Whatever Happened to Purgatory?
The doctrine of purgatory is full of compassion, common sense, confidence, joy and eternal hope
Have you noticed how many Catholics seem to have forgotten purgatory?
When a loved one dies they say, “Aunt Hilda has gone to be with the Lord” or “Daddy is in heaven now.” or they comfort the bereaved by saying, “George is with his beloved Gladys now.” Or at Catholic funerals the preacher consoles the loved ones with talk about the departed being in heaven now.
This isn’t Catholic. It’s Protestant.
Most Protestants believe in the Calvinist doctrine of eternal security and think that as soon as a person dies they go straight to heaven. They quote the beautiful Bible verse, “to be absent in the body and be present with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8). But St Paul is expressing his hope here, not a certainty. In context his words are, “We have confidence and would prefer to be absent from the body and present with the Lord.”
However, there is more going on here than just the influence of Bible believing Calvinists. The real influence in this Catholic theological drift is universalism and semi-universalism.
Universalism is the heresy that everyone will be saved and semi-universalism is the wishy-washy halfway house in which people know they can’t hold to universalism so they say, “It is our hope that no one is in hell and that eventually everyone will be saved.”
I should point out that universalism and semi-universalism is usually held by nice, upper-middle-class educated people who don’t really know anyone who is not equally nice, educated, polite and middle class. They don’t know any really awful, sinful, nasty people so they can’t imagine that God would send anyone as nice and polite as them and their friends to hell.
What are the consequences of this universalism and semi-universalism? It’s just the kind of complacent, sentimental feel good religion we see in contemporary American Catholicism.
Since everyone will be saved we smoothly and sweetly assure people that “Uncle George is in heaven now” and “Be happy. Jimmy is with Jesus.”
One of the main reasons we’ve fallen into this trap is because we have forgotten purgatory.
The prevailing Protestant culture (which denied purgatory long ago) teaches that if the loved one isn’t in heaven immediately then he or she is in hell immediately and we sure don’t want to say THAT at the funeral or the bereavement counseling session. So we go the way of being nice and even when we know Jimmy and Uncle George were not exactly ready for yet to be ushered into the presence of the Almighty, we say so anyway.
Heaven has therefore become a kind of democratic all-inclusive theme park where everyone gets in and everyone has a happy time, world without end AMEN.
Another symptom of this “Grandpa went straight to heaven” heresy is the declining number of requests we get for requiem Masses to be said. Of course if people think Grandpa went straight to heaven they see no need to have Masses said for the repose of his soul.
Protestants and liberals don’t believe in Purgatory.
I’ve even heard a liberal nun tell a catechumen, “We don’t believe in all that since Vatican II.”
The Catholic belief is that most Christians, when they die — if they are not in a state of mortal sin — go to purgatory.
Purgatory is not a third place, but a kind of ante-chamber of heaven.
It’s where you go to finish your homework. It’s where you go to wash up before dinner.
Belief in purgatory is both compassionate and common sense.
It is compassionate because it allows for a place for us to go to finish the work of becoming “perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect.” It is compassionate because it takes human responsibility seriously and allows us to continue to co-operate with God’s grace for our soul’s purification.
Purgatory is common sense because all of us realize that very few of us are saints ready to enter directly into God’s presence, but also we know that (hopefully) not many of us are so desperately evil as to reject God forever and go to hell.
Therefore what do we say at funerals? We can be consistent with Catholic beliefs and also be compassionate.
We can say, “Thank God for George’s life. What a terrific man he was. We’ll all miss him, and you can bet I will continue to pray that God will complete his work of grace in George’s life.”
We can say, “Thank God for Jimmy. May God continue to lead him into his life, light and happiness.”
Purgatory is therefore a doctrine not only full of compassion and common sense, but also full of confidence, joy and eternal hope.
This article originally appeared Aug. 2, 2018, at the Register.