Face Masks: Charity vs. Liberty


Wearing masks in public places is now strongly recommended by public health experts. It could significantly reduce the risk of transmitting the coronavirus that causes Covid-19 to somebody else without knowing it. Therefore, in Catholic terms, choosing to wear a mask in public right now is an act of charity and a work of mercy.

Nevertheless, many Americans are opposed in principle to wearing masks, some expressing their opposition vehemently and even violently. The reasons offered vary quite a bit, but many of the arguments seem to come down to liberty. Wearing a mask is uncomfortable, unlikely to be much of a deterrent to my own getting sick (and may even make it more likely since I will be touching my face more), and infringes on my rights.

I will leave it to the courts to decide about the thorny legal issues surrounding enforcement of policies that require the wearing of masks. As a Christian, and particularly as a Catholic, I am much more interested in the theological question that this issue raises. Assuming for a second that it is both true that the wearing of masks can help slow the spread of the disease and that it infringes upon our liberty to wear them even in a voluntary capacity, which one of those goods should win out? If both charity (love) and liberty (freedom) are things that Christians ought to practice and value, which one is more important?

First, a couple of definitions.

For Christians, charity refers not merely to any sort of altruistic action but to what St. Paul points to as the greatest “abiding” gift of God in 1 Corinthians 13. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, charity is “the theological virtue by which we love God above all things for his own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God.” Unlike other virtues, such as prudence or temperance, which human beings can develop within themselves simply through the building of good habits, theological virtues require the grace of God to become effective. We cannot just will ourselves to be loving. God has to plant love in us. Yet our love grows when we cooperate with God’s grace. It is the greatest of all the virtues because God Himself is love. Jesus specifically calls us to “love one another” as a way of becoming more like Him and thereby participating in the divine life (John 15:9-12).

In Scripture, the Greek word eleutheria can be translated both as “liberty” and “freedom,” two words that are not entirely interchangeable in English but close enough to be more or less synonymous. Liberty is not a virtue like charity is, but it is a gift from God. According to the Catechism, “Freedom is the power, rooted in reason and will, to act or not to act, to do this or that, and so to perform deliberate actions on one’s own responsibility… Human freedom is a force for growth and maturity in truth and goodness; it attains its perfection when directed toward God, our beatitude.” In other words, we may have the ability to make choices about how we live our lives, but we are not truly free until we choose to live in union with God.

Are liberty and charity in competition? Perhaps on the surface they seem to be. Certainly, when we engage in acts of charity, we necessarily accept limits and make sacrifices. If I give my money away to the poor, I cannot then use that same money for my own personal benefit. If I choose to get married or have a child, I am bound by love to tend to the well-being of those other people and must give up some of my own liberty in the process.

Nevertheless, if this offering up of our liberty is done not by coercion but voluntarily, as an act of love for another human being, it does not ultimately diminish our freedom but rather allows us to become free at a far deeper level. “The more one does what is good,” says the Catechism, “the freer one becomes. There is no true freedom except in the service of what is good and just.” When we seek the good of others ahead of our own, we become more loving and therefore more free to be fully human. Or as St. Paul puts it, “For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another” (Galatians 5:13).

Regarding the wearing of masks then, the question cannot be whether we privilege liberty or charity. We have to have basic liberty in order to be able to choose to be charitable, but only one choice actually leads to the fulfillment of both. It is only when we accept the duty to be charitable that we arrive at true freedom. The well respected microbiologist and theologian, Fr. Nicanor Austriaco, OP, made a lengthy post earlier this week explaining the science behind how transmission of Covid-19 takes place and why masks are effective as a deterrent. In referring to the decision of the White House to require the wearing of masks internally to stem an outbreak, he said, “This is morally justifiable, and some may even argue, morally obligatory once you know that masks could minimize viral spread from respiratory droplets.”

Of course, life is more complicated than that. There are always exceptions. Some people are not able to wear masks for medical reasons. There also may be times when the good of wearing a mask is outweighed by some other pressing good, the need to communicate in an emergency for instance. Individuals and private entities, including churches, will have to make prudent choices about just when and how to make use of masks for the safety and well being of others.

