I spent a while this afternoon composing a response to this post on Pastor Mark Henderson’s blog “Glosses from an Old Manse”: “The Quality of mercy is not strained”. He has two other posts on the subject, John Chrysostom’s teaching on the Good Thief and some instructions from St Anselm.
In the end I gave up (after having written five pages) and thought, “This needs more work to tighten it up”. The more I thought about it, I realised that there was a basic disjunction between the material I was reading on Purgatory and the material that Pastor Mark was reading. He was using primarily the Council of Trent and the traditional Canon Law “penal language”. I was using the early councils (Lyons and Florence) and the Catechism and Ratzinger/Benedict.
Well before I go on any further, I will just post here a little dialogue that Mark and I had on his blog:
I will read this and get back to you soon.
Pr Mark Henderson said…
OK David. David. If you respond, let’s keep focussed on the main issue, the penal character of purgatorial suffering, and how that can be made to square with the atonement.
PS. I have no problem with temporal sufferings being remedial, i.e. designed to draw us closer to Christ; that is part of the Reformation theology of the cross. Of course I deny such sufferings take place after death – in light of the benefits of the atonement that would be redundant. It seems to me that by emphasising this point so much you are ackonwledging a problem with the doctrine of a penal purgatory as taught in the official pronoucenments of your church. Or perhaps you haven’t quite grappled with this contradiction yet?)
If you respond, let’s keep focussed on the main issue, the penal character of purgatorial suffering, and how that can be made to square with the atonement… Or perhaps you haven’t quite grappled with this contradiction yet?
I am going to be absolutely candid and admit that you are right.
Now that you have picked yourself up from the floor, let me explain:
I think there is some real difficulties with the penal language of Trent and other aspects of the tradition in regard to purgatory.
But I see in both the Catechism and in Pope Ratzinger’s teaching some real indications of an awareness that this is a problem, and that the tradition of penal language to describe purgatory is not (today at least) the most helpful; and moreover that these penal metaphors are not “of the essence” of the doctrine as such.
I am convinced that there is in fact a point of meeting – as you yourself have begun to acknowledge in saying that you “have no problem with temporal sufferings being remedial, i.e. designed to draw us closer to Christ; that is part of the Reformation theology of the cross.”
I am also convinced that we are not bound to continue to use the metaphors which the Church has used in the past, especially if they fail to communicate the truth of the doctrine in question. As a small example of this, we note how it was once standard to refer to “days” and “years” in purgatory – such language has been entirely done away with.
In his latest Apostolic Exhortation, Verbum Domini, Pope Benedict urges those engaged in ecumenical dialogue to return to the Scriptures and seek in them the unity of the faith of the Church.
I declare myself here and now entirely prepared for such a project. I welcome it, confident that the Tradition of the Church is in conformity with the Scrpitural witness. At the same time, I am ready for the Scriptures to challenge the language and metaphors that we use.
This now is a project that I need to work on. I need to clarify completely what the Church means by “temporal punishments”. Your help would be appreciated here. I went to the Daniel Mannix Library this afternoon and could find very little on the subject (post Vatican II anyway). I picked up Archbishop Michael Sheehan’s “Apologetics and Catholic Doctrine” (as edited by Father Peter Joseph), and that was certainly helpful – at least in showing me how predominant the penal language Pastor Mark is accustomed to hearing about has been in the Church.
Basically, I see two different approaches at work here. No one can deny that the doctrine of Purgatory arose out of the penitential practice of the Western Church as it developed in the first ten centuries. Ratzinger spends a whole 10 of the 16 pages on the Purgatory in his book “Eschatology” on the history of the doctrine. But he also goes on to demonstrate that the history of the doctrine is not determinative for the essential nature of the doctrine itself. The fact is that there has always been another strand of language used of purgatory – language, in fact, from which purgatory gets its very name: the metaphor of purification. The latter tends to be less legalistic and more relational (BTW, I think Pastor Mark is incorrect in his post on the subject in thinking that language of expiation is “forensic” – it is actually cultic). It is certainly open to a Christological and indeed Christocentric understanding of Purgatory in a way that the language of punishment and satisfaction is not. This is the line that Pope Benedict took in his book “Eschatology” and in his second encyclical “Spe Salvi”. Pastor Mark does not show any familiarity with this material.
Also, I think there is something absolutely essential in this pararaph from the Catechism:
1472 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. These two punishments must not be conceived of as a kind of vengeance inflicted by God from without, but as following from the very nature of sin. A conversion which proceeds from a fervent charity can attain the complete purification of the sinner in such a way that no punishment would remain [cf. Council of Trent(1551): DS 1712-1713;(1563): 1820].
The Catechism stresses that the punishment for sin, both temporal and eternal, are not “a kind of vengeance inflicted by God from without”, that is, they are not arbitrary acts of God which he can either choose to count against one or ignore according to whim. They are both necessary consequences arising from the very nature of sin itself. Joseph Ratzinger himself writes in his book, “Eschatology” that:
Purgatory “is not, as Tertullian thought, some kind of supra-worldly concentration camp where man is forced to undergo punishment in a more or less arbitrary fashion.”
Also there is the insistence in the Catechism that
the final purification of the elect…is entirely different from the punishment of the damned. (CCC §1031)
When you think about it, the only reason that such an assertion could have been made by the writers of the Catechism is that they were aware how easily the use of penal language for both Purgatory and Hell could cause confusion and could obscure the real grace of the doctrine of Purgatory. It is almost as if they are urging us to make the distinction by any possible means.
Now, I have to go into this much deeper and much further at some other point. The thing I want to say here is that I acknowlege Pastor Mark’s complaint. He is quite correct. Read the way he is reading the doctrine (and no protestant could read it any other way) the traditional language of punishment and satisfaction for purgatory DOES obscure the grace and mercy of God. My point is that this is NOT the way Catholics read this language, AND that the Catholic Church is itself at this point of time and at the very highest levels (the POPE for goodness sake!) seeking language that brings the truth of the doctrine of Purgatory (and hence of “temporal punishments” for sin) to light and clarity.
To be continued…
PS. But not before I give you all a quiz question.
True or false: Baptism extinguishes any debt of temporal punishment which we may have incurred through actual sin committed before Baptism.
This was in fact a question I had at my Last Things course last Saturday, and according to the source I am currently looking at, I gave the wrong answer. I think there is a key to the problem here somewhere, because, in the way that I both understood the question and meant my reply, I don’t see how I could have been wrong.
UPDATE: Pastor Mark has replied to my comment on his blog:
Pr Mark Henderson said…
Well, having indeed just picked myself up off the floor, I notice it’s past my bedtime. I have a big day tomorrow and will travel c. 200kms doing numerous visits before getting back to Toowoomba to attend a meeting at 7.00pm, which is a circumlocutionary way of saying I may not get back to you until Thursday, David. But I must say I’m intrigued by your proposal. However, I should say I can’t see how Rome can reform its doctrine on this without serious implications for the authority of the Magisterium.
Now, define your canon of scripture…