Penance, Temporal Punishments and Purgatory

Following a discussion with my good friend Dr Cooper, and the helpful comments to the previous post on this topic, I think I can take this discussion a step further. My apologies at this point to Pastor Mark and Matthias for not taking the discussion immediately to scriptural points – I feel that there is a little “prolegomena” required first on what we mean by “temporal punishments”, as this relates directly to the use of “penitential language” in the doctrine of Purgatory.

Sin itself is of different kinds (and Lutherans and Catholics define these slightly differently but agree on the matter):
a) Original sin (“inherited” from our first parents, the consequence of the Fall)
b) actual sin (commission or ommission)
c) Concupiscence (the “tendancy” to sin, which Trent said was not “sin in the proper sense”, and Lutherans tend to conflate with the effect of original sin – I refer the reader to Christopher Burgwald’s thesis on this)

Then we need to outline and clarify what the consequences of sin are. As I understand it, they are:
1) separation from communion with God (loss of “friendship” with God)
2) separation from communion with the Church (from God’s ekklesia, the assembly/communion of the saints)
3) attachment to sin
4) the effect of my sin on creation and on other people
5) the imposition of penance by the Church

Again as I understand it, when the Church speaks of “eternal punishments”, they are speaking of (1) separation from communion with God. When the Church says that the “guilt of sin” is forgiven, they mean that this eternal punishment is remitted, and the sinner is reconciled to God (1) and to the Church (2). From my reading of Trent and knowledge of the history of the development of Penitential practice in the Church, “temporal punishments” specifically mean (5) the imposition of penance by the Church. This penance is imposed by the Church by her authority to “bind and loose” (I did say in my very first post on this topic that an understanding of Purgatory required the belief that the Church does this with divine authority, and that this was one of the difficulties in the ecumenical dialogue).

That leaves (2), (3), and (4) above. I have a question about (2) (see the end of this post), but for now want I to concentrate on “attachment to sin” (3) and “the effect of my sin on the world and others” (4). These are clearly “temporal consequences” of sin, and it is my thought now that part of the “confusion” that Cardinal Pole finds in the Catechism is that it does tend to include these at times under the discussion of the “temperal punishments” of sin. Eg. in CCC 1472, “an unhealthy attachment to creatures” is described as “temporal punishment”. Reg is quite right, I think, in pointing out to us that “temporal punishments”, at least in the Tridentine teachings, refers specifically to (5) “the imposition of penance by the Church” – an imposition which is by divine authority.

My thoughts on this have been clarified somewhat by consideration of what it could mean when we say that Baptism removes not only Original sin (A), and forgives the guilt of all actual sin (B), but also removes all “temporal punishment”. The only reference I could find to this was in Sheen/Joseph “Apologetics and Catholic Doctrine” p476:

REMISSION OF ALL SIN AND PUNISHMENT. Sanctifying Grace, infused into our soul at Baptism, removes every trace of sin, original and actual, and extinguishes any debt of temporal punishment which we may have incurred through actual sin committed before baptism.

I would be very grateful if someone could point me to a document of the Church’s Magisterium that asserts this (Sheen/Joseph does not give any reference), but I am happy to accept that this is the Church’s teaching. That being so, “temporal punishments” here can only refer to (5) “the imposition of penance by the Church”. It cannot refer to “attachment to sin” (3) or “the effect of my sin on creation and other people” (4), since quite obviously baptism does not remove these temporal consequences. Only “a conversion which proceeds from fervant charity can attain complete purification of the sinner in such a way that no punishment would remain” (CCC 1472). Unless if we are to say that at the moment of baptism this “fervant charity” is infused along with Sanctifying Grace would it make sense to say that Baptism removes “attachment to sin” (3). I find it difficult to see how Baptism could remove “the effect of my sin on creation and other people” (4). But perhaps here it is important to see that what both Sheen/Joseph and the Catechism are talking about is the “debt” of “temporal punishment” as regards the soul of the individual sinner, and not necessarily the temporal consequence (4) itself.

In any case, the doctrine that Baptism removes the “debt of temporal punishment” seems to indicate that the “debt” in mind is the debt of “Penance imposed by the Church” (5). This indeed is true, for the catechumen who is baptised is not required to (and never in history has been required to) do “penance” for sin committed before baptism, that is, the newly baptised are never enrolled in the “order of penitents”. Penance is required only for sin after baptism. In this way, we can see that it makes perfect sense to teach that the full “debt of temporal punishment” extinguished by baptism. Nevertheless, only the attainment of “fervant charity” can actually attain to the “complete purification of the sinner”. I think that is something that surely both Lutheran and Catholic can agree upon. The guilt of sin is fully forgiven by true repentance (perfect contrition) and by absolution (even when the repentance, though sincere, may not be “perfect” – ie. attrition), but the individual human soul is only truly purified of all “attachment to creatures” (3) by “fervant charity”. And – to take Ratzinger’s line – the “fervant charity” that purifies the soul, the “fire of purgation”, is surely the soul’s encounter with the Love of God in the person of Jesus Christ.

