SANCTIFICATION, SATISFACTION, AND THE PURPOSE OF PURGATORY
Recent years have seen a resurgence of interest in the doctrine of purgatory among Christian philosophers. Some of these philosophers argue for the existence of purgatory from principles consistent with historic Protestant theology and then attempt, on the basis of those principles, to formulate a distinctively Protestant view of purgatory – i.e., one that differs essentially from the Catholic doctrine as regards purgatory’s raison d’etre. Here I aim to show that Protestant models of purgatory which are grounded in the necessity of becoming fully sanctified before entering heaven (Sanctification Models) fail to contrast materially with the Catholic model of purgatory, which has historically been formulated in terms of the necessity of making satisfaction for sins already forgiven (The Satisfaction Model). Indeed, I shall argue that contrary to widespread assumption, the Sanctification Model and the Satisfaction Model are equivalent when the latter is properly understood.
Purgatory is the process of purification for those who die in the love of God but who are not completely imbued with that love. Sacred Scripture teaches us that we must be purified if we are to enter into perfect and complete union with God. Jesus Christ, who became the perfect expiation for our sins and took upon himself the punishment that was our due, brings us God’s mercy and love. But before we enter into God’s Kingdom every trace of sin within us must be eliminated, every imperfection in our soul must be corrected. This is exactly what takes place in Purgatory. – John Paul II
A man is punished by the very things through which he sins. – Wis 11.16
Among the few encouraging developments on the ecumenical frontier in recent years is the noteworthy warming of Protestant sensibilities to the idea of purgatory, understood as an intermediate postmortem state in which souls destined for heaven are purified or made fit for heavenly life.1 Belief in purgatory has of course been a mainstay of Catholic (but not of Protestant) theology for centuries, and Catholics, true to form, are none too likely to give it up. So to the extent that Catholics and Protestants can manage to achieve agreement on the reality of an intermediate purgatorial state, this achievement may be welcomed by the ecumenically-minded as a piece of genuine progress.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that the arguments for purgatory which have been advanced by at least some Protestants who affirm its existence make clear how little this otherwise encouraging development must result from any authentic increase in appreciation as to where the relevant points of disagreement (and agreement) between Catholics and Protestants actually lie. Specifically, it is clear that the arguments in question were formulated with the express intent of avoiding certain perceived errors and abuses which have long been associated with the Catholic theory of purgatory – theological muddles which, according to these Protestant purgatory proponents, supply the Catholic doctrine of purgatory with its theoretical underpinning and motivational force – but which in fact betray a misconception of what the Catholic theory is. On this view of things, the Catholic doctrine had its genesis and finds its nourishment in a conception of salvation according to which a person is put right with God more or less as a result of their own good works and meritorious efforts, in contrast to the Protestant view which specifies that a person’s right standing before God is entirely a matter of grace, gratuitously applied to the individual who puts his faith in the meritorious achievements of Christ. This perceived difference between Catholicism and Protestantism is then carried over and reflected in the function assigned to purgatory, or the purpose it is thought to serve, within these contrasting soteriological schemes: on the Protestant version purgatory exists so that the heaven-bound individual who requires postmortem sanctification may complete the process of being made intrinsically holy (as distinguished from being ‘reckoned’ holy before the divine tribunal on account of an imputed righteousness not inherently possessed) prior to entering into the glories of heaven, whereas the Catholic version has it that the heaven-bound individual who has not, at the time of death, made up for all the debts he has accumulated through his sins must suffer postmortem punishment with a view toward making satisfaction for them; this individual may then “enter into the joy of his Lord,” but only after his Lord, by way of preparation for the joyous homecoming, has exacted an appropriately agonizing amount of vengeance upon him for a suitable stretch of time.
Such appears to be the general picture. So, to take a recent example, one philosopher who operates within the mindset just described contends that the difference between his view of purgatory, which is targeted at the completion of the sanctification process, and the Catholic view, which focuses on satisfaction for sins, is that the former “is forward looking in that its purpose is to provide an occasion for the fulfillment of a future aim” (viz. intrinsic, personal holiness), whereas the latter “is backward-looking as its purpose is to provide an occasion for the remission of past failures.”2To put it in other terms, the Protestant version is aimed at ‘purging’ the “disposition to sin” which remains in the incompletely sanctified believer even though the penalty for his sins was paid in toto by Christ, while the Catholic version is aimed at ‘purging’ “the penalty for sin or sin itself” as opposed to the sinful disposition.3 This difference of purpose is then understood, in turn, to be an inevitable outworking of the fundamentally contrastive soteriological orientations of Catholicism and Protestantism: in effect, Protestants think that Jesus paid the penalty for our sins, but Catholics don’t think that. Accordingly, it’s no surprise that since the Catholic view of purgatory requires the individual to make satisfaction for his own failures, it “undermines the sufficiency of Christ’s work as a satisfaction for sin” and indeed “renders Christ’s work superfluous,” whereas the “Sanctification Model of purgatory does not undermine the sufficiency of Christ’s work as a satisfaction for sin” and therefore “alleviates at least one standard objection that Protestants might have against purgatory.”4 Thus reassured, Protestants may in good faith avail themselves of the notion of purgatory and all the theoretical benefits pertaining thereto, for even if the Catholic view of purgatory is “fundamentally incompatible with Protestantism” as regards the sufficiency (and, it would seem, the overall non-superfluity) of Christ’s atoning sacrifice, it doesn’t follow that every version of purgatory likewise renders “Christ’s salvific work pointless”5 or otherwise conflicts with any given “cornerstone of Protestant theology.”6
It seems to me reasonably safe to infer from remarks like these that whatever exactly a Protestant/Catholic consensus on the existence of purgatory might suggest in the abstract, in this case it appears to represent nothing more than the mutual affirmation of a comparatively tangential doctrine to which both parties have arrived in wildly different ways and for irreconcilably opposed reasons. Thus the real agreement concerning the necessity of purgatory (for at least a large class of individuals) turns out simply to highlight the radical underlying rift between Catholic and Protestant thought generally, a rift which looks to remain as unbridgeable as ever. In this essay I would like to make one very small contribution to the ecumenical effort by showing that the Protestant version of purgatory just introduced is equivalent to the Catholic one. For ease of reference I shall continue to refer to the Protestant conception and the Catholic conception as the Sanctification Model and the Satisfaction Model respectively. Thus my thesis may be rephrased as expressing the contention that the Satisfaction Model and the Sanctification Model amount to the same thing, so long as the Satisfaction Model is appropriately understood. To put it another, slightly less ambitious-sounding way, I aim to show that the Catholic doctrine of purgatory not only permissibly can but in fact should be understood as equivalent to the Sanctification Model of purgatory. Whether every individual Catholic over the past two millennia has understood the doctrine in precisely this way is, of course, another matter entirely; but so far as I can see the answer to this question (which is almost certainly “No”) is neither here nor there. For present purposes I shall simply take my cues from the official teaching of the Catholic Church and – to allay any suspicions that my own interpretation of the Catholic position is sneaky or idiosyncratic or excessively charitable or just plain “made up” – I shall also appeal periodically to figures who can reasonably be regarded as possessing a measure of representational authority within the world of Catholicism. (Popes, for instance.) I begin with what I take to be the common ground between Christians, of whatever stripe, who believe in the reality of purgatory.