Purgatory

Could you please explain the differences among Latin theology concerning the Dogma of Purgatory and that of the various Eastern Churches?

As a general rule, all Eastern Christians do not use the word “Purgatory.” This includes both Eastern Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians. The word “Purgatory” is specific to the Latin tradition, and carries some specific historical baggage that makes Eastern Christians uncomfortable.

In the Medieval West, many popular theologians defined Purgatory as a specific place, where people essentially sat around and sufferred. Some theologians went so far as to imply that a literal fire burns those who suffer in Purgatory. It was also popular to tally periods of time that people spent in purgatory for various offences. It is worth noting that contemporary Roman Catholic theology has (thankfully) moved beyond this approach, to a more Patristic understanding of Purgatory.

In the Catholic understanding, only two points are necessary dogma concerning “purgatory”: 1) There is a place of transition/transformation for those en-route to Heaven, and 2) prayer is efficacious for the dead who are in this state.

The Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches agree with the Latin Church fully on both of these points. In practice, we routinely celebrate Divine Liturgies for the dead, and offer numerous prayers on their behalf. We would not do so if we did not agree with the above two dogmatic points.

But again, we do not use the word “Purgatory” for two reasons. First, it is a Latin word first used in the Medieval West, and we use Greek words to describe our theology. Second, the word “Purgatory” still carries specific Medieval baggage that we aren’t comfortable with.

It is noteworthy that the Byzantine Catholic Church has never been required to use the word Purgatory. Our act of reunion with Rome, “The Treaty of Brest,” which was formally accepted by Pope Clement VIII, does not require us to accept the Western understanding of Purgatory.

Article V of the Treaty of Brest states “We shall not debate about purgatory…” implying that both sides can agree to disagree on the specifics of what the West calls “Purgatory.”

In the East, we tend to have a much more positive view of the transition from death to Heaven. Rather than seeing this as a place to “sit and suffer,” the Eastern Fathers of the Church described it as being a journey. While this journey can entail hardships, there are also powerful glimpses of joy.

Although we do not use the same words, Eastern Catholics and Latin Catholics do essentially believe the same thing on this important point.

Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.