Purgatory 101

The doctrine of purgatory is one of the most basic teachings of the Catholic Church. The doctrine of purgatory finds its roots in the Bible and the teaching has been clarified and expounded on by the Church up to the understanding we have today. This once universally accepted teaching of Christianity was challenged by the reformers and is still challenged by some today. Here I intend to explain and defend the doctrine of purgatory by giving a synthesis of the Church’s teaching on purgatory, looking at the doctrine’s historical development, and glancing at three Church Documents explaining the teaching.

Synthesis of the Church’s Teaching

The Church teaches that all who die in a state of grace but are not yet perfectly purified must undergo purification in a place called purgatory so they can obtain the holiness required to enter into eternal life.[1]The souls in purgatory undergo purgation for any venial sins that were not forgiven, and for temporal punishment due to sin for any forgiven mortal or venial sins.[2] Those who are undergoing purgation in purgatory can be greatly aided by the prayers, sacrifices, almsgiving or indulgences of the Church militant on earth.[3]

Historical Development

The tradition of purgatory extends back to before Christ to His Jewish ancestors. In the second book of Maccabees, Judas Machabee, as he was making funeral preparations for his fallen soldiers, realized they died wearing pagan good luck charms. Judas knew his soldiers had been punished for their sin and collected an offering on behalf of the sinful soldiers. “He took a collection from them individually, amounting to nearly two thousand drachmas, and sent it to Jerusalem to have a sacrifice for sin offered, an action altogether fine and noble, prompted by his belief in the resurrection.”[4] The author of Maccabees expresses that this action is in fact a belief that their sins can be purified. “For had he not expected the fallen to rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead, whereas if he had in view the splendid recompense reserved for those who make a pious end, the thought was holy and devout. Hence, he had this expiatory sacrifice offered for the dead, so that they might be released from their sin”[5] (2Mac12:44-45).

In the New Testament Christ himself makes reference to the existence of purgatory without ever explicitly teaching the doctrine. “Anyone who says a word against the Son of man will be forgiven; but no one who speaks against the Holy Spirit will be forgiven either in this world or in the next.”[6] While Christ does not explicitly state there is a place where one can undergo purification after death, He does say that sins can be forgiven in the next world.

While the doctrine of purgatory certainly has its roots in the Bible, it cannot be said to be an explicit doctrine taught by the Bible. The early Church, following the teachings of Christ, did not believe all souls destined for heaven would enter the beatific vision immediately after death.[7] It was not until the teaching of the Church Fathers that a formal doctrine of purgatory began to take shape. St. Augustine says, “but temporary punishments are suffered by some in this life only, by others after death, by others both now and then.”[8]

The scholastics, using the teachings of the Fathers, composed concrete statements about purgatory. St. Thomas Aquinas definitively states “it is sufficiently clear that there is a Purgatory after this life.”[9] He arrives at this conclusion because “the universal Church holds by praying for the dead that they may be loosed from sins. This cannot be understood except as referring to Purgatory.”[10] St. Thomas reasoned that purgatory must exist because the Church teaches that people can pray for those who have died and this can free them from sin. This can only be the case if purgatory exists because if purgatory does not exist the only options after death are heaven and hell. To enter heaven one needs to be in a perfect state of grace and those souls would not need prayers, and if one is in hell he cannot achieve salvation. It was the teachings of the Church Fathers that were incorporated into the Councils of Lyons, Florence, and Trent that formally defined the doctrine of Purgatory.[11]

Church Documents

The doctrine of Purgatory was not solemnly declared until the First Council of Lyons in 1254. The council, while it did define the doctrine of Purgatory, was more focused on secular matters, such as a crusade to the Holy Land, the Heretical emperor Frederick II and the reunification of the eastern and western churches.[12] Even after the declaration of the dogma of Purgatory discussion continued about Purgatory. 300 years later the doctrine of Purgatory was most clearly defined at the council of Trent.

Both the First Council of Lyons and the Council of Trent were ecumenical councils. An ecumenical council is a gathering of bishops from all over the world in which the proclamations are approved by the successor of St. Peter, the pope.[13] Ecumenical councils carry a very high level of authority. In fact, because of the relationship established by Christ between Peter and the other apostles, the authority of an ecumenical council “is the highest and most solemn that exists in the Church.”[14]

The Council of Trent was opened in 1545 primarily in response to the reformation. The council ran for 25 sessions discussing many reforms and restating many doctrines. On January 30, 1564 Pope Paul V signed the papal bull Benedictus Deus approving all of the decrees of the council.[15]

The 25th and final session met on December 3 – 4, 1563 to discuss purgatory and other matters. The council decreed that the doctrine of purgatory has been taught from sacred scripture, from ancient tradition and the current council. It decreed “purgatory exists, and that the souls detained there are helped by the prayers of the faithful and most of all by the acceptable sacrifice of the altar.”[16] The council not only upheld the truth expressed previously at the First Council of Lyons that purgatory exists but also reiterated the truth that the prayers and sacrifices of the Church militant can obtain the release of those in purgatory.

