Bishop Fulton J. Sheen gives a great metaphor of the Catholic understanding, comparing the soul to the finest piece of wood. At Baptism, the board is unmarked and flawless. Sin is like a nail, which is driven into the wood. Then, with forgiveness, through the suffering and death of Jesus Christ, the nail is removed. To this point Catholics and Protestants are basically in agreement. But Catholicism acknowledges one more necessary step. We realize that, even though the nail has been removed, the board is not back in its original state, for where the nail once was, now there is a hole. And this hole is filled by our actions; patiently enduring suffering and by self-mortification; by works of love.
Comparing a human soul to a piece of finest wood, we could say that a man is saved by the removal of the nails. He is saved therefore through the merits of Jesus Christ. However, even though this soul may be saved from damnation, it still is unworthy of heaven, because it still bears the stains of sin (the “holes” remain).
St. Paul said “I rejoice now in the sufferings I bear for your sake; and what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ I fill up in my flesh for His body, which is the church” (Col 1, 24). Now obviously Paul does not mean to suggest Jesus’ work was incomplete. Rather he is expressing that we still have our part to do, for the remission of sins.
We read in Revelations 21, 27 that nothing unclean will enter into Heaven. Until all the ‘holes left by the nails’ are filled, or until reparation has been made for all our personal sins, we cannot say that our souls are pure, perfect and therefore worthy of Heaven. This is why Catholics believe in Purgatory, a place of final preparation, final purification for the soul prior to entry into the presence of God. The Protestant teaching can be compared to putting on a cloak. The soul is not perfect at death, but the Protestant can wear the “cloak” of Christ, which covers the soul so that any imperfections would not be seen by God.
There are only a few possibilities as to how one may enter Heaven. Of course one could die in such a way as to prove oneself worthy of Heaven, like the Martyr Stephen, but for the majority of humankind, there are only three possibilities. (1) The soul might be miraculously perfected by the act of dying, as some propose, but for which there is no evidence, scriptural or logical. (2) The soul may be permitted to enter Heaven though impure (which seems contradictory to scripture…Rev 21, 27) by wearing the “cloak of Christ” as I described above. Or (3) the soul, if imperfect at the time of death, would enter into a state in which it would be purified prior to entering Heaven. Which makes the most sense? The Catholic Church teaches the latter, and there is Scriptural evidence to support this teaching, as has been presented in the preceding posts.
Jesus says a sin against the Holy Spirit “will not be forgiven him, either in this world or in the world to come” (Matt 12, 32). Why would He make the distinction here, unless some sins can be forgiven in the world to come?
Someone said “The existence of Purgatory allows for the perfect justice of God.”
For God to allow souls still bearing the mark of sin, the cause of His Son’s Death, into His Kingdom, would not be just. Justice dictates punishment for wrongdoing. God’s mercy allows for a place like Purgatory, a second chance after death to become perfect. Our love of God encourages us, though, to make amends and seek perfection, as much as it is humanly possible, while we are here on earth.