Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

Most Reasonable Doctrine, A

by Fr. James Buckley, F.S.S.P.


Fr. Buckley offers an explanation of the doctrine of Purgatory, how to atone for sins, and how to gain indulgences for the dead.

Larger Work

Homiletic & Pastoral Review


22 - 27

Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, San Francisco, CA, January 2003

After the Consecration in every Mass of the Roman Rite, whether the priest uses the Novus Ordo sacramentary or the traditional Missal, there is a petition for the dead. In the first Eucharistic prayer, for example, the celebrant says the following words: "Remember, Lord, those who have gone to their rest before us marked with the sign of faith, especially those for whom we now pray."

These dead are not the saints in heaven who need no help nor the damned in hell who cannot be helped. They are the souls in Purgatory. Though they died in sanctifying grace, the souls in Purgatory did not — while they were in this world — make complete satisfaction to God for the sins they committed against him. They are now enduring purifying punishments so that they may be able to enter into the glory of everlasting happiness.

Because laws must be observed, violators are punished. This is true not only of the laws of man but most especially of the laws of God. The penalty, in the case of mortal sin, is eternal damnation. Once the sin is absolved in confession, however, the eternal punishment is also removed. Because the justice of God was outraged by mortal sin, there still remains after absolution — unless the sorrow for sin was unusually profound — some temporal punishment. The word "temporal" indicates that this punishment will come to an end. Venial sin, a less serious offense against the law of God, also deserves temporal punishment.

Temporal punishment — even in this world — can be remitted by satisfaction which repairs the injury committed against Almighty God. Every act of virtue, performed by one in sanctifying grace, is pleasing to God. It is, therefore, both a work of merit as well as a work of satisfaction. It is meritorious because it is a work worthy of an increase of sanctifying grace. It is satisfactory because it removes temporal punishment due to forgiven sin. Prayer, fasting and almsgiving, however, are the three principal works by which man compensates God for the offenses committed against him. Satisfaction is also gained in confession through the absolution of the priest and by the performance of the penance he imposes.

According to an ancient maxim, the law of praying is the law of believing. Consequently, by interceding for the dead, the Catholic Church expresses the belief that there is a Purgatory and that the souls detained there are helped by the prayers of the living. Furthermore, the Catholic Church has also made several explicitly doctrinal pronouncements, which bind the consciences of the faithful to accept these same teachings. Confronted by the heresy of the Protestant Reformers, the Council of Trent, for example, solemnly declared: "The Catholic Church, instructed by the Holy Spirit, from the Sacred Scriptures and the ancient traditions of the Fathers has taught in Sacred Councils that there is a purgatory and the souls detained there are helped by the suffrages of the faithful, especially by the acceptable sacrifice of the altar."

Besides the Mass, the earlier Council of Florence mentioned the following suffrages ". . . prayers, almsgiving and other works of piety which are customarily done by the faithful for one another according to the ordinances of the Church." The same Council of Florence, moreover, explained who are the souls in Purgatory. In its decree for the Greeks the Council said: "If those truly penitent depart this life in the charity of God before they satisfied by worthy fruits of penance for their sins of omission and commission, their souls are purged after death with purgatorial punishments." Another Ecumenical Council, the Second Council of Lyons, included in Purgatory those who though free from mortal sin die in venial sin. It is the common teaching of theologians, however, that the remission of venial sin occurs immediately after death because at that moment the soul breaks forth into an act of charity, which removes venial sin in so far as it is sin.

Conscious of her divine authority, the Catholic Church at the Council of Trent has clearly and forcefully taught her children that there is a difference between sin and the temporal punishment sin deserves. Canon XXX of Trent's Canons on Justification states: "If anyone says that after the reception of the grace of justification the guilt is so remitted and the debt of eternal punishment so blotted out to every repentant sinner, that no debt of temporal punishment remains to be discharged, either in this world or in Purgatory, before the gates of Heaven can be opened, let him be anathema."

Examples from the Old Testament illustrate that temporal punishment remains after sin is forgiven. Although God forgave Adam his sin of disobedience (Wis. 10:2), Adam was nevertheless condemned to earn his bread by the sweat of his brow till the day he died. After pardoning him for killing Uriah the Hittite and committing adultery with Uriah's wife Bathsheba, God still punished David by taking the life of the child conceived in their adultery (2 Sam. 12:13-14).

The temporal punishment suffered by souls in Purgatory consists of two torments: (1) delay of entry into glory; and (2) pains of sense. The Church has never defined that fire punishes the souls in Purgatory but has taught that there is, in addition to the pain caused by the delay in seeing God, a pain of sense, which has not been precisely described.

