Spe Salvi and Purgatory

In my previous post, I stated that the degree of love which we have for God in our earthly lives is continuous with the degree of love we will have for Him when those lives end, and also that Heaven is not just a place that we are magically implanted into, our natures changed against our will, but somewhere that we have to learn to live in – a place where Love is the context in which we will live, move and have our being. This correlates to the sixth Beatitude, in which Our Lord tells us that ‘blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God’ (Matthew 5:8).

The problem we have is that clearly most of us are not pure in heart, and do not love God as we should; nor is it likely that we will have become so perfected by the time of our death. This then, is where the contentious and oft misunderstood doctrine of Purgatory comes in to play, for Purgatory is nothing less than the final reordering and refining of the wills of those who have died ‘in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified’ (CCC – 1030). There is something deep within us that recognises this truth about us – that we are far from being perfect as Our Heavenly Father is perfect (c.f.; Matthew 5:48) – and so intuitively desires such a final cleansing before we meet God.

We instinctively know that nothing unclean shall enter Heaven (c.f.; Revelation 21:27) and are also well aware that we ourselves are far from ‘clean’, in the sense that there is still much self-love left in us. It is this intuitive knowledge that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI had in mind when he wrote about Purgatory in his second encyclical, Spe Salvi (2007). In the passage below, he describes the situation I have outlined above in greater detail, and relates it to the Church’s teaching on the relationship between earthly life and life after death. It is a lengthy passage, but worth quoting in full:

There can be people who have totally destroyed their desire for truth and readiness to love, people for whom everything has become a lie, people who have lived for hatred and have suppressed all love within themselves. This is a terrifying thought, but alarming profiles of this type can be seen in certain figures of our own history. In such people all would be beyond remedy and the destruction of good would be irrevocable: this is what we mean by the word Hell. On the other hand there can be people who are utterly pure, completely permeated by God, and thus fully open to their neighbours—people for whom communion with God even now gives direction to their entire being and whose journey towards God only brings to fulfilment what they already are.

Yet we know from experience that neither case is normal in human life. For the great majority of people—we may suppose—there remains in the depths of their being an ultimate interior openness to truth, to love, to God. In the concrete choices of life, however, it is covered over by ever new compromises with evil—much filth covers purity, but the thirst for purity remains and it still constantly re-emerges from all that is base and remains present in the soul. What happens to such individuals when they appear before the Judge? Will all the impurity they have amassed through life suddenly cease to matter? What else might occur?

Spe Salvi, 45-46.

            Pope Benedict then continues by discussing the passage in 1 Corinthians 3:10-15 where Saint Paul describes how our meeting with God after death will disclose ‘by fire’ what good works we have (or have not) done, and that ‘if any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire’ (v.15). He suggests that this fire, that both burns and saves, is Jesus Christ Himself, and that His gaze will melt away any falsehood left in us, allowing us to become truly ourselves at last:

His gaze, the touch of his heart heals us through an undeniably painful transformation “as through fire”. But it is a blessed pain, in which the holy power of his love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves and thus totally of God. In this way the inter-relation between justice and grace also becomes clear: the way we live our lives is not immaterial, but our defilement does not stain us for ever if we have at least continued to reach out towards Christ, towards truth and towards love. Indeed, it has already been burned away through Christ’s Passion. At the moment of judgement we experience and we absorb the overwhelming power of his love over all the evil in the world and in ourselves. The pain of love becomes our salvation and our joy.

ibid, 47.

            Again, a key point here is that the way we live our lives is not an irrelevance – it genuinely affects our character, and more importantly our relationship with God. We do not have the righteousness of Christ ‘imputed’ to us, but rather the grace of God works in us during our lives to help us to become righteous ourselves. God’s redeeming work is a transformative one, not some legal fiction, and the consequence of this is that there is often still much purification of heart remaining. The second key point though, is that whatever in us has still ‘continued to reach out towards Christ, towards truth and towards love’ will indeed abide, and be brought to its full flowering in the end.

Another point that Pope Benedict mentions in his discussion of Purgatory is that, contrary to some conceptions of this doctrine, which have been inherited from the time of the Protestant Reformation:

…we cannot calculate the “duration” of this transforming burning in terms of the chronological measurements of this world. The transforming “moment” of this encounter eludes earthly time-reckoning—it is the heart’s time, it is the time of “passage” to communion with God in the Body of Christ.


            I.e.; the ‘days’ associated with indulgences were not meant to indicate the remission of a particular period of time spent in Purgatory, but were associated with the number of days penance that one might have to undergo on earth. The idea that they were related to actual time spent in Purgatory is a common misconception, but flatly untrue. Another misunderstanding in this area is the idea that indulgences can ‘buy forgiveness’ – this requires some further clarification, particularly with respect to what the Church means by ‘temporal punishment’.

