Sanctification, satisfaction, and the purpose of purgatory neal Judisch

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IV. Objections & Replies

I would like in this section to consider three objections, not so much to the Satisfaction Model itself, but rather to the suggestion that any Catholic thinker prior to, say, the mid-twentieth century actually thought of purgatory that way. In a sense, of course, it doesn’t really make a difference, since once the terminology is understood as I’ve argued it should be the model is easily seen to cohere with the terse and sketchy remarks about purgatory codified in the relevant documents antedating our time, so there isn’t any impediment to present-day Catholics accepting a position on purgatory which is identical in content to the Protestant position. But at least as regards my modest ecumenical hopes, it would still be nice to demonstrate that the Satisfaction Model I have described doesn’t amount to a shifty or disingenuous about-face on the part of contemporary Catholics who might simply be trying through a clever redefinition of terms to distance themselves from the lurid ideas of their less sophisticated predecessors. Perhaps more importantly, it seems reasonable to suspect that some of the practices and teachings related to the traditional doctrine of purgatory – e.g., the granting of indulgences for departed souls – conflict with what I’ve argued the point of purgatory really is on the Catholic approach. However, what I want to begin with is one difficulty for the Satisfaction Model which does not connect with any controversial praxis or dogma but which is still worth pursuing because of its intrinsic interest. I have in mind the contention, voiced by St Bonaventure and probably assumed by others, that souls in purgatory cannot sin.

The assumption is attractive: we don’t want souls in purgatory retrogressing but continuing onward and upward, perhaps fueled by something akin to what Barnard terms the “internal momentum” which carries them inexorably toward their final sanctification.30 Additionally, the cessation of sin and continuous forward progression here imagined may be thought to provide a salutary, merciful assurance to souls in purgatory that they’ll ultimately make it out on the right side of things, that their eventual salvation is guaranteed. Indeed, this appears to be the primary reason for which St Bonaventure insisted that souls in purgatory couldn’t sin, so as to controvert the suggestion that uncertainty about their fate is one of the torments with which souls in purgatory are afflicted.31 Still, the obvious worry is that if souls in purgatory cannot sin, and if to be unable to sin is to be sanctified, and if to be sanctified is sufficient for getting out of purgatory and into heaven, then we have a contradiction on our hands. In particular, it looks as if the only business a sanctified soul could have in purgatory would be to suffer retributive pains for all the rotten things they had done in life, which runs against what I’ve said the purpose of purgatory is supposed to be.

So what to say? It seems to me that a person in purgatory may have certainty that he will ultimately be saved “as through fire” without its being the case that this certainty is grounded in introspective awareness of his inability to sin, together with an abductive inference to the effect that he must therefore be heaven-bound. (Why couldn’t God just relay his fate before sending him off to get purged, as in Newman’s Dream of Gerontius?) And I see no reason in the abstract why the trajectory of souls in purgatory couldn’t be characterized by a continual “upward trend” even if there are “dips” in the form of stumblings and sins, particularly sins of omission, along the way. Still, there is some plausibility to the thesis that among the helps God extends to people experiencing postmortem purgation is an impressive type of divine grace, which involves inter alia preserving them from falling into any further sin or “getting any worse.” But notice that even if this comforting proposal is correct it does not conflict with the condition stipulating that souls in purgatory are not yet sanctified and thus does not contradict the Satisfaction Model. For to be providentially preserved from sinning is not equivalent to possessing a sanctified nature. If S possesses a sanctified nature, recall, it follows that conditionals of the form “If S were in situation C, S would not sin” are necessarily true, true in all (nomologically) possible circumstances, whereas if S is simply preserved by divine grace from sinning it could be that there are many possible situations such that S would freely sin in them.32 Those, on this hypothesis, are the situations God sees to it S isn’t placed in while he’s working his way through purgatory. Thus one could agree with St Bonaventure that it isn’t possible for people in purgatory to sin while simultaneously holding that nobody in purgatory is already sanctified, since there is an acceptable sense in which both scenarios (the already-sanctified scenario and the special-grace scenario) support the proposition that individuals in purgatory “cannot sin,” albeit in different ways.