The Council of Trent did not lead all people to accept the doctrine of purgatory. Even today debate continues amongst nominal Catholics and non-Catholics over the existence of purgatory. Just four years ago Pope Benedict taught the doctrine of purgatory authoritatively through his encyclical letter Spes Salve. Near the end of his encyclical the pontiff taught on purgatory and the role the Church militant plays for those in purgatory.

Much like an ecumenical council an encyclical carries a very high level of authority. Matters resolved in encyclicals are definitive answers and debate over them should cease. “When a pope has seen fit in an encyclical to render an opinion of a matter freely disputed among theologians up to that point, the matter is no longer open to theological discussion.”[17]

The pope, in his encyclical, simply takes for granted the existence of purgatory based on previous teachings. “The early Church took up these concepts and in the Western Church they gradual developed into the doctrine of Purgatory. We do not need to examine here the complex historical paths of this development; it is enough to ask what it actually means.”[18] The fact that the current Holy Father sees no need to demonstrate the truth that purgatory exists is significant because it shows that the Church sees the existence of purgatory a long resolved matter.

The Holy Father teaches the truth that the Church militant can assist those souls in purgatory. “Our lives are involved with one another; through innumerable interactions they are linked together. No one lives alone. No one sins alone. No one is saved alone. The lives of others continually spill over into mine: in what I think, say, do and achieve. And conversely, my life spills over into that of others: for better or for worse. So my prayer for another is not something extraneous to that person, something external, not even after death. In that interconnectedness of Being, my gratitude to the other – my prayer for him- can play a small part in his purification.”[19] The Holy Father clearly teaches very clearly that our prayers can play a role in the purification of a soul in purgatory.

The question of purgatory has also been addressed by lower levels of authority. The Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a papal congregation charged with overseeing doctrine of the Catholic Church, carries much less authority than an ecumenical council or a papal encyclical letter but these teachings should not be ignored.

In May of 1979 the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in its Letter On Certain Questions Concerning Eschatology, addressed the question of purgatory. The document says that the Church “She believes in the possibility of purification for the elect before they see God, purification altogether different from the punishment of the damned.”[20] This letter of the congregation reemphasized what has already been taught by the Church through higher levels of authority. This letter from the congregation serves as a clarification and not a teaching tool.


The Church’s teaching on purgatory traces its roots back to before Christ. The New Testament, while not explicitly defining the doctrine, teaches of it. The Church Fathers, using the Scriptures, also teach about purgatory and by the time of the scholastics a concise formula of the doctrine starts to emerge. Over time the Church solemnly proclaimed the doctrine and through the ages has continued to reaffirm and expound the doctrine that purgatory exists and that members of the Church militant can pray and offer sacrifices for those in purgatory.



[1] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000), 130 -131.

[2] Ryan, J. “Purgatory.” New Catholic Encyclopedia, vol 11, Jack Heraty et al., 1034. New York: McGraw Hill, 1967.

[3] CCC, 1032.

[4] 2Mac12:43

[5] 2Mac12:44-45

[6] Mt 12:32

[7] Ryan, “Purgatory,” 1035.

[8] Augustine of Hippo, City of God, in Great Books of the Western World: Augustine, trans. Marcus Dods (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952), 572.

[9] Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologia, Supp, Appendix II , a.1, in Summa theologica: Complete English Edition in Five Volumes, vol. 5, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (Notre Dame, IN: Christian Classics, 1981), 3010.

[10] ST, app. II, a.1. a.1., , trans. English Dominican Province, 3010.

[11] Ryan, “Purgatory,” 1036.

[12] McKenna, O. “Lyons Council of.” New Catholic Encyclopedia, vol 8, Jack Heraty et al., 1116-1118. New York: McGraw Hill, 1967.

[13] Thoralf T. Thielen, What is an Ecumenical Council (Westminster: The Newman Press, 1960), 16.

[14] Thielen, What is an Ecumenical Council, 48.


[15] Jedin, H. “Trent Council of.” New Catholic Encyclopedia, vol 14, Jack Heraty et al., 271 – 278. New York: McGraw Hill, 1967.

[16] The General Council of Trent, Twenty Fifth Session Decree on Purgatory (4 December 1563), §2310, in Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils Vol 2, ed. Norman P Tanner, S.J. (London: Sheed & Ward, 1990), 774 – 776.

[17] John P. Boyle, Church teaching Authority: Historical and Theological Studies (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1995), 85.

[18] Benedict XVI, Encyclical letter on Christian Hope Spe Salve (30 November  2007), §45 (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2008), 94.

[19] Spe Salve§48

[20] Congregation for the Doctrine of  the Faith, Letter on Certain Questions Concerning Eschatology (17 May 1979), § 7, at the Holy See, http://www.vatican.va.

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