Co-relating all these strands is not an easy matter, and hence “confusion” will probably continue to reign on this matter. It helps if we remember that while the explicit doctrine of Purgatory arose in the West as a direct result of the penitential system (which began very early in the Church’s history, but developed differently in the East and the West), yet the penitential system cannot be said to have “created” Purgatory (although, perhaps, this is precisely what our dialogue partners may say). That would be to make the existence of an eternal and metaphysical reality dependant upon an historical development, rather like saying that the resurrection of the dead on the last day became “true” when ancient Judaism finally arrived (after centuries of reflection on the nature of Israel’s relationship with their God) at a developed doctrine of resurrection. For this reason, I continue to insist that while the categories in which the doctrine of Purgatory has been enunciatied and defined by the Church have been in terms of the penitential system, the penitential system as such cannot be regarded to be the essence of the doctrine, what Ratzinger refers to in his Eschatology as “the authentic heart of the doctrine”. He has sought to see the “heart” in terms of all the temporal consequences of sin, not only (5) penance, but (3) attachment and (4) effects on creation and others as well.

Nevertheless, whenever (such as at Trent) the Church has most clearly sought to speak of the doctrine of Purgatory, it has done so using language drawn from her practice of penance. Perhaps this passage from the Catechism which could again be helpful in this:

1460 The penance the confessor imposes must take into account the penitent’s personal situation and must seek his spiritual good. It must correspond as far as possible with the gravity and nature of the sins committed. It can consist of prayer, an offering, works of mercy, service of neighbor, voluntary self-denial, sacrifices, and above all the patient acceptance of the cross we must bear. Such penances help configure us to Christ, who alone expiated our sins once for all. They allow us to become co-heirs with the risen Christ, “provided we suffer with him” [Rom 8:17; Rom 3:25; 1 Jn 2:1-2; cf. Council of Trent(1551): DS 1690].

“The satisfaction that we make for our sins, however, is not so much ours as though it were not done through Jesus Christ. We who can do nothing ourselves, as if just by ourselves, can do all things with the cooperation of “him who strengthens” us. Thus man has nothing of which to boast, but all our boasting is in Christ … in whom we make satisfaction by bringing forth “fruits that befit repentance.” These fruits have their efficacy from him, by him they are offered to the Father, and through him they are accepted by the Father[Council of Trent(1551): DS 1691; cf. Phil 4:13; 1 Cor 1:31; 2 Cor 10:17; Gal 6:14; Lk 3:8].

That rather brings me to where I want to be in this discussion in order to speak of the Scriptural witness to the doctrine of Purgatory. As Pastor Mark and Matthias and other concerned dialogue partners should note, there is ample reference in these passages to the Scriptures. I would like to look in the future at exactly how the teaching of the Scriptures supports the Catholic teaching of purgatory.

But enough for now. I would be obliged if you could offer your reflections on what I have written here. I would be particularly obliged if anyone could answer me this question: is (2) rupture of communion with the Church an “eternal” or “temporal” punishment?

About Schütz

I am a PhD candidate & sessional academic at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, Australia. After almost 10 years in ministry as a Lutheran pastor, I was received into the Catholic Church in 2003. I worked for the Archdiocese of Melbourne for 18 years in Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations. I have been editor of Gesher for the Council of Christians & Jews and am guest editor of the historical journal “Footprints”. I have a passion for pilgrimage and pioneered the MacKillop Woods Way.
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15 Responses to Penance, Temporal Punishments and Purgatory

  1. Terra says:

    David – I don’t think you have it quite right as yet.
    1. “…“temporal punishments” specifically mean (5) the imposition of penance by the Church. This penance is imposed by the Church by her authority to “bind and loose” ….It cannot refer to “attachment to sin” (3) or “the effect of my sin on creation and other people” (4), since quite obviously baptism does not remove these temporal consequences.

    No. Temporal punishments indeed come from God, not the Church.

    Baptism can indeed remove the effects of the effects of our actions on others and creation. That’s because it is a sacrament, operating outside the normal laws. Just as bread and water becomes body and blood, so too all sins and their effects are wiped away in baptism. So perfect contrition only becomes relevant for sins committed after baptism. This is why so many in the early Church delayed baptism until the last minute – because it was an (almost) guaranteed route straight to heaven!

