November 2016 Print

Latins and Greeks on Purgatory

by Gabriel S. Sanchez

The doctrine of Purgatory has long been a vexing—and unnecessary—source of controversy between Latin Catholics and the Greek East. (For the purposes of this article, “Greek” will refer to all Eastern Christians—Catholic and Orthodox—whose theological, spiritual, and liturgical heritage is drawn from the Byzantine tradition.) For Latin Catholics, Purgatory is held to be a place or condition of temporal punishment or purification due to those who have either died in God’s grace with venial faults or failed to pay satisfaction for their sins. Today, however, many Christians who are members of the Eastern Orthodox Church believe that Purgatory represents a “Catholic innovation” or “heresy.” This is unfortunate since the doctrine itself has clear roots in the Greek theological tradition and is accepted—with permissible nuance—by Greek Catholics in full communion with the See of Rome.

Purgatory and Lyons

Without rehearing the millennium of theological reflection on the state of the soul after death, it is enough to say that by the time of the 1274 Council of Lyons, the Catholic Church was prepared to formally define the doctrine of Purgatory with the following statement.

“If those who are truly repentant die in charity before they have done sufficient penance for their sins of omission and commission, their souls are cleansed after death in purgatorial or cleansing punishment. . . . The suffrages of the faithful on earth can be of great help in relieving these punishments, as, for instance, the Sacrifice of the Mass, prayers, almsgiving, and other religious deeds which, in the manner of the Church, the faithful are accustomed to offer for others of the faithful.”

This definition, which relies heavily on the on the teachings of Pope Innocent IV (1243-54), was not issued in isolation from the Greek tradition. For it was Innocent IV himself who reached out to the Greek Church after centuries of ecclesiastical estrangement in the hopes that the common witness of East and West to the necessity of praying for souls after death could aid in overcoming their theological differences. The Pope recognized that while the Greeks had not promulgated an official declaration for the place or condition of purification most holy souls must endure before reaching Heaven, that did not mean their thinking was at odds with the doctrine of Purgatory that the Latins had clarified over the course of centuries.

Avoiding Universalism

Why the Greek Church had avoided settling on a clear understanding of Purgatory is not perfectly clear, though some contemporary scholars hold that it may have been due to concerns over “Origenism,” that is, the belief that all souls—including those in hell—will eventually be saved after undergoing a period of cleansing. This belief, which is sometimes referred to as Universalism or by the Greek term Apocatastasis, eventually became attributed to the 2nd/3rd century theologian Origen of Alexandria, though a number of Eastern theologians, including Clement of Alexandria and St. Gregory Nyssa, speculated that the punishment due in the afterlife was not an eternal state but a time of purification. Following the Fifth Ecumenical Council in 553, “Origenism” had been condemned and Eastern theologians had moved away from exploring in depth about the afterlife even though the Greeks, no less than the Latins, held firm to praying for departed souls.

Had the churches of Rome and Constantinople not mutually excommunicated each other in 1054, it is entirely possible, even likely, that the Latin and Greek traditions would have coalesced around a uniform doctrine of Purgatory—one that allowed for a range of permissible opinions on the nature of purgation itself with perhaps less emphasis situated on Purgatory being so much a “place” as a “condition.” At both the aforementioned Council of Lyons and the 1439 Council of Florence, where Rome and Constantinople pursued full ecclesiastical reunion, a definition of Purgatory was put forth which wisely left to the side the fraught question of whether souls in fact endured literal “purgatorial fire” or if theological speculations on such fire were to be taken as symbolic. Regrettably, this attempt at a theological compromise came to naught as Florence was soon after repudiated in the East, not just among the Greeks at Constantinople, but among the Eastern Slavic churches as well.

