New contribution from Pope Benedict on the subject of Purgatory

I have only just finished reading the final report of the US Catholic Lutheran Dialogue “The Hope of Eternal Life” – which, while not “perfect in every way”, is a very thorough study of a number of matters relating to eschatology, and incorporates a good deal of Pope Benedict’s teaching in Eschatology and Spe Salvi. Thus his teaching is already being incorporated into the magisterial kitbag that Catholic ecumenical theologians take to the dialogue table.

Actually, “The Hope of Eternal Life” gives most consideration to Ratzinger’s Eschatology under the topic of the Immortality of the Soul, in which it gives a big tick to “dialogical immortality” as a paradigm that can assist Lutherans and Catholics together to affirm this doctrine – in passing, I would say that this same “dialogical” perspective is important in the doctrine of Purgatory also, and this seems to be confirmed by the latest development in BXVI’s magisterium.

Which is this contribution from his most recent Wednesday Audience Catechesis on Saint Catherine of Genoa (full translation not yet available):

Catherine’s thought on purgatory, for which she is particularly known, is condensed in the last two parts of the book mentioned at the beginning: “Treatise on Purgatory” and “Dialogues on the Soul and Body.”

It is important to observe that, in her mystical experience, Catherine never had specific revelations on purgatory or on souls that are being purified there. However, in the writings inspired by our saint purgatory is a central element, and the way of describing it has original characteristics in relation to her era.

The first original feature refers to the “place” of the purification of souls. In her time [purgatory] was presented primarily with recourse to images connected to space: There was thought of a certain space where purgatory would be found. For Catherine, instead, purgatory is not represented as an element of the landscape of the core of the earth; it is a fire that is not exterior but interior.

This is purgatory, an interior fire. The saint speaks of the soul’s journey of purification to full communion with God, based on her own experience of profound sorrow for the sins committed, in contrast to the infinite love of God. We have heard about the moment of her conversion, when Catherine suddenly felt God’s goodness, the infinite distance of her life from this goodness and a burning fire within her. And this is the fire that purifies, it is the interior fire of purgatory.

Here also there is an original feature in relation to the thought of the era. She does not begin, in fact, from the beyond to narrate the torments of purgatory – as was usual at that time and perhaps also today – and then indicate the path for purification or conversion. Instead our saint begins from her own interior experience of her life on the path to eternity.

The soul, says Catherine, appears before God still bound to the desires and the sorrow that derive from sin, and this makes it impossible for it to enjoy the Beatific Vision of God. Catherine affirms that God is so pure and holy that the soul with stains of sin cannot be in the presence of the Divine Majesty. And we also realize how far we are, how full we are of so many things, so that we cannot see God. The soul is conscious of the immense love and perfect justice of God and, in consequence, suffers for not having responded correctly and perfectly to that love, and that is why the love itself of God becomes a flame. Love itself purifies it from its dross of sin.

Theological and mystical sources typical of the era can be found in Catherine’s work. Particularly there is an image from Dionysius the Areopagite: that of the golden thread that unites the human heart with God himself. When God has purified man, he ties him with a very fine thread of gold, which is his love, and attracts him to himself with such strong affection that man remains as “overcome and conquered and altogether outside himself.” Thus the human heart is invaded by the love of God, which becomes the only guide, the sole motor of his existence.

This situation of elevation to God and of abandonment to his will, expressed in the image of the thread, is used by Catherine to express the action of the divine light on souls in purgatory, light that purifies them and elevates them to the splendors of the shining rays of God.

Dear friends, the saints, in their experience of union with God, reach such profound “knowledge” of the divine mysteries, in which love and knowledge are fused, that they are of help to theologians themselves in their task of study, of “intelligentia fidei,” of “intelligentia” of the mysteries of the faith, of real deepening in the mysteries, for example, of what purgatory is. […]

To relate these comments to his earlier teaching in Eschatology and Spe Salvi, Benedict identifies the “interior fire” which he sees in St Catherine’s teaching with nothing other than the post-death encounter of the human soul (the human person/self as “The Hope of Eternal Life” likes to say) with the saving and judging presence of Christ himself:

47. 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.

