1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Purgatory
PURGATORY (Late Lat. purgatorium, from purgare, to purge), according to Roman Catholic faith, a state of suffering after death in which the souls of those who die in venial sin, and of those who still owe some debt of temporal punishment for mortal sin, are rendered fit to enter heaven. It is believed that such souls continue to be members of the Church of Christ; that they are helped by the suffrage’s of the living—that is, by prayers, alms and other good works, and more especially by the sacrifice of the Mass; and that, although delayed until “the last farthing is paid,” their salvation is assured. Catholics support this doctrine chiefly by reference to the Jewish belief in the efficacy of prayer for the dead (2 Macc. xii. 42 seq.), the tradition of the early Christians, and the authority of the Church.
Irenaeus regards as heretical the opinion that the souls of the departed pass immediately into glory; Tertullian, Cyprian, the Acts of St Perpetua, Clement of Alexandria, Cyril of Jerusalem, Basil, Gregory of Nyassa, Ambrose, Chrysostom and Jerome, all speak of prayer for the dead and seem to imply belief in a purgatory, but their view seems to have been affected by the pre-Christian doctrine of Hades or Sheol. Some of the Greeks, notably Origen, teach that even the perfect must go through fire in the next world. Augustine writes (De VIII. Dulcitii quaestionibus) that “it is not incredible” that imperfect souls will be “saved by some purgatorial fire,” to which they will be subjected for varying lengths of time according to their needs; but in other passages he expresses conflicting opinions (De civitate, xx. 25, xxi. 13, 26; Enchiridion, 69). Gregory the Great was the first to formulate the doctrine in express terms, “de quibusdam levibus culpis esse ante judicium purgatorius ignis credendus est” (Dial. iv. 39). Thenceforth it became part of the theology of the Western Church, and was definitely affirmed at 'the council ls of Lyons (1274), Florence (1439) and Trent. Concerning the word purgatory, Innocent IV. writes: “Forasmuch as (the Greeks) say that this place of purification is not indicated by their doctors by an appropriate an accurate word, we will, in accordance with the tradition and authority of the holy fathers, that henceforth it be called purgatorium, for in this temporary fire are cleansed not deadly capital sins, which must be remitted by penance, but those lesser venial sins which, if not removed in life, afflict men after death.”
Many points about purgatory, on which the Church has no definition, have been subjects of much speculation among Catholics. Purgatory, for example, is usually thought of as having some position in space, and as being distinct from heaven and hell; but any theory as to its exact latitude and longitude, such as underlies Dante’s description, must be regarded as imaginative. Most theologians since Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventura have taught that the souls in purgatory are tormented by material fire, but the Greeks have never accepted this opinion. It must be inferred from the whole practice of indulgences as at present authorized that the pains of purgatory are measurable by years and days; but here also everything is indefinite. The Council of Trent, while it commands all bishops to teach “the sound doctrine of purgatory handed down by the venerable fathers and sacred councils,” bids them exclude from popular addresses all the “more difficult and subtle questions relating to the subject which do not tend to edification.”
The Eastern Church affirms belief in an intermediate state after death, but the belief is otherwise as vague as the expressions of the pre-Nicene fathers on the subject. An authoritative statement of the present Eastern doctrine is to be found in the Longer Catechism of the Orthodox Church (Q. 376):—
“Such souls as have departed with faith but without having had time to bring forth fruits meet for repentance may be aided towards the attainment of a blessed resurrection by prayers offered in their behalf, especially such as are offered in union with the oblation of the bloodless sacrifice of the Body and Blood of Christ, and by works of mercy done in faith for their memory.”
The efficacy of prayers for the dead, and indirectly the doctrine of purgatory, were denied by early Gnostic sects, by Arëius in the 4th century, and by the Waldenses, Cathari, Albigenses and Lollards in the middle ages. Protestants, with the exception of a small minority in the Anglican communion, unanimously reject the doctrine of purgatory, and affirm that “the souls of believers are at their death made perfect in holiness and do immediately pass into glory.” Rejection of an intermediate state after death follows the Protestant idea of justification by faith as logically as the doctrine of purgatory results from the Catholic idea of justification by works.
An analogy to purgatory can be traced in most religions. Thus the fundamental ideas of a middle state after death and of a purification preparatory to perfect blessedness are met with in Zoroaster, who takes souls through twelve stages before they are sufficiently purified to enter heaven; and the Stoics conceived of a middle place of enlightenment which they called ἐμπύρωσις.
The principal authoritative statements of the Catholic Church on the doctrine of purgatory were made at the Council of Florence (Decret. unionis), and at that of Trent (Sess. vi. can. 30; Sess. xxii., c. 2, can. 3; Sess. xxv.). See H. J. D. Denziger’s Enchiridion; J. Bautz, Das Fegfeuer (Mainz, 1883); and L. Redner, Das Fegfeuer (Regensburg, 1856). A very elaborate treatise from the Catholic standpoint is that of Cardinal Bellarmine, De purgatorio. The subject is discussed, moreover, in all major works on dogmatic theology. There is a representative Catholic statement by Hense in the Kirchenlexikon under the title “Fegfeuer,” 2nd ed., vol. 4, col. 1284–1296; and a corresponding Protestant presentation by Rud. Hoffmann in Hauck’s Realencyklopädie, 3rd ed. vol. v. pp. 788–792. (C. H. Ha.)