“The doctrine of purgatory,” writes Jerry Walls, “did not drop, fully formed, out of heaven, or hell, or for that matter out of somewhere in between” (Purgatory, p. 9). The history of the doctrine is complicated and cannot be rightly understood apart from the equally complicated history of the penitential practices of the Latin Church. If one is looking for an example of the “development of doctrine,” here it is. In its medieval form purgatory became a point of contention between the Latin and Eastern Churches at the Council of Florence and then later between the Latin Church and the 16th century Reformers. What is perhaps less well known is the presence within Latin Catholicism of two distinguishable models of purgatory that have competed for dominance.
In his article “Outlines of the Doctrine of the Mystical Life,” published in 1916, Dom Savinien Louismet distinguishes between what he calls the popular understanding of purgatory and the theologically correct understanding:
There are two views about the state of a separate soul which has to undergo the punishment of Purgatory. The first view is that which finds favor with the popular mind; the second, that which is the expression of strict theological truth. The first view is equivalent to what we say of the sun when we speak of it as rising and setting and moving, according to the time of the year around us through all the signs of the zodiac; the other is equivalent to the bald statement that it is not the sun which moves, but that it is the whole world of planets which moves around the sun. … The popular mind about Purgatory is that one finishes there gradually to become pure, gradually to become a saint, whilst the truth is that one not a reprobate at the moment of death becomes a full-fledged saint the moment after, whatever be his debts to the divine justice, which indeed will have to be paid to the very last farthing. (American Catholic Quarterly Review 41 : 91)
Whereas Catholic imagination thinks of purgatory as a process of transformation, by which one who has not died in a state of mortal sin is gradually purified of all remaining sinful attachments, Catholic theology accurately states that “the truth is that on the one hand the tepid soul which is finally saved arrives at the end of her life undeveloped, but that the development after death is made in instanti and not progressively, whatever length of time that soul may have to abide in Purgatory” (p. 91). At the moment of the separation of body and soul, God reveals his divine goodness to the soul, thus eliciting from her “an act of perfect charity, which does away at once with all past blemishes of the soul” (p. 92). The soul is thus constituted “in full and absolute moral rectitude.” But if she is instantaneously made holy, why is she then detained in purgatory? Louismet answers: “Simply to pay the debts incurred during the days of her vanity. Can we not conceive the case of a personal friend of a King, loving his sovereign perfectly, and still more loved by his sovereign, and yet detained for some time far from him in order to purge in prison some previous condemnation, so that perfect justice be done? This, then, is how the case stands with the poor souls in Purgatory” (p. 92).
A few years later, Fr Maurice Francis Egan responded to Louismet’s formulation of instantaneous transformation and offered a defense of the medicinal-purification theory:
The object of the present article is to support the popular view so summarily dismissed by Dom Louismet, that Purgatory is a place of purification as well as of punishment: that the souls entering it, though they are God’s friends and lovers, are yet clogged and stained by the effects of their sins, and cannot attain to the embrace of Infinite Purity until they have been cleansed in the punitive fires. The distinction between the two theories is a sharp one. According to the one, the Holy Souls are, in themselves, perfectly fitted for the vision of God; they are kept back because of a debt which has to be paid to the last farthing. The other theory does not deny the debt and the payment, but it asserts that the payment is the means, the normal means, by which God cleanses their sores and gives them the perfect spiritual health which their future life with Him requires. (“The Two Theories of Purgatory,” Irish Theological Quarterly 17 : 24)
Egan cites the 16th century scholastic Francisco Suarez as the most prominent exponent of the retributive construal:
Suarez maintains that when a soul passes into eternity bearing upon it the guilt of unrepented venial sin, the ‘remains’ of mortal sins forgiven but not altogether purged, and imperfect or evil inclinations due to past sins, all these are completely obliterated by the act of divine love which that soul immediately elicits. Nothing remains except the reatus poenae, the debt of justice. (pp. 26-17)
Here is the purpose of purgatorial suffering, according to Suarez and Louismet—to make satisfaction for the temporal penalty of sin. These sufferings do not purify or heal; they are purely expiatory. Though the lost souls of purgatory exist in a state of grace—they are saved and have been perfected in sanctity—they must still endure the just punishment of their sins. Only after proper reparation has been freely offered will they be admitted by God to the Beatific Vision.
If your exposure to constructions of purgatory has been limited to C. S. Lewis, Peter Kreeft, and post-Vatican II theologians, you may well be shaking your head at this point. I didn’t even know there was a satisfaction model of purgatory until I read Jerry Walls’s comparative analysis (Purgatory, chap. 3). Walls cites Fr Martin Jugie’s Purgatory and the Means to Avoid It as a modern example of the satisfaction model. So I ordered the book through interlibrary loan and quickly read through it.
