Last week we received a message from a group of students working on a class project at St. Michael’s Catholic Academy in Austin. They asked some great questions and while we can’t address all of their questions in one blog post, we wanted to be sure to respond to their main question and provide them with resources for further research. (Please note, this blog post is not like most blog posts and is primarily fact and references.)
Student (name removed): Hello Catholic New Media,
I am [a student], from St. Michael’s Catholic Academy in Austin, Texas, and would like to ask a few questions on the Church’s teaching for my Ecclesiology class’s school project. The project, deemed, “#maveryproject”, challenges us student to learn more about the Church by asking a question and learn more about it through 21st Century Digital Communications. My group discussed and eventually decided we would like to know more about what the church teaches on life after death. So we decided to ask the Question, “What does the Church teach on Heaven, Purgatory, Hell, and Limbo. Can you offer any insight to our group on this main question? I also have a few follow up questions.
Where is the source in tradition and scripture which heaven, hell, and purgatory originate? Is there any place in scripture and tradition which limbo originates?
What does the Church teach happens to the soul in hell?
On the idea of hell, some claim it is a place, while other say it is a state of being. Can you offer insight on what the Church teaches and has teacher about this topic?
Some claim the misconception that the Church no longer teaches hell exists. Where did this originate?
My next question is in similar form, but in the context of purgatory. Some claim the Church no longer teaches about purgatory. Where did this misconception come from?
What does the Church teach the soul endures in purgatory?
Another question, “What’s up with Limbo?, Has the Church formally doctrinized it as many people claim, such as Robert Pinsky, who translated a Version of Dante’s Inferno?
Where do heaven, hell, and purgatory fit within the new evangelization?
What surprises you most about the Church’s teaching on life after death?
Are there any resources you would direct us to learn more about the Church, and more specifically the church’s teaching, which are found souly online?
Would you please pray for our class as we continue to journey through our lives?
Lastly, can you make a meme to answer some of these questions or direct me to some?
We would like to thank-you for your help in your efforts in the, #maveryproject.
Austin Catholic New Media (via Rita Suva):
Hello student group from St. Michaels’ Catholic Academy! We would love to help you with your Ecclesiology class school project, #maveryproject. It is a great challenge your teacher has presented you with, to encourage students to learn more about the Church by asking a question and learning about it through 21st Century Digital Communications.
You’ve asked some questions that require a lot of detail and are extremely thought-provoking questions in regards to how we live our lives. We can’t answer all your questions in one blog post or message, but we do want to address your primary question and a few of your follow-ups that don’t require as much detail, and provide you with some resources that will hopefully help with your other follow-up questions.
Primary Question:What does the Church teach on Heaven, Purgatory, Hell, and Limbo (Included are some sources in scripture and tradition, which is is one of your follow-up questions)
Answer: The question is a very complex one, because the teachings we do have on these topics can be difficult to grasp and fully comprehend. But let’s start with Heaven and work our way through the list.
From the Catechism of the Catholic Church (#1023-1024, 1026-1027):
“Those who die in God’s grace and friendship and are perfectly purified live for ever with Christ… This perfect life with the Most Holy Trinity—this communion of life and love with the Trinity, with the Virgin Mary, the angels and all the blessed—is called “heaven.” Heaven is the ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness… By his death and Resurrection, Jesus Christ has “opened” heaven to us. The life of the blessed consists in the full and perfect possession of the fruits of the redemption accomplished by Christ. He makes partners in his heavenly glorification those who have believed in him and remained faithful to his will. Heaven is the blessed community of all who are perfectly incorporated into Christ. This mystery of blessed communion with God and all who are in Christ is beyond all understanding and description. Scripture speaks of it in images: life, light, peace, wedding feast, wine of the kingdom, the Father’s house, the heavenly Jerusalem, paradise…”
Purgatory (or, the Final Purification)
From the Catechism of the Catholic Church (#1030-1032):
“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. The tradition of the Church, by reference to certain texts of Scripture, speaks of a cleansing fire… This teaching is also based on the practice of prayer for the dead, already mentioned in Sacred Scripture… From the beginning the Church has honored the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God…”
From the Catechism of the Catholic Church (#1033, 1035, 1037):
“We cannot be united with God unless we freely choose to love him. But we cannot love God if we sin gravely against him, against our neighbor or against ourselves… Our Lord warns us that we shall be separated from him if we fail to meet the serious needs of the poor and the little ones who are his brethren. To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from him for ever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called “hell.” …The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, “eternal fire.” The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs… God predestines no one to go to hell; for this, a willful turning away from God (a mortal sin) is necessary, and persistence in it until the end. In the Eucharistic liturgy and in the daily prayers of her faithful, the Church implores the mercy of God, who does not want “any to perish, but all to come to repentance…” ”
This one is the most difficult to answer and has to be pieced together from several resources. First, the traditional definition of limbo held by society is that it’s “an abode of souls that are according to Roman Catholic theology barred from heaven because of not having received Christian baptism.”
