and 2) souls are helped by prayers. That’s it.

    Trent went on to say:

    But let the more difficult and subtle questions which do not make for edification and, for the most part, are not conducive to an increase of piety (cf. I Tim. 1:4), be excluded from the popular sermons to uneducated people. Likewise they should not permit opinions that are doubtful and tainted with error to be spread and exposed. As for those things that belong to the realm of curiosity or superstition, or smack of dishnorable gain, they should forbid them as scandalous and injurious to the faithful.

  8. “St. Paul said we would be changed ‘in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye.'”

    Of course, it should be remembered that St. Paul was talking about the resurrection of the body in that passage, not purgatory. That verse tells us nothing about whether or not the particular judgment of Christian souls is experienced temporally.

    “he is specifically arguing against any temporal measure (pace FXS)”

    I think he can be read as rejecting the notion that purgatory has a temporality just like the temporality we experience.

    “and against the idea that there is some physically locatable space”

    In the past, as you know, Catholics usually thought of purgatory as a place within the universe’s physical geography, but Cardinal Ratzinger is correct that it’s simplistic, and naive, to think of purgatory in such a crassly materalistic way. But because it’s not a place in our universe doesn’t mean it’s not a place at all. After all, because it is an aspect of our encounter with Christ (something the Church has always believed, and that Fr. Shouppe would never have denied, as such a denial would have reduced everything he wrote about purgatory to gibberish), that means it would have to be “somewhere” and have some sort of temporality. After all, Christ is eternally God and Man, and humans have bodies as well as souls. So to have an encounter with Him, and to have one even more intense and complete than we can have in this life, means to have an encounter with Him somewhere and some time.

  9. “St. Paul said we would be changed ‘in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye.’”

    Of course, it should be remembered that St. Paul was talking about the resurrection of the body in that passage, not purgatory.

    No, St. Paul was speaking of the living, saying that even those who are alive at the coming of Christ shall be changed.

    Here’s the full context:

    1 Cor. 15:51ff–“Behold, I tell you a mystery. We shall not all fall asleep, but we will all be changed, in an instant, in the blink of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.”

    Related to that is this passage:

    1 Thess 4:13ff–“We do not want you to be unaware, brothers, about those who have fallen asleep, so that you may not grieve like the rest, who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose, so too will God, through Jesus, bring with him those who have fallen asleep. Indeed, we tell you this, on the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will surely not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself, with a word of command, with the voice of an archangel and with the trumpet of God, will come down from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together 4 with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. Thus we shall always be with the Lord.”

    As to the rest, you’re doing some dancing that really makes no sense. A temporality without time? A location without a location? To speak of purgatory is to speak of the soul apart from the body, because the body is not raised until the return of Christ. So if there is an encounter of purification after death and before the resurrection, then it affects the soul only. So how much space do souls inhabit?

  10. Bill, in Christ all are alive, even the dead in Christ. So those who are apart from the body shall be raised and changed, and those still in the body shall be raised and changed. That will happen instantaneously, at least from the vantage point of this world’s temporality. Their “purgatory” would be pretty short in duration. But then, as we often, hear, the best thing is for Christians to do their “purgatory” here on earth, so they won’t have to do it after they die. Who knows if the experience of enduring the final cataclysmic moments of this world’s existence (not to mention persecution from Antichrist) would not more than suffice as a purgatory for “we which are alive and remain”? So we can’t use St. Paul’s words as evidence that purgatory is necessarily instantaneous.

  11. Bill, I think you need a course in Thomistic metaphysics, because your views tend toward pantheism. …

  12. Ha!!!!!

    Ho ho ho ho ho ho!!!!

    He heeeeee he heeee!

    A pantheist??!???

    That’s even funnier than being called a “Dispensationalist”!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    As to Thomas, he spoke very carefully about purgatory. Would that more folks had followed his advice over the ages.

  13. Bill, It is just too bad that you did not put in the rest of the post to finish my thoughts, you would then see the other points I was arguing for as well. Since you are willing to do that, I won’t bother any more. Very charitable!

  14. Ah, here’s why we have comment moderation and editing.

    Someone who I don’t know from Adam, who has never commented here before, jumps in, calls me a “pantheist,” then gets upset at me for editing their remarks.


  15. I didn’t call you a pantheist, “your view tends toward”, I was only trying to show the logical outcome of your points! If I offended you, please accept my apology, that was not what I intended.

  16. Yes, Bill, St. Thomas spoke very carefully about purgatory, but he also showed respect for “the statements of holy men and the revelations made to many.” Isn’t Fr. Shouppe doing that too? I just can’t imagine St. Thomas describing those things as “impious speculation.”

  17. I did let that part through. That statement stood on its own, what followed did not expand or explain or defend the premise. If you want to try to defend that statement, backing it up with evidence from what I have said, do so. Don’t throw something out like that and then move quickly on to other subjects.

  18. Bill, everything else aside, I think an important question was raised in an earlier comment that asked “Where is Jesus’ resurrected body?” (I’ve paraphrased.)

    We could also ask: Where is the Blessed Virgin’s body?

    And, of course, those bodies aren’t corpses, they are resurrected and glorified: they are living, breathing, coursing with blood, the brains’ neurons are firing, etc.