When we commit a sin, and then confess it to God via the Sacrament of Confession, we are absolved of the eternal consequences of that sin through the Atonement that was achieved for us by Christ. However, we have still impaired our relationship with God by sinning, and so there requires some act to be done to restore this relationship. A comparable example of this from everyday life is if someone throws a rock through a window – the owner of the house may well forgive the person who committed the misdeed, but the window still remains broken, and if the stone-thrower wants to really mend their relationship, they will offer to pay for (or at least contribute towards the cost of) a new window.

There will of course remain the question as to how all this relates to the purification of our wills that is necessary for us to enter Heaven; and the main point to note here is that the temporal punishments that are due to us because of the sins we have committed are not inflicted arbitrarily upon us, but just as the above example of the rock and window shows, they are the natural consequences of our actions – the legacy left by our sins, so to speak. Also, these consequences exist as a manifestation of just how much our wills have not been reconciled to God, and are thus part and parcel of what needs to be purified in us by the purgatorial process – they are not an added extra, but bound up with all of what we bring before God’s gaze, as described in 1 Corinthians 3.

The effects of our sins often have consequences more far reaching than those we immediately apprehend*, both in our relationship with God, and with those around us – so, in requiring us to carry out an act of penance, or do some good works to obtain an indulgence from these temporal punishments, God is actually asking something of us that is much less than we would ordinarily be required to carry out if we were to effect that reparation off our own backs. In His mercy he allows us to only (as it were) pay for a tiny fraction of the window that we have broken, whilst He makes up the rest of the cost out of His own pocket.

These are important points to make, because another thing that Pope Benedict emphasises in his encyclical is that when we sin, we not only hurt ourselves, and impair our relationship with God, but because there exists a profound relationship between human beings, our acts have consequences that echo beyond ourselves. Even more so, as members of the Body of Christ, our sins resonate out into that Body, and impact upon its entire life. This deep interconnection between the members of the Church is also reflected in the ancient practice of praying for the dead:

Our lives are involved with one another, through innumerable interactions they are linked together. No one lives alone. No one sins alone. No one is saved alone. The lives of others continually spill over into mine: in what I think, say, do and achieve. And conversely, my life spills over into that of others: for better and for worse. So my prayer for another is not something extraneous to that person, something external, not even after death. In the interconnectedness of Being, my gratitude to the other—my prayer for him—can play a small part in his purification. And for that there is no need to convert earthly time into God’s time: in the communion of souls simple terrestrial time is superseded. It is never too late to touch the heart of another, nor is it ever in vain.

ibid, 48.

            ‘No one lives alone. No one sins alone. No one is saved alone.’ In these three terse sentences is contained an enormous amount of truth regarding our shared human condition, and more particularly our mysterious connection with one another through Jesus Christ. It speaks of the essentially corporate nature of the Church’s life, of human interrelationship, and of how our salvation is actually worked out – i.e.; through and with our interactions with others. That these interactions should be limited only to those of us who are now living places a wedge between the members of Christ’s mystical Body that is both unwarranted and counterintuitive.

If then one accepts that we do indeed need to be pure of heart before we go to meet our God, and that this purification is often a long way off in this life, then the existence of Purgatory seems perfectly natural, and actually quite welcome. The intuition that there remains some cleansing of the soul, in order that our wills may be fully oriented towards God in love, and that this way of existence is of the very essence of Heaven, was certainly one felt by the early Christians (and their Jewish predecessors – c.f.; 2 Maccabees 12:42) and has therefore formed part of the Church’s ordinary teaching ever since.

The practices associated with this doctrine – penance, indulgences, and prayer for the dead – also speak powerfully of the profound relationships that exist between those who have been received into Christ’s Body, and which follow inevitably from the fact that, as Pope Benedict says, ‘No one lives alone. No one sins alone. No one is saved alone.’ To remove this doctrine, and those associated with it, would thus be to do great violence to the means by which Christ intended to bring us into fellowship with Him – by the forming of a Church, which would be in some mysterious but imperative sense, His own Body, associating His divine Person forever with the human natures of all who are joined to Him.

*For more information on Indulgences and Penance, plus explanation of the biblical support for the idea of temporal punishment, the following articles are very helpful:

Jimmy Akin on Doing Penance

A Primer on Indulgences


15 thoughts on “Spe Salvi and Purgatory

  1. Pingback: All Hallow’s Eve: Dante and C. S. Lewis on Life in Heaven | Journey Towards Easter

  2. I am so happy to have come to this post through the link on your All Hallows Eve post today. It was the perfect timing as purgatory had been on my mind and I have been struggling with some conflicting things I had heard from others regarding this. Certainly we cannot known fully what is to come in the next life but this post so clearly explained it all in terms of what we may expect based our our faith teachings and biblical evidence. Thank you and God Bless!

    • Thank you, very much! It is always a wonderful thing to receive comments saying that something I have written has been a help in any way, so I am very thankful for your saying so 🙂 God bless you too

    • P.S. I should also give a hat-tip to the generous contributions of my ‘co-writer’, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, without whom this post would (quite literally) not have been possible 🙂

  3. Pingback: All Souls’ Day in a German Town | Journey Towards Easter

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