Dear friends of Simone,
Greetings! I'm one of the members of Simone's Catholic posse, and I have resisted the temptation to inject myself into this conversation, especially as James has articulated the Catholic position so thoughtfully. But, alas, I through I might throw in a couple of cents worth of commentary.
Chris, it seems to me that you are fairly close to accepting the Christian doctrine of purgatory. We all agree that our sanctification needs to be completed before we can be fully in the presence of the Blessed Trinity. After all, our great calling as Christians is to partake of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4), to be perfectly united to the Father, in the Son, through the Holy Spirit. Perfect unity with the Trinity is impossible insofar as we are partially turned away—and isn’t that exactly what sin is? Sin is that part of our will that resists unity with God, resists the love of our Perfect Father. We are called to be new creations in Christ, and this is the great work that God has begun in us and that He intends to bring to completion. And yet, to some extent we even now resist this work of love, this free gift of grace, and we hold fast to our petty ‘pleasures’ apart from God. We have not yet achieved the perfection toward which we are called; the process of sanctification is not complete.
In God's extravagant love for us, he hates to see us turned away from him, even slightly, because he knows that it is only in Him that we will find our true joy and rest. Therefore, our loving Father has promised to continue to heal us and elevate us so that we can, more and more, partake of his divine nature, that is, be united to the Trinity in everlasting love. He will not stop his work of redemption in each of our souls until we have achieved the perfection promised (and perfection must always be our aim—2 Cor. 13:11). One way in which God helps us toward perfection is through his loving punishment. Who would dare deny what is written in Proverbs, and quoted in Hebrews: “the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.” Was the author of Hebrews ignorant of the fact that Christ’s work was perfect and complete? It would be heresy to slander the Biblical writer in this way. No, there can be no doubt about the perfect and complete work of Jesus Christ.
The thing is, God in his love has promised to graft us into Jesus Christ through his grace. This is a “now and not yet” process. It is a work that God has begun in us, and has promised to bring to completion. It is not our work, it is the Holy Spirit in us. Part of God’s love is that he punishes us, not to hurt us, but exactly the opposite. Every parent understands this. The inspired and blessed author of Hebrews: “God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (Heb. 12:10-11).
Again we say, the goal is to share in God’s holiness through the mediation (and only through the mediation) of the Incarnate One, our Lord and Savior, Christ Jesus. Only in Him is the gap bridged between God and man and our adoption into the divine family made possible. The promise God has given is that we will be new creations in Christ (which has begun, and will be made perfect on the last day), partakers of the divine nature.
The Catholic doctrine of purgatory intends only to say that God will complete the work he has begun in us. He will not abandon us, he will not leave us half way. He will make us holy. And even if we have not been fully sanctified at the hour of our death, He will complete the good work in us. This is a gift of grace.
Now, there seems to be some confusion about the role of time in purification (with the image of waiting around in a place, presumably like a waiting room in a doctor’s office, suggested). The truth is that the Catholic Church, so far as I know, does not have a teaching on whether purgatory is a temporal reality. She has used to analogy of time to try to convey how sins put us further from God. C.S. Lewis, in his brilliant The Great Divorce, uses the analogy of distance (the journey up the great mountain). These are ways of explaining a spiritual reality in physical terms (entirely appropriate, since we are physical beings). Yet we should not be mislead: purgatory, according to the Catholic teaching, may be an instant. As James points out (through the Pope’s beautiful words), it may be that wonderful instant when we come face to face with Christ and our sins are burned away through his love. If our souls are still very much attached to hatred and lust and envy and pride, it may seem like coming into the presence of our Almighty and HOLY Father is a long and horrible process. But it is (I repeat myself) a gift of grace, a profound blessing, that we are made capable of communion with Him.
Therefore, you need not believe that there is much ‘waiting’ involved. Presumably you believe that something happens to the soul after death and before final punishment. Do you think the soul is in perfect communion with God after the moment of death, and yet is waiting to be “cleansed”? How is this possible? How can we be with God and yet not cleansed? (Since I wrote this, Jip has made this point more cogently than I).
In conclusion, just like the doctrine of the Trinity, which is obviously biblical but required at least three centuries to be fully appreciated by the Church*, the doctrine of purgatory is just a word we give to that purification that is undoubtedly biblical, yet not described in those terms. It is a fairly modest idea: God will complete the work begun in us; our souls will be made pure. Purgatory itself is not a big, complicated doctrine. It is the obvious conclusion based on reflection on what the Bible says about human sanctification, God’ holiness, and our communion with Him.
*We must avoid historical naiveté when it comes to the doctrine of the Trinity. The occasional suggestion that the doctrine as we currently understand it (that the Father, Son and Spirit are homoousios and yet three persons) leapt off the Biblical page and was easily accepted by all orthodox Christians is not a fair reading of what actually happened in the third and fourth centuries. The Arian party had a persuasive biblical argument; so persuasive that a majority of the Church in some areas was led astray. The only reason we think this is an easy issue today is that we benefit from the Nicene tradition. Give the Bible alone to someone who does not benefit from the rule of faith established at Nicaea and Constantinople and see how often they get the Trinity right on the first try.