Eastern and Western Unity: Justice and the Hereafter

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As an Orthodox Christian, I try and find as much common ground with my Roman Catholic Brothers and Sisters as I can. One thing I learned in become Orthodox, is that every philosophy, tradition, theology and religion, must be understood on its own terms. That is, if we impose meaning from the outside, which the belief system doesn’t actually teach, we do ourselves harm. It’s easy too for many Orthodox to take a simplistic glance at certain Catholic doctrine and condemn them. Purgatory being one of them. But in many ways, we are not too different in regards to certain principles we share about the afterlife. My concern is with two things in relation to this:

  1. The nature of purgatorial fire
  2. The requirements of justice

And both issues, are in my head related. When Rome and the East met at the council of Florence in 1431–1449AD, purgatory was one of the points of contention. Both the East and the West believe that purification of the soul after death is a thing. And both believe that our prayers are helpful and needed for those who have departed. The Orthodox have at least since Florence rejected a literal fire for purgation. Today Catholic theologians will stress that the fire is metaphorical. The question I want answered is whether that’s what the Latins at the council of Florence meant. And what is the official position of the church on the matter if there is one?  The East rejects a literal fire.

In relation to justice, the question is; what exactly does purgatory requires?  Is it retributive or is it restorative justice? The East would say that any purification of the soul or justice from God is the divine love going forward to purify them or the world of evil. The reason why hell is hell is not because God is torturing, but that the same divine glory/fire which gives joy to the faithful, is torment to the unrepentant. Since God’s love goes out to destroy corruption, if you choose to remain corrupt you put yourself on the path to destruction. But the goal/love of God doesn’t change in either case. We do. So God’s justice is restorative in purpose, but brings about retribution to the one who won’t accept it as mercy.If purgatory then is purely about cleansing the soul of the one there, implying that a soul perfectly cleansed can leave, then that’s fine. However, the question is, does purgatory actually require more than just purification? That is, is the justice retributive? Is there satisfaction that must be paid for sins by the suffering of the soul in purgatory? Now, the suffering does bring cleansing, to be sure. But is the suffering, the punishment itself, actually part of the purpose of purgatory? Is the suffering, not just the purification, one of the intents and purposes?

In the first view, suffering is a byproduct of the goal; cleansing. In the second, suffering is actually a requirement in order to meet a certain quota of satisfaction for divine justice to be met. The East rejects the latter interpretation.

It seems however that Rome is also in agreement with a non retributive form of divine justice, at least in regards to divine intention. Likewise we’d say that wrath is an experience of the same divine glory which in love blesses the repentant, but since divine love is opposed to evil and seeks to stop it harming creation it is experienced as wrath by the unrepentant. But the love is still the same, the difference being in the receiver:

“These two punishments [eternal and temporal (i.e. all forms of punishment)] must not be conceived of as a kind of vengeance inflicted by God from without, but as following from the very nature of sin.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1472)

“…this is not punishment in the sense that God has, as it were, drawn up a system of fines and penalties and is wanting to pin one on you. ‘The punishment of God’ is in fact an expression for having missed the right road and then experiencing the consequences that follow from taking the wrong track and wandering away from the right way of living.” (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, God and the World)

In the West the language of satisfaction is big having been popularized by Anselm. If satisfaction is not punishment for punishment’s sake, and God is in need of nothing created and external to himself of necessity, and His justice and love can’t be opposed in ends/telos of the divine will since it is simple, then what end is the wrath of God trying to accomplish in satisfaction which is not done so in the purification of the creature? Justice is merely the proper acting towards a certain end that puts things right. It isn’t an end in itself, that is to say, it’s like saying building is the end of building as opposed to what is built.


