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Reader Question: Does the Church Still Believe in Purgatory?

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  • Reader "JoAnnKatherin," writing on our Questions About Catholicism form, asks a question that I hear almost every day:

    Does the Catholic Church still believe in Purgatory? My friend said that her church bulletin printed that there is no Purgatory. Is this true?

    Of all of the teachings of Catholicism, Purgatory is probably the one most often attacked (sometimes unintentionally) by Catholics themselves. But to paraphrase Mark Twain, the reports of Purgatory's death have been greatly exaggerated.

    To see this, we simply need to turn to paragraphs 1030-1032 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. There, in a few short lines, the doctrine of Purgatory is spelled out:

    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.
    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.

    There is more, and I urge readers to check out those paragraphs, but the short answer is yes: Since Purgatory is in the Catechism, the Catholic Church still teaches it, and Catholics are bound to believe in it.

    So why do so many people think that belief in Purgatory is no longer a doctrine of the Church? Part of the confusion arises, I believe, because some Catholics conflate Purgatory and Limbo, a supposed place of natural bliss where the souls of children who die without having received Baptism go (because they are unable to enter Heaven). Limbo is a theological speculation; Purgatory is not.

    A bigger problem, I think, is that many Catholics simply do not understand the need for Purgatory. If you're going to end up in Heaven anyway, why is it necessary to spend time in this intermediate state?

    One of the lines from the previous quotation—"to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven"—points us in the right direction, but the Catechism of the Catholic Church offers even more. In the section on indulgences, there are two paragraphs (1472-1473) on "The punishments of sin":

    [I]t 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. . . .
    The forgiveness of sin and restoration of communion with God entail the remission of the eternal punishment of sin, but temporal punishment of sin remains.

    Through penitential practices, prayer, works of charity, and the patient endurance of suffering, we can work through the temporal punishment for our sins. If any temporal punishment has been left unsatisfied at the end of our life, however, we must endure that punishment in Purgatory before entering Heaven.

    Rather than a strange doctrine, or one which seems punitive, Purgatory should be comforting to us. Unless we are perfect, we cannot enter Heaven, but God has given us the opportunity to atone in the next life for those things which we failed to atone for in this one. Knowing our own weakness, we should thank God for His mercy.

    More on Purgatory and Indulgences:

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