A discussion of Purgatory with an Orthodox Christian?

In referring to my article on Purgatory We got an email from an Orthodox Christian that said:

While ... church fathers definitely advocated prayer for the dead, none explicitly used the term "purgatory" or referred to any sort of in-between holding place other than hades itself. It might be helpful to your readers to distinguish between a defense for prayer for the dead (an easy task) and a defense for purgatory (a not-so-easy task). The thirteenth century theory of purgatory has become harder for Catholics to defend since Pope Benedict declared that it doesn't exist (We believe he did so on October 6th, 2006).

Our friend Mark Bonocore responds:

Pope Benedict never declared that Purgatory does not exist, nor does he possess the authority to make such a declaration.  Purgatory is an established dogma of the Catholic Church. We cannot deny it, and Pope Benedict most certainly never did deny it.  You are apparently thinking about the Pope's instruction that the theolegoumenon of limbo (not Purgatory) should be reevaluated, which is what was called for this past October.  Limbo is not, and never has been, a dogma of Catholic belief, but merely a popular theolegoumenon (theological opinion). Understood historically, limbo was essentially a pastoral measure to protect the necessity of Baptism, and nothing more.  It has thus fallen out of favor for modern Church theology. Yet, it has not (as yet) been formally rejected by the Church. It still remains a viable theolegoumenon, which Catholics may believe if they choose to do so. We do not, as I said, have the same freedom of choice when it comes to Purgatory, however. Purgatory is a dogma of the Faith. 

Now, with that said, we Romans also fully acknowledge the fact that the Apostolic mystery which we call "Purgatory" was not fully appreciated or developed in Eastern (Greek) theology as it was in our Latin theology. Thus, we do not impose our Latin theological constructs on Eastern Catholics (i.e., the Eastern Churches which are in communion with us) or on Eastern Orthodox, like yourself.    Rather, we recognize the natural and organic freedom of Eastern Christians who are in communion with us to approach the mystery that we call "Purgatory" via their own theological traditions. What an Eastern Christian who is in communion with us may NOT do, however, is deny the orthodoxy of the dogma of Purgatory WITHIN THE CONTEXT OF THE LATIN THEOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVE. And, despite what you say above, that Latin theological perspective simply did not begin in the 13th Century, but is ancient and Apostolic in its origins. ...and, despite the popular impression, it also is to be found within your own Greek theological tradition. 

Actually there quotes from the early Church fathers that support not only prayer for the dead but also the idea of Purgatory are here.

While all this is of course in an organic form, and not developed according to the Latin dogmatic definition of Purgatory, one cannot deny that the Tradition existed in the universal Church from earliest times.  Thus, all Apostolic Christians (whether Eastern Orthodox or Roman Catholic) are lead to accept the fact that some kind of purification takes place for souls who are not fully sanctified (i.e., deified) in this life --that is, who did not die as true Christian saints; and that the prayers of the faithful can assist these departed souls in becoming fully conformed to the holiness of Christ. This is all that the dogma of Purgatory essentially teaches; and I see no reason why an Eastern Orthodox would object to it.

Our Orthodox friend writes:

Nevertheless, defending prayer for the dead is a good idea. You might add to
your article that Jesus Christ prayed for the dead too (when he prayed for
Lazarus). He also said that "[God] is not the God of the dead, but of the

This is true.  However, Lazarus was not a departed Christian. He was a Jew, and so subject to death. A Christian is supposed to be immune to death (see John 11:26) --that is, IF one is truly in the Church --that is, truly and fully committed to one's Covenant with Jesus Christ.  For, the Lord said that "the gates of hades (i.e., death) would not prevail" against His Church (Matt 16:18).   This means that true Christians cannot be subject to death.  So, the real issue here is one of full communion --one of being IN the Church, truly and fully (as our saints obviously are). When we become attached to sin, we are not, strictly speaking, in communion with the Church, but we are somewhat separated from it.

