Removing Our Sinful Natures

The Catholic Doctrine of Purgatory

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Purgatory is one of those subjects, like economics, about which nearly everyone has an opinion but few have in-depth knowledge. Protestants point to it as an example of a pernicious "tradition of men" which Christ wisely condemned. Orthodox Christians, who accept the possibility of an interim state between this life and heaven, are uncomfortable with many traditional depictions of purgatory as well as associated doctrines such as indulgences. And many Catholics today treat purgatory like a persistent rash they cannot get rid of: it comes to their attention now and then, but is better left hidden from public view.

However, the doctrine of purgatory has a long and valued history within the Catholic Church and it would be unfaithful to our predecessors in the faith to ignore or minimize it. So our first necessity is a clear definition of what the Church teaches regarding purgatory. Given all the images and ideas among the faithful about this belief, it may be surprising that the Church's teaching is actually very limited. In a nutshell, here is what is defined:
1) The souls of the just which, in the moment of death, are burdened with venial sins or temporal punishment due to sins, enter Purgatory. (NOTE: No mention of what happens when they enter purgatory, how long they stay, or any other such details).

2) The living Faithful can come to the assistance of the souls in purgatory by their intercessions. (NOTE: no mention of how these intercessions help).
As is the case with heaven and especially hell, the Church teaches that purgatory exists, but makes little comment on exactly what it is like. This is natural, as we simply have no direct knowledge of the afterlife while on this earth.

Of course, there has been much speculation within the Church about purgatory over the centuries. During the middle ages, purgatory was seen as a place of fire and deep suffering; it was "hell lite". Today, the emphasis is more on the purging effects of purgatory which prepare us for heaven. These speculations are important, as they show us how the Church is reflecting on a specific doctrine and might give us important insights into our Faith. However, until the Church formally defines a popular image or belief, it is important to remember that they are speculations and therefore not binding on the faithful.

Essentially then, we are left with this: after death, there are those who die as followers of Christ, but need to be prepared in some fashion to enter into God's presence and therefore go to an intermediate state. Furthermore, our prayers on this earth are fruitful for these people. Let's look into this in more detail.
Next Page: What happens to someone at death




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