By Paul Fahey Thursday, November 7
I don’t know about you, but Purgatory has been on my mind. After celebrating the Feast of All Souls by saying the Office of the Dead on a cold rainy day in northern Michigan, I’ve been thinking about death and judgment – particularly Purgatory. And, while the Catholic doctrine of post-death purification is perhaps the most misunderstood and most abused teaching of the Church (please see this piece by Shane Schaetzel for a great explanation of what the church actually teaches about Purgatory), I think that the Catholic belief in Purgatory is a beautiful thing. Why? Because it speaks volumes about two things that a lot of people have a difficult time reconciling – God’s justice and love. Pope Benedict XVI said this about Purgatory,
Purgatory is an interior fire. The soul is aware of God’s immense love and perfect justice; as a consequence, it suffers for not having responded to that love perfectly, and it is precisely the love of God Himself which purifies the soul from the ravages of sin.
Justice, in the classical definition, is simply “giving to a man what he is due.” Additionally, from the Christian metaphysic, justice can also be understood as putting back into right order what sin has made disordered. Purgatory touches on both of these ideas.
In a fantastic piece about Purgatory and Hell, Professor Benjamin Wiker uses the suicide of Ariel Castro to frame his discussion. He says,
Justice means giving what is due. Justice means that Ariel Castro should be made to experience, in himself, the full horror of what he did. Not just a sip of it, but the whole cup. Only then would he be able to say, “I see now what I have done. I see the hell that I caused these three women. I have now drunk as deeply as they did from the bitterest depths of their despair, pain, humiliation and darkness, and I am as deeply sorry.” That’s repentance. And that’s what true justice, with mercy at its heart, aims to bring about in the one punished.
Therefore, even if Castro sincerely asked God to forgive him, justice would demand that he be given what is due to him – to experience the same horror, suffering, and humiliation that he caused to innocent human beings (imagine the moral outrage we would feel if the jury let Castro go with a slap on the wrist). And it would be through this justice that he would be able to truly repent. Purgatory is where this process of justice takes place, where those souls destined for the Eternal Kingdom find true repentance, where what is disordered is bent back into right order. Now, in Castro’s case, if he did not sincerely seek God’s forgiveness, justice would be laid upon him for all eternity in Hell.
Some may question why a merciful and loving God would put his children through so much suffering? But it is precisely because of God’s perfect mercy and love that Purgatory and Hell exist. You see, God is not a distant deity or an unconcerned creator. God revealed himself to us as our Father and salvation history is the grand story of a God who actively concerns himself with his children’s affairs. But a cold deistic Creator is exactly what God would be to Amanda Berry, Georgina DeJesus or Michelle Knight – the victims of Ariel Castro’s manmade hell – if Castro never faced justice. God would essentially be saying to these women that he is unconcerned with their suffering, that the horror they experienced is simply not his problem. But that is not what we believe.
When the victims of violence cry out to God and ask how the perpetrators of unimaginable horror can be loved and saved by God, his response will be one of mercy and justice. In his infinite mercy God will forgive the sins of persecutors, and in his perfect justice he will restore right order to their lives as well as the lives of their victims. That is why Purgatory is such a beautiful and necessary thing – because its existence demonstrates a Father’s real and present concern for his children.
Paul Fahey is a husband, father, and catechist. He has a BA in Theology with minors in History, and Catholic Studies and is currently studying at the Augustine Institute for a MA in Theology.