Still, the basic theological and moral principle at play is clear. We cannot grow in knowledge and love of God without also growing in love for other people, including strangers. Jesus models for us the greatest exercise of human freedom when he freely chooses the cross for the sake of the world.

Photo by Nickolay Romensky. Used under Creative Commons License.

Justification and the Non-Competitive God

I had the privilege this past week of appearing as a guest on the radio program Theology on Air. It is hosted by a Lutheran pastor and aimed mostly at young Protestants, so while the purpose of my visit was theoretically to talk about comic books, many of the questions posed to me were about differences between Catholic and Protestant theology. This inevitably included discussion of the doctrine of justification and whether or not Catholics believe that what we receive through Christ is sufficient for our salvation or needs a little help from us.

I find these kinds of conversations tricky, not because I lack for things to say but because I want to avoid the danger of re-litigating the sixteenth century. I do not believe it does us much good to get stuck there, either defending or excoriating bits of history that are never going to change no matter who wins the debate. Nevertheless, there is spiritual fruit that can be harvested from an honest conversation on this topic, if we can stay in the mode of theology rather than apologetics, that is to say if we can stay in a mode of prayer, since theology is impossible where prayer is absent.

So, cards on the table: I receive, believe, and teach, to the best of my ability, what the Catholic Church teaches, which means that I do not believe in justification by faith alone. Truth be told, I was only ever a Johnny-Come-Lately to that particular doctrine anyway. By the time I graduated seminary, I was a full-throated Anglo-Catholic, albeit with an Eastward orientation to my spirituality. My understanding of salvation then as now was largely through the lens of theosis, beautifully summarized by the words of St. Athanasius: “God became man so that men might become gods.” We are saved by being united with God and thereby participating in the divine life of the Trinity.

It is not impossible to draw together some version of justification by faith alone with theosis. The Finnish theologian Tuomo Mannermaa, for instance, did some interesting work creating a bridge between Luther’s work and that of the Eastern Fathers. But most renderings of justification by faith alone require letting go of something that is crucial to Catholic doctrine, the idea that we participate in our own salvation. 

There is no part of what Jesus does for us on the cross that we can take credit for. Even the choice we make to cooperate with the grace of God is a choice that, as St. Thomas Aquinas tells us, is entirely contingent upon God’s graceful action. Yet, that choice is a real choice, and the change that takes place within us is a real change. God does not just decide to treat us as if we were holy but leave us internally rotten. He actually transforms us through union with Christ, rendered possible through the cross and made manifest in the Sacraments. My Lutheran friends like to say, “Sanctification is just getting used to your justification.” Perhaps in a way they are right, but the means by which that unfolds is real transformation, not merely a surface-level realization that we have been passively accepted.

All of that said, I think that what is spelled out in the Joint Declaration on Justification made by Lutherans and Catholics in 1999 is helpful in dispelling common myths about where Catholics and Protestants differ on this topic. We tend towards different emphases, which leads us to different pastoral practices. There is a good deal that Catholics can learn from Protestant theology on this topic, particularly from Lutheran theology. There is an absolute emphasis on the cross there that is refreshing in an age when so many churches want to hide the harsh reality of the cross from view. Another of the things my Lutheran friends like to say: “If Jesus didn’t die in your sermon, you didn’t preach the Gospel.” That one requires nuance as well, but it is nevertheless a helpful tool that I still use to evaluate my preaching.

Perhaps most helpful is the Protestant insistence on the gift of justification. Catholic doctrine is clear that our salvation is something we can only receive freely from God and could never earn, that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Yet we do not always stress this enough. We can give off the impression that salvation is a joint venture in which we are equal partners with God. In the formation of Catholics, we do not always emphasize as we should that the Gospel is not something we are required to do for God (or for others) but something that God has done for us in Christ.