We say it is the removal of evil, the privation of good, which is the end of justice. In other words, restoration. So ultimate justice is served when the sinner is restored to good in their entire being, and creation has restored to it all the lack that came from privation by human sin. By removing purification from justice, and having an abstract notion of justice as the end, which for you is met in the suffering of the individual, is akin to saying that not the house but the process of building is telos of building. By making suffering, which brings satisfaction, the end of punishment, and calling that justice, you end up with one of two positions:

1) In making suffering, not purification, thus restoration, the end of justice you say make suffering an intrinsic good in and of itself. Which God seeks in the individual and accepts as satisfaction. The creation of this suffering is a good which good seeks to create, and as such suffering can be vicarious, in so far as the suffering in the abstract, becomes the goal. This is so because the satisfaction of it can be divorced from the individual who merited the suffering, since the suffering of another, qua suffering brings satisfaction.

2) To deny that suffering is an intrinsic good but to say that it is the end of punishment which nevertheless brings satisfaction to God, is to say that God is appeased by an evil. A privation of good. Which is incompatible with the divine will and love, which never wills or desires a privation.

Someone did say to me once:

<<I don’t know of a single context in the Church Fathers where this post mortum state we called purgatory is described as a place where we go to become more holy by furthering our acts of righteousness or something of that sort. The souls in purgatory cannot merit anything for themselves, which is why they are benefitted from our merits.>>

However the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1472-73) seems to say otherwise:

<<To understand this doctrine and practice of the Church, it is necessary to understand that sin has a double consequence. Grave sin deprives us of communion with God and therefore makes us incapable of eternal life, the privation of which is called the “eternal punishment” of sin. On the other hand every sin, even venial, entails an unhealthy attachment to creatures, which must be purified either here on earth, or after death in the state called Purgatory. This purification frees one from what is called the “temporal punishment” of sin. These two punishments must not be conceived of as a kind of vengeance inflicted by God from without, but as following from the very nature of sin. A conversion which proceeds from a fervent charity can attain the complete purification of the sinner in such a way that no punishment would remain. 10 St. Thomas, ST III, q. 86, a. 4. See also ST I-II, 87, 4. The forgiveness of sin and restoration of communion with God entail the remission of the eternal punishment of sin, but temporal punishment of sin remains. While patiently bearing sufferings and trials of all kinds and, when the day comes, serenely facing death, the Christian must strive to accept this temporal punishment of sin as a grace. He should strive by works of mercy and charity, as well as by prayer and the various practices of penance, to put off completely the “old man” and to put on the “new man.”>>

Also I think that purification doesn’t of necessity equal merit as in gaining more goods, but being made ready to receive or partake of certain goods. While no one is saying that people merit anything by purgation, it seems clear to me, that purification is a real and necessary part of this, which is undeniable. What is questionable is whether there is satisfaction on top of that, which I don’t necessarily have a problem with. What is the problem is when that satisfaction becomes divorced intrinsically from purification as then it means there is a different end than restoration in mind. This restoration, being the very justice which we say is satisfied.

In conclusion, I think:

a) Per the Catechism, purification is definitely part of purgation, but this is not the same as merit.

b) The issue isn’t that we don’t want “justice” as an end, because justice is only indirectly called an end, as it relates to a state it accomplishes. In other words, if justice didn’t do anything, it wouldn’t be justice, it would be nothing, thus the question is not one side wanting justice and the other not wanting it, but the question is, what is justice? That is to say, what is the end that it seeks to accomplish? Since we will see the purification of souls and restoration of creation and say “justice has been served.”

c) Since justice is the means to an end, a state and if purification, restoration is insufficient to be that end without satisfaction which comes from punishment, and thus isn’t enough to bring justice becomes: what is the end of punishment by which justice comes, on top of or apart from purification? If you say suffering, then suffering as a *telos/end* must be an intrinsic good to be sought. Otherwise you have to say good seeks an intrinsic evil/privation. But both points seem to be opposed to the tradition of the Church, and I would say are morally problematic. Therefore suffering in and of itself cannot be the satisfaction required.

If indeed the Catholic Church affirms this type of justice in regards to purgatory, and if it is possible to harmonize it with what the Church already dogmatically accepts from Florence, then I do not think that Purgatory is a doctrinal obstacle per se to Orthodox-Catholic unity.

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