Dumitru Staniloae: The Impersonality of Catholic Purgatory

Dumitru Staniloae presents the traditional Orthodox vision of hell and eternal damnation so forthrightly that it takes one’s breath away. He remorselessly pursues the gift of freedom to its logical end. The Son of God welcomes all sinners in love and bids all to repent; but if we die in our sins, we will find ourselves forever imprisoned in our egoism and passions. As St John of Damascus writes: “If you say that it would have been better for him [man] not to exist than to suffer eternally, we say that this is nothing other than the fire of the appetite for evil and sin. For those who have reached the changelessness of sin as passion do not desire God” (The Experience of God, VI:49).

It thus comes as a shock when Fr Dumitru suddenly suggests that perhaps not all who are condemned to hell are permanently hardened in the “changelessness of sin.” How antinomically Orthodox! Following the teaching of the Orthodox Church, Staniloae rejects the medieval Roman Catholic dogma that the particular judgment of God is final and irrevocable. Perhaps it is impossible for the damned to actively re-orient themselves to God in repentance, yet perhaps they can still be delivered from perdition through the prayers of the Church.

Why, following God’s judgment, do those who leave this life without faith in Him—and thus without any openness toward communion with Him, and through Him with other human persons—have to remain eternally in hell? … The Church’s teaching that it is possible for some to be drawn out of hell during the time between the individual judgment and the universal judgment permits a fitting response to this question.

According to this teaching, those with some faith—and therefore without an attitude totally contrary to communion with God—who go to hell after the individual judgment will be able to reach a stage at which the capacity for communion that is present in them may be actualized. Therefore this hell implies two possibilities: that for some it will be eternal, and that for others it will be noneternal.

Although we cannot state with certainty for which persons hell will be eternal and for which it will not be eternal, in principle it is possible that hell may not be eternal for some of them.

But the mystery of freedom does not allow us to say that hell will cease to be eternal for all. Those who have not been able to emerge from hell at the time of the universal judgment will never be able to emerge from it. (VI:41-42)

Despite condemnation at the particular judgment, some may yet be saved, not all but some. Staniloae cannot offer hope for a universal restoration, however, as he believes that God in fact has revealed to the Church that some human beings are and will be eternally damned. Unfortunately he does not engage the eschatological teachings of either St Gregory of Nyssa or Sergius Bulgakov, with whose writings he was no doubt well acquainted; and the eschatological homilies of St Isaac of Nineveh were unavailable to him. No doubt Staniloae believed that the 5th Ecumenical Council had dogmatically repudiated apokatastasis, and he found this repudiation confirmed in the Damascene and others. Yet he also knew that the Orthodox Church has always prayed for the release of the condemned from hades. How do we reconcile theology and praxis?

It might prove helpful at this point to examine Staniloae’s rejection of the Roman Catholic teaching on purgatory or at least what he understood it to be. According to Roman Catholic teaching, he states, “the fate of souls is definitively and completely determined at the individual judgment: the saints receive full happiness, unrepentant sinners receive full punishment, and those with sins of which they repented through confession, but whose temporal punishments were not remitted, will go to purgatory. There, after the automatic cleansing through a material or quasi-material fire that they suffer as if they were objects, they will surely overcome their suffering, for during this cleansing they are in a state of grace and are certain that they will attain the contemplation of the divine essence” (VI:81).

Sergey Tyukanov

Roman Catholics will immediately object, “That’s not we believe about purgatory.” And they would be right, at least regarding the interpretation of purgatory that has become dominant since Vatican II. The post-Vatican II Catholic Church typically presents purgatorial suffering as a form of purification, during which the redeemed person freely detaches himself from all sins and disordered desires. Confronted with the risen Christ in the power of his love, we are transformed “as through fire.” In his encyclical Spe salvi Pope Benedict XVI speaks of the particular judgment following death. “With death,” he writes, “our life-choice becomes definitive—our life stands before the judge. Our choice, which in the course of an entire life takes on a certain shape, can have a variety of forms.” He goes on to contrast those “who have totally destroyed their desire for truth and readiness to love,” and are thus eternally damned, and those “who are utterly pure, completely permeated by God, and thus fully open to their neighbours,” and are thus immediately given to share in the beatific vision. But many, perhaps most, fall in-between:

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? … Some recent theologians are of the opinion that the fire which both burns and saves is Christ himself, the Judge and Saviour. The encounter with him is the decisive act of judgement. Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves. All that we build during our lives can prove to be mere straw, pure bluster, and it collapses. Yet in the pain of this encounter, when the impurity and sickness of our lives become evident to us, there lies salvation. 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.

