02 November 2007

all souls

Today marks the commemoration of All Souls on the church calendar, remembering all of the faithful departed in Christ. Following on the heels of All Saints, the celebration of All Souls presupposes a distinction between those whom the church has traditionally deemed "saints" - whose lives are commended to us as worthy examples for which all Christians should give thanks - and the rest of those who have died in Christ - whose lives and witness may remain, humanly speaking, unheralded and unknown.

In many Christian cultures, the distinction between the two days is fuzzy, merging together into general "days of the dead." And that, in many respects, is as it should be.

Even the greatest of saints whom the church remembers and celebrates is still a baptized soul, our sister or brother in Christ. And even the lowliest of Christians who lives and dies unnoticed and unremembered may be, for all we know, among the greatest of saints. All Saints holds out the worthy examples of the holy persons who, in Christ, we strive by faith to become, while All Souls holds out the certainty of salvation for all those who abide in Christ by faith.

There is, however, more involved in this distinction of days.

Within the teaching of the medieval western church, the "saints" were those who the church discerned to presently enjoy the Beatific Vision, fully in the presence of God in Christ. Other "departed souls," however, were thought possibly to remain apart from that Vision, undergoing the purifications of purgatory before they could fully enter the presence of God in Christ.

Thus, around the commemoration of All Souls, there arose all the practices of intercession and action on behalf of the dead, including the obtaining of indulgences on their behalf, in order to secure or hasten their freedom from purgation. It is no accident, then, that Martin Luther posted his "Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences," with its 95 theses for debate, on the eve of All Saints and All Souls, which focus attention upon souls in purgatory, remission from temporal punishment, and the sale of indulgences.

My personal experience of Roman Catholicism in America has been that traditional teachings on purgatory and indulgences receive little focused attention. I've attended numerous Catholic funerals, but the message was typically one of celebrating the entrance of the deceased into the blessed presence of God through Christ and our joyful hope in the resurrection to come. As several friends of mine point out, compared to their experience of Catholicism in Latin America, the Philippines, and elsewhere, American (and much of western European) Catholicism is highly "Protestantized."

Witness the editorial cartoon to the right, which ran yesterday in a Philippine English-language newspaper. The cartoon was accompanied by an editorial on All Saints and All Souls, outlining the relationship and distinction between the two days, and drawing out some implications for wider society. The editorial stated at one point, "The idea behind All Souls is an article of faith: souls separated from their bodies at death may not be cleansed of all sins; it is the task of the faithful left behind to help purge them through prayer" - and thus the cartoon.

In America it is easy to forget that purgatory and indulgences remain an official part of Catholic teaching. And looking at their popular manifestations in piety throughout many other parts of the world, it can also be difficult to discern just what that official teaching entails.

In recent decades a number of Catholic theologians have returned to the topic of purgatory and indulgences to see if they might articulate those doctrines in way that is more in keeping with the contours of the biblical witness, the absolute priority of grace, the sufficiency of Christ's redeeming work, and a healthy piety. While, as a reformational catholic Protestant, I reject Roman Catholic understandings of purgatory and indulgences, such a rejection ought to be based upon examining the doctrines in their best and most amenable expressions, rather than upon caricatures or exaggerations within popular piety.

So what is purgatory?

On one hand, purgatory is the belief that those who die in Christ nonetheless die still experiencing the ongoing consequences of original and actual sin, not yet perfected in faith nor wholly sanctified in the love of God. Since "nothing unclean" may enter into the heavenly Jerusalem (Rev 21:27) in which dwell "the spirits of the righteous made perfect" (Heb 12:23), God must bring the dead in Christ to perfection in order that they may be received into his presence and enjoy the Beatific Vision.

With this much, a Protestant may entirely agree. The Westminster Confession of Faith, for instance, teaches that at the time of bodily death, the souls of the dead "immediately return to God who gave them." Those who die in the grace of Christ are "then made perfect in holiness" and "are received into the highest heavens, where they behold the face of God, in light and glory, waiting for the full redemption of their bodies" (32.1).