    That being the case, there must be some created “place” prepared by God — i.e. Heaven — in which these resurrected and glorified creatures (Jesus’ sacred humanity and Mary herself) exist, and it seems such a “place” must have dimensions of space and time, or dimensions which are “like” space and time, or else the belief that these corporeal creatures are living (as you and I are) would be stripped of meaning.

    I’ll wait for your thoughts on this matter before I post anything else.

  19. And not just Mary’s body, but Enoch, Elijah and Moses, who scripture says were also taken up bodily. And Jesus said he went to prepare a place for us.

    So I agree. Heaven is a particular place, because it is prepared for resurrected bodies.

    But those who understand Purgatory as a place have a hard time because they are wanting a real place with real fire for beings without bodies.

  20. I have to admit I agree with Bill wholeheartedly when he says “The Catholic Church has only officially said that 1) this purification exists and 2) the dead are helped by our prayers. The rest is speculation. If it gets away from what we know to be sure about Christ and grace and forgiveness and the mercy of God, then it is impious speculation.”

    Such impious speculation, “No, it is not a place nor is it a time…” as someone made above doesn’t help matters much.

    But he still isn’t a pantheist.

  21. Cute, Franklin. But the speculation against which Trent warned is most definitely the stuff that fills Schouppe’s book. This is the stuff that was the problem at the time, because there was one purpose to the telling of these silly ghost stories–it was to get people to buy indulgences and have masses celebrated (for cash, of course). These were the stories told by those who trafficked in spiritual goods … folks like John Tetzel, OP. And we know what backlash that caused. To nip this evil (just another version of old-fashioned simony) in the bud, Trent took its drastic stance on purgatory: Yes, Catholics pray for the dead. But that’s all that needs to be said.

    As for those things that belong to the realm of curiosity or superstition, or smack of dishonorable gain, they should forbid them as scandalous and injurious to the faithful.

    Ghost stories told for the sake of raising money–or which encourage people to think that appearances of ghosts are normal or to be looked for, or which encourage people to want to have these visits–all these things are the abuses of which Trent spoke.

  22. I agree with you, though accounts of these types of visions go back to very early times. For example, the story of St. Perpetua and the dead Dinocrates from the very early 3rd century “Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicity”, which details a vision that is, in my opinion, very rich in symbolism. I actually do have the FXS book on my bookshelf, given to me by a friend before I became Catholic 😉 But I rarely opened it up……

    But I think one of the best mystical refections of the transitional nature of Purgatory comes from St. Catherine of Genoa’s “Treatise on Purgatory”. It is speculative about many things, sure, but it reflects very heavily on this fiery love of God which draws souls close to Him and does not use the language of lost suffering in some far off place.

  23. I’m not disagreeing with your point, Bill. But “impious” speculation was a good bit too harsh for the parameters you laid out. Parameters that include your own statements on the subjects.

    In fact, you understand Trent’s position to be “Yes, Catholics pray for the dead. But that’s all that needs to be said.” You’ve said a great deal more.

  24. I disagree. 🙂

    Because Trent is hitting at those who made up phony legends to make money. And Schouppe should have known that. So why did he pull out all these ridiculous stories …?

  25. Bill, I think your general point echoing Trent’s caution against superstition and the like is a point well-taken. I would want to offer two caveats, however. First, I think there is an animus in those of us from Protestant backgrounds, not to mention the Zeitgeist as a whole, which militates against the acceptance of a great deal of Catholic tradition on these grounds — from the ‘hocus pocus’ (derived from ‘hoc est enim corpus meum’) of transubstantiation to the apparitions of Fatima and the like. I have long intended to write a piece on the fact that there is so much in Scripture itself of this bizarre nature that we’ve come simply to overlook without questioning — from floating axe heads to healing relics (Elisha’s bones in 2 Kings 13:20), etc., of the same kind that we question in Catholic tradition. Your skepticism could be justified. On the other hand, it might not be. I see a similar skepticism in the Presbyterian editors of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers series — for example, in their volume on St. Augustine’s City of God (p. 485, n. 2), where they question Augustine’s account of a miraculous cure as a “contrivance” and “degrading imposture” of the Church. But why should we believe this? Newman has a great essay on this subject.

    My other caveat is embodied in my comment already posted in the combox in reply to your remark in response to Ralph’s post on my blog, where I note the widespread ignorance among contemporary Catholics as well as Protestants concerning the theology of indulgences and the concept of ‘merit’ in Catholicism (attested also in Scripture: “your Father who sees in secret will reward you,” etc.), as well as the need for a contemporary Catholic catechesis on this subject. When Evangelicals insist on the “sufficiency” of Christ’s atonement, we have to ask: “sufficient for what?” Otherwise, we end up with ridiculous notions such as that my paying a traffic fine for a traffic violation entails a denial of the “sufficiency” of the atonement of Christ, etc.

  26. One other point I meant to subsume under my first caveat is that any number of these ‘bizarre’ stories could be instances of real private revelation — not de fide or binding upon the belief of all Christians, but just as authentic as the private revelations various personages in the Old and New Testament received, such as the vision of St. Peter (Acts 10:1-11:18) or the dream of St. Joseph (Mt 2:13).

  27. There are lots of other things these stories could be. They could be fiction, they could be stories that have been stretched, they could be “an undigested bit of beef or an underdone potato,” they could be manifestations of psychosis, they could be demonic apparitions.

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