Q. I am a cradle Catholic and have always believed in purgatory. Now I am hearing from some people (including from some priests) who deny its existence. Can you clarify this for me? (City and state of origin withheld)
A. The Catholic Church does indeed believe in the existence of purgatory. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says this:
“All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven. The church gives the name purgatory to this final purification of the elect” (No. 1030-31).
This belief is reflected even in the Old Testament, where we read in the Second Book of Maccabees (12:46) that Judas Maccabeus “made atonement for the dead” that they might be freed from sin, which suggests a Jewish practice of offering prayers and sacrifice to cleanse the souls of the departed.
Then, in the Gospel of Matthew (12:32), Jesus says that certain sins “will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come,” an indication that some purging of the soul may occur after death.
Personally, I find comfort in the church’s teaching on purgatory. It is not a final destination; everyone there will wind up in heaven eventually. Nor do we know how our concept of time relates to eternity — the purification that takes place in purgatory could even be instantaneous.
I think that the confusion you speak of regarding the Catholic belief in purgatory may stem in part from the conflation in some people’s minds of purgatory and limbo — and on limbo, the church no longer holds fast to its existence.
In years past, it was the common belief of Catholics (although never defined dogmatically) that children who died without being baptized went, not to be with God in heaven, but to a state of natural happiness called limbo.
But that was theological speculation, not doctrine; and in 2007, the church’s International Theological Commission, with the authorization of Pope Benedict XVI, published a document that concluded that “there are theological and liturgical reasons to hope that infants who die without baptism may be saved … even if there is not an explicit teaching on this question found in revelation.”
Q. The church’s Code of Canon Law (No. 1398) says that a person who procures an abortion incurs excommunication. Do Catholic politicians who vote to provide abortions incur this same penalty? (Woodbridge, Virginia)
A. Catholic Church leaders differ as to the most effective strategies to employ with regard to legislators who vote to support abortion. In January 2019, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed legislation expanding access to abortion, letting non-doctors perform them and allowing late term abortions.
He also directed that certain buildings in the state, including One World Trade Center, be lighted in pink to celebrate the bill’s passage. Quickly some Catholics called for the governor to be excommunicated.
A statement issued by New York Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan’s spokesman said in response that in general, “excommunication should not be used as a weapon” and that “notable canon lawyers have said that, under canon law, excommunication is not an appropriate response to a politician who supports or votes for legislation advancing abortion.”
Instead, the statement suggested, a more useful pastoral approach would be for church leaders to discuss the matter personally with an individual legislator.
Also from a strategic perspective, the statement continued, excommunication might not be an effective tool because “many politicians would welcome it as a sign of their refusal to be ‘bullied by the church,’ thinking it would give them a political advantage.”
In a somewhat different approach, in June 2019, Bishop Thomas J. Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois, decreed that certain state legislative leaders should not be admitted to holy Communion within his diocese because “they have obstinately persisted in promoting the abominable crime and very grave sin of abortion” through their “repeated votes and obdurate public support” for abortion access.
Questions may be sent to Father Kenneth Doyle at email@example.com and 30 Columbia Circle Dr., Albany, New York 12203.