What does the Catholic Church teach about Purgatory?

Today is All Souls and the day raises many questions from Catholics and non-Catholics alike. So what does the Church teach about Purgatory?

The following is from the official Catechism of the Catholic Church. Please read carefully. The paragraphs below dispel many Protestant (and Eastern Orthodox) misconceptions about Purgatory:

1030 All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.

1031 The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned. The Church formulated her doctrine of faith on Purgatory especially at the Councils of Florence and Trent. The tradition of the Church, by reference to certain texts of Scripture, speaks of a cleansing fire:

As for certain lesser faults, we must believe that, before the Final Judgment, there is a purifying fire. He who is truth says that whoever utters blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will be pardoned neither in this age nor in the age to come. From this sentence we understand that certain offenses can be forgiven in this age, but certain others in the age to come. (St. Gregory the Great, Dial. 4,39:PL 77,396; cf. Mt 12:31.)

This teaching is also based on the practice of prayer for the dead, already mentioned in Sacred Scripture: “Therefore [Judas Maccabeus] made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin.” From the beginning the Church has honored the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God. The Church also commends almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead:

Let us help and commemorate them. If Job’s sons were purified by their father’s sacrifice, why would we doubt that our offerings for the dead bring them some consolation? Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and to offer our prayers for them. (611 St. John Chrysostom, Hom. in 1 Cor. 41,5:PG 61,361; cf. Job 1:5.)

So first of all, Purgatory is not eternal Hell. Secondly, only the elect, that is saved Christians, will go there. Purgatory is a place only for those on their way to Heaven. It is the final purification of those who die in fellowship with Christ.

There are Scripture passages relating to prayer for the dead. If one accepts 2 Maccabees (as quoted above) as canonical, then once must accept prayer for the dead. Many scholars believe that St Paul prays for a dead friend in 2 Timothy chapter 1:

[16] May the Lord grant mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, for he often refreshed me; he was not ashamed of my chains,
[17] but when he arrived in Rome he searched for me eagerly and found me —
[18] may the Lord grant him to find mercy from the Lord on that Day — and you well know all the service he rendered at Ephesus.

Our Savior Christ also mentions that there is opportunity for forgiveness in this life and after death:

Matthew 12:32 And whoever says a word against the Son of man will be forgiven; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.

But the most convincing passage for me was 1 Corinthians 3:13-15:

[13] each man’s work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done.
[14] If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward.
[15] If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.

First of all, each man will be judged and his work “will be revealed with fire.” The good we have done will survive the fire and will be our “reward.” The evil we have done will be “burned up” and “he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.”

Here we see that this kind of fire is not Hell, but “he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.” The Greek word for fire is “pur” and it is the same Indo-European root from which “PUR-gatory” derives. Purgatory is that state of purification by fire for those who are already saved.

The Protestant might ask at this point, “Well if somebody is already saved, then why do that have to pass through this fire? Didn’t Christ die for all their sins?”

Yes, Christ died for their sins and has redeemed them. But He died that we might become actually holy. “Be holy as I am holy.” The fire of Purgatory is the fire of God’s love causing us to “suffer loss” by a sort of final repentance from our sins. It is therefore painful because we must let go of the desires of the flesh and face our failings. This is what it means to “suffer loss”. We can’t get around the words of St Paul who says that Christians must pass through fire after death.

If Uzzah was killed by God for merely touching the Ark of the Covenant, then we must be fully sanctified to enter Heaven. The debt has been paid but we have not fully been transformed into the image of Christ. Christ died to make us actually and really holy. Purgatory is this final transformation by which our Christ-centered actions are acknowledged and our sinful affections are burned away.

1 Cor 12:26 If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.

Best of all, we should have the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass offered for the faithful departed. We are a family and we’re all in this together. One thing I’m learning as a Catholic is that we really are one huge family in Christ. When we pray for the departed we are asking God “who is a consuming fire” to assist those who are undergoing their final repentance and purification as they prepare to entere His All-Holy presence.

I commend to you two of my recent blog posts:

Orthodox Judaism and Purgatory

CS Lewis and Purgatory

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  • Eli

    Hey, thanks for the super-helpful post. As a convert it helps having another convert’s perspective on this stuff. ^_^

  • rsmcnamara

    Thank you.  In the East, we are taught that the Fire  – be it of Gehenna, “Purgatory”, or the Divine Light of Heaven – is God Himself.  To me, this makes the most scriptural sense, both in light of the passages you mention, and in light of the otherwise difficult passage in Revealtions where “hell is thrown into the fire”.  It also explains how on the last day, one’s judgment depends not on the mutability of God, but instead on the state of one’s soul.  If one is gold, he would glow, if one is chaff, he would burn In God’s presence.  Most of us are somewhere in between, and are therefore saved through that Holy Fire. 
    The Council of Trent, however, if memory serves me correctly, indicated that Purgatory is a distinct place.  Aquinas, moreover, created an entire geography of places the soul might go.  What is the Roman Catholic Church’s position on this matter now? In the East, we believe in Heaven (as the presence of God) and Hades (the place of all the dead – though one’s experience there may vary).