I imagine that Fr Dumitru would have found much to approve in this personalist construal of purgatory (sometimes called the sanctification model); but this was not the formulation of purgatory that he encountered in the Roman Catholic theologians of his day. My guess is that the view with which he was most familiar claimed that the sufferings of purgatory were principally retributive in nature—the temporal punishment for sin must first be endured before the soul can be admitted to the bliss of heaven (the satisfaction model). Staniloae rejects the satisfaction model because it construes the relationship between God and man in juridical terms rather than personal and relational terms. The human being is treated as a thing instead of a person constituted by the trinitarian communion of love. The material punishments imposed upon the souls in purgatory “make them similar to objects. This mentality regards everything in an objectified manner. The cleansing fire of purgatory ceases automatically when the stains are blotted out, but God does not make that fire operate the cleansing faster or slower in accordance with changes in the consciences of the souls subject to it. … Sin is considered more as an external stain than as an attitude of the conscience or a relationship between the human subject and the divine subject. It is interesting that this fire, whose action God cannot intervene in, can be made to operate more quickly through papal indulgences. Perhaps here too–to the extent to which not prayer, but a distant decree, eases the fate of these souls, without entering into a personal communion with each of them—there appears the force of a suprapersonal institution that works through the intervention of its representative” (VI:82).

I do not know if Roman Catholic theologians who lived in the first-half of the twentieth century would have recognized Staniloae’s description of purgatory as an accurate description of Catholic teaching; but regardless Staniloae’s comments express his principal concern: human beings are created in the image of God as persons summoned to communion with the Holy Trinity in the Body of Christ. Legalism, juridicism, impersonalism, individualism have no place here. Human beings are subjects-in-community, not objects.

Hence we can better understand Orthodoxy’s insistence on the provisional nature of the particular judgment:

The Orthodox teaching on the relationship between God and souls after the individual judgment is characterized by a certain fluidity, in which freedom preserves its role because love also preserves its role. Through their prayers those in paradise can help those on earth and those in hell; many souls in hell can be liberated through the prayers of the saints and of those on earth, and the automatic, purifying mechanism of purgatory does not exist. … In opposition to the juridical-objectified and motionless fixity of the state of souls, the Orthodox teaching offers a personal, spiritual, and dynamic-communal relationship between God and man, and thus between those on earth and all who have departed this life. As a result, the state of souls after the individual judgment is incompletely established in a complete happiness or unhappiness, and therefore there is a distinction between this state and the one after the universal judgment, which will make total happiness or unhappiness final. The communication between the living and the departed, between the believers on earth and the saints, is also reflected in the Liturgy. (VI:83)

One cannot but note, however, that Staniloae’s rhetoric of personal freedom contradicts his repeated insistence on the immobility of the damned in the afterlife. What marks the damned is precisely their lack of freedom. Sergius Bulgakov severely criticized his fellow Orthodox theologians for denying the capacity of the reprobate for new self-determinations. This would reduce the departed to lifeless, static things. “According to Orthodox doctrine,” he concludes, “the state of sinners in the afterlife is that of a temporary purgatory rather than that of an irrevocable hell” (Bride of the Lamb, p. 361).

(Go to “Does God Remember the Damned?”)

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24 Responses to Dumitru Staniloae: The Impersonality of Catholic Purgatory

  1. I remain intrigued by certain aspects of the utter dependence on the prayers of others. I agree that freedom remains – but the nature of that freedom and its relationship to the “choice” (gnome) that we now experience – is a bit of a quandary. I’m somewhat of the mind that we even overplay choice in our present situation. I’m not arguing for any sovereignty, Calvinist stuff, but choice is itself a difficult, problematic issue, fraught with contradictions and complexities.