Naturally, one wonders how genuinely conducive to spiritual fitness purgatory could be if things were “rigged” so that the souls there could do nothing at all to impede their own progress (even if they themselves might not know they couldn’t do this), but it seems to me too quick to infer that a purgatory like this couldn’t get the job done. To be sure, we may not be as inclined to applaud purgatory graduates here as we would if we knew there’d been a live possibility of regression or loss, and maybe we feel that the soul’s progress wouldn’t be all that laudable unless God were to back off a bit and let the soul more or less “go it alone.” But I think these intuitions tend to misdirect the judgment. For one thing, purgatory isn’t happily thought of as a ‘place’ for the acquisition of merit or the accumulation of accolades and rewards; the point is rather rehabilitation and growth, the eradication of dispositions to sin and the up-building and “setting” of dispositions toward holiness instead. And it isn’t at all obvious why this couldn’t take place unless God were prepared to disengage to the point of allowing souls in purgatory to bring genuine harm upon themselves or frustrate their own goals. Some analogies: the child’s father sees to it that she uses training wheels at the outset, but she still learns how to ride; the coach makes sure her gymnast invariably has someone around to spot him, but he eventually works up strength and poise sufficient to perform the acrobatics by himself; Barnum and Bailey insist that their neophyte trapezist always be hooked up to a harness, but only so that she stays alive and in one piece long enough to learn how to fly around the tent without it. These are only analogies; but the point behind them is not inapplicable to the case of interest.

So I see no reason to conclude that souls in purgatory couldn’t both be lapsable and be kept by God from damaging themselves further through fresh sin until they finally satisfy their temporal punishments and push on. But however that issue should be settled there remains a more serious question about the viability of my interpretation of the Satisfaction Model, and that is the question of how the practice of granting indulgences for the aid of souls in purgatory could be consistent with a view on which purgation is aimed at sanctification, not at “paybacks.” Because here is how things look: it looks as if the Pope is transferring a surplus of “merit” the Church has “stored up” and applying it to souls in purgatory with the intention of shortening their sentence or covering a portion of their remaining debts, which wouldn’t make sense unless these souls are being sent to purgatory for purely remunerative purposes after all. Now I have no present interest in defending the Catholic doctrine of indulgences, still less the unfortunate abuses for which this doctrine has provided occasion. But since it is reasonably clear that the Satisfaction Model really does say what I’ve said it does, and since it is equally clear that Catholics insist on making room for indulgences nevertheless, charity demands contemplating the possibility that there is some way to understand the granting of indulgences which renders it consistent with the Satisfaction Model.

As it happens one needn’t look far for the basic outlines of such an understanding. To begin, if we grant the supposition that prayers offered on another’s behalf can aid them in their sanctification while they are alive, then, inasmuch as the ties which “knit and bind” believers together in the “mystical body of Christ” cannot be broken by death, there is no principled reason to suppose that Christians cannot pray for the dead with the pious expectation that their prayers will make a difference to the purgatorial progress of the dearly departed.33 This I take it is something with which anyone who believes in purgatory, and who concedes the efficacy of prayer, could agree. But if obtaining indulgences on behalf of the dead may be seen as an extension of the practice of praying for their advancement in sanctification – if it’s motivated by the same convictions and anticipates the same results – then it follows that there is a way of understanding indulgences which is consistent with the Satisfaction Model. I am not, of course, claiming that anyone willing to countenance purgatory or praying for the deceased should ipso facto look favorably upon indulgences, or even that they shouldn’t be hostile to the very idea of them. I am claiming that if there is a consistent set S of ecclesiological-cum-theological propositions such that S conjoined with the Satisfaction Model yields the possibility of granting or obtaining efficacious indulgences for the dead then this practice is not inconsistent with the Satisfaction Model, regardless of whether the propositions in S are true or whether they’re totally off the mark. To rephrase, my interest here is in whether Catholic belief concerning indulgences contradicts my understanding of the Satisfaction Model and thus disproves my contention that the theory of purgatory I’ve attributed to Catholicism is equivalent to the Sanctification Model; whether the doctrine of indulgences is actually true (or for that matter whether there’s actually a purgatory containing souls to be indulged in the first place) is a question well beyond the scope of this paper.

In that spirit, then, consider Pope John Paul II’s explanation of the Catholic Church’s indulgence-granting behavior. Note first that the conception of purgatory with which he operates is identical to the one I have adumbrated above: the purpose of purgatory derives from the fact that although the believer is already reconciled with God he still “must be gradually ‘healed’ of the negative effects which sin has caused in him (what the theological tradition calls the ‘punishments’ and ‘remains’ of sin)” prior to entering heaven, because communion with God requires that every “imperfection of the soul must be corrected” by Christ, who “removes from [souls in purgatory] the remnants of imperfection” in preparation for their heavenly reception. Accordingly, as above, the ‘temporal punishment’ a person suffers in purgatory “serves as a ‘medicine’ to the extent that the person allows it to challenge him to undertake his own profound conversion,” which is at bottom “the meaning of the ‘satisfaction’ required” of him before he attains to the beatific vision.34 With this framework in place, the teaching on indulgences takes shape under the following two assumptions. First there is the conviction, previously voiced, that just “as in their earthly life believers are united in the one Mystical Body, so after death those who live in a state of purification [i.e. purgatory] experience the same ecclesial solidarity” they enjoyed during their tenure on earth, from which it follows that believers still undergoing their earthly pilgrimage may “offer up prayers and good works on behalf of [their] brothers and sisters in Purgatory.”35 Second, there is the (no doubt more contentious) belief that under certain carefully specified conditions, the Church has the power to grant “a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven.” On this picture, then, the Church’s intercessory power makes it possible to assist souls in purgatory by advancing their sanctification in special, nonstandard ways, but nonetheless in ways that do not differ in kind from praying for them, and thus do not involve anything on the order of a forensic transaction absolving them of accumulated penalties or fines. Here is John Paul II:

The Church has a treasury … which is “dispensed” as it were through indulgences. This “distribution” should not be understood as a sort of automatic transfer, as if we were speaking of “things.” It is instead the expression of the Church’s full confidence of being heard by the Father when … she asks him to mitigate or cancel the painful aspect of punishment by fostering its medicinal aspect through other channels of grace. In the unfathomable mystery of divine wisdom, this gift of intercession can also benefit the faithful departed, who receive its fruits in a way appropriate to their condition. We can see, then, how indulgences, far from being a sort of “discount” on the duty of conversion, are instead an aid to its prompt generous and radical fulfillment.36
Now whatever exactly one thinks about the distinctively Catholic ecclesiology underlying these claims it is undeniably clear that insofar as these ecclesiological claims are accepted there is no conflict between belief in the efficacy of indulgences on the one hand and, on the other, the thesis that purgatory’s exclusive purpose is to transform the lapsable into the sanctified. In other words, there is a way of understanding indulgences for the dead (which, if John Paul II may serve as representative, isn’t too far removed from how Catholics do understand indulgences) that is consistent with the Satisfaction Model of purgatory as I’ve laid it out. Unquestionably, it remains “unfathomably mysterious” how exactly the ‘medicinal’ feature of temporal punishments is supposed to be administered through an alternative “channel of grace” which brings about the desired sanctifying effect without the typical associated pains. But mystery isn’t equivalent to inconsistency. And since my ambitions in this paper do not include trying to eradicate mysteries like this one, I am satisfied with the result that, mysterious or no, the doctrine of indulgences does not undermine my claim that the Satisfaction Model and the Sanctification Model may properly be considered one and the same.

One final concern should be addressed. If the Satisfaction Model truly is a “forward looking” theory oriented toward rehabilitation, sanctification and the like, what accounts for all the ideas about flames and torments and agonizing tortures and whatever else contributes to making the atmosphere of purgatory generally unpleasant? Aren’t these assumptions concerning how much it hurts to get ‘purged’ much easier to reconcile with a view on which purgatory is more or less a temporary taste of hell, a place for people to go if they do not quite deserve to be consigned to the flames forever, but who do not deserve to pass into heaven entirely unscathed? And doesn’t that suggest that my thesis is false, that the Satisfaction Model really is just about vindictive retributions after all?

Much could be said about the pain associated with purgation, and certainly much more than what I have the space37 to say it in. For the present, then, I shall leave the task of responding to this question in the hands of St Catherine of Genoa, whose suggestive remarks about the pains of purgatory (circa 1490, about 50 years after the Council of Florence) seem a fitting way to pull together this article’s main themes:
The basis of all the pains [of purgatory] is sin, whether original or actual. God created the soul pure, simple and clean from all stain of sin, with a beatific instinct towards the one from whom original sin, in which the soul presently finds itself, draws it away. When actual sin is added to this original sin, the soul is drawn still further from him … When a soul draws near to the pure and clear state in which it was at its first creation, its beatific instinct is rediscovered and grows continually stronger with such force that any obstacle preventing the soul from finally reaching its goal appears to be unbearable. The more it glimpses this vision, the greater its pain. Because the souls in purgatory are without the guilt of sin, there is no obstacle between them and God except their pain, which holds them back so that they cannot reach perfection through this instinct. They can also see that this instinct is held back by a need for righteousness. For this reason, a fierce fire … comes into being, which is like that of Hell, with the exception of guilt … And as for guilt, these souls are just as they were when they were originally created by God, in that God forgives immediately the guilt of those who have passed from this life distressed by their sins, and having confessed them and resolved not to commit them anymore. Only the corrosion of sin is left, and they are cleansed from this by pain in the fire. When they have been cleansed for all guilt, and united in their wills with God, they may see him clearly (to the extent that he makes himself known to them), and see also how much it means to enjoy him, which is the goal for which they have been created.38
If we take into account St Catherine’s insights, the painfulness of purgatory need not be taken as proof that its purpose on the Satisfaction Model differs from the point of purgation on the Sanctification approach. Indeed, St Catherine’s remarks make it abundantly clear that the Protestant version of purgatory recently put forward in this Journal has been anticipated within the Catholic tradition centuries before this one, even if it has at times been differently expressed. Therefore, neither the existence of purgatory nor the purpose behind it constitutes an authentic point of division between Catholics and those Protestants who accept its reality.39

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