    What the Church does in the sacrament of confession is provide a punishment which goes some (or even potentially all) of the way to working off temporal punishment now rather than in purgatory. The satisfaction serves to confirm our repentance and go some way to expiation. But performing it may or may not wipe out the whole of the temporal punishment due to a sin (the tougher the penance – hence those long penances in the early church – and the greater your fervour in doing it, the more likely it is to expunge the temporal punishments you have accumulated), D904.

    The binding and losing power goes first to the sins themselves. It does go to punishment: firstly removing the eternal punishment. And the Church accesses it indirectly for temporal punishment through indulgences, but that isn’t setting what the temporal punishment should be or letting you off the temporal punishment directly, but rather by accessing the treasury of merits (ie the satisfaction is done by someone else for you).

    2. Source for the statement that Baptism wipes out all sin, eternal and temporal: Ott cites Council of Trent D792 (also cf 696): “…in renatis nihil odit Deus…ita ut nihil prorsus eos ab ingressu coeli remoretur.” He also cites a number of patristic sources, and St Thomas (III69, 2).

    3. Rupture with the Church – I think must be temporal rather than eternal, given what we know about the effects of excommunication (ie cease at death).

    Hope this helps!

    • Gareth says:

      I may be getting of the point of your post David, but as Terra suggests. I always thought of ‘temporary punishment’ as coming from God.

      I always thought of it as when we go to the sacrament of penance and receive a prescribed action for our penance (e.g. say three Hail Mary’s), if this is not sufficient to pay back the debt we owe God, He will decide the correct temporal punishment Himself. Sometimes this temporal punishment may include purgatory.

      And it is not all doom and gloom, the purpose of temporary punishment is not only to carry out our debt to God, but to also draw closer to Him. Temporary punishment may simply be in some cases attending daily Mass more often.

      From my own understanding, we should be grateful that temporary punishment is for God’s elect.

      • Schütz says:

        Well, yes, certainly I agree that the purpose of the temporal punishments are to draw us closer to God. The guilt has been forgiven, we are reconciled, and now God desires, for the good of our soul, that, with the aid of Christ’s merits, we draw ever closer to him and further from sin.

    • Schütz says:

      A couple of clarifications, Terra:

      1) When the Church says that “temporal punishments” are remitted by the carrying out of a penance or the obtaining of an indulgence, it is clearly talking about penances imposed by the Church. The Church, as God’s agent, imposes penances and grants indulgences. In saying this, I’m not denying that temporal punishments are “from God”, I am simply saying that the Church is the agent of God in the dispensation of these “temporal Punishments”.

      2) But, existentially speaking, does Baptism remove all the effects of my sin? Imagine a Catechumen who has been an adulterer. His wife has found out about it, and it has done great damage to their marriage. He repents of his adultery, comes to faith, seeks baptism, is instructed, and is baptised. It is quite possible that in this period of catechesis and preparation for baptism he has overcome all his former attachment to his mistress, and that he has completely healed his relationship with his wife. OR…he might not have. The reception of baptismal grace will certainly help in this area, but he will not automatically climb up from the font with his relationship with his wife completely restored and his attachment to sin completely gone. That’s the difficulty I have with the assertion that baptism removes all “temporal punishments”, if we include in “temporal punishments” attachments to creatures (3) and the effects on creation and others (4).

      3) As for rupture with the Church, I don’t think you have answered my concern. Excommunication is a “penance imposed by the Church”, ie. (5), not (2), and thus it is a “temporal punishment”. Rupture in the relationship with the Communion of saints happens at the same time that rupture in relation to God happens, ie. with the committing of a mortal sin. It is healed at the same time the relationship with God is healed, ie. with sacramental absolution. So… Not quite sure if you’ve nailed that one.

      4) Finally, as for our good friend Mr Ott, Denzinger 792 reads:

      792 5. If anyone denies that by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, which is conferred in baptism, the guilt of original sin is remitted, or even asserts that the whole of that which has the true and proper nature of sin is not taken away, but says that it is only touched in person or is not imputed, let him be anathema. For in those who are born again, God hates nothing, because “there is no condemnation, to those who are truly buried together with Christ by baptism unto death” [Rom. 6:4], who do not “walk according to the flesh” [Rom. 8:1], but putting off “the old man” and putting on the “new, who is created according to God” [Eph. 4:22 ff.; Col. 3:9 ff.], are made innocent, immaculate, pure, guiltless and beloved sons of God, “heirs indeed of God, but co-heirs with Christ” [Rom.8:17], SO that there is nothing whatever to retard their entrance into heaven. But this holy Synod confesses and perceives that there remains in the baptized concupiscence of an inclination, although this is left to be wrestled with, it cannot harm those who do not consent, but manfully resist by the grace of Jesus Christ. Nay, indeed, “he who shall have striven lawfully, shall be crowned” [2 Tim. 2:5]. This concupiscence, which at times the Apostle calls sin [Rom. 6:12 ff.] the holy Synod declares that the Catholic Church has never understood to be called sin, as truly and properly sin in those born again, but because it is from sin and inclines to sin. But if anyone is of the contrary opinion, let him be anathema.

