Questions Answered – February 2020

Purgatory and Filthy Lucre

Question: I teach RCIA and a catechumen in my class said he was taught that Catholics dreamed up Purgatory as a way to get money from people. I know Purgatory is referred to in Maccabees and responded that Catholics carried on the belief in a place we refer to as Purgatory from the Jews. How could I have answered better?

Answer: This is a common complaint on the part of those influenced by Protestantism and has its origin in Luther’s objection to indulgences which, of course, reflects the doctrine of temporal punishment due to sin in Purgatory. This led the Council of Trent to reaffirm this doctrine, as it is so close to a reasonable analysis of the experience of the human race of salvation. The text deserves to be quoted in full:

Whereas the Catholic Church, instructed by the Holy Ghost, has, from the sacred writings and the ancient tradition of the fathers, taught, in sacred councils, and very recently in this œcumenical synod, that there is a Purgatory, and that the souls there detained are relieved by the suffrages of the faithful, but chiefly by the acceptable sacrifice of the altar; the holy synod enjoins on bishops that they diligently strive that the sound doctrine touching Purgatory, delivered by the holy fathers and sacred councils, be believed, held, taught, and everywhere proclaimed by the faithful of Christ. But let the more difficult and subtle questions, and those which tend not to edification, and from which for the most part there is no increase of piety, be excluded from popular discourses before the uneducated multitude. In like manner, such things as are uncertain, or which labour under an appearance of error, let them not allow to be made public and treated of. But those things which tend to a certain kind of curiosity or superstition, or which savour of filthy lucre, let them prohibit as scandals and stumbling-blocks of the faithful. And let the bishops take care, that the suffrages of the faithful who are living, to wit, the sacrifices of Masses, prayers, almsgivings, and other works of piety, which have been wont to be formed by the faithful for the other faithful departed, be piously and devoutly performed, according to the institutes of the Church; and that what things soever are due on their behalf from the endowments of testators, or in other way, be discharged, not in a negligent manner, but diligently and accurately, by the priests and ministers of the Church, and others who are bound to render this service. (Council of Trent, Session XXV, DS 1820)

One can notice here that the Church wanted a straightforward explanation of Purgatory, without treating more subtle questions. The Church also wanted to avoid what was perceived as an abuse of the whole idea and indulgences which smacked of trafficking in Masses. So, the first point to make is that the Church was and is certainly aware that there has been in the past a simoniac interpretation of this doctrine.

That being said, besides the reference in Maccabees you cite about prayers for the dead, does Purgatory make sense? Of course it does. The doctrine depends on the distinction between temporal and eternal punishment due to sin. A useful analogy would be an offense of a close human relationship. One has a very dear and close friend who has a prized possession. For a man it might be a Ferrari; for a woman, a beautiful dress. In a fit of anger at this friend, one destroys this prized possession. One is filled with instant remorse. The friend is a kind and gracious person and forgives. Two things remain unresolved, however: the unjust anger which led one to do such an unloving thing, and the possession which remains destroyed. To make restitution fully, each must be resolved.

In a similar way, each of us offends against God through mortal sin. We confess our sin and he forgives us the punishment due our sin; hell, if it is a mortal sin. The disorder in the character which led to the sin remains and, if another has been harmed, let us say by murder, the disruption of the order of the world in the attack on innocent life still remains. This also needs to be satisfied by temporal punishment. If one simply offends in a slight matter, this is a venial sin, but there is still some disorder in the character which led to this. Suppose Hitler, for example, had repented in the last moment of his life. God would accept this, but the disorder in his character is deep which led him to mass murder and destruction. This must be satisfied.

On earth we can do this by positive moral acts. Our purification is active. But after death one does not have a body, and purification is passive. God is satisfied when the penitent is satisfied. It makes no sense that sinners should experience no suffering personally for the evil they have caused, even if they can go the heaven.

