Purgatory, Indulgences and the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification

May I direct your attention to a discussion I have been having with Mark Henderson on is “Glosses from an Old Manse” blog concerning Indulgences.

I admit that at first I over-reacted with a bit of a rant. Mark reckons he has found a “weak spot” in my faith. Not a “weak spot”, no, but certainly a “sore spot”. It irks me no end that our Protestant brethren continue to insist that the Catholic Church is inconsistent in its confession that our salvation is completely through the grace and mercy of God in Christ Jesus, and not the result of anything we have done or merited apart from his grace and mercy. He asks:

Does not this teaching and practice detract from the completeness (“It is finished” “Today you will be with me in Paradise”) and thus the glory of Christ’s sacrifice for us?


My short answer to that question should have been a straight forward “NO” and left it at that.

My question to him is “Why do you think that the doctrines of Purgatory and Indulgences and associated practices in any way detract from the completeness and glory of Christ’s sacrifice?”

One thing that we have realised in this little “dialogue” is that a major difference between Lutherans and Catholics is how we view what Lutherans call “synergism”, ie. the work of human beings being joined to the work of God. Lutherans energetically and scrupulously maintain a clear distinction (eg. in their liturgical theology they maintan a strict distinction between “sacramental” parts – what God does – and “sacrificial” parts – what we do), while Catholics (and even more so, Orthodox) affirm that God by his grace joins our efforts with his gracious action (eg. so that the liturgy, while being entirely the action of God for us, is also our action for him). At the heart of this is a completely different theology of anthropology, that is, of human nature.

For instance, in the book “The Ratzinger Report” page 146, Cardinal Ratzinger defended the act of praying for the dead as a “widespread” and “immediate” “human” impulse. Lutherans would see this in the light of the fallen nature – that we desire to do something that is sinful and not in accordance with God’s word. Catholics would see this as a sign of that good nature that remains in human beings even after the fall, and thus affirm that the desire to pray for our departed loved ones is good and pleasing to God.

Personally, I think prayer for the dead accords beautifully with Jesus’ words: ““Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” Given how much we love our departed friends and family, and how much their eternal welfare is of concern to us, why would God say to us “Sorry, this is one thing you are not allowed to pray for”?

Incidentally, when teaching on this subject recently, I realised that we are perhaps mistaken in our usual take on Jesus’ words to the thief from the cross in Luke 23:42-43. It occured to me that what Jesus was doing was directly answering the thief’s request in reference to “the Kingdom”. The “today” could well refer to the fact that right there and then on the cross, Jesus was “coming into his Kingdom”. This is signified by the earlier verses which are all about this subject:

35 And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” 36 The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, 37 and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” 38 There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”

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7 Responses to Purgatory, Indulgences and the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification

  1. Jon Edwards says:

    It seems as though there has been a transition from the idea of Purgatory as a place of punishment to the idea of Purgatory as medicinal and restorative. But either approach raises questions. The punitive view does indeed seem to raise questions about whether Christ did indeed merit full forgiveness of our sins. If suffering in Purgatory serves no purpose but punishment, the inevitable conclusion is that the sins of those being punished have not yet been fully atoned. But if the suffering in Purgatory is medicinal in nature, what is the role of indulgences? If the experience of Purgatory, while painful, is indeed medicinal and purifying, why is it an act of charity to seek to deprive someone of that experience? If the answer is that the indulgence provides the same spiritual benefits without the suffering, we’re back to Fr. Luther’s question of why the Church would not dispense such a great blessing unconditionally, “for the sake of holy love.”

    The example I’ve often heard is that even a forgiven thief is obliged to return stolen money. But suppose my child is the thief. Justice will be satisfied whether he repays the money or I repay it on his behalf. Loving my child unconditionally, the only question for me is what is in his best long-term interest. If I love him and forgive him, I would not force him to work off the debt for the sole purpose of making him suffer. However, I may conclude that working off the debt will help him grow into the person God intends him to be. If I reach this conclusion, I would not consider it an act of charity if my parents, indulgent grandparents that they are, paid the debt on his behalf.


    • Schütz says:

      Dear Jon,

      You are skirting around the edges of a true understanding of purgatory. “You are not far from the Kingdom”, let us say! :-)

      Yes, it is true that today we tend to de-emphasise the “punishment” angle of purgatory. As the very name implies, it is the “purification” angle which is the main focus. I will come back to this in a mo.

      The “punishment” which takes place in Purgatory is not God’s divine wrath agaist sin. That has indeed been fully forgiven. Otherwise these souls would be in hell, not en route to heaven. It is rather the completion of the temporal consequence of sin. God’s justice requires this also, but from a different angle.

      And thus it is also a purging, a cleansing, of the soul’s attachment to sin. This is more accurate than to say that it is “medicinal”. This cleansing will be “painful” for the soul, because it consists of wrenching away from it those sins to which the soul has been attached for so long – and yet it will also be desired, and embraced, because the soul knows that it leads to the final vision of God.

      That is not to say that the soul doesn’t want this pain to end, and to end quickly. Another way of explaining the pain is that the soul yearns for the presence of God and is, by its attachment to sin and need for purification, prevented in this yearning. So, yes, he is like a medical patient who welcomes the pain in the knowledge of the good to which it is leading, but that doesn’t mean that we should not do everything to ease this suffering and bring it to an end quickly.

