Does the Catholic Church Still Believe in Purgatory?

The simple answer is yes

And new progeny descends from heaven, Purgatory, canto XXII, Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri, illustration by Franz von Bayros (1866-1924), Vienna, 1921, Detail
Detail of an illustration of a scene from Dante's Purgatory, canto XXII, Divine Comedy, by Franz von Bayros (1866-1924), Vienna, 1921. De Agostini / A. Dagli Orti / Getty Images

Of all of the teachings of Catholicism, Purgatory is probably the one most often attacked by Catholics themselves. There are at least three reasons why that's so: Many Catholics do not understand the need for Purgatory; they do not understand the scriptural basis for Purgatory; and they have been unintentionally misled by priests and catechism teachers who themselves do not understand what the Catholic Church has taught and continues to teach about Purgatory.

And so many Catholics have become convinced that the Church quietly dropped her belief in Purgatory a few decades ago. But to paraphrase Mark Twain, the reports of Purgatory's death have been greatly exaggerated.

What Does the Catechism Say About Purgatory?

To see this, we simply need to turn to paragraphs 1030-1032 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. There, in a few short lines, the doctrine of Purgatory is spelled out:

All who die in God's grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.
The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned. The Church formulated her doctrine of faith on Purgatory especially at the Councils of Florence and Trent.

There is more, and I urge readers to check out those paragraphs in their entirety, but the important thing to note is this: Since Purgatory is in the Catechism, the Catholic Church still teaches it, and Catholics are bound to believe in it.

Confusing Purgatory With Limbo

So why do so many people think that belief in Purgatory is no longer a doctrine of the Church?

Part of the confusion arises, I believe, because some Catholics conflate Purgatory and Limbo, a supposed place of natural bliss where the souls of children who die without having received Baptism go (because they are unable to enter Heaven, since Baptism is necessary for salvation). Limbo is a theological speculation, which has been called into question in recent years by no less a figure than Pope Benedict XVI; Purgatory, however, is doctrinal teaching.

Why Is Purgatory Necessary?

A bigger problem, I think, is that many Catholics simply do not understand the need for Purgatory. In the end, all of us will wind up either in Heaven or in Hell. Every soul that goes to Purgatory will eventually enter Heaven; no soul will remain there forever, and no soul that enters Purgatory will ever end up in Hell. But if all of those who go to Purgatory are going to end up in Heaven eventually, why is it necessary to spend time in this intermediate state?

One of the lines from the preceding quotation from the Catechism of the Catholic Church—"to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven"—points us in the right direction, but the Catechism offers even more. In the section on indulgences (and yes, those still exist, too!), there are two paragraphs (1472-1473) on "The punishments of sin":

[I]t 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. . . .
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.

The eternal punishment of sin can be removed through the Sacrament of Confession. But the temporal punishment for our sins remains even after we have been forgiven in Confession, which is why the priest gives us a penance to perform (for example, "Say three Hail Marys").

 Through penitential practices, prayer, works of charity, and the patient endurance of suffering, we can work through the temporal punishment for our sins in this life. But if any temporal punishment has been left unsatisfied at the end of our life, we must endure that punishment in Purgatory before entering Heaven.

Purgatory Is a Comforting Doctrine

It cannot be stressed enough: Purgatory is not a third "final destination," like Heaven and Hell, but merely a place of purification, where those who are "imperfectly purified . . . undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven."

In that sense, Purgatory is a comforting doctrine. We know that, no matter how contrite we are for our sins, we can never fully atone for them. Yet unless we are perfect, we cannot enter Heaven, because nothing impure can enter into the presence of God. When we receive the Sacrament of Baptism, all of our sins, and the punishment for them, are washed away; but when we fall after baptism, we can only atone for our sins by uniting ourselves to Christ's suffering. (For more on this topic, and the scriptural basis for this teaching, see The Catholic View of Salvation: Was Christ's Death Enough?) In this life, that unity is rarely complete, but God has given us the opportunity to atone in the next life for those things for which we failed to atone in this one. Knowing our own weakness, we should thank God for His mercy in providing us with Purgatory.