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  2. SteveL says:

    It is hard for me to visualize what an Orthodox purgatorial experience would look like. But if I consider Dante’s Purgatorio, and the communal aspects of it (fellow sinners, angels, etc), those non-juridical aspects of it are the most striking, not so much the juridical nature of it. Maybe (for Orthodoxy) the point is precisely not to be able to visualize it, but I think one could argue that the “object”-ive nature of the purgation of a soul allows a place that is personal. The objects (soul, fire, etc.) create a ground for a community.

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  3. Karen says:

    It seems like the Gospel account of the paralytic who was brought and lowered by others through the roof of the house where Jesus was teaching is a good image of what the Orthodox believe about the interim state of the soul still in need of purification.

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  4. Michelle says:

    So if the presence of Christ reveals the interim state of a soul to be absolutely paralyzed, to the point that it relies fully on the prayers of the Saints to escape eternal damnation (just as the paralytic brought by the faithful in the Gospel account), then who can possibly be damned? It is my assumption that the illumined Saints condemn no one in their perfect humility, and that they love and pray for all of mankind. How could they fail? I keep finding ways all around Staniloae’s argument that some definitely will be eternally damned, unless he is correct that Scripture does in fact, without a doubt, reveal otherwise. I wonder which passages he thinks offer this revelation?

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    • The church officially (when you can find such a thing) says that our prayers are of “benefit” to the departed. That’s about as much as it says. But, I don’t know about you, but anything that left me roasting in hell would not be much benefit. And the Church prays for all the souls from Adam to the present in the kneeling prayers on Pentecost Sunday. There are many (more than a few) homilies of the Fathers, such as St. John Chrysostom’s Paschal homily that make outrageously hopeful statements (“And not one dead is left in the grave”). I think death, hell, etc. are the enemy. They were not “prepared” for man but for the adversary and his angels. Anything less than getting us all out would be a poor “rescue” effort. Having said that much, I’ll let the mystery stand, for how could I say more?

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      • Michelle says:

        I guess I have to let the mystery stand too. I can’t proclaim what wasn’t given to me.

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        • Michelle says:

          But it seems St. Isaac the Syrian proclaimed something he thought was revealed to him. I hope he’s not mistaken 😉

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  5. William says:

    Fr. Aidan, I’d be interested to see how you might incorporate Dumitru Staniloae’s reflections in the final chapter of Vol. 3 of “The Experience of God” about providence and the deification of the world with Fr. Staniloae’s remorseless presentation of eternal hell. In that chapter on providence, he doesn’t say anything that would *necessarily* modify the eschatology you have been presenting, but it could suggest that there is more than meets the eye to that eschatology. Sometimes, I think that an Orthodox theologian can rightly describe suffering in hell both as endless and as having an end, and, somehow, just letting the contradiction stand there as a mystery without trying to solve it.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Thank you, William, for that observation. I have been very much aware that my reading of Fr Dumitru’s last volume of his dogmatics has been at a disadvantage for not having read the prior volumes.

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  6. Nick says:

    If they are lifeless, static things that are nonetheless saved then perhaps we actually have an example of the Reformed doctrine of monergistic justification.

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  7. Marc says:

    Although the story of Lazarus and the rich man recorded in the Gospel of Luke reflects the nature or the intermediate state before the Harrowing of Hades, the fact that the rich man was coming to his senses indicates that the dynamics of the partial, or particular, judgment are meant to bring people to repentance. The prayers of the Church on earth and in heaven are an important part of this process.

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  8. The “lifeless, static” would be a mistaken reading. It’s more like “stable.” Much of this has to do with the nature and character of change, choice, etc. And it gets fairly complicated. It is primarily the work of St. Maximus that drives deep into the mysteries of our composition. Staniloae was deeply effected by his reading of Maximus. But it is very easy to lose one’s way in that strange land. Staniloae was also forged in the fire of Communist torture cells and isolation (making him a very rare scholar indeed). I sometimes read stuff and dismiss some parts as being cursory readings or throw away comments by the authors (even among many Orthodox). But I’ve learned not to do this with Staniloae. He may be the greatest the 20th century produced. Stay with him and wrestle with him until dawn.
    Also, I’m very unsure about ever using the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus as a model for thinking about the afterlife. It’s not the point of the parable.
    But clearly, change is possible after death, or else we would not pray. And if the change were merely “objective” (like maybe less fire, etc.), then God’s mercy would make the change alone. Rather, I think the answer lies in the fact that we do not EVER exist as pure individuals. If anything, the doctrine of stability attests to the powerless existence of individuality. But as Persons, we transcend individuality. Salvation is not merely individual, else it would not be Trinitarian salvation. The life that is eternal exists within the communion of the Holy Trinity and the saints. This, I think, raises us up in the Risen Christ to the life that triumphs over the stable non-life of hell. By your prayers…

