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Does purgatory exist?

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Q. I am a cradle Catholic and have always believed in purgatory. Now I am hearing from some people (including from some priests) who deny its existence. Can you clarify this for me? (City and state of origin withheld)

A. The Catholic Church does indeed believe in the existence of purgatory. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says this:
"All who die in God's grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven. The church gives the name purgatory to this final purification of the elect" (No. 1030-31).

This belief is reflected even in the Old Testament, where we read in the Second Book of Maccabees (12:46) that Judas Maccabeus "made atonement for the dead" that they might be freed from sin, which suggests a Jewish practice of offering prayers and sacrifice to cleanse the souls of the departed.

Then, in the Gospel of Matthew (12:32), Jesus says that certain sins "will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come," an indication that some purging of the soul may occur after death.

Personally, I find comfort in the church's teaching on purgatory. It is not a final destination; everyone there will wind up in heaven eventually. Nor do we know how our concept of time relates to eternity — the purification that takes place in purgatory could even be instantaneous.

I think that the confusion you speak of regarding the Catholic belief in purgatory may stem in part from the conflation in some people's minds of purgatory and limbo — and on limbo, the church no longer holds fast to its existence.

In years past, it was the common belief of Catholics (although never defined dogmatically) that children who died without being baptized went, not to be with God in heaven, but to a state of natural happiness called limbo.

But that was theological speculation, not doctrine; and in 2007, the church's International Theological Commission, with the authorization of Pope Benedict XVI, published a document that concluded that "there are theological and liturgical reasons to hope that infants who die without baptism may be saved ... even if there is not an explicit teaching on this question found in revelation."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019