Catholics believe in Heaven, Hell, and something called Purgatory that has two purposes: a temporal punishment for sin, and the cleansing from the attachment to sin. Purgatory purifies the soul before the soul’s grand entrance into heaven.
Purgatory is an often-misunderstood Catholic doctrine. It isn’t considered a spiritual jail or hell with parole. And Catholicism doesn’t teach that everyone goes to purgatory. On the contrary, the Church believes that many people are purified or purged, hence the term purgatory, in this life.
For example, the Church believes that
- Many innocent persons who suffer from disease, poverty, or persecution are living their purgatory now, and when they die, they probably go straight to heaven.
- People who live an exceptionally good and holy life bypass purgatory and make a beeline for heaven.
The Church believes that almost everyone else, although not bad enough to go to hell, aren’t good enough to skate into heaven with no need for some introspection and purification.
The real doctrine consists of the conviction that God’s mercy and justice must be kept intact and upheld. God’s divine mercy refers to the fact that he forgives any sin as long as the sinner is truly repentant and sorry. God’s justice, however, is that good is rewarded and evil punished. Catholics believe that purgatory evens the score and fulfills justice while accommodating mercy. They believe that purgatory isn’t a place but a spiritual state of the soul in which it’s purified before entering heaven. Known as the Church Suffering, the souls in purgatory are definitely and absolutely going to heaven, just not yet.
Think of it like this: Joe and Max were both born on the same day and both died on the same day. Joe was a gambler, boozer, and womanizer, and he was dishonest, lazy, and undependable. Max, on the other hand, spent his life obeying the Ten Commandments, practicing virtue, and loving God and neighbor. Just before dying, Joe repents of his old ways and accepts the Lord into his heart. Should Joe and Max both go to heaven at the same time? Catholicism teaches no. The Church believes that Jesus’ death allows everyone the possibility of heaven, and his mercy grants forgiveness, but his justice demands that good be rewarded and evil punished — in this life or the next. If one man struggles all his life to be good while another lives a life of selfishness, greed, and comfort, both can’t walk through the pearly gates side by side.
It may help to think of the purgatory in terms of a major operation to save a life. Say a doctor performs surgery on someone’s heart or brain and removes a cancerous tumor. The surgery achieves the main objective, but the wound needs to heal, and the incision needs to be cleaned and rebandaged. Purgatory is like that secondary part of recovery — the healing, cleaning, and bandaging. The belief is that the evil of sin is revealed to the person so she can totally and absolutely reject even the most venial and smallest of sins.
Often, after committing a sin, people regret it and are remorseful. Catholics confess their sins and believe that God forgives them in the Sacrament of Penance. However, many times people still have pleasant memories of those sins. They’re sorry and regret doing them, but they have some enjoyable and pleasurable memories — some leftover attachment to the sins. Catholicism teaches that the souls in purgatory want to be in purgatory, because they know that they have some leftover attachment to sin that they want to be removed.
Catholics don’t see purgatory as a place of pain and torment. Instead, it’s considered a place of expectant joy, although suffering occurs from the temporary distance. Why all this preparation? Catholics believe that God and heaven are worth it.