Jugie begins with the Catholic Church’s magisterial teaching on the particular judgment. At the moment of death, the eternal destiny of the individual person is definitively decided: if the soul is entirely free of mortal and venial sin, having made sufficient penance for sins committed after baptism, it is immediately admitted to the Beatific Vision; if the soul is constituted in a state of enmity with God, it is condemned to eternal perdition; if the soul dies in a “state of grace and amity with God, but is as yet unworthy to be admitted to the Beatific Vision—either because of venial sin unrepented, or the lack of sufficient penance for both mortal and venial sins, or both—it must pass some time, long or short according to the amount of its debt, in an intermediate state between the state of beatitude and that of damnation” (p. 2).
Jugie thus identifies two reasons for admission to purgatory—inadequate repentance for specific venial sins and insufficient expiation for the temporal punishment of sins (or some combination of the two). The mention of inadequate repentance might seem to admit into purgatory a dimension of penitential process, but Jugie quickly scuttles this possibility. Brought into the presence of God, the soul immediately “strains towards Him with ardour and hates intensely all that displease Him” (p. 4). This perfect contrition eradicates all disordered dispositions and wipes out the guilt for venial sin. “It follows from all this,” Jugie goes on to explain,
that the principal—one might even say the unique—reason for the existence of Purgatory, is the temporary punishment due to sins committed after Baptism, since neither venial sin nor vicious inclination survives the first instant that follows death. Immediately on its entering Purgatory, the soul is perfectly holy, perfectly turned towards God, filled with the purest love. It has no means of bettering itself nor of progressing in virtue. That would be an impossibility after death, and it must suffer for love the just punishment, which its sins have merited. (p. 5)
So while it is not inaccurate to speak of the purgatorial state as purgatorial—it does, after all, accomplish the sanctifying transformation of the believer—it is best to focus on its expiatory function:
If the purification, properly so called, which one attributes to Purgatory, is realised from the first instant of its entry into that state, it follows that the rest of the time the soul spends there is consecrated to one single object—to expiation. Expiation is a debt for sins committed, which is paid by suffering; it is a reparation offered to the holiness and the justice of God, offended by sin. The payment of a debt does not merit a reward. The repairing of an injustice cannot bring with it any personal profit, for one merely rights a disturbed order of justice, at one’s own expense. This is exactly the situation of the souls in Purgatory. They are debtors, bound to reparation for sins they have themselves committed. The pains and sufferings which they endure do not procure for them any merit, any progress in charity or in virtue. All the profit they draw from them is the removal of the obstacle to their entry into Heaven. (pp. 8-9)
If sanctification is achieved at the moment of death, then the interpretation of purgatory as a progressive sanctification must be wrong—it contradicts, says Jugie, any “sane theology.” We must not project our schemas of spiritual growth in this life (purgative, illuminative, unitive) onto the the condition of those in purgatory. Jugie is emphatic and clear:
It is impossible to conceive how the soul, clothed with charity, should not from the moment of its separation from the body, utterly detest sin in all its forms. Divine love, in the soul separated from its body, takes on immediately all its efficacy and the fulness of its extension. It kills all that could turn the soul from God, and renders it perfectly pure. When Jesus could say of His Apostles in the Cenacle: “You are clean,” with how much stronger reason can the words be applied to the soul in Purgatory, utterly possessed by divine charity. (pp. 11-12).
As we have seen, following St. Thomas, the souls in Purgatory are instantly fully purified from venial sins not cleansed on earth, as well as from their evil inclinations and their disordered habits. They attain, from the first instant of their entry, that degree of perfection and sanctity which will be theirs for eternity and which will measure in heaven, the degree of their glory. No longer for them will there be an imperfection, any resistance to their being engulfed by the love of God, no longer any disorder. … Henceforth, perfect order reigns in them, for in nothing do they resist the divine wishes. All that now remains is for them to expiate their past sins, and doubtless one is at liberty to call this expiation a purification, in the broad sense of the word. But, in fact, they have no moral stain. All impurity has been removed by the consuming fire of divine love. (p. 64)
I confess that I was surprised by Jugie’s rejection of sanctification interpretations of purgatory, but I attribute my reaction to my relative ignorance of Counter-Reformation theology. Again Jugie: “The conception of Purgatory as having for its sole end the amelioration, the progressive purification of the subject, must therefore be regarded as false. Rather is it, before all else, a reparation for sin by a chastisement proportioned to its gravity” (p. 12). Jugie confidently asserts this as the authoritative teaching of the Roman Catholic Church.
Given this juridical interpretation of purgatory, the medieval practice of indulgences makes perfect sense. He who has been offended by the the sins of his creatures, namely, the divine Creator, is free to remit the punishment incurred by offenders through authorized agents. Prayers for the poor souls also make perfect sense, as petitions addressed to the divine Judge for clemency.
But does juridical purgatory make sense according to the gospel?
Most Catholic theologians today would answer in the negative. The once-dominant model of satisfaction has been supplanted in contemporary catechesis and theological reflection by a model of sanctification and progressive healing (see Neal Judisch, “Sanctification, Satisfaction, and the Purpose of Purgatory“).