Purgatory – An Essential Roman Catholic Doctrine

By: James McCarthy; ©2001
Do Catholics still believe in Purgatory? Is it an essential or optional part of Roman Catholicism? In this month’s article on Catholicism Jim McCarthy answers these two important questions.

Purgatory: An Essential Roman Catholic Doctrine

Though there is no biblical basis for purgatory, there is a strong philosophical need for it in Roman Catholic theology. The Church views salvation as the objective adorn­ment or beautification of the soul. It is a process which starts at baptism through which sanctifying grace is initially infused. This makes the soul holy and inherently pleasing to God. Other sacraments and good works further justify the soul and make it increasingly attractive to God. The goal is to transform the essential character of the soul into some­thing which is in itself objectively good. It is, therefore, only reasonable to require the complete cleansing of every vestige of sin before the soul can come into the presence of God. Purgatory, therefore, is the logical extension of the Church’s process of salvation.

Purgatory is also an integral element of the Roman Catholic penitential system. According to the Church, every sin credits temporal punishment to the sinner’s account. Acts of penance, suffering, and indulgences debit this account. Since sinners may not make full satisfaction for sin in this life, purgatory in the afterlife is necessary to balance the ledger.

Finally, the Church uses purgatory to motivate Catholics to live righteously. If there were no purgatory, the reasoning goes, people would go on sinning without fear.

Biblical salvation, on the other hand, has no need of a place such as purgatory. Biblical salvation does not rely on the works and sufferings of sinners, but solely upon Christ. The Lord Jesus “made purification of sins” (Hebrews 1:3) on the cross. His blood can cleanse the vilest sinner (Hebrews 9:14). There is no temporal punishment remaining for which the believer must atone; Jesus paid it all: “He Himself is the propi­tiation for our sins” (1 John 2:2).

Biblical salvation has no need for a place such as purgatory where the soul suppos­edly becomes objectively beautiful to God. Rather, it is rooted in God’s imputation of His own perfect righteousness (2 Corinthians 5:21). Biblical salvation brings a “righ­teousness that is by faith from first to last” (Romans 1:17 (NIV)). The sinner places his trust in Christ for justification. He walks by faith and through the enablement of the Spirit lives righteously. Nevertheless, he has no hope of ever being personally and objectively good enough in himself to stand in the presence of God. He trusts in Christ alone for salvation (Philippians 3:7-9).

Rather than focusing on the good works and suffering of the individual, biblical salvation emphasizes the perfect work of Christ. He is sufficient to make sinners “stand in the pres­ence of His glory blameless with great joy” (Jude 24). God no longer looks at the person as a defiled sinner, but sees him only in Christ (Ephesians 1:1-14), “holy and blameless before Him” (Ephesians 1:4).

Finally, biblical salvation involves a new birth that results in a new creation (John 3:7; 2 Corinthians 2:17; Galatians 6:17; Ephesians 2:15). A born-again Christian wants to obey God. He is motivated by the love of Christ, not the fear of painful retribution (2 Corinthians 5:14; Romans 8:15).

Do Catholics Still Believe in Purgatory?

Many modern Catholics think of purgatory as a relic from the Dark Ages, which they would just as soon forget. Some Catholics even believe that purgatory is no longer a Ro­man Catholic doctrine.

Despite popular opinion, however, purgatory is still an official dogma of the Roman Catholic Church and an essential part of the Roman Catholic plan of salvation. The Church affirmed the existence of purgatory at each of the last three ecumenical councils: Trent, Vatican I, and Vatican II. The latter council described purgatory as a place where the souls of the dead make expiation “in the next life through fire and torments or purifying punish­ments.” According to Vatican II, “in purgatory the souls of those ‘who died in the charity of God and truly repentant, but who had not made satisfaction with adequate penance for their sins and omissions’ are cleansed after death with punishments designed to purge away their debt.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes purgatory as place of “cleansing fire.”[1031]

Belief in the existence of purgatory is also expressed at every Mass. During the Liturgy of the Eucharist, prayers are offered for the dead. Usually the Mass itself is also offered for someone suffering in purgatory. The person’s name is announced or published in the Sunday bulletin. Each year, in fact, on the anniversary of the death of the last pope, the present pope offers Mass for the souls of his two predecessors who are, presumably, still suffering in purgatory.

Adapted from The Gospel According to Rome by James G. McCarthy, Harvest House Publishers, © 1995. This article is indexed to the numbered paragraphs of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The paragraph numbers are in brackets.


  1. Council of Trent, session 25, “Decree Concerning Purgatory.”
  2. First Vatican Council, session 2, “Profession of Faith.”
  3. Second Vatican Council, “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church” no. 49 and no. 51.
  4. Second Vatican Council, “Sacred Liturgy,” “Apostolic Constitution on the Revision of Indulgences,” no. 2.
  5. Second Vatican Council, “Sacred Liturgy,” “Apostolic Constitution on the Revision of Indulgences,” no. 3.
  6. Pope John Paul II offers Mass for John Paul I and Paul VI on September 28, the anni­versary of the death of John Paul I (“The Lord Gives Us Confidence.” L’Osservatore Romano, October 7, 1992, p. 1.)

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