Sanctification, satisfaction, and the purpose of purgatory neal Judisch

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III. Sins and Satisfactions

We know, then, that there is nothing sinful about the sanctified as regards their characters or dispositions: they love God and neighbor with all their hearts as a matter of routine. And since Jesus made satisfaction for the sins they had committed prior to becoming sanctified there is nothing ‘categorically’ or ‘legally’ bad about them either, in the sense that they bear no guilt for all the wrongs they have done and are in consequence subject to no retributive punishment. Now the Satisfaction Model of purgatory as sketched above is consistent with this description of those who have gone through purgatory as being both inherently and legally upright – as having been ‘purged’ both of the “disposition to sin” and of “the penalty for sin or sin itself” – but even if the end result of purgation on the Satisfaction Model is consistent with the ultimate result according to the Sanctification Model, the purpose of purgation on the Satisfaction approach evidently isn’t the “forward looking” one of producing sanctified individuals, but appears primarily to involve the “backward looking” aspect of meeting out retributive punishments and penalties for the wrongs they have done.

Indeed, when we reflect that Barnard’s description of the Satisfaction Model fails to include the suggestion that any sanctification might be taking place in purgatory at all, it is tempting to conclude that the latter aspect (the retributive punishment bit) is really the main point, maybe even the sole point, of purgatory on a Catholic view of things. Thus Barnard: “According to the Satisfaction Model, purgatory is a temporal state of existence after death the purpose of which is to make satisfaction (i.e., payment) for sins committed on earth for which sufficient satisfaction was not rendered by the time of death.”13 Nor is the assumption Barnard voices here peculiar to him. For example, after quoting the relevant portion from the Council of Florence (1439), which specifies that “if truly penitent people die in the love of God before they have made satisfaction for acts and omissions by worthy fruits of repentance, their souls are cleansed after death by cleansing pains,”14 Michael Stoeber concludes,
From the official Vatican standpoint, then, purgatory is understood as a realm of physical or mental punishment, more in negative terms of painful retribution than in positive conceptions of spiritual learning and growth. Indeed, though the latter function is not ruled out in the traditional formulation, there is the sense that one can ‘burn off’, as it were, the actions and effects of past moral improprieties, simply through passive suffering.15
And the mere passive suffering of painful retribution, of course, hardly suggests that any spiritual learning and growth are in view here at all; what it does appear to suggest, and what it has strongly suggested to Barnard at any rate, is that Calvin’s classification of the Catholic conception of purgatory as a “horrid blasphemy” and a “deadly device of Satan” “seems fitting from the perspective of Protestant theology,” inasmuch as Protestant theology protests that Christ’s satisfaction for sin isn’t simply empty or fictitious.16

Over against this assessment of the Catholic position stands the Catholic position’s assessment of itself. And as far as I can tell, this latter assessment makes it tolerably clear that the “official Vatican standpoint” is similar indeed to the official Barnardian one. In a nutshell, the Catholic doctrine says that (1) the sins of Christians have been forgiven in virtue of the satisfaction rendered for them by Christ, and that (2) as a consequence, they will not suffer ‘eternal punishment’ for their sins. It then adds to this the provisos that (3) insofar as there remain ‘temporal punishments’ attached to sins for which these Christians themselves must ‘make satisfaction’, it follows that (4) if they have not ‘made satisfaction’ for these sins prior to death then they’ve got to go through purgatory. Now when the Catholic doctrine says all this, the statements in (1) and (2) should be taken as stating that Christians will suffer no ‘legal’ penalty for their sins because Christ took the punishment for those sins upon Himself so as to secure their forgiveness, and the provisos in (3) and (4) should be understood as specifying the need for lapsable Christians to undergo a purgative regimen aimed at the rehabilitation or restoration of their spiritual health. That is, the Catholic doctrine of purgatory says that purgatory is for Christians who, despite the cancellation of their ‘legal’ penalties before God, still need to become thoroughly sanctified.

