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Location: Greensboro, NC, United States

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Catherine, O'Connor, and Purgatory

As regular readers of my blog know, I recently quoted from Catherine of Genoa’s Treatise on Purgatory in my series of quotes for our Book Study group. Flannery O’Connor, whose story "The Displaced Person" we have been studying, was a Roman Catholic and therefore believed in Purgatory. She also incorporated the idea in a couple of her stories, "The Displaced Person" being one of them. O’Connor mentioned Catherine’s Treatise specifically, so I read it for the purpose of gaining some insight into O’Connor and her writing.

I personally do not believe in Purgatory, inasmuch as I see absolutely no evidence whatsoever for it in Scripture. The verses cited in favor of it by the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994) are misinterpretations, and clearly so, in my opinion.

As if the teaching of Scripture isn’t enough, the historical question is an important one here as well. The doctrine of Purgatory is strictly a Western doctrine, having never been accepted up to the present day by the Eastern churches. Also, the doctrine of Purgatory was not officially declared by a pope prior to the Apostolic Constitution Benedictus Deus by Benedict XII in 1336 or by a synod until the Council (or Pseudo-council, as the Eastern churches would have it) of Florence in 1439. These are rather late dates for a doctrine as important as it is. Also, the doctrine has generally only been accepted by the Catholic and Anglo-Catholic Christians, being rejected by Protestantism almost wholesale. All things said, I think the odds are pretty well stacked against the doctrine of Purgatory.

This was my first venture into reading about Purgatory, so I found a couple of things about Catherine’s Treatise to be especially interesting.

First of all, I had always been taught by Protestants to view Purgatory as a sort of sadistic act of God, a punishment for the faithful, if you will. Yet Catherine presented it as an act of grace. God cannot accept sin into His presence, and so He must purify us. Also, it is an act of love for God to purify us of our sin. I think the literal notion that “God cannot accept sin into His presence” to be a Biblically and theologically problematic one. As a Protestant who believes in the necessity of sanctification, however, I can agree with some idea that purification is necessary for our salvation.

On the negative side, though, I found a couple of other things curious. For one thing, Catherine presented the relationship between the soul and God in especially romantic terms – terms which Scripture doesn’t apply to the individual Christian. God is not my romantic lover. Christ’s Bride is the Church Collective – not me as an individual. Though Catherine lived in the late 15th – early 16th centuries, her writing seems to be of the same spirit of the Medieval mystics, who tended to define the relationship between the individual and God as Catherine did.

But another thing that struck me was how individualistic Purgatory itself is conceived as being. Catherine spoke strictly in terms of the individual being purified by the fires of Purgatory, and of the soul longing to be joined to God. And so it is all about me and God. And yet I would argue that Scripture places as much if not more emphasis on the corporate. In this notion of Purgatory, there is no idea of me being purified through my interactions with other sinful people. I don’t doubt that those who believe in Purgatory would say that that happens in this world, whereas Purgatory is a different situation. And yet, the Biblical doctrine of sanctification is my being purified in the daily struggle of having to deal in a Godly fashion with other sinners like myself. That’s rather different than what Catherine taught.

So I think O’Connor was wrong in her belief in Purgatory. But as she herself said, she was a writer. While she believed in Purgatory, and incorporated it into her stories, she was no doctor of the church, and had every intention of leaving theology to the theologians. It’s too bad that the ones she left it up to got this doctrine wrong.

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