On Purgatory by St. Robert Bellarmine

On Purgatory: The Members of the Church suffering
On Purgatory: The Members of the Church suffering

Click here for Kindle!

In the De Controversiis, St. Robert Bellarmine defends the doctrines and teaching of the Church against all comers, starting from Scripture, the Church Fathers and also reason. His work was widely read and commented on by both Catholics and Protestants and quickly became one of the standard texts in Catholic theology for centuries.
In On Purgatory, Bellarmine defends what is one of the more difficult doctrines to understand in his characteristic style beginning with Scripture and the Fathers, stopping at every step of the way to answer the objections of all the major Protestants of his day, not only Luther and Calvin, but also those less known to us such as Brenz and Peter Martyr.
Dividing his work into two books, Bellarmine shows that there is such a place as Purgatory by copious exegesis on Old and New Testament passages, and the clear consensus of the Church Fathers who witness the fact that prayer was made for the dead in the early Church.
Then, in book 2, he examines questions about the specifics of Purgatory, what souls there suffer, where it is located, how the faithful can assist the souls of Purgatory, and other questions.
This treatise, translated into English for the first time, is the best and most in depth treatise on this subject available, and is just as relevant today as when it was first penned.

Sample Chapter

Book II, ch. 9, How long will Purgatory Endure?

NOW on the time, in which Purgatory will remain, there are two extreme errors. The first error is that of Origen, who extended the times of Purgatory beyond the day of the resurrection, so that he has in homily 14 in Luke: “I think that even after the resurrection from the dead we need the sacrament to wash and cleanse us, for no man can rise again with filth.” Nevertheless, this error has been explored, for St. Augustine (lib. 21 de civitate Dei, cap. 16) says: “We suppose that there will be no Purgatorial punishments except before that last and tremendous judgment.” And the reason is, because the Lord says that in the judgment there will be only two ranks of men, one of the blessed, the other of the damned (Matth. 25).
But someone will say: The soul alone did not sin, but once with the body, therefore it should be purged then with the body, hence, after the resurrection men will be purged. I respond: if that would conclude the argument, it would also prove that the soul cannot be separated to be punished in hell, nor enjoy the delights of heaven, which is against the Gospel, “I am tortured in this flame” (Luke 16:24), and “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).

Therefore, I say the soul is duly punished even by itself, because it is the subject and efficient cause of sin; for there are certain human acts which cannot be done except from the whole composite, nor received except in the whole composite, such as all those which are done by organic potencies, e.g. to speak, see, hear, etc., and such things, after the dissolution of the composite, are no longer found. And if indeed such were a sin, it would clearly conclude the argument. But it is not so, for sin is an act of free will, and therefore properly said to come into being by the will alone and found formally in the will alone. Consequently, after the dissolution of man, the whole sin is only found in the will, and by that fact, in the soul, but not in dead flesh; moreover, it ought to be punished or purged in that place where it is found.

Add also, that the flesh is punished in its mode; for as the separated soul is punished with the penalty of loss, because it lacks the vision of God, and the punishment of sense, because it is tortured in fire, so the flesh is punished by the fire of loss, because it lacks life and the punishment of sense, although improperly, because it rots little by little and is reduced to ash; nevertheless, the first answer is better, for even the bodies of the saints that do not need purgation suffer this.

The second error is of Luther, who on the contrary makes Purgatory too short. He would have it that anyone who dies in faith has the remainder of his sins purged by the sorrow of death, and so there is no further Purgatory than death itself. This error can be easily refuted. By the remaining sins, either the fomes are understood, or bad habits that were contracted, or the undergoing of temporal punishments and venial sins. These alone, and all others can remain in a man that has been justified, which pertain to sin and hence can be said to be the remainder of one’s sins. First, the fomes is certainly abolished in death, because then sensuality is extinguished, but we do not constitute Purgatory due to the fomes, otherwise even baptized infants that die would need to suffer the punishments of Purgatory, since Baptism does not wash away the fomes. But Augustine, in the cited passage of City of God, teaches precisely that children of this sort do not suffer any purgatorial punishments. Now in regard to bad habits, those which exist in the will are not necessarily extinguished by death, seeing that they are in the powers that are not bound to an organ. Nevertheless, on account of habits of this sort we constitute Purgatory since otherwise it would follow that adults who are baptized after they have contracted bad habits, and immediately die, or certainly are killed for Christ, could not be saved except by Purgatory because neither Baptism nor Martyrdom dissolves habits of this kind. We see the baptized still have these same wicked inclinations which they had before, and it is necessary for them to abolish habits of this sort little by little with contrary acts.

