Thoughts on purgatory

Luther advertised his 95 Theses about the sale of indulgences by nailing them to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg in 1517. Ostensibly theses proposed for public disputation, they in reality amount to a kind of tract, or treatise, composed of aphorisms and questions. The modern equivalent in point of style would be Nietzsche or early Wittgenstein.

It is said that Luther originally wanted only to reform the Church and not separate from it; only later, when his reforms were opposed, did he become radicalized. However, already in the 95 Theses Luther is rejecting doctrine, not simply urging reforms.

The 95 Theses argue implicitly that purgatory does not exist, since a soul is either justified or not. If the pope could release souls from purgatory, then, out of charity, he ought to do so for all of them, immediately: "Why does not the pope empty purgatory, for the sake of holy love and of the dire need of the souls that are there, if he redeems an infinite number of souls for the sake of miserable money with which to build a Church? The former reasons would be most just; the latter is most trivial."

That is, what the pope has no authority to do, and might fail to do if he had authority, Christ is both able and willing to do. Thus "purgatory" is empty.

Luther seems to have wavered on the doctrine of purgatory, usually attacking it, occasionally seeming to support it, but then not as a binding dogma. The essence of Luther's objection seems to have been: if grace has any role to play in a domain, then its role is complete and supreme. From such a point of view, purgatory looks like an unacceptable amalgam of faith and works. If a soul in purgatory is to be given the grace of salvation, what work still to be done, what reason for delay?

And yet gifts, and grace, can be as gratuitous as the giver wants them to be. One wonders how Luther would have responded if he, like Namaan, had been told by a prophet to wash seven times in the water as a condition of receiving God's gift of healing.

A mere 17 years after Luther at Wittenberg, Henry VIII began the process by which he would take all of the lands, buildings, and wealth of the monasteries in England in the infamous "Dissolution of the Monasteries." "From any point of view," the old Catholic Encyclopedia observes, "the destruction of the English monasteries by Henry VIII must be regarded as one of the great events of the sixteenth century." The equivalent of about $45 million (in today's dollars) of Church property was appropriated by the state, a small number by current scales, but huge when compared with the economy of England at the time.

But the property loss was insignificant in comparison with the spiritual impoverishment, in the eyes of St. Thomas More (executed as the Dissolution was beginning), and other Catholics of the time. They saw the monasteries of England and parts of the continent being closed and wondered: If those institutions are closed, who will pray for the dead?

The monasteries were a great symbol, visible and public, of a common concern for the souls in purgatory. When they were abolished, not only the ministry of prayer was taken away. Also, in a real sense, purgatory was removed from public consciousness. Purgatory changed from being a firmly held, common belief, to a tenuous conviction of individuals privately.

Arguably, belief in heaven became privatized at the same time. Once the "Church Suffering" is suppressed, then so by implication is the "Church Triumphant." The beginnings of secular society are found in the de facto compression of the Church into only those Christians alive on earth here and now.

Luther's own life gives evidence that heaven as an objective reality is easily put aside once purgatory is, as he came to believe that the soul is unconscious after death and "sleeps," until the Last Judgment.

Catholics who live in a culture which by history and ethos is Protestant -- which include American Catholics -- must consider to what extent their outlook has been shaped by Luther and other Reformers, rather than by the historic, apostolic teaching of the Catholic Church. This task becomes all the more pressing when we consider that we have generally lacked public expressions of our faith, such as the monasteries which were everywhere visible in medieval Europe.

Moreover, we find ourselves now suffering from a self-inflicted "dissolution of the monasteries" which took place in the upheavals of the '60s and '70s.

Like St. Thomas More, it would be reasonable today to ask: Who is praying for the souls of the dead? For example, there were 180,000 nuns in the United States in 1965, but only a third that number today, and they are, on average, of an age that they themselves will soon need prayers.

We love to talk about "lay ministers" and "eucharistic ministers"-- that is, more properly, extraordinary ministers -- and strangely exult when laypersons take on tasks that used to be reserved to priests and religious. This is unfortunate, as the laity have plenty of tasks of their own.

But if necessity really does require the Catholic laity to fill in a breach, why not through passionate, persistent, ceaseless prayers for the dead?

Michael Pakaluk is Professor of Philosophy at Ave Maria University.