On Purgatory

Now, being a Protestant, I do not believe in Purgatory. However, as I am now working my way through Dante’s Purgatorio for my Medieval World class, I wanted to introduce whatever posts I may write on this part of the Divine Comedy with the following interesting explanatory remark from one Dante scholar:

…as regards the intermediate place between Paradise and Hell, the visual, literary, and patristic precedents were far less rich. Christian theologians had long since recognized that there existed a logical necessity for a place between Hell’s eternal torments and Paradise’s eternal beatitude. To them it seemed inconceivable that a soul like that of Buonconte da Montefeltro (Purgatorio 5), saved thanks to a single tear of contrition after a lifetime of sin, should simply be lifted up into heaven and placed in the company of the blessed without some additional purifying process. Such an instantaneous form of beatification would, in effect, have raised ordinary sinners, saved at the moment of death through God’s grace, to the status of saints and martyrs, whose souls were to be transported directly up into heaven because they had lived and died in a state of spiritual perfection. No less of a stumbling block were the moral and psychological implications of uniform beatification: if saints and repentant sinners were to be saved without distinction, there would remain no incentive for living Christians to lead saintly lives while still on earth. No price would have to be paid for a lifetime of errancy; no reward would result from a lifetime of virtue. As a solution to this problem, theologians came to envisage an intermediate realm, a realm of process and exchange, where ordinary souls could be cleansed (or “purged”) of their remaining sins and be spiritually reshaped in preparation for their admission to Paradise proper. To this spatially and topographically unspecific realm they assigned the label “Purgatory.”:”(Jeffrey T. Schnapp, “Introduction to Purgatorio,” in The Cambridge Companion to Dante, ed. Rachel Jacoff [Cambridge University Press, second edition, 2007, rep. 2008], pg. 92.)”:

This an interesting explanation, and you have to admit that given certain assumptions about holiness and justice, it makes perfect logical sense. My questions for Medieval theologians at this point would concern the basic theology of Sainthood and non-Sainthood, which, by Dante’s day was losing touch with its earlier, more modest beginnings:”(See, e.g., Peter Brown’s very illuminating work on early patristic saint cult theology, The Cult of the Saints.)”: as well as getting well on the way toward the frighteningly abusive penitential system against which the Reformers would fight. The notion of the Treasury of Merits had not yet been invented,:”(This would come in Clement VI’s bull “Unigenitus,” of January, 1343 – about 20 years after Dante died.)”: but Dante shows us the definite beginnings of the notion that the prayers of those still on earth can ameliorate the sufferings of those in Purgatory.

There’s nothing wrong, I think, with recognizing superior examples of holiness in this life, and holding them up as examples for others to follow. But Scripture (I Cor. 3:11-15) tells us of a “Bema seat” judgment in which the relative quality of believers’ works in their earthly lives will be taken into account and in this context we read of some, whose works are like straw, who will be “saved as through the flame.” As well, the parable of the laborers (Mt. 20:1-16) shows that it is quite within the scope of God’s perfect justice to give equal pay to one man who has worked only a fraction of the time as another man. I don’t know how Medieval theologians interpreted these passages of Scripture, but to me, thanks to having post-Reformation glasses on my eyes as I read Scripture, it seems like the fears of Medievals described in the Schnapp quote above were exaggerated and don’t obtain in the real world of redemption. Buonconte da Montefeltro, who in Purgatorio Canto V tells Dante of how he lived a whole life of wickedness, yet was saved by a single shed tear and an utterance of the name of the Virgin Mary as he was falling dead from battle wounds, might be one of those saved “as through the flame,” but no doubt it’s more than a little debatable whether “as through the flame” involves a process of post-mortem purgation prior to entering heavenly bliss.

All this said, in further posts I may make about Dante’s Purgatorio, I will assume the validity of his theological-philosophical system, warts and all, simply because so doing is the only way to make sense of any text that is moored in a completely different framework than oneself. At least in Dante, Purgatory is not a part of a crass Divine legalistic-counting system. It is, rather, a “school for sinners,” teaching them the hard lessons about character which they failed to learn in their earthly lives, but which they must learn in order to enter Paradise, the place where no wickedness may dwell.


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