Let us remind ourselves what the Church teaches about 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.
Where do these ideas come from? They were not invented in the Middle Ages, even if some particularly (and typical) grisly detail was painted on to the original idea; nor were they invented in the Renaissance, where again, in typical fashion, much embellishment was added. It is, I want to suggest, the embellishments to which Geoffrey and others object. It was characteristic of both those eras to dwell on human suffering and grisly detail about pain and suffering, and yes, let me say straight away, Geoffrey is right to argue that the concept was adapted to the uses of the times; that is what happens across several thousand years; it does not negate the concept when one era finds the way it was portrayed by another wrong, any more than it invalidates the house as a concept because we no long live in wattle and daub huts.
The concept of praying for the dead and that we do not go straight to heaven when we die (although not that we do not go to hell) has been around for as long as the faith itself. Those Catholics who cite various verses to ‘prove’ it are, in many ways, playing the cherry pick a verse game so beloved of Protestants. You can make any verse ‘mean’ what you want if you try, as Arius did, hard enough; indeed, like him, you can ‘prove’ Christ was not divine. What defeated Arius was not the logical coherence of the position of Athanasius, but rather that he was basing himself in what most Christians had taken for granted,
As my short series on these matters showed, Arius’ views were not without coherence, neither were they without support from Scripture; but they were without support from what most Christians had assumed was meant by the Resurrection. Arius, in short, disregarded the voice of the ancesors because he knew better. In that he set a grim example. Christians have prayed for their dead and they have believed that that which is sinful at death needs cleansing. These ideas have been there from the beginning.
They are there in the Orthodox tradition, although the Orthodox tend to be a bit cagey about detail (in which they have my sympathy). They hold that praying for the dead is a pious act; why so if the dead are already with Christ? They hold that nothing unclean comes into God’s presence and therefore some cleansing needs to happen; on the detail they are vague. That was never the Latin tradition. The Roman way, bless it, was to worry away at a problem and then come up with a concrete answer. The Roman tradition sought to make sense of these ancient traditions and insights and came up with the idea of Purgatory. It was a way of making sense of what had been received from earliest times.
Certainly there are those, myself among them, who would argue that it is time to do what our ancestors did, and that it to adapt the insights to our own times. That we be largely a matter of two things: positively stressing the opening lines of this post; and negatively, cleaning away the rich layers of accretions on the original picture.
That would be in line with the living tradition we inherit from the catacombs. We could, alternatively, take the Luther line, which leads us straight to modern relativism. I know which I prefer.
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