A Shared Understanding

Thankfully, by God’s grace, the failure of Florence to secure communion between East and West did not mark the end of all reunification efforts. In 1596, at the Union of Brest, the hierarchy of the Church of Kyiv (modern-day Ukraine) united again with the Church of Rome. The fifth paragraph of the Articles of Union prudently states the following: “We shall not debate about purgatory, but we entrust ourselves to the teaching of the Holy Church.” In other words, Brest (and all subsequent reunionist efforts between Rome and Eastern Christians) left open the question not of the doctrine of Purgatory generally, but of its precise interpretation. Here, for instance, is the definition of Purgatory contained in the official catechism of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC) (Christ Our Pascha, paragraph 251).

“If a person has fallen asleep in God, having repented of all sins, but has not yet achieved spiritual maturity—the fullness of life in Christ—then that person enters the king of God ‘as through fire’ (I Cor. 3:15). After death, such a person is still in need of spiritual healing and cleaning of all stain, in order to dwell ‘in a place of light . . . where there is no pain, sorrow, or mourning’ [Rite of Burial for a Layperson]. In the Church, this healing condition of the dead is referred to as ‘purgatory.’”

In support of this definition, the UGCC catechism offers two Eastern Patristic quotes, the first of which comes from the Doctor of the Church, St. Gregory of Nazianzus (referred to in the East as “The Theologian”):

“Every fair and God-beloved soul, once it has been set free from the bonds of the body, departs hence, and immediately enjoys a sense and perception of the blessings which await it, inasmuch as that which darkened it has been purged away, or laid aside—I know not how else to term it. It then feels a wondrous pleasure and exultation, and goes rejoicing to meet its Lord.”

The second quote, which comes from another Doctor of the Church, St. John Chrysostom, makes clear why the faithful pray for the dead.

“Let us then give them [i.e., the departed] aid and perform commemorations for them. For if the children of Job were purged by the sacrifice of their father, why do you doubt that when we too offer for the departed, some consolation arises to them? Since God is wont to grant the petitions of those who ask for others.”

Eastern Orthodox Errors

Today, after centuries of separation from the Holy Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox remain conflicted about the doctrine of Purgatory and the state of the soul after death. In an apparent effort to compensate for its lack of clear teaching on these matters, some Orthodox have resorted to proposing that a soul must first pass through so-called “aerial toll-houses,” where it is taunted and tormented by demons, before possibly finding its way to Heaven. This gross, neo-Gnostic idea was popularized by the late Fr. Seraphim Rose, a convert to Russian Orthodoxy who had previously dabbled in Buddhism and other Eastern philosophies and religions.

More recently, Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, one of the leading hierarchs in the Russian Orthodox Church, has attempted to reinvigorate a certain strand of Eastern theological speculation into the afterlife in his book Christ the Conqueror of Hell by suggesting that even those in Hell may still find Salvation. This has prompted some Orthodox to promote the controversial notion that the (Latin) Catholic doctrine of Purgatory is roughly akin to the (Greek) Orthodox doctrine of Hell, and that the prayers of the faithful on earth can change the destiny of a soul after the body reposes, regardless of whether it is in a state of grace or mortal sin. Other Orthodox contest such claims by holding to the classic understanding of the eternity of Hell while refraining from committing to any particular view of Purgatory.

More than an abstract concept or topic for theological disputation, the doctrine of Purgatory is an essential part of the living faith of all Catholics. Over the 2,000 year history of the Catholic Church, Christians have dutifully prayed for the dead, offering sacrifices in the hope of relieving their time of purgation so that they might soon enjoy the Beatific Vision. Although during the early centuries of the Church, Latin and Greek Christians developed different ways of understanding the afterlife and the condition of souls following death, today all faithful Catholics hold fast to the doctrine of Purgatory, even if their respective traditions differ at the margins with respect to interpreting and articulating that doctrine. This is no cause for alarm, but rather a beautiful example of particularity within the universality of the Church which, regardless of geography and history, has as its supreme law the Salvation of souls.

Gabriel S. Sanchez is an attorney and Assistant Editor of Angelus Press who resides with his family in Grand Rapids, MI.