How long do those in Purgatory suffer and how severe are their pains? It is certain that Purgatory will not last beyond the day of the General Judgment when all men will be divided into only two classes. ("And these shall go into everlasting punishment but the just into everlasting life" [Matt. 25:46].) The duration of suffering, however, can be long. For this reason the Church puts no time limit on the prayers to be said and Masses to be offered for any deceased individual. Although the Church has made no statement about the intensity of purgatorial pains, some saints have. Saint Thomas Aquinas wrote: "The least pain of Purgatory exceeds the greatest pain of this life."

It is the doctrine of the Mystical Body of Christ which is the certain foundation for the faithful on earth assisting the souls in Purgatory. Christ is the head of this body (Col. 1:18) and those who are baptized into Christ are its members. "For in one spirit were we all baptized into one body . . . " (1 Cor. 12:13). The bonds of this body are so strong that death cannot destroy them. The souls now enjoying the Beatific Vision are united to Christ in a union that cannot be broken. They are the Church Triumphant. Because those on earth who are baptized are also united to Christ, they must be united with these souls whose intercession they seek to obtain from God both temporal as well as spiritual favors.

As the saints in heaven are solicitous for the souls of the living, so should the living be solicitous for the souls in Purgatory. Saint Paul teaches: "And if one member suffer anything, all the members suffer with it (1 Cor. 12:26).

The souls in Purgatory suffer because in this world they did not satisfy the justice of God for the injury caused by their forgiven sins. Since they did not satisfy while they were living by good works, they must now pay their debt by their sufferings.

If in this world a man with no money is in debt, a friend can pay the debt for him. The souls in Purgatory cannot pay the debt they owe to divine justice, but we can pay it for them. Saint Thomas says, "The affection of charity in one who suffers on behalf of a friend makes greater satisfaction to God than if he suffered on behalf of himself, suffering for others is prompted by charity but suffering for self is prompted by necessity."

It is the Mass, the sacrifice of the altar, which is the greatest benefit that the living can provide for the dead. This is the same sacrifice as the sacrifice of the cross because the priest and the victim are the same, Jesus Christ. On the cross our Lord offered himself to the glory of the Father for the redemption of men. As St. Paul wrote:" . . . Christ also hath loved us, and delivered himself for us, an oblation and a sacrifice to God for an odor of sweetness" (Eph. 5:2). That oblation had four purposes: (1) to praise God; (2) to thank him; (3) to make reparation for the sins of men; and (4) to obtain every kind of good leading to man's salvation. Because it makes Calvary present in space and in time, the Mass has the same four purposes.

Two of these purposes, adoration and thanksgiving, are directed to God and are infallibly achieved in every Mass. The other two, because they are directed towards men, are not infallibly achieved. Although God is disposed through the sacrifice of the Mass to forgive men's sins and the punishment due to those sins, living men, because of their stubborn perversity, can reject God's forgiveness. They can also reject the goods, which lead to their salvation.

A Mass offered for the dead, however, immediately and infallibly benefits them. Unlike the living who can present obstacles to grace, the souls in Purgatory present none. Moreover, the Mass is not the offering of an angel or of a saint but of the incarnate Son of God. Its value is, therefore, infinite. But although its value is infinite, the Mass does not once and for all make up for all the punishment of those in Purgatory. As St. Thomas teaches, "Although one sacrifice of the Mass is in itself sufficient to satisfy for all suffering, nevertheless its value, both for those for whom it is offered and for those who offer, is measured by their devotion. This measure of devotion depends, in the case of the poor souls, on the dispositions they had at the moment of death" (S.Th. IIIa, q. 79, a.5).

Besides the Mass, St. Augustine recommended private prayer and almsgiving. The devout prayer of anyone — even one in mortal sin — appeals to the mercy of God. The Holy Spirit, the author of the Scriptures, tells us: "It is, therefore, a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead" (2 Macc. 12:46). Almsgiving, fasting and making pilgrimages are works of reparation by which even those in mortal sin can also appeal to God's mercy for the benefit of the souls in Purgatory. The private prayers and good works of those in sanctifying grace, however, not only appeal to God's mercy but also to his justice. Any good work done by a man in the state of grace is a work that God crowns with a reward. One aspect of this reward is called merit and another is called satisfaction. In the 1911 edition of the Catholic Encyclopedia, J. Pohle writes: " . . . every meritorious act has for its main object the increase of grace and of eternal glory, while satisfactory works have for their object the removal of the temporal punishment still due to sin." Merit is purely personal but satisfaction can be offered by the living for the benefit of the dead. God receives these satisfactions as if they were done by the deceased themselves to remove the punishment due to their forgiven sins.