      AND now, note two things:

      1) it is precisely the soul’s encounter with Christ after death which accomplishes this cleansing. This is the meaning of J. Ratzinger’s treatment of 1 Cor 3:15. the fire is the burning presence of the love of Christ. The soul in purgatory can do nothing to cleanse itself or to merit its own cleansing.

      2) We who live and pray on earth join in the work of Christ, out of love for Christ and for these souls. Consider the Father in your story. If my child stole from someone, you bet I would – for love of him – expect him to pay it back. I would not force him, as you say, to make him suffer, but rather that he learn from this experience. Yet, I would also offer to assist him in any way that he needed to enable repay this debt (eg. give him jobs with which he can earn the money). It needs to be remembered that the souls in purgatory do not “merit” or “learn” anything from their experience – such development can only take place in this life. One’s eternal destiny is, of course, fixed at death. And so there is no purpose to withholding the charity which would end the soul’s suffering out of some thought that it will “improve” the soul. The time for improvement ended when life ended.

      And so the whole work of Purgatory is the work of Christ from beginning to end, a work which Christ graciously allows the whole communion of saints in heaven and on earth to join. For this reason, I cannot for the life of me see how it contradicts the completeness or the glory of Christ’s sacrifice for us.

      • Jon Edwards says:

        Thank you, David.

        I think I follow your argument, but I think you leave two points unaddressed.

        First, you explicitly limit your argument to souls already in Purgatory. What about indulgences applied to souls in the Church Militant, who presumably ARE still capable of learning and growth?

        Second, I think I hear you saying that the the necessary pain of purification can nonetheless be mitigated by indulgences. It follows that for those who are not the recipients of indulgences, the pain exceeds what is strictly necessary. Another analogy: patients recovering from burns or other severe wounds often require frequent and painful dressing changes, wound debridements, &c. The wounds would not otherwise heal. The procedures are often so painful that the patients are given morphine prior to starting. Think of the wounds as attachment to sin, the debridement as the process of purification, and the morphine as the effect of an indulgence — mitigating the experience of unavoidable and necessary pain. Any good physician with access to morphine would administer it to every patient rather than restricting it, for example, to those for whom a patient on the pediatric ward made a special request. I think this is what Luther was getting at with his thesis asking why the pope wouldn’t empty Purgatory “for the sake of holy love and charity.”

        • Schütz says:

          First, you explicitly limit your argument to souls already in Purgatory. What about indulgences applied to souls in the Church Militant, who presumably ARE still capable of learning and growth?

          Yes, you are right. Indulgences are of two kinds, for oneself or for the souls in purgatory. One cannot gain an indulgence for another currently living soul in the Church Militant. This is because indulgences are a form of effecacious penance. Each of us must (while living and “capable of learning and growth”) work out our own salvation. The holy souls in purgatory need our help in this, as they are no longer capable of undertaking meritorious (ie. efficacious) penance.

          Second, I think I hear you saying that the the necessary pain of purification can nonetheless be mitigated by indulgences. It follows that for those who are not the recipients of indulgences, the pain exceeds what is strictly necessary.

          This relates to what I have just written above, and your example of the kind doctor who administers morphine etc. to a burns victim is exactly appropriate. The “kind doctor” in this analogy is Christ himself, and the whole Church militant and Church triumphant who join him their prayers and actions on behalf of the holy souls. We trust therefore, and by these means, that God does not allow the soul in purgator to suffer “unnecessarily”. Likewise, to omit prayer for the dead would be, as you say, to omit an act of charity that is necessary for all Christians. We trust, however, that where we fail in our calling, Christ and his saints triumphant do everything “necessary” to ease and “shorten” (time is not really applicable here) the suffering of holy souls. It is the grace and mercy of God that he allows us a part in this healing process.

  2. David,

    Let me just say that most of my part of the discussion has consisted of letting your comments go ‘through to the keeper’ or offering the odd defensive shot. I’ve had some very pressing matters on my plate that have precluded me from a more engaged response to your comments.

    But I do agree we came to the nub of the matter with synergism. The more I think about it, the more I consider that every difference between us comes down to your proposal of what I call the Roman “and…”. As a Lutheran, I suspect synergism is ground out of which every Roman “and” has grown – God’s grace and man’s free will; Jesus and Mary, Scripture and Tradition (improperly conceived), The Bible and the Pope, etc., etc. So we end up having to revisit one of the most decisive moments of the Reformation, when Martin Luther took on Erasmus, the Catholic humanist, on the impact of sin on man’s free will. Luther was right to say it was his most important work, alongside the Small Catechism.
    And, it seems to me, at an even more fundamental level, that this is related to the idea of an analogia entis that Roman theology proposes but which most Protestants reject, even if only implicitly. If the impasse is to be overcome, it may have to take place on that level, and it may involve a restructure of Catholic thought as much as Lutheran.

    • Schütz says:

      Well, we agree on that. But we Catholics are rather attached to the “both/and” approach in theology. The important issues are:

      1) what is the true nature of fallen man?
      2) does it deprive God of his glory if he allows human beings to share in it?

  3. Kiran says:

    Schutz, can you let us know what Luther says on Purgatory (BTW, I accidentally switched your names when I began this post!)? Thank you.

    I love praying for the dead, simply because more than just about any other action, it brings home the reality of the communion of saints.

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