Here, it is very helpful to understand the transition that occurred about A.D. 217, when Pope St. Callistus (invoking his Petrine authority to "bind and loosen") relaxed the original Apostolic discipline for the Sacrament of Confession. Before this time, if someone committed what we call a "mortal sin" (see 1 John 5:16-17) after Baptism, they were formally excommunicated from the Church until their deathbeds. This is how serious sin was taken in the very early Church.  Those who were in the Church were literally saints. That is, in accepting Baptism, they surrendered their attachments to this world and fully embraced Christ.  ....and this was because, when one became a Christian back then, one was literally taking one's life into one's hands; because there was a very good chance that you were going to be crucified for being a Christian.   However, by the 3rd Century, the Church had grown to such a point that not everyone in the Church was so heroic or holy. And, because of the original Apostolic discipline for Confession, at any one time, a good 90% of all Christians (who had fallen into sin) found themselves formally excommunicated from the Church!   The bishops realized that this situation could not continue. Thus, in about 217 (that is, between 217 and 220), Pope Callistus I (clearly in accord with the bishops of Alexandria and Antioch) issued a formal decree stating that Confession for serious sins could be received REPEATEDLY (not only on one's death bed), and that such sinners were not to be excommunicated. This is why we today (BOTH Eastern Orthodox AND Catholics) can receive the Sacrament of Confession again and again, and why we are not formally excommunicated every time we sin seriously.

But, when Pope Callistus issued this decree, he was bitterly opposed, both on "the left" by Tertullian (a Montantist heretic at the time, who denied all episcopal authority) and on the "extreme right" by St. Hippolytus of Rome, who broke off from the Church for a time because of this ruling by Pope Callistus. For example, Tertullian writes against Pope Callistus, mocking him and calling him "Pontifex Maximus" (a pagan title at the time).  He says:

“In opposition to this [modesty], could I not have acted the dissembler? I hear that there has even been an edict sent forth, and a peremptory one too. The ‘Pontifex Maximus,’ that is the ‘bishop of bishops,’ issues an edict: ‘I remit, to such as have discharged [the requirements of] repentance, the sins both of adultery and of fornication.’ O edict, on which cannot be inscribed, ‘Good deed!’ ...Far, far from Christ's betrothed be such a proclamation!" (_On Modesty_ 1.1, ANF IV:74).

He also writes, criticizing Callistus .... 

 "I now inquire into your opinions, to see whence you usurp the right for the Church.  Do you presume, because the Lord said to Peter, 'On this rock I will build my Church ...[Matt 16-19]'  that the power of binding and loosing has thereby been handed over to you, that is, to every church akin to that of Peter?  What kind of man are you, subverting and changing what was the manifest intent of the Lord when He conferred this personally on Peter?  'On you,' He says, 'I will build my Church; and I give to you the Keys'...." (Tertullian, On Modesty 21:9-10) 

What Tertullian is saying here is that Rome (in the person of Pope Callistus) had issued a decree, invoking its Petrine authority, and that the others churches "akin to that of Peter" --that is, the patriarchates of Alexandria and Antioch -had accepted it.

And, I point all this out to show you very clearly where our present, commonly-held practice of receiving the Sacrament of Confession repeatedly, and without being excommunicated, comes from. It comes from the authority of Pope Callistus. And, what this means to our discussion of Purgatory is that, from this point on (that is, from about A.D. 217 until today), most Christians are in the Church, not because they deserve to be --that is, not because they are zealously committed to their Baptismal Covenant to be a saint of Jesus Christ, but rather we are in the Church BY INDULGENCE --that is, we are sinners who are TOLERATED by the Church (by the communion of saints), but we are (with a few exceptions) not saints ourselves. And, once we realize this, we see why prayer for those who have depated is so necessary. We are praying that these people are granted FULL communion with the Church --that is, with the saints who are in Heaven. For, if and when they become saints, then death has no power over them.

Now, in your Byzantine tradition, it is true that you pray for the perfection (continued deification) of saints as well. And this is a good thing. For, even the saints in Heaven are not fully deified ...nor will they ever be, since God is infinite, and they will always grow closer and closer to Him for all eternity. This is even true of the Blessed Theotokos. However, when we pray for our departed brothers and sisters, it is not only for their continued deification in Heaven, but for their full communion with the saints, so that they will be IN Heaven itself --that death (hades / "Purgatory") will have no claim on them whatsoever, and they will be free from all sin and sinful attachments, and be with the Lord.  

More about purgatory from the perspective of Catholic and Evangelical relations here

Charis kai eirene