The just man gains merit and satisfaction from every act of virtue, prayer, fasting and almsgiving — the principal acts of reparation. God's honor was violated by man's sin. Therefore, it is fitting that in making reparation man give to God from what man himself possesses. Whatever man has, of course, was given to him by God. Nevertheless, man has a free will, stewardship over his body and the right to private property. When he prays, he makes use of his intellect and will; when he fasts, he makes use of his body; when he gives alms, he makes use of his private property.

In addition to the Mass, private prayers and good works, the living can help the dead by gaining indulgences for them.

It has already been explained that the satisfaction for sin which the just on earth gain by their prayers and good works can be given to the faithful departed. What happens, then, to the satisfactions, which the saints in heaven gained, did not need to remove the temporal punishment for their own forgiven sins? What about Christ's satisfactions, which are of infinite value? All of these are the common property of the Catholic Church and that, which is the "common property of a number," as St. Thomas observes, is distributed "according to the judgment of him who rules them all." Because it is the pope who rules the Church, he is the one who has the authority to dispense from this treasury.

The application of these satisfactions is called an indulgence. Quoting Canon 992 of the Church's Code of Canon Law, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says: "An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasure of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints" (CCC 1471). Indulgences may be applied to the living or to the dead. If they take away some of the punishment, they are called partial; if they take away all of the punishment, they are called plenary.

The living can gain indulgences for themselves or for the souls in Purgatory. To gain the indulgence for themselves, they must be in the state of grace, have at least the habitual intention of gaining it and fulfill the conditions necessary. To obtain indulgences for the souls in Purgatory, many theologians claim, it is not necessary to be in the state of grace unless Confession is required. In the case of a plenary indulgence, however, it is always required that one go to confession, pray for the Holy Father's intention (an Our Father and a Hail Mary suffice) and receive Communion. (A further requirement is the exclusion of all attachment to sin, even venial sin.)

Norm nine of the "Apostolic Constitution on Indulgences" issued on May 18, 1986 by the Apostolic Penitentiary states: "Several plenary indulgences may be gained on the basis of a single sacramental Confession; only one may be gained, however on the basis of a single Communion and prayer for the pope's intentions take place on the day this work (i.e., the indulgenced work) is performed." If every day a man did a work worthy of a plenary indulgence (e.g., visit the Blessed Sacrament for half an hour or say the Rosary in a church) and every day he received communion and prayed for the Holy Father's intention, he could daily gain a plenary indulgence, if he went regularly to Confession every two weeks.

Indulgences are attached to the performance of some prayer or good work (e.g., visiting a church), which is the condition, but not the cause of obtaining the indulgence. The good work a man does is the cause of his merit and satisfaction; it is not the cause of the indulgence because an indulgence applies to souls the satisfactions of Christ and the saints. In the case of the dead, the Church petitions God to accept these satisfactions and in consideration of them to lessen or shorten the sufferings of the faithful departed.

In his book entitled Purgatory, Father Francis X. Schouppe, S.J., says that whenever the souls in Purgatory appear to the living "they always present themselves in an attitude that excites compassion . . . When they speak it is to manifest their sufferings, to deplore their past faults, to ask it suffrages (help) or even to address reproaches to those who ought to succor them."

In these days when faith has run cold, so many men live on sentimentality. They may weep for the loss of their loved ones or — as time passes — entertain vain feelings that these beloved now enjoy eternal beatitude but they do not pray for them. Such behavior deserves reproach because it provides the dead with useless tears instead of valuable petitions.

There is also in fallen human nature the deplorable tendency to forget about the dead. "Alas," said Saint Francis de Sales, "we do not sufficiently remember our dear departed; their memory seems to perish with the sound of the funeral bells."

To overcome this tendency, Catholics need, first of all, to know that it is of divine and Catholic faith that there is a Purgatory and that the souls of the departed who suffer there can be helped by the living. Second, Catholics need to act according to their faith by praying, making reparation, gaining indulgences and having Masses said for the souls in Purgatory. The just man, St. Paul reminds us, lives by faith (Heb. 10:38). His judgments and his actions, consequently, conform to what is divinely revealed and taught by the "Church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth" (1 Tim. 3:15).

Reverend James Buckley, F.S.S.P, is a member of the Fraternity of St. Peter. Currently he teaches apologetics and ascetical theology at Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary in Denton, Nebraska. In addition, he gives retreats and writes pamphlets. His last article in HPR appeared in January 1997.

© Ignatius Press 2003.

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