But the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory goes further, maintaining that if "those who are truly penitent die in charity before they have done sufficient penance for their sins" then it is necessary that "their souls are cleansed after death in purgatorial or cleansing punishments" (Second Council of Lyons). The key point here is that this perfecting of the dead in Christ constitutes a "punishment" that completes "penance for their sins."

At this point a bit of history may be helpful, though keep in mind this is my own understanding of the history and it may be open to correction at some points.

The early church saw the sacrament of baptism, received rightly, as remitting and forgiving original sin and actual sin up to the time of baptism. But what about post-baptismal sin, especially very serious sins that were public and brought scandal to the church?

While the church has always seen the eucharist itself as a sacrament of forgiveness and reconciliation, it came to be felt that some kind of public reconciliation was necessary in cases of scandalous sin that publicly estranged a person from the life of the church. Thus, sometime in the 2nd century a public, liturgical ritual of reconciliation developed for those who sinned gravely after baptism. Often there was a period of time leading up to the reconciliation in which the penitent was suspended from participation in the eucharist, the length of the time proportionate to the seriousness of the sin.

The idea here is that sin has concrete consequences that disrupt the life of the Christian community. Even if God offers forgiveness of the guilt of sin immediately, freely, and graciously to all who turn to him in faith, the process of communal reconciliation itself can take time, as the sinner comes to understand the effects of her sin, owns up to and takes responsibility for those effects, and seeks restoration and renewal personally and within the larger community.

The period of penitence and its formal conclusion in a public, liturgical rite gave public recognition to the serious effects of sin, encouraged the process of reconciliation, engaged the wider Christian community in that process, and provided a final sense of "closure" at its completion, cutting off the possibility of further recrimination or bitterness. Pastorally, the widsom here is evident, even if the ritual seems foreign to us.

One of the features of this ancient practice of penitence was that the length of suspension could be shortened in view of the contrition of the penitent, the penitent's willingness to engage in acts of love and service to mitigate the brokenness and ruin of the world (to which his sin contributed), and the prayers of the faithful on his behalf for his restoration. Eventually, as a matter of fairness and consistency, some rules of thumb were put in place regarding the ways in which these times of penitence could be shortened.

As time went on this very public and very communal form of penitence gradually was set aside. Celtic Christians for some time, in connection with their vibrant monastic communities, had developed practices of private counsel and penitence, where an individual oppressed by the weight of sin could seek absolution and amendment of life through the ministrations of a priest gifted in counsel and discernment.

Unlike the rites of public penitence, reserved only for very serious sins and typically only undertaken once in a lifetime, a sinner could avail herself of these private rites repeatedly and for much less serious failures. Pastorally speaking, such private rites have the obvious benefit of assuring sinners of God's grace towards them, proclaiming the forgiveness of their sins to them, and engaging them in practices of spiritual (re)formation - often through acts of love and piety in thankful response to God's prior grace. Theses practices functioned to restore the sinner within the community and set her upon a path of personal renewal in holiness.

By the 11th century these Celtic rites began to displace the earlier public rites. But in the process, some of the structure and meaning of the public rites migrated over into the private ones. Thus post-absolution practices came to have the character of "penance" and "making satisfaction" and were regulated in some respects by the rules of thumb that had developed earlier in connection with shortening times of public penitence. Moreover, the need for penitence once reserved for sins of a public, scandalous nature (which disrupted the fabric of the faith community), came to qualify all serious sins and, to some degree, all sins.

It is in this context we find a developing distinction between [a] the eternal punishment that is due to sin in virtue of its guilt and divine holiness and justice and [b] the temporal consequences of sin for which we must "make satisfaction" through "penance" conceived as "temporal punishment." And here is where the doctrine of purgatory comes into the picture.

Already by the turn of the 5th century we find Augustine speaking of a "correctional fire" (ignis emandatorius) through which sinful believers may be purified after death, distinct from the fire of damnation. Augustine writes, "it is not impossible to believe that some believers will pass through a cleansing fire, and in proportion to the degree they loved perishable goods with more or less devotion, so they will be more or less quickly delivered."