However, in the Catholic tradition there are actually two types of limbo, limbus patriot and limbus infantium (limbus, taken from Latin, means “hem” or “border”).
New Advent (a fantastic online Catholic News and Catholic Encyclopedia site) describes them both well:
“In theological usage the name [limbo] is applied to (a) the temporary place or state of the souls of the just who, although purified from sin, were excluded from the beatific vision until Christ’s triumphant ascension into Heaven (the “limbus patrum”); or (b) to the permanent place or state of those unbaptized
children and others who, dying without grievous personal sin, are excluded from the beatific vision on account of original sin alone (the “limbus infantium…”)
Limbus patrum- In the New Testament, Christ refers by various names and figures to the place or state which Catholic tradition has agreed to call the limbus patrum (Mt 8:11, Lk 16:22)… Catholic tradition has defended the existence of the limbus patrum as a temporary state or place of happiness distinct from Purgatory. As a result of the Fall, Heaven was closed against men. Actual possession of the beatific vision was postponed, even for those already purified from sin, until the Redemption should have been historically completed by Christ’s visible ascendancy into Heaven. Consequently, the just who had lived under the Old Dispensation, and who, either at death or after a course of purgatorial discipline, had attained the perfect holiness required for entrance into glory, were obliged to await the coming of the Incarnate Son of God and the full accomplishment of His visible earthly mission.
Limbus infantium- The New Testament contains no definite statement of a positive kind regarding the lot of those who die in original sin without being burdened with grievous personal guilt. But, by insisting on the absolute necessity of being “born again of water and the Holy Ghost” for entry into the kingdom of Heaven, Christ clearly enough implies that men are born into this world in a state of sin… On the other hand, it is clear from Scripture and Catholic tradition that the means of regeneration provided for this life do not remain available after death, so that those dying unregenerate are eternally excluded from the supernatural happiness of the beatific vision. …in the absence of a clear positive revelation on the subject, we ought in conformity with Catholic principles to believe regarding the eternal lot of such persons. ..we ought to believe that these souls enjoy and will eternally enjoy a state of perfect natural happiness; and this is what Catholics usually mean when they speak of the limbus infantium, the “children’s limbo.”
Concerning children who have died without Baptism, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (#1261) says: “As regards children who have died without Baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God, as she does in her funeral rites for them. Indeed, the great mercy of God who desires that all men should be saved, and Jesus’ tenderness toward children which caused him to say: “Let the children come to me, do not hinder them,” allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without Baptism.”
Additionally, concerning limbus infantium, the Vatican’s International Theological Commission, released a document called “The Hope of Salvation for Infants who Die Without Being Baptized” in which they addressed the topic in more detail in 2005.
Follow-up Question: On the idea of hell, some claim it is a place, while other say it is a state of being. Can you offer insight on what the Church teaches and has teacher about this topic?
Answer: As St. John Chrysostom reminds us: “We must not ask where hell is, but how we are to escape it.” New Advent again offers us some excellent insight into the “where” of hell: ”
The Bible seems to indicate that hell is within the earth, for it describes hell as an abyss to which the wicked descend. We even read of the earth opening and of the wicked sinking down into hell (Nm 16:31, Ez 26:20). Is this merely a metaphor to illustrate the state of separation from God? Although God is omnipresent, He is said to dwell in heaven, because the light and grandeur of the stars and the firmament are the brightest manifestations of His infinite splendor. But the damned are utterly estranged from God; hence their abode is said to be as remote as possible from his dwelling, far from heaven above and its light, and consequently hidden away in the dark abysses of the earth. However, no cogent reason has been advanced for accepting a metaphorical interpretation in preference to the most natural meaning of the words of Scripture. Hence theologians generally accept the opinion that hell is really within the earth. The Church has decided nothing on this subject; hence we may say hell is a definite place; but where it is, we do not know.”
Follow-up Question: Where do heaven, hell, and purgatory fit within the new evangelization?
Answer: In short answer, we as Catholics need to evangelize daily in all that we do in our lives. We need to share the Good News of Christ and help others realize that there’s more beyond this life on Earth, and that how you live on Earth does impact your eternity concerning heaven, hell and purgatory.
Follow-up Question: Are there any resources you would direct us to learn more about the Church, and more specifically the church’s teaching, which are found solely online?
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
Word on Fire
Follow-up Question: Would you please pray for our class as we continue to journey through our lives?
Answer: We will definitely be praying for your group and your class as you continue to journey through your lives and Catholic faith.
Follow-up Question: Can you make a meme to answer some of these questions or direct me to some?
Answer: Catholic Memes makes some pretty funny memes. I’ve included a couple of them in this post. There’s also a Catholic Memes Tumblr page and a Catholic Hipster Facebook page that make some pretty good memes too.
Final thoughts from ACNM:
I know we don’t address all your questions directly, but we hope that we helped get your group in your project and in answering your questions. For your group, please comment below or send us another private message if you need more direct follow-up for something. Additionally, we encourage anyone in our community to send us questions and feedback with questions you might have or topics you’d like to read more about.