Justice Scalia and Purgatory

There is a story of a young priest who was asked to preside over a funeral of a man he did not know.  He met with the widow beforehand in order to learn some things about the man.  In order to break the ice, he said “I am sure your husband is in a better place,” to which the widow replied “the hell he is!”  Whether this story is apocryphal or not, we have all had the uncomfortable experience of being around someone who is very quick to canonize a person once they have died.  In fact, this is the one thing that touched me most about Fr. Paul Scalia’s homily during his father’s, Justice Antonin Scalia, funeral mass.  He absolutely refused to canonize (some call it “eulogizing”) his father because it was uncharitable and deprived him of the prayers he still needed.  This was clearly something Fr. Scalia learned from his father because the only place in his homily where he quoted his father directly was a letter the Justice once wrote to a Presbyterian minister about why he hated eulogies.  The Justice thought that “[E]ven when the deceased was an admirable person, indeed especially when the deceased was an admirable person, praise for his virtues can cause us to forget that we are praying for and giving thanks for God’s inexplicable mercy to a sinner.”  This habit of canonizing the dead really stems from a refusal to take the existence of Purgatory seriously or to downplay its significance.  Not only do we deprive the dead of our prayers, but we do not allow the reality of Purgatory to shape our lives as it should.  The truth of the matter is that even though it is often said tongue in cheek, Purgatory is not something we should strive for; even if it is the “mudroom” of Heaven.

In order to see the necessity of Purgatory, we have to make sure we are viewing the redemptive act of Christ through proper lenses.  Christ was not a penal substitute for us on the Cross.  An innocent man dying as punishment for a guilty man is no act of justice.  Instead, like the first Adam, Christ, the new Adam was man’s representative upon the Cross.  As representative He makes redemption possible, but only to the degree that we participate. This is certainly the way that St. Paul understood his own redemption when he told the Colossians that he “rejoiced in his sufferings because they complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” (Col 1:24).  Christ’s representative sacrifice was perfect, what is lacking was his (our) participation.

While removing the eternal punishment for sin, Christ’s sacrifice leaves the temporal punishment for sin intact.  If Christ is only a penal substitute that paid the price for our sins, then the presence of suffering (and even death) in this world has no explanation.  Because sin really is our insistence to have things our own way, by suffering something that we don’t want, justice is restored in some way.  But the sin also causes imbalance in the person as well requiring that we accept the punishment freely as satisfaction for our sins to repair the personal disorder. This imbalance is felt in the sinner a way akin to rust which St. Thomas calls the “relics of sin.”   Because of these “dispositions caused by previous acts of sin…the penitent finds difficulty in doing deeds of virtue.”  It is this twofold dimension of the temporal punishment for sin that must be healed before one can enter the presence of God.

Suffering seen in light of temporal punishment shows forth the mercy of God.  The Catechism calls it “a grace” (CCC 1473).  St Thomas gives three reasons why God thought this fitting.  The first is that it helps us to understand the gravity of sin so as to help us avoid it in the future.  Because of the downward pull of concupiscence and the pleasure we derive from sin, we do not always recognize its evil.  By attaching temporal punishments to our sins, God mercifully keeps us from falling into further sin.

A second reason according to St. Thomas is that through His invitation to make satisfaction through the merits of Christ and by the grace of the Holy Spirit, God the Father makes us co-operators in our salvation.  God is raising up adopted sons and daughters not merely servants or slaves.  By participating in our own redemption, God treats us as He does His only begotten Son.

Finally, St Thomas says temporal punishments are necessary because sin in essence is a pampering of self.  When temporal afflictions are patiently endured, it teaches us not to pamper ourselves so as to be better prepared to make gifts of ourselves through our participation in the self-giving love of the Trinity.


If the temporal punishment for sin ultimately accrues because it is a means by which God makes us fit for heaven then the debt can remain after death but prior to entering the presence of God.  Even if Purgatory were not divinely revealed to us in Tradition and Sacred Scripture (2 Macc 13:43-46 shows the general Jewish belief in the doctrine and Mt 5:26 and 1Cor 3:13-15 show the Christian belief), reason would almost dictate that it be so.  One cannot reconcile the holiness, mercy, and justice of God without maintaining a place of purgation after death.

Ultimately one might not believe in Purgatory in this life, but will soon believe in it in the next life.  But it is equally damaging to not take it seriously enough during our pilgrimage on Earth.  No amount of suffering in this life can compare to the sufferings of Purgatory.  That is because in this life we can rely on the merits of Christ to increase the satisfaction for our sins.  The Holy Souls in Purgatory on the other hand can only settle their debt by what is called ‘satispassion’ or by suffering enough.  Because their only means of satisfaction is their own suffering, praying for the dead and obtaining indulgences for them becomes a supreme act of charity.  To not do so, amounts to an act of omission.

That is not the only thing however that makes Purgatory so hard.  The pains of purgatory are similar to those suffered by the damned in hell.  They suffer what is called the “pain of loss” which is the pain of being deprived of God, our true Good.  What intensifies the pain is the knowledge that it is venial sin and their punishments that could have been readily expiated in this life that separates them from God.  As the purifying effects are felt, the pain actually increases because their love is purified, making the loss of the beloved felt more acutely.

While not a definitive dogma of the Church, most theologians and Church Fathers (and the Council of Florence hints at it) also describe what is called the “pain of sense.”  This comes from the idea that St. Paul (1 Cor 3:11) says that some men will be saved through fire.

Since the souls in Purgatory are separated from their body, one might rightfully ask how something material like fire could cause pain.  What St. Thomas and the other Scholastics argue by way of analogy saying that the matter of the Sacraments, for example the water of Baptism, has a spiritual effect and therefore it must be possible.

Despite the suffering of the souls in Purgatory, the souls also are joyful.  Not only are they approaching God, but they know their love is being purified.  They are only too happy to make things right with their Beloved.  While there is still hope in the souls in Purgatory, it is different from the virtue of hope as we experience it on earth.  The holy souls in Purgatory are assured of reaching their heavenly homeland while the hope of those in the Church Militant is of one who is tending in the right direction.

By his carefully worded homily, Fr. Scalia did a great act of charity for his father.  He begged all those in attendance to pray for his final purification.  Because of the stage upon which this homily was spoken he really did the whole Church a great service.  No one could hear or read his homily and not re-examine their own views on Purgatory.  For that, there may be many souls who will be eternally grateful.

Facebook Comments