Thomas Aquinas makes a distinction between the pain of loss, which is in the ability of man to experience heaven, and the pain of sense, which is his feeling about this. In hell, there is both the pain of loss and the pain of sense; in the limbo of the children, there is the pain of loss but no pain of sense (they do not suffer personally); in Purgatory, there is the pain of sense but NOT the pain of loss, as these people are destined for heaven. They can do nothing positive to speed their quest, but we, through the union we all have in Christ, can. Prayers, sacrifices, and indulgences connected to these, especially the Mass, are marvelous ways to express our union of love with them. We do positive works in which we apply the treasury of love of Christ to them to aid in their purification.


Old to New Covenant

Question: The following question was raised by a member of our Bible study: When did the transition from the Old Covenant (our Jewish heritage) to the New Covenant (Christianity) happen? I extend the questioning to ask if this transition was a single event and point in time or a process involving many events and much time?

Answer: This is not an easy question to answer. First it is necessary to distinguish the Old Law from the New Law. According to St. Thomas, the Old Law comprises three sorts of precepts: moral, ceremonial, and juridical. The Catechism of the Catholic Church has taken up this division, as it is classic. The moral precepts comprise all ten of the Commandments and correspond to the natural law. The ceremonial precepts occupy the first three of the Commandments, or the first tablet, and have to do with the worship of God. They also include all those liturgical practices specific to Israel as a holy “People of God.” They include things like circumcision, the Passover, and the ritual of sacrifices in the Temple. Their meaning is primarily figurative, rather than literal. The juridical precepts comprise the last seven of the Commandments, or the second tablet of the law, and are oriented to the proper conduct of a holy person towards the neighbor. They comprise very specific actions in Israel, such as the law of first fruits and jubilees. Their meaning is primarily literal, rather than figurative.

The primary commandment of the Law is monotheism, as a preparation for the coming of the Messiah. The Old Law includes the proper motivations of love, as is seen in Deuteronomy and Leviticus. The problem is that it cured for the ignorance of the people about the truth which resulted from the Original Sin, but not from the malice of the will. It taught a conduct which could not be lived without grace, yet in itself, it did not confer grace.

The New Law, on the other hand, is primarily an interior law. In itself it cures malice because it is the Holy Spirit of grace dwelling in the heart of the holy person. Exterior works are a part of it but only preparatory to grace, like the sacraments, or executive of grace, like morals. As to the ceremonies, they are all fulfilled in Christ. This transition began to occur when John the Baptist called the people to repentance. When Christ was conceived in Mary, the Old Law no longer had force as to its ceremonial or juridical precepts, though the moral precepts remain. There is a transition period in his ministry, though. His circumcision puts an end to the need of circumcision, he meets the Temple as its Lord in the Presentation, he observes the Passover with the exception of the fourth cup in the Last Supper, which is then drunk and completed in the Passion. When Jesus says, “It is finished,” the weight of the Latin text, at least, is “it is fulfilled.” When the veil in the Temple is torn in his death and his side is pierced and blood and water flow out, the Temple ritual has really come to an end.

As to the juridical precepts, since the heart of the Christian should be holy, he should love God and neighbor from the right intention, as is witnessed in the Sermon on the Mount, which corresponds to Mt. Sinai in the Old Law. The completion of this interior change occurs when the Holy Spirit is sent on the Church in Pentecost and the Apostles begin their mission to preach and baptize. The juridical precepts are for Israel, as seen in the many interpretations of the Law in books like Deuteronomy. An example is the law of first fruits, where the owner of a field can take the first harvest. But what he misses or the second harvest must be left for the poor and the orphans and strangers. Commandments like these are abrogated by Christ in the sense that one full of the Holy Spirit should know what to do about these things and not need a written code to guide him. The Holy Spirit guides him.

So, though there is a process in the completion of the Old Law by the New and Eternal Covenant, I would say the pivotal moments are the death of Jesus, involving the forgiveness of sins, and his Resurrection and the sending of the Holy Spirit, regarding the sanctification and renewal of the interior person.

Fr. Brian Mullady, OP About Fr. Brian Mullady, OP

Fr. Brian T. Mullady, OP, entered the Dominican Order in 1966 and was ordained in 1972. He has been a parish priest, high school teacher, retreat master, mission preacher, and university professor. He has had seven series on EWTN and is the author of two books and numerous articles, including his regular column in HPR, “Questions Answered.”

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