Someone asked me the other day, “Do Catholics still believe in purgatory?” While this may seem like a direct question, the implied question is much more important: “Do Catholic beliefs change?” This is a very important question because if a single Catholic belief changed, the Catholic Church would no longer exist. The word catholic is just one marker of the Catholic Church. The four markers are: one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. Remove one of these markers, and the Church no longer exists. The marker that would be removed if a Catholic belief were to changed is apostolic.
Every belief of the Catholic Church is apostolic. If it were not, it would not be a Christian belief. It is impossible for a single Christian belief to change; however, change is commonplace in Protestantism. This is why there are so many different types of Protestantism with so many different beliefs. Of course, the two essential Christian beliefs remain: Jesus Christ is God Incarnate; and, God is made up of Three Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Without these two beliefs, one is not Christian. However, take away any of the other Christian beliefs, and one is not Catholic.
For example, few Protestants still believe in the Marian beliefs that the original Protestants of the 16th century believed. Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli all believed Mary was the Mother of God (to deny this is to deny Jesus is God). They all believed Mary was a virgin before, during, and after the birth of her Divine Son; and, the “during” part meant belief in the Miraculous Birth (i.e. Mary did not give birth in the natural mode). They all believe Mary was immaculate (i.e. she was without sin). However, they may or may not have believed she was immaculate at the time of her conception.
This is where things may seem confusing. While there was no question whether Mary was immaculate, there was the question of if she was immaculate at the time of her conception or immediately after. The Apostles didn’t have to struggle with this question, but the advent of scholastic theology in the West raised the problem of how an immaculate conception could be reconciled with the belief in original sin. Like the Apostles, the East didn’t really have a problem with this, but these theologians in the West were determined to have some comprehension of every mystery they could. The simple people would assumed Mary was immaculately conceived, but the great intellects had difficulties with it. It took a dunce to figure it out (actually, Mary gave him the grace to figure it out). Hence, the truth was eventually determined and made a dogma, but the belief never changed; only greater understanding of the apostolic belief was had.
This is a bit how the belief in purgatory developed, again, in the West. Some in the East don’t like the term purgatory, but the belief is the same. However, this was the main change in belief that sparked all of the other changes in what would become Protestantism. Protestants began using the Hebrew Canon for the Old Testament, which the Jews began using after the destruction of Jerusalem in the first century to distance themselves from the Christians. (One could argue that, like the Jews, Protestant are distancing themselves from the Christians of the first century.) By abandoning the the Christian Old Testament, the most obvious reference to purgatory was eliminated (i.e. 2 Maccabees 12:43–45), but there were others, such as Matthew 12:32 and 1 Corinthians 3:15.
While the West came up with the term purgatory, they really didn’t come up with anything more definitive than what the East has always had. There are a number of theological ideas and theories, and perhaps something more definitive will be had in the future. In lieu of that, I offer something I wrote on June 24, 2005. My thought has developed and matured, but I think there is some worth in what I had written:
Last week, I mentioned in passing the nature of Purgatory. This week, I want to expand on it a bit. Before I start, I should make it perfectly clear that I'm presenting theology here, and not doctrine. Doctrinally, we know very little about Purgatory. We know that it exists, and that souls are purified there before they go to Heaven, but little else. Some people have had visions of Purgatory, which give a clearer understanding of its nature, but I won't get into that. I'm going to stick with my own ideas, which may, or may not be original, but will hopefully be orthodox.
In the article Why Did God Create Evil?, I suggested that Heaven and Hell are not physical places, but states of being. Heaven is the state of being in God's presence, and Hell is the state of not being in God's presence. Thinking of them as places is just a way of trying to understand the infinite with finite minds. Likewise, Purgatory is not a physical place, but a purifying state that allows a soul to move on to the state of Heaven, which is to be in the full presence of God.
This is where I will detract from the normal train of thought (remember, theology not doctrine). I suggest that Heaven and Purgatory are actually different reactions to the same place or state; the state of being in the full presence of God. I suggest that a soul in Purgatory is just as present before God as a soul in Heaven.
Now before you report me as a heretic, let me also suggest what the difference would between these two reactions of being in the full presence of God.
Purgatory is often compared to a refiner's fire, which burns away all impurities, leaving a soul pure so that he can go into the presence of God. My suggestion is that God's presence is that fire. A soul that goes directly to Heaven, and a soul that goes to Purgatory before Heaven both go into God's presence with the same intensity. The only difference is that the soul in Heaven feels no pain in God's presence, whereas the soul in Purgatory suffers pain by being in God's presence. Both are in the same level of presence, but they react differently. The more a soul need purifying, the more the presence of God creates suffering.
This is a little bit like C. S. Lewis' description of Heaven in The Great Divorce. In fact, this concept may actually bridge the gap between Catholicism and Protestantism on this issue. Catholics can maintain the traditional view of Purgatory, and Protestants can view Purgatory as a level of Heaven. Catholics are right to think that a soul that need purifying goes to Purgatory before going to Heaven, and Protestants are right to think that all souls of the redeemed go to Heaven. Both views work with this model of Purgatory.
Now remember that this is only theology, which tries to explain doctrine. We won't fully understand until we are in the full presence of God.