Therefore, it is believable that all these habits are abolished by the first contrary act of the separated soul, which it elicits immediately from the separation. For, even if this habit, contracted in one act, cannot be destroyed by many acts nevertheless, there it will be able to be because that act will be much more forceful, seeing that then the soul will be more powerful in regard to spiritual acts and it will not have the contrary fomites and resistance as it has here.

Thus, it remains to speak of suffering punishment and venial sin, which can properly be called the remainder of sin, which is the reason why Purgatory exists. Moreover, it is certain that sometimes these remnants are purged in death, and at other times it is certain they are not, whereas, at other times there is a doubt as to whether this happened and it is very probable that it was partly purged and partly not.

I will prove these individually. For the first, a violent death received for Christ, which is called martyrdom, without a doubt cleanses all remnants of this sort. Cyprian clearly says that all sins are cleansed in passion (lib. 4 epist. 2); that he is not speaking about mortal sins is obvious because in the same place he says that without charity martyrdom is of no benefit whatsoever. St. Paul taught this before Cyprian in 1 Cor. 13. Therefore, the Church never prays for martyrs, because, as St. Augustine says on the words of the Apostle: “It is an injury to pray for a martyr, to whose prayers we ought to be commended.”

I prove the second: Those who die against their will or without the use of reason, such as the insane, those who die in their sleep and those who die instantly cannot be purged by that death in any mode; for either death itself absolutely purges, or by reason of some voluntary concomitant act itself. Not the former because death is, according to what it is, natural, at least after the sin of our first parents. This is why it is common to both the good and the bad, nay more to men and beasts; but by natural things which necessarily must come about we do not merit or lose merit, nor can we dissolve debts contracted voluntarily, so if death purges, it happens by reason of a voluntary concomitant act. But we are speaking in this place about those men who die without any act of this sort. Besides, we often see the best men suffer a very hard death, and those that are not good suffer a very light one. But if in death the remnants of sin should be purged, then necessarily the contrary ought to happen.

I prove the third: There are many who bear death with equanimity, whose patience without a doubt helps to make satisfaction, but whether those sufferings are equivalent to the debts contracted from sin, nobody can know for certain.

Apart from these errors there was an opinion of Domingo de Soto that no one in Purgatory remains beyond ten years (4 Sent. dist. 19 quaest. 3, art. 2). His reasoning is that if here on earth we can be freed from all punishments in a short time by certain punishments, why not more quickly in Purgatory since those punishments are infinitely more serious punishments and more intense than the former? Besides, here punishments are extended because they cannot be very intense or they would destroy the subject; but after this life they can be as intense as possible, because the subject is incorruptible. Thus, it is believable that God purges those souls gasping for glory in the shortest time by the most intense punishments. But these reasons do not conclude the matter.

To the first it can be said that here is the time of mercy and there is the time of justice.
To the second I say, God can compensate extension with intension, but he refuses; otherwise it would follow that souls do not remain in Purgatory for one hour, because God can, by increasing the intensity, redirect the punishments of ten years to one hour.

Besides, his opinion is opposed to approved visions of the Saints. Bede writes that the punishments of Purgatory were shown to a certain man, and it was said to him that souls which abide in Purgatory are all going to be saved on the day of judgment, although some will be assisted with prayers and almsgiving of the living, and above all the sacrifice of the altar, so that they will be freed even before the day of judgment (lib. 5 hist. cap. 13). There, he clearly shows some men that already died will remain in Purgatory even to the day of judgment. We can advance many similar visions from Dennis the Carthusian and others.

The custom of the Church is also opposed to this opinion, which celebrates an anniversary Mass for the dead, even if it is certain they died a hundred or two-hundred years ago. Certainly the Church would not do that if she believed that souls are not punished beyond ten years. Consequently, the matter is still uncertain and cannot be defined without temerity.