Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Why Am I Catholic? Part 2: Purgatory, Mortal Sin and Venial Sin

In their article on "The Roots of Purgatory", Catholic Answers makes an excellent point:

All Christians agree that we won’t be sinning in heaven. Sin and final
glorification are utterly incompatible. Therefore, between the sinfulness of
this life and the glories of heaven, we must be made pure. Between death and
glory there is a purification.
The Catholic understanding of Purgatory is explained in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), paragraphs 1030-31:

"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 doctrine of Purgatory is connected to the Catholic teaching of two kinds of sin: mortal and venial. All sin is wrong, evil, weakening, and dehabilitating. But few of us would say that a five-year-old sneaking a cookie is equally wrong with an adult stealing a car. The first would be a venial (or "lesser") sin; the second, mortal (or "deadly"). Anyone who is familiar with Latin or Spanish recognizes "morte" — the word for death — at the root of "mortal". This concept of deadly and non-deadly sin comes right from 1 John 5:16-17:

"If anyone sees his brother commit sin that does not lead to death, he should pray and God will give him life. I refer to those whose sin does not lead to death. There is a sin that leads to death. I am not saying that he should pray about that. All wrongdoing is sin, and there is sin that does not lead to death."

St. John says clearly that there is sin that leads to death, and that there is sin that doesn't. But he makes sure to clarify that all wrongdoing is still sin. Just because the five-year-old's disobedience in sneaking the cookie isn't as major as hotwiring and stealing a car doesn't mean it's not wrong. He is still guilty, but with a lesser guilt than the other. Likewise, the punishment is proportional — probably a few minutes in the time-out chair versus a few years in jail.

Mortal, or deadly, sin does just what the name implies: kills the life of God (grace) in one's soul. Catholics believe that for one to die with the guilt of unrepented deadly sin makes it impossible for them to go to Heaven (this is where Confession comes in...but that will be addressed later in the series!). A soul who dies in this state has forfeited Heaven.

Venial sin, because of its lesser severity, does not kill the life of God in a soul, but weakens and undermines it. We all commit venial sins every day. These venial sins "clutter up" our souls with impurity. One who dies with venial (not mortal) sin on their soul is said to be in a state of grace. They are assured of salvation, but are not yet ready to enter Heaven: Revelation 21:27 states that nothing and no one unclean can enter the presence of God in heaven. All traces of venial sin must be purified from a soul before this can happen. This purification is what takes place in Purgatory.

Some imagine that the Catholic Church has an elaborate doctrine of purgatory worked out, but there are only three essential components of the doctrine: (1) that a purification after death exists, (2) that it involves some kind of pain, and (3) that the purification can be assisted by the prayers and offerings by the living to God.

Many early Church Fathers wrote on this subject, for example, St. Augustine in A.D. 392:

"Let us help and commemorate them. If Job’s sons were purified by their father’s sacrifice [Job 1:5], why would we doubt that our offerings for the dead bring them some consolation? Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and to offer our prayers for them" (Homilies on First Corinthians 41:5)

The doctrine of Purgatory is a rich and beautiful one. Not only that, it is a merciful one. I have only begun to offer an explanation here... let me point you to some excellent reading that goes into this deeper!

- Purgatory from debunks some Purgatory myths and explains why it is not a Catholic "invention" .

- The Roots of Purgatory contains a number of intriguing quotes from the writing of early Church Fathers recognized and appreciated by Catholics and Evangelicals alike.

- Purgatory at makes more connections with scripture and Church Fathers.

- Why Mortal and Venial Sins? is a former evangelical's take on the subject.


missy said...

I am sooo impressed with your wisdom on Catholic teaching. Thank you for sharing it with us.

deb said...

Last year I put a post on my site about purgatory. It can be found at:

I live in the south so most of my friends are Protestants. As you can guess, I get asked a lot of questions on my faith.

Anonymous said...

claire, I have a question for you. Do you believe in confessing your sins to a priest or confessing your sins to Jesus?

Caroline said...

I have a question for you. 1 John 1:9 states: If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

If we are cleansed when we confess our sins, why do you believe in Purgatory?

Anonymous said...

Point of information...five year olds cannot sin. They are before the age of reason, which is seven.

deb said...

here is an imperfect analogy of purgatory. Imagine that a 12 year old accidentally breaks an elderly woman's window. The woman can tell that she is truly sorrow and forgives him when he ask her. But if she makes him pay for the window is he any less forgiven?

I love the concept of purgatory and it is one reason why I became Catholic.

Olivia said...

This makes my heart ake!!!!! Once we have Jesus in our lives by the work of the holy spirit we are saved. INSTANTLY!!!! Jesus took the punishment for our sins on the cross. All our sins are forgiven if we have been born again through the regeneration of the holy spirit.

I like how my pastor put it when he did a sermon on Catholicism, "Putting works before forgiveness is like having a cart pull a horse". Our "good" works are a result of being saved. When we have been saved through the wonderful grace of God, then we serve him because we love him. It is a form of worship to obey Christ.

Also about little sins and big sins. All sins are equal. We are all born with a sinful nature, therefore, we all deserve to die. Simple as that. Every sin we commented has been put on Jesus. He died for the 5 year old that stole a cookie and the adult that murdered someone. Every sin is just as rotten as any other one because Jesus died for it. That is why sin is so horrid, because it is what separates us from God and Jesus had to die for us to be reconciled.

As I said in my last comment. This isn't out of anger and I am not trying to be rude. Just stating what I believe.
In Christ Alone,

Anonymous said...

The doctrine of Purgatory makes more sense to me now. Thank you for clarifying it!

It still seems that such an important thing would, if true, have been discussed and outlined clearly by Jesus and other Gospel writers.
And I do wonder why, if Purgatory exists, Jesus said to the thief on the cross next to Him,
"Jesus answered him, "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise." (Luke 23:43)
I don't think Purgatory counts as "being with Jesus", so it seems Jesus was referring to Heaven.

deb said...

Bryant, do you mind if I respond to you on my own blog. You ask a good question. :)

Olivia, Revelation 21:27 says that nothing unclean will enter heaven. Despite being Christians many people still feel envy, jealousy, listen to gossip(a sin) etc. These little sins still make us imperfect. Most Protestants believe that they will be instantly cleansed of these faults in heaven. Do you believe that you will have all your faults in heaven? If not, then you believe in purgatory. You simply don't call it Purgatory.

If you wish Olivia, you can come onto my blog and read my articles on what Catholics believe. :)

Life Savior said...

Once we have Jesus in our lives, that is enough! We need nothing else!

If Christ wasn't enough, that would mean that He is not God, and if He is not God, then everybody would go to HELL! Not purgatory!


p.s. Let me ask you a question:
How bad are your sins?

Because if you are honest with yourself, you will say that they are worse than anything... And only Christ can pay for them, not yourself in purgatory.