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    • Marc says:

      I think the point about us not ever existing as complete individuals is very important. Our existence in this life is sustained by the creative and productive efforts of thousands of other people who have gone before us and those who live in our own time. If judgment is diagnosis and therapy, it is instructive that the saints assist our Lord in this process (See Revelation 20:4). This communal nature of the judgment allows for the forgiveness and reconciliation of all, because it extends beyond our Creator to our fellow human beings. This therapy would be quite grueling for a mass murderer, but possible because his victims would have to forgive as part of their own therapy. This healing is necessary to experience eternal life. To refuse this healing therapy is to reject life, and to perish with Satan and the demons in the lake of fire.

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    • Fr. John B. says:

      My heart is full of joy when I read these beautiful words about Fr. Dumitru Staniloae (the comparation with Jacob and the angel is superb!), and when I think you know him from translations, this should make us romanians going deeper in his works and to thank God more often for giving us such a inestimable gift. He was such a noble person… and his theology is so powerful. I recall a passage from his doughter’s biographical book (Lidia Staniloae – The Light of Deed from the Light of the Word), regarding that day when Fr. Dumitru was released from prison and returned home:
      “Dumitraş (Fr. Dumitru’s nephew) was sleeping deep in his bed. He was a beautiful child, chubby, with long eyelashes, like a girl. The sleep has flushed him cheeks, and he was helding tightly Martin, the big teddy bear. “What a beautiful baby! He is like an angel!” (Fr. Dumitru said) Later my father told us that this was the happiest moment of his life and seeing this child made him to forget all those cruel years he passed through. I told him that his name was Dumitru Horia and he started to cry.
      – I don’t want to take him in my arms, because I don’t want to wake him. I’ll wait until later …
      Yes, that was my dad. The others were more important and he was concerned only about them.
      – Why didn’t you said on the phone that you arrived? I asked.
      – I was afraid that you will wallow in emotions. To not have a shock Marioara, a heart attack.
      He arrived at midnight and waited quietly in the train station until dawn, not to scare us, for not giving us thrills … Then he prepared my mother … My God, what kind of man he was!”

      I am sorry if I made mistakes, it is my personal translation.

      Sincerely,
      Fr. John (Ioan),
      a romanian orthodox priest.

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  9. Why, why, why is it always: “Catholics believe this, so Orthodox must believe otherwise”? Why do you folks ALWAYS define your beliefs not on their own terms but in counterposition to ours?

    Catholicism has NEVER delineated the exact, precise nature of Purgatory. It is a state of purification and purgation and restitution. That is as far as the definition goes. And this was true long before Vatican II.

    As for the possibility of salvation after death: The Catholic doctrine is not “medieval” (that shopworn canard!) but Biblical. “It is appointed unto man once to die and after that the judgment.”

    But no one except God knows what transpires between God and the human soul in the nano-second before death (when God can suspend time). As Saint Faustina attested, “The final hour abounds in mercy.”

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    • BTW, some of the Catholic mystics who have seen Purgatory describe it as a school of love. Most of the souls in Purgatory are being purified from sins against charity…learning to truly love their neighbors as themselves. Something to think about.