  • Robert Sessford

    Matthew 25:34
     tunc dicet rex his qui a dextris eius erunt venite benedicti Patris mei possidete paratum vobis regnum a constitutione mundi

    I notice our Lord did not say “come, blessed of my father, and enter into a place where you will be so sad about your sins, you will be finally clean, then you can enter into the joy of your father.”

    Be careful you don’t back up a human idea with snipits of scripture. I know we all want to be rid of sin, and be pure in word thought and deed.
    I don’t think you have to figure out how God will do it. ((Unless the motive (I hope not) is to use purgatory not as a hope of cleansing, but as a tool to “motivate” people not to be TOO bad in this life.) I leave you with a scripture:

    1 John 3:2  Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be : but we know that, when he shall appear , we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is.

    If the Roman position is that the first 10 minutes or 10 years of “seeing him” (amount of time dependant upon state of one’s personal holiness at time of death) is so searing hot that it cleans us up so we may enjoy heaven, well, well… whatever. What is TIME in eternity, anyway?

    I personally find joy in knowing the blood of Jesus has cleansed me and because of that, the father will welcome me, even me, into his presence.

  • Lagniappe

    If Uzzah was killed by God for merely touching the Ark of the Covenant, then we must be fully sanctified to enter Heaven. The debt has been paid but we have not fully been transformed into the image of Christ. Christ died to make us actually and really holy. Purgatory is this final transformation by which our Christ-centered actions are acknowledged and our sinful affections are burned away.

    I have isolated only one paragraph here that I respectfully and humbly believe is inaccurate.  Considering the “Judaism” reference in the blog title, why are you not examining the Book of Hebrews?  The definitive expression of the Great High Priest from chapter 5 through 10 is a clear and ever present reminder to the elect that Jesus came to complete the work He was foreordained to do.  Chapters 9 and 10 especially emphasize His work, i.e., the new covenant and the satisfaction of His once-for-all offering made to His Father for His elect. 

    Purgatory is not a clearly defined place anywhere in the sacred writings; however, the faithful Catholics accept it as a truth borne from the work of the Medival council members and and the Ancient Fathers.  But nothing comes without a price — when the shekels swirl and clang in the coffers, the souls being purified are another step closer to entering eternity in Paradise — except eternity is infinity — without time — how will I or others know when the last farthing has been paid, the last Mass has been offered, the last rosary has been recited, the last contribution has been enough????  I think Johann Tetzel is still alive and well on planet earth. 

    Humility is my intent, not sarcasim.  But please render some serious thought to the whole notion of a purification of sin as stated above: 

    1030 All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven

    This statement is oxymoronic for one cannot be a friend of God without holiness (1 Peter 1:17).  The answer is that we are always repenting repenters but our righteousness is not in a church or ourselves but in the propitiation of Jesus Christ.  His RIGHTEOUSNESS alone is what covers the ugly, mutated nature of humankind before a thrise Holy God (Isa 6).

  • John Brasley

    What does the Catholic Church teach about Purgatory

  • Peregrinus

    Why, Mr. Sessford, would you use Matthew 25:34 to refute the Church’s doctrine of purgatory, given that the Church understands the case of those still living on the Last Day to be an exception? Read again what St. Gregory the Great teaches about this matter in the passage quoted above.

  • Peregrinus

    You argue, in effect, Lagnniape, that the Catechism’s statement is an oymoron and, indeed, the whole doctrine of purgatory is false, given the Protestant notion of holiness, which you briefly describe in the last paragraph of your comment of yesterday at 9:29:36 PM. Note that Mr. Taylor acknowledges the Protestant notion of holiness in his blog and politely states that this notion is incorrect. To comment that the doctrine of purgatory, as outlined in his article, is incorrect, given this notion is, therefore, not to address the argument of the blog. You must explain why Mr. Taylor is mistaken in dismissing this Protestant notion, if you wish to offer a valid criticism.

  • Robert Sessford

    Peregrinus: Well, even the wise do not (should not) claim to know everything about end-times. Some would say Matthew 25 does not refer to a gathering of those living as we know it, when Christ reveals himself, but rather, a gathering together of all souls.  But you open another question: On what scriptural basis do you exclude from purgatory, those who are living at what is generally referred to as “Christ’s return”? IE: Why don’t they need it?
    As far as Mr. Marshall’s polite statement that the protestant notion of holiness is incorrect…. a rather large topic to sweep away with less than one paragraph.
    Thanks to Mr. Marshall for facilitating this forum for discussion.

  • John

    Taylor, thanks for this post. I might add that Peter Kreeft’s Catholic Christianity, on page 197 Sec. 20, describes the difference between mortal and venial sin, and it helped me reconcile my beliefs about purgatory. “To die in the state of mortal sin is to lose heaven forever. To die with venial sins on the soul is to need purgatory to purify the soul before heaven. To die with neither kind of sin or their consequences in the soul is to merit heaven without the need for purgatory.” 
    Fr. John (Anglican) EDofFW, Nashotah House ’92.

  • Jonathan

    What’s kind of silly about purgatory to me, is that 1. How does anyone know exactly who is in purgatory in the first place. 2. The verse from Maccabees used to justify the belief was before our Lord’s sacrifice.