Removing Our Sinful Natures

The Catholic Doctrine of Purgatory

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Temporal punishment due to sin

One of the key points of dispute between Protestants and Catholics on this issue is the idea that purgatory takes away "the temporal punishment due to sins". The question arises: why should a "saved" person be punished? Didn't Jesus take all the punishment due to sin? What is meant by "temporal punishment". The Catechism of the Catholic Church (entries 1030-1032) does not discuss punishment in regard to purgatory - the focus is on purification. It states: "The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned" (CCC 1031, emphasis added). The Catechism recognizes that the term "punishment" in modern usage is not a good one to describe the Roman Catholic belief of purgatory. Perhaps a better word would be "suffering", or even the phrase "negative consequences".

All suffering, and in fact everything negative, that happens in this world is the result of sin; if we had no sin, we would have no suffering. In one sense, this suffering is a punishment that we all receive for our sin. This suffering is not the ultimate punishment for sin, which is death, but instead the temporal punishment for sin. Even after we are baptized, we still sin, and therefore, we still suffer, or in older language, receive temporal punishment for this sin. This "punishment" is a direct result of our sin - we must receive it; it is the order of the universe: there are consequences for our actions. We will either receive this "punishment" in this world, or we will receive it in purgatory. It is not the case that God sits up in heaven and gives out demerits every time someone tell a fib. Instead, when we do something disordered (such as lie), then we have gone against the nature of how we were originally intended to be, and there are negative consequences to this disordered action, even if we can't see them. These "negative consequences" are what old-time Catholics mean when they say "temporal punishment".

The word "punishment" in this context can have connotations today that often confuse the issue. But it is important to ask: did Christ take away all the punishments, all the suffering, all the negative consequences, due to sin? Or did he simply take away death, which is the ultimate punishment for sin? It seems that if it is the former, then our world would have no suffering after the Ascension. But the effects of sin on our world are just as true today as they were before Christ's work. However, the end result, the ultimate punishment, of sin - death - has been defeated and removed. So whereas talking about taking punishment in purgatory can be misleading in a modern context, it does have some technical accuracy, as long as we differentiate between temporal punishment and "ultimate" punishment (i.e. death).

Unfortunately, it has become more common in modern Christianity to think that if one is a Christian, all will go well. We will be given all we need and there is no need to suffer. This is a dangerous distortion of the Christian Faith. It has been the common belief of the Christian Church for 2,000 years that suffering is a required part of the Christian life. No student is greater than his master, and if our master had to suffer in this world, so will we. Only by embracing suffering and purification in this life can we grow in holiness. Purgatory is simply the completion of this purification that should start on earth.
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