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    • Chris Byrum says:

      Diane,
      I can’t count the number of times I have heard Roman Catholic apologists declare that teachings of the Church generally receive their formal definition in reaction to disagreement. Often the teachings come into sharper focus during that process, so I think it’s fair to say that we have inherited a fair amount of dogma that was reactively defined. That being said, your statement that the Orthodox always define beliefs in opposition to Roman Catholic doctrine is uncharitable and inaccurate. No doubt you have come across some inaccurate and frustrating polemics from Orthodox Christians against Roman Catholicism. Although I am a relatively recent visitor to this blog it seems to me that the predominate tone here is one of seeking to understand and thoughtfully interact with both Catholic and Orthodox traditions.
      I feel that Fr. Aidan fairly represented the fact that Staniloae was reacting to what was probably the most common theological interpretation of the doctrine of Purgatory at the time. In fact, I have heard Staniloae’s summary of Catholic teaching put forward in almost that precise way by some present day Catholics. After all, if Roman Catholics themselves can confuse theological interpretations with the core dogmatic teaching then perhaps it can be forgiven when Orthodox Christians do the same.
      Also, while I understand that the medieval innovations charge gets tossed like a Molotov Cocktail at Roman Catholics a lot, it’s probably best to try and read Fr. Aidan’s statement in the most charitable light. The dogma was formally defined in the medieval age. If the context of the statement was a polemic against Catholic doctrinal development then perhaps your reaction would be more justified. In this case, Fr. Aidan was simply suggesting (I think rightly) that Staniloae would have found a lot to like in the most prevalent theological representation of Purgatory in our day.

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      • Chris Byrum says:

        On a different note, I liked your quote from St. Faustina and I wish more of us would hold this in our mind when speculating on eschatology. We should never lose sight of the fact that God’s grace, mercy, and love abound. God’s justice is not a separate compartment of Him apart from his love.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      WHOA!!! Diane, this comment is way overboard. Who the heck are “you folks”? I don’t even get that many Orthodox readers here on my blog, because, as I have been told by more than a few, “you’re not really Orthodox.” And where did I even intimate in my post that “Catholics believe this, so Orthodox must believe otherwise”? The answer to that last question is, nowhere. Besides, Orthodox theologians have always rejected the Latin construal of purgatory ever since they first encountered it at the councils of II Lyons and Florence. This is nothing new.

      This particular article is but one of a series on the eschatological views of Dumitru Staniloae. My posture in this series has, for the most part, been descriptive, though I have expressed my personal dissatisfaction with his position on eternal damnation and his rejection of any kind of universalist hope. Within the context of this series, I thought it helpful to detail Staniloae’s criticism of the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory, as he understood it. And for purposes of pure eirenicism, I also thought it might be helpful to point out that his criticisms largely do not obtain against the most popular post-Vatican II construals of purgatory, as articulated, e.g., by Pope Benedict.

      But historical honesty requires us to admit that this personalist-sanctifying construal of purgatory is most likely not the understanding with which Stanilaoe was acquainted. In 1922 M. F. Egan published an article in the Irish Theological Quarterly titled “Two Theories of Purgatory.” In this article in notes that at the time of his article, the most popular theory of purgatory was what I have described as the satisfaction model, i.e., the payment of the debt of justice. According to this theory, whose most famous exponent was the 16th century Jesuit theologian Francisco Suárez, the soul is purified of all guilt, sin, and sinful tendencies precisely at the moment of death when it encounters the love of God. Why then must it endure purgatorial suffering? Precisely to repay the temporal debt of punishment. The purpose of purgatory, in other words, is purely retributive and punitive. Given Staniloae’s own description of purgatory, it was this punitive theory that he probably encountered in European Catholic writings back in the 30s and 40s.

      Now it’s clear that this satisfaction model is no longer taught by contemporary Catholic theologians, at least not by the ones with which I am acquainted; but clearly it was once so taught by many Catholic theologians, and it was this against this model that Staniloae advanced his criticism of impersonalism.

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  10. mgalliher555 says:

    What stumbles me about the Roman church is that its dogmatic definition on indulgences at Trent focused on remitting “temporal punishment” of those in Purgatory, but now it avoids the word punishment. It’s as if they are saying that the words chosen by the Council are not the best for teaching a modern audience, and that the new preferred terminology is safer. I would think the words chosen by an ecumenical concil would merit more deference.

    I hasten to add, I usually make an ass of myself when I wade into these questions. But catholic dogmatics make my head spin. Orthodox writers on the other hand just make sense to me, even those like Staniloae.

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  11. Edward De Vita says:

    Fr. Stephen,
    You stated that Staniloae was deeply influenced by St. Maximus. It’s interesting to note that Ilaria Ramelli argues that Maximus was a believer in Origen’s and Nyssen’s apokatastasis, though he felt it best to “honour it with silence.”

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