Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Purgatory as Child Abuse?

I came across these books recently, and I can only say that they make me realise the fire that burned within Martin Luther when he hammered his theses to the door and began, by accident, the fragmentation of the church called the Reformation.

STORIES ABOUT PURGATORY AND WHAT THEY REVEAL. Compiled from traditional sources, this book was written to impress upon its readers many truths about Purgatory: first, that it exists; second, that the souls there suffer long and excruciating pains, and that they desperately need our prayers and sacrifices; and finally, how we should strive to avoid Purgatory.

I found myself dumfounded by this description of the book. Who is one to impress about a truth on "long and excruciating pains"? I can begin to see that Richard Dawkins might have a point about religious education being a form of child abuse. To tell a child this kind of stuff is surely to instill a sense of fear in them, and then to tell them, no doubt, that by obedience they can escape this doom. What a wonderful basis for ethical behaviour! It might be said that it is not for children, and yet if it is a "truth", surely there are not truths that are somehow esoteric, available only to adults, rather like video nasties? This blurb certainly left a very nasty taste in my mouth. I have heard of contemporaries of mine who are friends telling about their education, and how they were presented with a fearful picture of burning fires, and I had assumed it was largely in the past. I'm not so sure it is completely so, having seen this book.

PRAYING IN THE PRESENCE FOR THE HOLY SOULS: by Susan Tassone. Introduction by Fr. Groeschel. This is a comprehensive collection of the most powerful prayers of the Catholic Church for the holy souls in Purgatory. These ancient and modern prayers are rich, beautiful and effective. Pray them during Eucharistic Adoration, before and after Mass, in prayer groups or during private meditation.

This is not quite as "in your face" as the other, but it still has this conception of "souls" in purgatory. I'm not convinced, and have never been convinced, that the Platonic / Greek idea of souls is something that meshes well with the somatic Jewish ideas of resurrection and new creation.

PURGATORY: Fr. Frederick Faber answers many questions about Purgatory, like: Is Purgatory almost like Hell, or is it a place of peace and even joy? Based on Catholic teaching and revelations of holy people, especially St. Catherine of Genoa, this book helps us appreciate the supernatural treasures at our disposal, both to help the Poor Souls and to help us avoid Purgatory ourselves!

I love the final exclamation mark! At the end of this is a fear again - we might be cast into purgatory.

I note that the Catholic Library says that "Likewise, Scripture teaches that purgatory exists, even if it doesn't use that word and even if 1 Peter 3:19 refers to a place other than purgatory.". That just about encapsulates the weakness of this whole idea. The word doesn't exist, scripture teaches it, even if it doesn't use that word. There is of course a lot of "proof texting" about purgatory, wrenching texts from context. The Orthodox church doesn't have a doctrine of purgatory, which is strange indeed, for it shares much of the same early history!

Lastly, I should add - in fairness - that the current Pope presents a vastly more nuanced rethink of the whole idea of purgatory, and to which I refer the interested reader in full in the link below, but here is an extract, which presents a much more symbolic account of the idea.

Some recent theologians are of the opinion that the fire which both burns and saves is Christ himself, the Judge and Saviour. The encounter with him is the decisive act of judgement. Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves. All that we build during our lives can prove to be mere straw, pure bluster, and it collapses. Yet in the pain of this encounter, when the impurity and sickness of our lives become evident to us, there lies salvation. His gaze, the touch of his heart heals us through an undeniably painful transformation "as through fire". But it is a blessed pain, in which the holy power of his love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves and thus totally of God.


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