Admittedly, the terminological devices involved in this formulation tend to invite misgiving. But the juridical/legal language in which the doctrine is cast is simply the characteristic mode of expression that the Western tradition, both Catholic and Protestant, has historically used to get across whatever it’s trying to say. Doubtless this mode of expression can be misleading and at times does more harm than good (in fact the case before us seems a promising candidate for one of those times), but however that may be there is no question that the vision of purgatory expounded here is one with which Protestants (and Eastern Orthodox, too) should be perfectly happy.17 To see this, however, one must first appreciate how terms like ‘satisfaction’ and ‘temporal punishment’ are being deployed by those who use them to describe what’s going on in purgatory. And in order to get straight on these terms it is of first importance to recognize that according to Catholic thought sin has a “double consequence” which corresponds to two distinct kinds of punishment for sin. That is to say, a given sinful action or omission must be thought of as resulting in two kinds of consequence, and corresponding to each kind of consequence is a particular form of punishment appropriate to it. As regards the first consequence of sin – or, if you prefer, the first aspect of the “double consequence” of sin; I take these expressions to be synonymous – sin “deprives us of communion with God” which in turn “makes us incapable of eternal life;” and the “privation” of eternal life “is called the ‘eternal punishment’ of sin.”18 Thus we can see that the first consequence of sin is to be identified with the deprivation of the sinner’s communion with God, and the punishment attending this consequence of sin is the sinner’s exclusion from eternal life: i.e. his consignment to the eternal punishment of sin, or ‘hell’. Now this ‘eternal punishment’, which is one of the two consequences of sin, should be understood as corresponding to what Barnard has in mind when he speaks of the “penalty for sin.” In other words, this consequence of sin relates to the ‘legal’ debt we owe to God and for which, as St Anselm insisted in Cur Deus Homo, only a person who is both God and Man could make a satisfaction acceptable to divine justice.19 It follows, then, that we ourselves cannot make satisfaction for this consequence of sin (i.e. we cannot ‘purge’ the “penalty for sin or sin itself”) on the Catholic view; for that is a work of Christ only. And when we appropriate the satisfaction Christ made on our behalf by repenting and putting our faith in Him we receive “forgiveness of sin and restoration of communion with God,” which, in consequence, releases us from the obligation to pay the penalty for our sins and entails that we are no longer deprived or “made incapable of” of eternal life.20

So far so good. But recall that there is a second consequence of sin in addition to the one above. For although forgiveness of sins and restoration of communion with God together “entail the remission of the eternal punishment of sin,” the “temporal punishment of sin remains”– and it is of course the ‘temporal punishment’ for which we are expected to ‘make satisfaction’, either in this life or in the purgatorial fires of the next.21 Now, this element of the current approach will likely be regarded as rendering the Satisfaction Model flatly and irredeemably incompatible with the Sanctification Model, since it may easily sound as though it takes back from us with one hand what it had given us with the other – Jesus made satisfaction for sins, it assures us, but for some reason or other, it goes on to say, we’ve got to make our own satisfaction anyhow; and that is precisely the suggestion proponents of the Sanctification Model are eager to repudiate. Yet to charge the Satisfaction Model with doublespeak on this point would be to ignore the fact that the ‘temporal punishment’ for sin really does correspond to a distinct consequence of sin and that this consequence is entirely different from the first one, the one that corresponds to the ‘eternal punishment’ of sin described above.

In reality, the second consequence of sin simply isn’t about legal ‘penalties’ which need to be ‘settled’ in the divine law court or accumulated ‘debts’ for which the sinner must make ‘payment’; nor is the ‘temporal punishment’ corresponding to this consequence a matter of vindictive ‘retribution’ externally imposed by God the Judge upon hapless, passively suffering sinners; nor, finally, is the ‘satisfaction’ required of such sinners a matter of accruing enough merit to balance out their demerits or, alternatively, just gritting their teeth and letting God extract His pound of flesh. Rather, the consequence of sin which issues in ‘temporal punishment’ is identical to the corrosive effect of sin itself upon the individual’s soul; the ‘temporal punishment’ of this consequence, accordingly, consists in the individual’s enduring through and struggling to rectify the disorder of his soul and spiritual ill health that sinful behavior brings in its wake; and, finally, ‘making satisfaction’ for sins, in this context, is to be understood as the individual’s doing whatever is required (and allowing God to do to him whatever’s required) to restore his spiritual well-being and so to be ‘purged’ of his self-destructive attachment to sin. To put it another way, sinfulness – the self-reinforcing urge to commit iniquity introduced through original sin and fostered by the habitual exercise of our capacity for it, or what the tradition simply calls ‘concupiscence’ – just is the second consequence of sin, the ‘temporal punishment’ for which sinners must suffer here or in purgatory. It is not some additional ‘judicial’ penalty God imposes on sinners from on high with the expectation of their finding a way, somehow or other, to ‘make satisfaction’ in the form of ‘payment’ for their debts; it is, as it were, the ‘natural’ punishment sin itself brings upon those who commit it, rather as virtue is said to bring with it its own reward.

Once these clarifications are grasped and held firmly in mind it should be perfectly obvious that the model of purgatory expounded in the relevant sections of the Catechism of the Catholic Church is straightforwardly equivalent to the Sanctification Model, not something that stands in sworn opposition to it. Notice, for example, that it is precisely the “unhealthy attachment to creatures” (i.e. a sinful disposition) which is said to result from sin and issue in “temporal punishment” for it, and, moreover, that purgatory is identified as the process by which the individual is purified from such attachment:

To understand this doctrine and practice of the Church, it is necessary to understand that sin has a double consequence. Grave sin deprives us of communion with God and therefore makes us incapable of eternal life, the privation of which is called the “eternal punishment” of sin. On the other hand every sin, even venial, entails an unhealthy attachment to creatures, which must be purified either here on earth, or after death in the state called Purgatory. This purification frees one from what is called the “temporal punishment” of sin.22
Further, the notion that the ‘temporal punishment’ suffered in purgatory is some sort of “backward looking” retribution God extracts from individuals in view of their “past failures” is explicitly repudiated, since the punishment in question “must not be conceived of as a kind of vengeance inflicted by God from without, but as following from the very nature of sin.”23 And it follows from the nature of sin because sin doesn’t only harm the person against whom it is perpetrated or amass a whole ton of debt before God or whatever, it “also injures and weakens the sinner himself, as well as his relationships with God and neighbor”24 because it “creates a proclivity to sin; it engenders vice by repetition of the same acts [and] results in perverse inclinations which cloud conscience and corrupt the concrete judgment of good and evil,” which in turn explains why “sin tends to reproduce itself and reinforce itself.”25 Thus although “Absolution takes away sin” – i.e. although it removes what Barnard calls the “penalty for sin or sin itself” – receiving this forgiveness “does not remedy all the disorders sin has caused” – i.e. it doesn’t automatically eliminate what Barnard calls the person’s “disposition to sin.” Consequently, once he has been “Raised up from sin [i.e. forgiven], the sinner must still recover his full spiritual health by doing something more to make amends for the sin: he must ‘make satisfaction for’ or ‘expiate’ his sins,” an activity which “is also called ‘penance’.”26 And if his “full spiritual health” hasn’t been recovered by the time he dies, then he’s going to have to keep on ‘making satisfaction’ and ‘doing penance’ right through the fires of purgatory until he gets it back.

So all of this talk about “satisfaction” and “expiation” and “suffering” and “penance” and the like does not refer to the poor soul’s attempt to appease the fury of God by offering itself up as an object of divine vengeance; it is aimed precisely at the “forward looking” goal of the transformation of the “old man” into the “new man” – in other words, at the conversion of the lapsable into the sanctified:

The forgiveness of sin and restoration of communion with God entail the remission of the eternal punishment of sin, but temporal punishment of sin remains. While patiently bearing sufferings and trials of all kinds and, when the day comes, serenely facing death, the Christian must strive to accept this temporal punishment of sin as a grace. He should strive by works of mercy and charity, as well as by prayer and the various practices of penance, to put off completely the “old man” and to put on the “new man.”27
And this is why, finally, the kind of “conversion which proceeds from a fervent charity can attain the complete purification of the sinner in such a way that no punishment would remain,” since such a comprehensive and profound perfection of the entire life’s effort toward conversio, or reorientation toward God and away from sin, signals the end “of the struggle ... directed toward holiness and eternal life” whereby the Christian “seeks to purify himself of his sin and to become holy with the help of God’s grace.”28 But to be purified and to become holy with the help of God’s grace is of course equivalent to successfully consummating the sanctification process; and whenever that process has come to completion ‘temporal punishment’ naturally has no further application, since the whole telos of ‘temporal punishment’ is to spur us onward toward precisely this goal.

Putting it all together, it follows that the exclusive object of purgatory according to the Satisfaction Model is to allow those who die in the love of God to suffer the ‘temporal punishments’ and ‘make satisfaction’ for sins, where this in turn is strictly equated with the process whereby the forgiven-but-lapsable individual is purified of his disposition to sin and made inherently holy. Therefore, by itself saving faith is necessary for getting into purgatory and sufficient for avoiding hell; being lapsable is necessary and sufficient for getting into purgatory; and being sanctified is necessary and sufficient for getting out of purgatory (or in rare cases simply giving it a pass) and getting into heaven. In other words: the Satisfaction Model is equivalent to the Sanctification Model.

There is a prettier and somewhat less cumbersome and distracting way the same thing could be said. According to the Satisfaction Model à la Pope Benedict XVI, for example, the tripartite division of hell, purgatory and heaven maps neatly onto what may be considered the three potential spiritual states of an individual at death. At one extreme lies the frightful possibility of persons who have “totally destroyed their desire for truth and readiness to love” and “who have lived for hatred and have suppressed all love within themselves” to the point that the destruction of the good within them is “irrevocable,” which leaves them simply “beyond remedy.” That’s “what we mean by the word Hell.” At the other extreme stand the sanctified, “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 fulfillment what they already are.” This is the group of persons who populate heaven. And somewhere in between these angels and demons are those who have “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.” For this batch there is purgatory, an intermediate state in which “purification and healing which mature the soul for communion with God” takes place. It is a “fire” through which they must pass “so as to become fully open to receiving God and able to take [their] place at the table of the eternal marriage-feast,” where the “fire” in question is, at its root, identical to the “gaze” and “the touch of [Christ’s] heart” which “heals us through an undeniably painful transformation” but which, “as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves” and “thus totally of God.”29 So, to put the conclusion reached above a bit more inspiringly, purgatory is the purifying and transformative postmortem encounter with Christ which takes the broken and sick and heals them, making them fit to enjoy unsullied and unending communion with God and the saints in the life everlasting. That is what the Satisfaction Model says.

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