Purgatory, limbo explained

By Jennifer Burke/Catholic Courier    |    12.20.2009
Category: Features


What Catholics Belief Series

No one is sure exactly what happens to human souls following death, but a common belief is that their journeys eventually end either in heaven or hell. In the minds of many Catholics, a map of the afterlife would include waystations of purgatory and limbo, a place reserved for babies who died before being baptized.

Misconceptions about both of these abound, however, as purgatory is not some kind of "junior hell," and limbo was never an official doctrine of the Catholic Church, according to Father Joseph Hart, diocesan vicar general and moderator of the diocesan Pastoral Center.

"Purgatory is not necessarily a place, although because we like concrete images, we make it into a place," Father Hart said. "It's rather ... a preparation for glory. Whatever remains in us which is not perfect, God makes perfect."

The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines purgatory as "a state of final purification after death and before entrance into heaven for those who died in God's friendship, but were only imperfectly purified; a final cleansing of human imperfection before one is able to enter the joy of heaven."

The catechism further states that purgatory is the final purification of the elect -- the people God has chosen to live with him in love for all eternity -- and is entirely different from the punishment of the damned.

Purgatory is an ancient concept in Judeo-Christian tradition, Father Hart explained. Rabbis during Jesus' time were familiar with the notion, which since has been elaborated upon. Catholic doctrine regarding purgatory was formulated during the councils of Florence in the 1400s and Trent in the 1500s, according to the catechism.

"The really important thing is the (participants in) the Council of Trent 400 years ago said, 'Please don't think of this as junior hell, because it's a whole different process because this is really a preparation for glory.' It's clear in the church's theology it's much more a process than a place," Father Hart said.

Purgatory can be thought of as a process by which loose ends are tied up in our relationships with God and other people, noted Father John Colacino, CPPS, professor of religious studies at St. John Fisher College in Pittsford.

"Like any relationship, when there's some issue that's outstanding it's not an easy thing to work through it," he said.

The pain of purgatory is much less like the pain inflicted by flames than it is like the pain our eyes experience as we walk from a dark room into bright sunshine. It's like "going from the darkness of death to the light of the vision of God," Father Colacino explained.

The Catholic Church has very clear teachings regarding purgatory, but limbo is a different story, he added.

"Limbo was never a definite doctrine of the Catholic Church. It was kind of a theological theory having to do with the fate of the unbaptized," Father Colacino said.

The notion of limbo was developed when early theologians attempted to come to grips with the Gospel of John, which basically said anyone not born of water in the Holy Spirit could not enter the kingdom of heaven, Father Hart said.

According to Catholic doctrine, people who died for the sake of their faith without being baptized are martyrs and this "baptism of blood" entitles them to the fruits of baptism, according to the catechism. Likewise, the catechism states catechumens who die before being baptized are assured salvation because of their explicit desire for the sacrament.

"This covers all the possibilities for the baptism of adults. But ... what about those who have not yet reached the age of discretion?" Father Hart asked rhetorically.

After studying this theological problem, St. Augustine concluded that unbaptized infants went to hell, quickly prompting parents to seek baptism for their infants rather than waiting until the children were old enough to seek it for themselves, he said. Later theologians re-examined the Gospel of John and determined that, since Jesus directed his remarks about baptism toward Nicodemus, the remarks were relevant only in the case of adults, not infants.

Medieval theologians thus interpreted the text to mean unbaptized infants would not go to hell, but rather could remain on the fringe of heaven, he said, noting the Latin word for fringe is limbus.

This teaching was widely accepted at the time, although the church never put its full weight behind it, Father Hart said. This does not mean modern theologians believe unbaptized babies go to hell, however. Such infants are entrusted to the mercy of God, and the church hopes there is a way of salvation for them, the catechism notes.

This teaching agrees with the findings of the Vatican's International Theological Commission, which in April 2007 published a document critiquing the traditional understanding of limbo and stating there is good reason to hope such infants go to heaven.

"God desires that all be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth. In the case of the unbaptized, God will find ways. Somehow God has a plan for this child," Father Hart said.

 

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