For the past few months, a friend of mine has been participating in the RCIA program at a local parish. I tagged along for the first meeting and decided to stick around; the leaders are providing solid, orthodox catechesis—a welcome change from what is, at least to my knowledge, standard fare in American parishes—and their lectures have given me a refresher course in basic Catholic theology. (Personally, I’m glad for the opportunity. Where faith is concerned, I often find myself getting lost in the details of doctrine and orthopraxy and forget the larger truths.)
Last night our discussion centered on the Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell. Obviously, we couldn’t spend a whole lot of time on any particular subject. Nevertheless, I was pleased with how the team handled a rather difficult topic.
Naturally, the conversation touched upon Purgatory and its place in salvation as well. Unlike the Last Things, Purgatory is not taken for granted as truth by most Protestants; RCIA usually has one or two curious products of the Reformation in attendance, so I was hardly surprised when the discussion of Purgatory, and its accompanying handout, took the form of an apologetic.
What did catch me off guard was the piece quoted in part on the handout—or, rather, the name of its author: C. S. Lewis, an Anglican and a writer beloved by Protestants and Catholics alike. The following is taken from a short book of his titled Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer (which I own but have yet to read in full):
Of course I pray for the dead. The action is so spontaneous, so all but inevitable, that only the most compulsive theological case against it would deter me. And I hardly know how the rest of my prayers would survive if those for the dead were forbidden. At our age the majority of those we love best are dead. What sort of intercourse with God could I have if what I love best were unmentionable to Him?
On the traditional Protestant view, all the dead are damned or saved. If they are damned, prayer for them is useless. If they are saved, it is equally useless. God has already done all for them. What more should we ask?
But don’t we believe that God has already done and is already doing all that He can for the living? What more should we ask? Yet we are told to ask.
“Yes,” it will be answered, “but the living are still on the road. Further trials, further developments, possibilities of error, await them. But the saved have been made perfect. They have finished the course. To pray for them presupposes that progress and difficulty are still possible. In fact, you are bringing in something like Purgatory.”
Well, I suppose I am. Though even in Heaven some perpetual increase of beatitude, reached by a continually more ecstatic self-surrender, without the possibility of failure but not perhaps without its own ardours and exertions—for delight also has its severities and steep ascents, as lovers know—might be supposed. But I won’t press, or guess, that side for the moment. I believe in Purgatory.
Mind you, the Reformers had good reasons for throwing doubt on “the Romish doctrine concerning Purgatory” as that Romish doctrine had then become. I don’t mean merely the commercial scandal [that is, the selling of indulgences]. If you turn from Dante’s Purgatorio to the sixteenth century you will be appalled by the degradation. In Thomas More’s Supplication of Souls Purgatory is simply temporary Hell. In it the souls are tormented by devils, whose presence is “more horrible and grievous to us than is the pain itself.” Worse still, [John] Fisher, in his Sermon on Psalm VI, says the tortures are so intense that the spirit who suffers them cannot, for pain, “remember God as he ought to do.” in fact, the very etymology of the word purgatory has dropped out of sight. Its pains do not bring us nearer to God, but make us forget Him. It is a place not of purification but purely of retributive punishment.
The right view returns magnificently in [John Henry] Newman’s Dream [of Gerontius]. There, if I remember it rightly, the saved soul, at the very foot of the throne, begs to be taken away and cleansed. It cannot bear for a moment longer “With its darkness to affront that light.” Religion has claimed Purgatory.*
Our souls demand Purgatory, don’t they? Would it not break the heart if God said to us, “It is true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here and no one will upbraid you with these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into the joy”? Should we not reply, “With submission, sir, and if there is no objections, I’d rather be cleaned first.” “It may hurt, you know”—”Even so, sir.”
I assume that the process of purification will normally involve suffering. Partly from tradition; partly because most real good that has been done me in this life has involved it. But I don’t think suffering is the purpose of the purgation. I can well believe that people neither much worse not much better than I will suffer less than I or more. “No nonsense about merit.” The treatment given will be the one required, whether it hurts little or much.
My favourite image on this matter comes from the dentist’s chair. I hope that when the tooth of life is drawn and I am “coming round,” a voice will say, “Rinse your mouth out with this.” This will be Purgatory. The rinsing may take longer than I can now imagine. The taste of this may be more fiery and astringent than my present sensibility could endure. But More and Fisher shall not persuade me that it will be disgusting and unhallowed.
Not bad. I may have to read the rest of Letters to Malcolm over the Thanksgiving break.
*Lewis’s language here can be easily misread and deserves some clarification. I hardly suspect him of intentionally misrepresenting Catholic doctrine; he is either using the word “degradation” in a manner different from what I’m used to, or he is not being careful with his language.
To cite interpretations of Purgatory expressed on a popular level (from Dante to More and Fisher to Newman) as indicating that the Church’s official doctrine had changed over the course of centuries is simply erroneous. Just because a particular Catholic thinker once believed Purgatory to be “temporary Hell” doesn’t mean that this opinion somehow becomes orthodoxy. If that were the case, then the heresies believed by a lot of today’s Catholics would be incorporated into the official teachings of the Church just because Hans Küng and a lot of American Catholics said so.
I don’t want to get into the nitty-gritty of it here, but this simply isn’t how doctrinal development works. A more accurate way of expressing Lewis’s point is as follows: by the 16th century, the concept most Catholics had of purgatory had degraded to the point that how it was taught needed to be reexamined and clarified, as was apparently done by Cardinal Newman. For further clarification on a rather difficult topic, refer to this post from blogger Cathedra Unitatis, an Orthodox Christian writing about the East-West division.