I am working through reading Dante’s Divine Comedy. I just finished Purgatorio, and was thinking about how someone (a couple of Catholic someones, in fact) recently told me that the Catholic Church no longer believes in or teaches the doctrine of Purgatory. I was really confused by this, because we still pray for the dead during every Mass, and we still have a Mass dedicated to our departed souls every November. I wasn’t sure why this would be the case if the Church was now teaching that all those who die as believers go straight to Heaven. If that was the case, they certainly wouldn’t need our prayers, right?
Honestly, I only had a vague understanding of the idea of Purgatory before reading Purgatorio and thinking about the comments I recently heard about it. So, I decided I needed to learn more, and to write this post. Thanks goes out to Super Friend for talking to me about some of my confusion around the issue, too.
So, what is Purgatory, and what does the Catholic Church say about it?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says this:
All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness to enter the joy of heaven. (CCC 1030).
The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect (CCC 1031).
When I was still an atheist and working in prison, I always thought it was absurd that so many inmates would come to prison, decide to accept Jesus and their personal Lord and Savior, and then feel certain that they would go straight to Heaven when they die, although they continued to obviously live their lives in a criminal way (yes, there is tons of criminal activity in prison). I think plenty of Christians would even agree with this without concern. What I was always taught as a child was that, as long as you believed in Jesus, you got to go to Heaven, no matter what you did while living on Earth. I couldn’t stomach the hypocrisy of that while I was an atheist, and even now, that just doesn’t seem right to me.
The Catholic Church has a solution to this problem I had with Christianity – Purgatory. It makes sense to me that people will need to undergo a process of purification before being allowed to be in the presence of God in Heaven. The Bible even says, “nothing unclean will enter it [Heaven]” (Revelation 22:27).
But where does the idea of Purgatory come from?
The Church formulated the doctrine on Purgatory mostly during the Councils of Florence and Trent. However, this doesn’t mean that the Church invented the idea of Purgatory at that time. There is a reference to the tradition of praying for the dead in the Bible, “Thus [Judas] made atonement for the dead that they might be absolved from their sin” (2Maccabees 12:46). There is also evidence of Christians praying for the dead from the very earliest time of our Faith. In the catacombs where Christians gathered during the persecutions of the first three centuries A.D., prayers for the dead are graffitied on the walls. There are references to prayer for the dead in the earliest Christian writings as well. If the first Christians did not believe in Purgatory (even if they didn’t use that name for it), then why would they pray for the dead? Souls in Heaven don’t need prayers, and those in Hell are beyond the help of prayer.
What about Limbo?
“Limbo” is a theological speculation that has been taught in the history of Catholic tradition to refer to a place where the the souls of some who have died were held. This was thought to be a temporary place for those who died before Christ’s ascension into Heaven, and a permanent place for those who could not go to Heaven because of original sin but were not deserving of Hell because of no personal sin. This would include those who lived virtuous lives but were never exposed to Christian teachings and could therefore not be believers, and also babies who died before they could be baptized.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church does not include any reference to Limbo. The concept of Limbo is not an official doctrine of the Catholic Church and in fact, never has been, even if members of the Church may have mentioned it in ordinary teaching in the past. From what I can tell it certainly isn’t actively taught by anyone (or at least hardly anyone) in the Church now.
It seems that, in reference to the question of babies and children who die without being baptized, the official stance of the Church is sort of, “We don’t know for sure, but we have hope.” At least that how it sounds to me from what the Catechism says:
As regards children who have died without Baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God. . . . Indeed, the great mercy of God who desires that all men should be saved, and Jesus’ tenderness toward children. . . allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without Baptism (CCC 1261).
I have read statements from many priests, including Saint John Paul II, that express the belief that babies who die before birth or are unable to be baptized before they die do go to Heaven. I certainly believe that to be the case.
So, contrary to what I have heard, Purgatory is still a part of the doctrine of the Catholic Church, while Limbo is not, and never has been.