The image of "fire" in Scripture, after all, is a multivalent one. As a metaphor for God himself, he is experienced by some as a consuming fire leading to destruction, by others as a purifying and refining fire, and by others as a gracious, protecting, and transforming holiness and presence (see Ex 19:18; 24:17; Dt 4:11-36; 5:4-26; Ps 79: Eze 36:5; etc.). Moreover, these are not mutually exclusive - it is the holy presence of God that destroys the remnants of sin in us, thereby purifying our lives.

If there are temporal consequences of sin and if those consequences remain with us at death - without reconciliation, penitence, or satisfaction - then, the reasoning goes, these consequences are the object of purgatorial fire. They cannot but be consumed in the fire of God's holy presence, burnt up as the chaff of our imperfect lives, purifying us to enjoy finally and fully a blessed vision of God. This is not a matter of sin's guilt, which is forgiven in Christ, but of sin's effects upon our lives, effects from which, in grateful response to God's forgiveness, we desire to be delivered.

Various medieval Roman Catholic depictions of purgatory suggest a place of torment and fiery punishment, poised between heaven and hell, and extended over great lengths of time, until at long last souls are freed to finally enter the glories of heaven. But this is more the stuff of popular piety than official teaching.

St. Catherine of Genoa, on the other hand, suggests that the pains of purgatory are more desirable than the greatest earthly pleasures, painting a picture of purgation as joyful deliverance. Moreover, purgatory is not some third place in between heaven and hell where some persons receive a "second chance." Purgatory is taken to be, as it were, the entryway to heaven, something experienced only by those who die in Christ and in his saving forgiveness of sin.

As to length of time, there is no official teaching regarding the experience of time within the intermediate state, much less the duration of purgatory. Yet, were one to discover an old holy card in a well-worn Missal, there might be prayers on the back with a "partial indulgence" promised, measured in days or years.

What are those time measures if not reductions to the length of purgatorial cleansing for the person for whom the indulgence was intended? But matters are not actually so straightforward.

Let's turn them to the whole topic of indulgences, against which, on the eve of All Saints, in 1517 Luther rightly raised his theses for dispute. The basic concept of an "indulgence" here is the Roman Catholic church's affirmation that certain acts fully or partially mitigate the temporal consequences of sin that would otherwise have to be dealt with through purgatorial cleansing.

Regarding the time measures, those times connect back to the ways in which periods of public penitence could be shortened in the early church. The early church practice, however, is now refracted through the lens of private rites of confession, the notion of temporal consequences to sin, and the manifestation of that in purgatory.

That's to say, the time measures in a partial indulgence indicate a lessening of purgatorial cleansing that, in some unspecified way, is commensurate with the reduction in length of penitence that early Christians received through their prayers, deeds of mercy, intercession of others, and so forth. This is, of course, a complex answer and prior to the Second Vatican Council (after which these time indications were dropped), many a devout Catholic likely misunderstood the subtleties of Roman Catholic belief on this point.

Here we also encounter the concept that the actions of a living Christian may somehow affect the purgatorial cleansing of a sister or brother in Christ who has died, even as in the early church the intercessions of others could reduce the length of public penitence.

In Roman Catholic teaching, an indulgence - a mitigation of purgatory through prayer, service, deeds of love, and holy intentions - can affect not only one's own future in purgatory, but also the way in which those who have already died experience their purgatorial cleansing. Such a perspective receives further support from ancient Jewish belief and practice as seen in 2 Maccabees, which attests to offerings made on behalf of the dead, a practice carried forward in early Christian offerings of the eucharist and prayers on behalf of the dead.

The ultimate backdrop to such a line of thinking is the communion that all believers share with one another in Christ as his one mystical Body. The spiritual life of each of us in Christ is wrapped up in myriad ways with the spiritual life of others and of all in Christ. In the same way that sin affects not only the sinner, but can also affect the wider Body, so also a life of renewal and obedience that one person experiences can serve and benefit the wider people of God.

