Pope Benedict XVI solidifies his reputation as one of the most insightful and eloquent Christian theologians of our time with the new encyclical Spe Salvi (Saved by Hope). Many parts of the document speak for the common faith of all Christians, Protestant and Eastern Orthodox as well as Catholic. Notably moving in this regard is the section on eternal life:
The term “eternal life” . . . is an inadequate term that creates confusion. “Eternal,” in fact, suggests to us the idea of something interminable, and this frightens us; “life” makes us think of the life that we know and love and do not want to lose, even though very often it brings more toil than satisfaction, so that while on the one hand we desire it, on the other hand we do not want it. To imagine ourselves outside the temporality that imprisons us and in some way to sense that eternity is not an unending succession of days in the calendar, but something more like the supreme moment of satisfaction, in which totality embraces us and we embrace totality—this we can only attempt. It would be like plunging into the ocean of infinite love, a moment in which time—the before and after—no longer exists. We can only attempt to grasp the idea that such a moment is life in the full sense, a plunging ever anew into the vastness of being, in which we are simply overwhelmed with joy.
But the Pope also offers a creative and sensitive new understanding of a doctrine that is specifically Catholic, and indeed a bit of a sticking point with Christians in other denominations. Look at what he says about Purgatory:
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. . . . The pain of love becomes our salvation and our joy. It is clear that we cannot calculate the “duration” of this transforming burning in terms of the chronological measurements of this world. The transforming “moment” of this encounter eludes earthly time-reckoning—it is the heart’s time, it is the time of “passage” to communion with God in the Body of Christ.
The great Christian writer C. S. Lewis, though not a Roman Catholic, wrote that he believed that something like Purgatory must exist. It just made sense to him: If God was going to admit His elect to His presence, wouldn’t He cleanse them somehow of whatever imperfections remained in them, even after they were saved? And who dies in a state of absolute perfection? So there must, Lewis contended, be some sort of post-death cleansing. Harder-shelled Protestants than Lewis have long been troubled by this idea of his, because they remember the days when Catholic missals were filled with guidelines telling the reader exactly how many days he could knock off his sentence in Purgatory by reciting various particular prayers—which sure sounded a lot like “earthly time-reckoning.” (I still own some of these old missals.) To non-Catholics, the idea of a post-death prison that could be gamed and manipulated in such a finely tuned manner looked like a mere transposition into the afterlife of the habits of a corrupt mediaeval court. In the paragraph after the one I have quoted, Pope Benedict actually puts the word “Purgatory” in quotation marks. (I checked the Latin version of the encyclical on the Vatican’s website; it’s in quotation marks there too.) I think what he’s trying to do is dissociate the basic insight behind the doctrine of Purgatory from some of the excessively legalistic and literalistic ways it has been interpreted in the past.
I don’t have a view on whether or not there’s a Purgatory; I guess we’ll all find out soon enough. But Benedict XVI’s Christ-centered understanding of his own Church’s doctrine on the subject offers powerful material for reflection. Catholics—and everybody else concerned with man’s ultimate destiny—should be grateful for the presence of this fine thinker on the world stage.