      This is the well known passage denying the Reformers doctrine that Original Sin continues after baptism. As I said in my post, the Reformers confused concupiscence with original sin. It is the phrase “SO that there is nothing whatever to retard their entrance into heaven” that would seem to indicate that all “temporal punishments” are remitted in baptism, since to have nothing retarding one’s “entrance into heaven” would imply a full and complete purification. But here is my difficulty: what if the recipient of the sacrament of baptism still has “attachment to creatures” at the time of his baptism, or if someone somewhere is still suffering the effects of some evil he has done before he was baptised? Does that invalidate the Sacrament? I am having difficulty working this one through.

      • Gareth says:

        David: The Church, as God’s agent, imposes penances and grants indulgences. In saying this, I’m not denying that temporal punishments are “from God”, I am simply saying that the Church is the agent of God in the dispensation of these “temporal Punishments”.

        Gareth: Hang on, if one was to take the traditional Catholic definition of ‘temporal punishments’ as being purely and simply the punishment that God requires of the sinner for failing to do penance in this life, then I am not sure that the logic used above can be applied.

        The imposition of penance on behalf of the Church (and also which we freely choose to carry out) is just that – a penance.

        In my opinion, ‘Temporary punishment’ in the traditional sense of the word should be left to meaning the satisfaction and punishment of sin required of God alone.

        For if the Church knew solely to impose penance in accordance with God’s requirements, there would be no need for the explanation of temporal punishment to begin with.

        David: But, existentially speaking, does Baptism remove all the effects of my sin?

        Gareth: Well, technically, according to Church teaching it DOES remove all the temporary punishment – Hooray, God is pretty merciful!!

        …but there is a catch when taking the next step and applying this to attachment to sin, which I am not sure about. As you point out, the complete removal of temporary punishment may not necessary mean that a person is no longer attached to sin.

        John XXIII once used a useful analogy of taking a daily shower to demonstrate confession/baptism. A morning shower may completly removes all dirt and grit from us, but there is potential to or we can easily get pretty dirty quickly throughout the day again.

        This does not mean that the shower in itself is useless or that we should take a shower the next day.

        I guess if we view baptism as our original first shower that helps.

  2. Terra says:

    I think Gareth basically has it right.

    1) “When the Church says that “temporal punishments” are remitted by the carrying out of a penance or the obtaining of an indulgence, it is clearly talking about penances imposed by the Church.”

    No. As The Catechism points out (1472) both eternal punishment and temporal punishments flow from the sin itself, not from anything the Church does. The penance imposed at confession may or may not reflect the extent of punishment due. The Compendium of the CCC says: Indulgences are the remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgotten…”, they are not about the satisfactions or other punishments the church imposes for various reasons.
    2) On your adulterer who is baptized, the important point is that the sacraments ‘work’ regardless of our own dispositions. Indeed, isn’t this one of the fundamental differences between protestant and catholic theologies? Baptism won’t heal a broken relationship with his wife – that will take action on both their sides. Nor does it remove inclination to sin (concupiscence). But so far as the punishment for his sin is concerned, he has, however temporarily, a clean slate.
    3) On citations for baptism, I note that the Catechism also cites the Council of Florence, DS 1316.
    4) On the rupture with the Church, I admit I’m just speculating here, when I get time I’ll dig a bit further, but let’s be clear that eternal punishment really means going to hell. At that point we obviously are cut off from the Church. But the reason I mentioned excommunication is that it really means cut off from all the aids of the Church here and now. And I’ve always taken that to include the help of the Church Triumphant, but I’m willing to be corrected on that (there are some clear counter examples such as St Joan of Arc, but I think her excommunicatin wasn’t actually valid in the first place?).