In Roman Catholic theology, those recognized as "saints" are singled out in gratitude and as examples in part for the extraordinary ways in which their lives, by the power of the Spirit, have brought unmeasurable good to the life of the church. Thus, the church recognizes the good done by these saints, from within the saving work of Christ in whom we all are united by the Spirit, has an effect upon the experience of purgatory. This is sometimes spoken of in terms of the "treasury of merits of Christ and the saints," which is applied in the granting of an indulgence.

I provide this historical narrative in order, as a Protestant, to try to make some sense of how my Roman Catholic sisters and brothers have come to hold beliefs that, to my mind, seem unnecessarily complicated and foreign to the pervasive New Testament emphasis on the triumph of Christ over sin and death.

Some of the basic instincts embodied in the doctrine of purgatory make sense biblically and theologically (e.g., our sin carries negative consequences distinct from sin's guilt, the Spirit can use our faith-filled actions to mitigate sin's consequences for ourselves and others, God's holy presence purifies and perfects us). But the full-blown doctrine of purgatory and, even more, indulgences, seems to stretch far beyond anything we can derive from Scripture. As a Protestant, it strikes me as a violation of conscience to require assent to such teaching on the part of the faithful.

Nonetheless, as I mentioned above, some Roman Catholic theologians have articulated ways of understanding purgatory (and even indulgences) that perhaps are more in keeping with the biblical witness.

Monika Hellwig, for instance, suggests that purgatory "plays an important function in underscoring the seriousness of all of life's choices, relationships, attitudes, and actions, and the redemptive need to restore integrity." She goes on, however, to suggest that we may be on firmer ground if we see purgatory as "representing another aspect of death as the divine judgment, demanding a refocusing and reordering of all aspects of the person's expectations and relationships."

Or, perhaps, with Peter Kreeft, one might interpret purgatorial cleansing as a form of heightened and perfected awareness, effected by the light of God's presence as an illuminating and purifying fire. Thus, in death, in coming face-to-face with God, we finally see ourselves as we truly are, the depths of our own sin and brokenness, and all the consequences and ruin wrought by our own sin and unfaithfulness in our own lives, the lives of others, and the ongoing life of our family, church, and world.

In this case, it seems to me, there would be no reason to see purgatory as something distinct from the moment of death itself, entering into the blessed presence of God, and the immediate perfecting of our souls. While such a perfecting awareness would be painful, in the light of the comprehensiveness of God's promised salvation, it would also be most joyful.

Moreover, in comprehending all the consequences of our sin, we would also simultaneously become aware of all the ways in which moments of faith and obedience - in our own lives and the lives of others, especially the great saints (whether known as such or not) - are taken up by the Spirit. Through the Spirit's working in and through Christ's Body, we would then see those moments of faithfulness miraculously multiplied to soften, undo, mitigate, and redeem the deleterious consequences of our sin. And in seeing this we would grasp fully God's gracious indulgence of sinners such as us. (For some Catholic reflections along these lines, see Rino Fisichella, "Indulgences and the Mercy of God," in Communio: International Catholic Review 26.1 (1999): 122-133.)

If that were what our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers understood concerning purgatory and indulgences, then I could set aside these teachings as no longer a significant barrier to ecumenical rapprochement.

I would still have questions, of course, particularly about the system of partial and plenary indulgences. Such a system, with its seemingly authoritative dispensing of indulgences, goes well beyond a mere recognition of the fact of the Spirit's redeeming work through our imperfect faith and obedience. Moreover, the possible understanding of purgatory I outlined remains a piece of speculative theology and therefore ought not to bind the consciences of the faithful.

Recalling now all the departed in Christ upon this All Souls, let us rejoice in the communion in glory they enjoy at present: made perfect in holiness, received into the highest heavens, beholding the face of God in light and glory, waiting for the full redemption of their bodies.

As Martin Luther proposed on the eve of All Saints when he posted his theses: "Every true Christian, whether living or dead, has part in all the blessings of Christ and the Church; and this is granted him by God."