Thus, at the end of life, all human souls encounter Christ. How that judgment takes place – whether it is primarily a saving encounter or a judging encounter – depends on the personal situation and state of each individual human being in relation to Christ. And thus we can also see how this “dialogical” theology of eschatological experience opens the door to ecumenical understanding on the doctrine of purgatory as well as the doctrine of the immortality of the soul.

Update: It might be helpful if at this point I provide the “common affirmation” on the doctrine of purgatory from “The Hope of Eternal Life” for readers who don’t want to wade through the whole document:

5. Common Affirmations

206. When misconceptions are stripped away and the continuing reflections of our churches are taken into account, the difference between our churches on the doctrine of purgatory is seen in a new light.


207. Catholics and Lutherans agree:

1. During this life, the justified “are not exempt from a lifelong struggle against the contradiction to God within the selfish desires of the old Adam (see Gal. 5:16; Rom. 7:7-10)” (JDDJ, 28; cf. Trent DS 1515 and 1690 and LC, Baptism, paras. 65-67236).

2. This struggle is rightly described by a variety of categories: e.g., penitence, healing, daily dying and rising with Christ.

3. Borne in Christ, the painful aspects of this struggle are a participation in Christ’s suffering and death. Catholic teachings call these pains temporal punishments; the Lutheran Confessions grant they can, “in a formal sense,” be called punishments.

4. This ongoing struggle does not indicate an insufficiency in Christ’s saving work, but is an aspect of our being conformed to Christ and his saving work.

5. The effects of sin in the justified are fully removed only as they die, undergo judgment, and encounter the purifying love of Christ. The justified are transformed from their condition at death to the condition with which they will be blessed in eternal glory. All, even martyrs and saints of the highest order, will find the encounter with the Risen Christ transformative in ways beyond human comprehension.

6. Christ transforms those who enter into eternal life. This change is a work of God’s grace. It can be rightly understood as our final and perfect conformation to Christ (Phil 3:21). The fire of Christ’s love burns away all that is incompatible with living in the direct presence of God. It is the complete death of the old person, leaving only the new person in Christ.

7. Scripture tells us little about the process of the transformation from this life to entrance into eternal life. Categories of space and time can be applied only analogously.

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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2 Responses to New contribution from Pope Benedict on the subject of Purgatory

  1. William Weedon says:

    Beautiful words from St. Catherine. If I might, compare this to the words of the Lutheran Symbols in Ap XII:70 where the notion of purgatory in the fathers as the purification of imperfect souls in which the venial offenses are consumed is mentioned without any disagreement with this being noted.

    • Schütz says:

      That’s very interesting, Pastor Bill. (BTW the online LCMS version I looked up has this at Ap VI:70, not XII:70). For our readers, the full citation is:

      “Moreover, the making mention, by the Fathers, of satisfaction, and the framing of canons by the councils, we have said above, was a matter of church-discipline instituted on account of the example. Nor did they hold that this discipline is necessary for the remission either of the guilt or of the punishment. For if some of them made mention of purgatory, they interpret it not as compensation for eternal punishment, not as satisfaction, but as purification of imperfect souls. Just as Augustine says that venial offenses are consumed, i.e., distrust towards God and other similar dispositions are mortified. Now and then the writers transfer the term satisfaction from the rite itself or spectacle, to signify true mortification. Thus Augustine says: ‘True satisfaction is to cut off the causes of sin, i.e., to mortify the flesh, likewise to restrain the flesh, not in order that eternal punishments may be compensated for, but so that the flesh may not allure to sin.'”

      This is a signficant passage and should be brought to bear on our discussions with one another, because it amounts to a possible meeting place. Certainly the Church does not teach that purgatory has anything to with “eternal punishments” – we all agree that these have been entirely covered by Christ. Further we can agree that purgatory does not purify anyone from mortal sin, since mortal sin by definition cuts one off from friendship with God and cannot be purified after death. And moreover, we agree that purgatory is about the “purification of imperfect souls” (even “The Hope of Eternal Life” seems to find agreement that there is a transformation of souls post-death). The only remaining problem then is with the language of “satisfaction” – and this I agree is a difficulty, as it is the language of Trent. We will need to find a way in which this new “dialogical” approach can square with – or interpret sensibly – the traditional penitential language of the Church.

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