“A Very Harmless Doctrine”

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BOSWELL: What do you think, Sir, of Purgatory, as believed by the Roman Catholics?

JOHNSON: Why, Sir, it is a very harmless doctrine. They are of the opinion that the generality of mankind are neither so obstinately wicked as to deserve everlasting punishment, nor so good as to merit being admitted into the society of blessed spirits; and therefore that God is graciously pleased to allow of a middle state, where they may be purified by certain degrees of suffering. You see, Sir, there is nothing unreasonable in this.

So spoke Samuel Johnson, the great eighteenth-century wit and devout Anglican, to his devoted friend James Boswell. Boswell, himself the wayward son of a strict Scottish Presbyterian, reacted incredulously to Johnson’s remark, as well he might, given that nearly all educated Englishmen of the time regarded Catholics as both dim-witted and superstitious. That someone of Johnson’s stature should express intellectual sympathy for a distinctively “Popish” doctrine would be roughly equivalent in today’s world to, say, Harold Bloom acknowledging that, after all, he always found the tenets of Mormonism perfectly reasonable.

Johnson, however, could see through the superficial prejudices of his age, and he knew that Purgatory, far from being an “invention” of the medieval Church, was a patristically and biblically founded doctrine as old as the Church itself. Indeed, one could even say that it is older than the Church since it is presupposed, in some form, by the late Old Testament practice of praying for those who have died (cf. 2 Mc 12:46). It is, in fact, one of the most natural truths of the faith, as Cardinal Ratzinger observed in the course of an interview with the Italian journalist, Vittorio Messori:

RATZINGER: My view is that if Purgatory did not exist, we should have to invent it.

MESSORI: Why?

RATZINGER: Because few things are as immediate, as human, and as widespread — at all times and in all cultures — as prayer for one’s departed dear ones. Calvin, the Reformer of Geneva, had a woman whipped because she was discovered praying at the grave of her son and hence was guilty, according to Calvin, of “superstition.”

Nowadays, of course, it is not Calvin’s theology that discourages people from believing in Purgatory and, hence, from praying for the faithful departed; rather, is the widely held opinion that, upon death, we do not need any preparation for heaven at all. As Ratzinger points out in the same interview, “The fact is that all of us today think we are so good that we deserve nothing less than heaven!” The truth of this remark can be gauged from the character of the vast majority of contemporary funerals, at which, instead of aiding the deceased through prayer, the mourners confidently assert his or her present beatitude.

The denial of sin that is belied by such well-intentioned expressions of sentiment and, indeed, by the whole “I’m okay, you’re okay” neurosis, is itself suggestive, first, of a piteous lack of confidence in God’s mercy. If we believe that God is a merciful Father, then our (appropriate) fear of punishment, which might compel us to conceal our sins, will be overcome by our trust in what God wishes to accomplish through punishment; for God, like any loving father, punishes only to heal; he disciplines those whom he loves (Dt 8:5, Prv 3:12).

Secondly, it is suggestive of a woefully inadequate appreciation of what heaven is. Heaven is the vision of God, and intimate communion with God is not something that anyone would want to enjoy or be capable of enjoying while retaining that deep-seated self-will, that stubborn selfishness which clings even to the best of our actions—and which polite society only imperfectly disguises. Indeed, Bl. John Henry Newman goes so far as to speculate that “if we wished to imagine a punishment for an unholy, reprobate soul, we perhaps could not fancy a greater than to summon it to heaven.” “Heaven,” he goes on to say, “would be hell to an irreligious man.”

Yes, the plain fact is that we overestimate how much we, in our current state, want God. In light of this truth, which is a hard one, it is most consoling to know that, if only we repent and come to God with all our sinfulness and neediness, he will supply for our defects; he will purge away our dross and make us fit for that perfect happiness from which we would otherwise flee. Let us, then, on this All Souls’ Day, commend ourselves to his mercy even as we pray for those departed brothers and sisters of ours, who, although assured of heaven, are not there yet. After all, before long we may be in their shoes.

Image: Joshua Reynolds, Samuel Johnson

By | 2015-02-14T07:10:49+00:00 November 2, 2011|Culture, Theology|

About this Brother:

Br. Charles Shonk entered the Order of Preachers in 2009. He is a graduate of Denison University, where he studied Latin, Greek, and Philosophy. He worked as a schoolteacher in New York City before entering the Order. On DominicanFriars.org