  3. Terra says:

    Perhaps to further elaborate on point 1, and go back to the confusion caused by the old form of ‘days etc’, this quote from teh old Catholic Encyclopedia may be helpful:

    •An indulgence is valid both in the tribunal of the Church and in the tribunal of God. This means that it not only releases the penitent from his indebtedness to the Church or from the obligation of performing canonical penance, but also from the temporal punishment which he has incurred in the sight of God and which, without the indulgence, he would have to undergo in order to satisfy Divine justice. This, however, does not imply that the Church pretends to set aside the claim of God’s justice or that she allows the sinner to repudiate his debt. As St. Thomas says (Supplement.25.1 ad 2um), “He who gains indulgences is not thereby released outright from what he owes as penalty, but is provided with the means of paying it.” The Church therefore neither leaves the penitent helplessly in debt nor acquits him of all further accounting; she enables him to meet his obligations. “

  4. Thanks for this, David.
    As per my previous comment, pastoral duties prevent an immediate reponse, but a reponse will be forthcoming over at “Glosses From An Old Manse” asap.
    As it happens I have next weekend off for study leave, so that should provide the time necessary to absorb your argument and rebut it (!)
    I appreciate the tone of the discussion so far, and shall endeavour to respond in kind.
    Kind regards,
    Pr M [aka Acroamaticus]

  5. Terra says:

    By the way, in looking at the canon of Scriptural texts to be used in this discussion, can I recommend close consideration of Psalm 6 and related OT texts on the subject of penitence? The OT does not, it is true, in the main, talk about purgation after death (with some obvious exceptions) but it does provide a theology of purgation (including I think its penal aspects) that grounds the Catholic interpretation of this doctrine.

    Psalm 6 is the first of the penitential psalms, and its context is David’s repentance for his sin with Bethsheba. In the case of David, he suffered and accepted immediate punishment, in the form of the death of his child by Bathsheba. We shouldn’t underplay the real punishments meted out for sins in the Old Testament (and the New for that matter) – they illustrate the serious consequences of sin aside from whatever eternal sentence awaits, as well as enjoining action to avoid that eternal punishment (see for example Ps 7, Unlesss you convert….)

    In relation to eternal punishment, David is recognized as a saint by the Church; he obviously achieved a state of perfect contrition.

    But the emphasis on the length of time he spent pouring out his tears in his bed, his aching bones, and his plaintive question, how long? (verse 3) all point to a doctrine of purgation that is closely related to, but separate to attaining a state of contrition.

    The ultimate acceptance of his offering in verse 9 of the psalm points to a positive aspect of the doctrines around sin and penance, namely that if our sorrow for sin, and thus detachment from it, is sufficiently intense, we can be purified of even the remaining temporal punishment due to us. It is for this reason that St Benedict urges his monks ‘To daily in our prayer, with tears and sighs, to confess our past sins to God’ (RB4).

  6. Louise says:

    How do we understand 1Cor 3:15 (I hope I got that right) without an understanding of purgatory?

    • Gareth says:

      Yes that is a pretty ‘big’ quote to add to the ‘Catholic arsenal’ :) on the doctorine of purgatory – although I would be careful using this verse alone.

      I am going to go out on a limb and say that in regards to Scripture versus that touch upon purgatory, the Catholic can argue there are plenty of implicit suggestions, but finding a out and out explicit verse can be a difficult task.

      The Catholic has to fall back upon Sacred tradition to a certain extent.

      What do you others think?

      • Schütz says:

        Well, yes, as a modus operandi, I will be assuming that we cannot “prove” the doctrine of Purgatory from Scripture. My attempt will be modest, and that is to show that the doctrine is supported by Scripture, that is, not “un-Scriptural”. Ratzinger makes this point in his Eschatology book, and, in passing, in Spe Salvi. The doctrine of Purgatory has a history, just like the doctrine of the Holy Trinity and oh-so-many other Christian doctrines. It arose when Christians reflected upon the inherited Jewish eschatology in the light of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is undeniable that the Resurrection of Jesus was not a piece of doctrinal data, but an experience that rewrote the previous (Jewish) understanding of what happens when we die. Protestants may not like this approach because it does not fulfil the criteria of “clear doctrine” being complete when the last book of the New Testament was written. Orthodox may not like it because it implies “development”. But it is the situation of all Church teaching as I see it, and thus I think it will suffice to see that Scripture not so much “supports” Tradition, but rather is the source of the reflection that became Tradition.

        • Mr. Schütz, if the person who made the calumny in the following comment does not retract it, could you please delete the comment and bar the commenter from making future comments:

          (I regret having to do this, and I don’t mean to derail this thread so please don’t you or any other readers respond to this comment here, but the thread in question seems to have gone ‘stale’ and I wanted this out in the open rather than conducted privately.)

    • Schütz says:

      This will be the subject of a whole separate discussion on the biblical issues.

  7. Terra says:

    So have we convinced you yet on the basic theology?

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