Purgatory: History, Textual Basis, and Theological Merit, Pt. 4

Following the work of Aquinas, the next major development in the doctrine of purgatory in the church came at the council of Florence, in 1439. The council of Florence is primarily known for the filioque controversy, but the doctrine of purgatory was also a central factor in the council. The doctrine of purgatory as taught by Rome was not the cause of the schism between the Greeks and Latins, but it certainly was an irritant, and it required a great deal of work for the two sides to come to terms on the doctrine. Rome maintained that this doctrine had been taught since the time of the apostles, but this was clearly untrue, given that any clear semblance of the doctrine did not appear until the time of Origen in the late second to early third centuries (also given that he was anathematized by an ecumenical council, it would be a hard sell for Rome to claim his teachings on this or any other subject as part of their tradition). The Greeks taught of only one eternal fire, that is, damnation, and maintained that there was only one type of bad works which was spoken of by Paul, that the only types of works were of virtue and perdition. While a true agreement may never have been reached between the Orthodox and the Roman Catholics, the council of Florence was a grounds at which the Roman Catholic church was finally able to put forth a substantial formula or statement regarding their beliefs on purgatory, drawing primarily from the second council of Lyons for their statement, particularly the words of the profession of faith made in the name of Michael VIII on the subject:

“But those who have died in a state of charity, truly repentant [for their sins] but before they have brought forth fruit worthy of repentance, their souls are purified after death by cleansing pains. The petitions of the living, the sacrifices of Masses [for example], prayers, almsdeeds and other pious services, such as the faithful are accustomed to do for one another according to the established custom of the Church, [these] are profitable to them, [i.e., the dead persons mentioned] for the lifting of these pains.”


From these words we are able to gather the major substance of the Roman Catholic dogma of purgatory, perhaps even more substantial in its theological content than the dogma which was finally confirmed by the council of Trent in 1563.

The end of the development of the doctrine of purgatory in the Roman Catholic Church came at the council of Trent, following the protestant reformation. While the reformation was started in response to the sale of indulgences for those in purgatory, the doctrine itself existed long before Rome ever attempted to capitalize on it, so it would be difficult to say that the reformation was caused by this single doctrine, although it did eventually reject it in favor of a biblical view of justification. The council of Trent was originally convened in 1546 and concluded in 1563, and was called as the Roman Catholic Church’s counter-reformational council, intended to reaffirm and further codify those doctrines rejected by the protestant reformers. Among other developments (such as codifying the canon with the apocryphal books included, reaffirming progressive justification, and papal primacy in interpreting the scriptures) Trent reaffirmed and finally dogmatized the doctrine of Purgatory. Rome effectively squelched any ongoing debate regarding purgatory, although they did not alleviate confusion regarding the particulars of the doctrine, with this statement:

Whereas the Catholic Church, instructed by the Holy Ghost, has from the Sacred Scriptures and the ancient tradition of the Fathers taught in Councils and very recently in this Ecumenical synod (Sess. VI, cap. XXX; Sess. XXII cap.ii, iii) that there is a purgatory, and that the souls therein are helped by the suffrages of the faithful, but principally by the acceptable Sacrifice of the Altar; the Holy Synod enjoins on the Bishops that they diligently endeavor to have the sound doctrine of the Fathers in Councils regarding purgatory everywhere taught and preached, held and believed by the faithful”


This statement brought the development of the doctrine of purgatory in the Roman Catholic Church to a close, although it by no means resolved the issues surrounding the doctrine. Trent effectively gave Rome a proper written statement regarding the doctrine, but it failed to properly explain the various details of the doctrine. In fact, Trent goes on further to try to squash inquiry or debate related to purgatory: “Further than this the definitions of the Church do not go, but the tradition of the Fathers and the Schoolmen must be consulted to explain the teachings of the councils, and to make clear the belief and the practices of the faithful.”

This portion of the statement of Trent makes it very clear that Rome is not terribly interested in properly defining or building their theological terms, so much as they are ensuring that they are heeded. It is beneficial for everyone that Rome at least created some written rule by which they maintain this doctrine, but the benefit derived is minimal. Rome made it clear with this statement that they were not only disinterested in dealing with purgatory and the surrounding soteriological and eschatological implications of the doctrine with the protestant reformers, but that they also had no interest in properly creating or defining one for themselves, or entertaining any form of internal debate. It was made clear by Trent that to go beyond the traditions of the fathers is both unsafe and not to be entertained. This is somewhat understandable, given the timing of the council, the last thing Rome wanted was to appear to be a party divided on matters of doctrine or polity. Even so, it was a failure to properly examine the doctrine for its worth, and a failure to reckon with any serious counter-arguments to the idea.


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