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.
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.