Anyway, he writes:
What is the official teaching on purgatory, does it exist, what would lead one to such a condition, and would one be aware of their status.
Yes, Virginia, there is a Purgatory. That's an official Catholic teaching, a doctrine of the Church. You can get the Catholic Encyclopedia article on Purgatory here.
This post will not be a heady theological explanation of the scriptural and traditional grounds for Purgatory. I don't do theology in under five pages, as my professors at Holy Apostles will attest, and frankly, Purgatory is not a neat and simple doctrine (which is why it wasn't very well defined until the Council of Florence).
Anyhoo, here's an elevator explanation of Purgatory.
Purgatory is a state or place where temporal punishment for transgressions takes place after death before one of the Elect enjoys the Beatific Vision. The term "purgatory" comes from the Latin infinitive purgare, which means "to purify." Although we talk about it more in terms of punishment, some theologians have likened it to a cleansing process. Essentially, while Christ dealt with the eternal, spiritual penalty for sin, we inflict on ourselves temporal damage that must be rectified or repaired. In some cases, we rectify these matters in life (through personal suffering, corporal works of mercy, and other penitential acts). Whatever we don't address in this physical life will eventually have to be addressed after we die.
Sin leaves a mark. I think all of us who have had a dramatic falling away from faith and a dramatic return can attest to this. We may have converted, but sin has still warped or deformed us in the form of attachments to things and experiences in this world. We cannot enter God's presence in such a state; nothing unclean can stand before God. However, in His infinite mercy, God provides a means for cleansing these stains and imperfections—a means for detaching us from the world of material experience. Think of purgatory, then, as Heaven's mud room. Unless you've taken immaculate care of your soul or done considerable scouring of your worldly attachments, you'll probably spend a bit of time in Purgatory getting tidied up before you see Heaven.
Doesn't sound quite so bad as classical Purgatory, does it? Well, that's because I'm being really conceptual about it. We can't say definitively what Purgatory is like because that much is not in revelation. We have hints in scripture that don't sound like a lot of fun (for example, St. Paul's description in 1 Corinthians 3:11-15). We have Old Testament types in Adam, who is forgiven but has to "eat his bread in the sweat of his brow" or Moses, who doesn't get to see the land of promise. David was forgiven his sin of adultery with Bathsheba and his arrangement of Uriah's untimely death, but the temporal penalty was the loss of his child. We also have personal revelation, which does not rise to the level of doctrine and with which Catholics are free to disagree. Some saints have reported vistations from souls in Purgatory, and from these encounters we have most of our impressions.
If you think back to my comment on "attachments to things and experiences in this world," you can imagine how this might be painful. We have difficulty in life detaching ourselves. So the process of cleansing is expected to be painful in some sense.
Those who end up there are those who have unrepented venial sins at the time of death and those who have imperfect contrition for sins and have not done sufficient penance will be spending some time in Purgatory. Perfect contrition and penitential acts are means of addressing the remaining temporal effects of sin.
There's some dispute of whether we're aware of being in Purgatory. However, many of the personal revelations relate a soul in Purgatory requesting prayers, which would suggest some awareness of being in a state of preparation. My sense is that we still have hope even if the process is painful. We know that we're no longer in danger of sinning and of losing friendship with God.
Catholic Answers has a good article on Purgatory. The Catholic Encyclopedia article provides all kinds of scriptural support as well.
The concept doesn't sit well with most Protestants because of their understanding of justification (forensic or extrinsic justification, as opposed to the Catholic concept of intrinsic justification). This is because extrinsic justification is like a pardon: God overlooks our offense, ignores the depravity that caused us to sin, and covers it with His Son's righteousness. To Protestants, we're still depraved sinners and always will be. Christ's atonement covers us, but it doesn't cause us to revert back to the original state of grace prior to Adam.
Intrinsic justification is different. It's a process, and its goal is to lead us back to that state of perfection, to change us internally, not just to pardon our offenses. Purgatory makes sense only if intrinsic justification is operable. In a world of sola fide, the idea of purgation doesn't make a whoe lot of sense. However, in the Catholic mindset, the idea of entering before God with the stains of sin underneath (albeit covered by Christ's righteousness) doesn't jibe. We cannot appear to be perfect; we must become perfect. That only happens through God's grace acting in us by faith and works (penitential acts).
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