Having said that, one of the most beautiful parts of Catholic teaching is the fact that God is presented not as a competitor with humanity but as the one who makes humanity authentically human. It has often felt to me, when listening to the way some Protestants describe justification, that they see it as an either/or situation in which either God acts or we do. We must never work for our own salvation because if we do, that must mean we are taking up the space that rightfully belongs to God. For Catholics, especially if we accept a thomistic view of the nature of God as being itself, the concept that our work could be in competition with God’s work does not make sense. Fr. Nicanor Austriaco explains why:

Consider an author writing a note with a pen. Who wrote the note? Yes, the author wrote the note, but in a very real sense, the pen “wrote” it too. Both the author and the pen were needed to write the note. In the language of philosophy, the author is the principal cause of the note, while the pen is the instrumental cause. Both are real causes that explain the existence of the note.

Fr. Nicanor is using this analogy in order to explain the way God acts in creation, but it works just as well for the way God acts in our salvation. We are justified by the work of Christ on the cross which is applied to us in the Sacraments. We may or may not have chosen to be baptized, but when we go to Confession, we are certainly choosing to receive this grace from Jesus. In that sense, we are active participants, as is the priest who absolves us. When we go to Mass, we become active players in our own salvation too, though we add nothing to the work of Jesus made manifest in the Sacrament. When we pray for others, we participate in their salvation, as do the saints when they pray for us. When we do good works, we grow in holiness as our love increases. None of this makes us competitors with God any more than the pen is in competition with the author.

We are not pens, of course. We have the capacity to say no to the gift of God’s grace. Yet when we say yes, it is not so that we may put on a show for God but so that He may truly be at work in us, changing us from the inside out into what we were always meant to be, prisms that reflect His light. In His generosity and love, God seeks to bring about real transformation in us by allowing us to take part in the mystery of salvation. That is part of the Good News too, not just that we are sinners who have been rescued, but that we are sons and daughters who are being prepared by a life of holiness for that day when the light will shine through us unimpeded.

Ten More Reasons to be Catholic

Being Catholic for me is far more than a matter of religion. I am what they sometimes call a “revert,” which puts me in the rare position of being both a cradle Catholic and a kind of convert. Catholicism for me has all the familiarity of family, but it is not simply a reflex. Being Catholic is something I really had to think about and choose.

Earlier this week, Sam Guzman of The Catholic Gentleman wrote a list of “10 Reasons to Become Catholic.” He notes, via Chesterton, that there are many thousands of reasons he could list, but they all boil down to the truth of the faith. I believe that too. I have written before about my reasons for returning to the Church, the main one being a strong sense of God’s directive to me personally to do so. Guzman wrote about why people should become Catholic, but that got me thinking about why I remain Catholic.

After all, this is not a great moment for Catholic triumphalism. Scandals abound. The abuse crisis and its cover-up is a shocking display of evil, especially if what Guzman says is true that “The greatest obstacle to the advance of evil in the world is the Catholic Church.” Wrap in alongside that the financial scandals just starting to emerge, the crisis of pastoral care created by the priest shortage, and the banality of the liturgy in many places and it is easy to see why many people find the modern Catholic Church more lamentable than hopeful.

Yet here I remain. And it is not simply that I am resigned to it or see it as the best of bad options. I’m jazzed about being Catholic. I think this is the absolute best thing I could be. I’m not trying to bash anyone else by saying that, but for me, there is no place I would rather call home.

So here are ten reasons why it is a joy for me to be Catholic. I have not copied any of Guzman’s, all of which would be on my list too. I am sure I could come up with ten more if I tried. Where truth lives, joy abounds.

A Mystical Faith

In the Catholic faith, we don’t just learn about God. We experience Him. We meet Him in the Sacraments and in the reading of Scripture. We encounter Him in prayer. He is not abstract. He is not distant, off on a cloud somewhere. He is an ever-present part of life. The Catholic faith is filled with tools to help us to know Him. From the Ignatian spiritual exercises or the Carmelite way of perfection to Eastern traditions of iconography and the Jesus Prayer, Catholicism is mystical from top to bottom. And the Church shows us through that mysticism that it is possible to have deep spiritual experiences without sacrificing reason and rationality in the process.

A Healing Faith

We are all carrying wounds around with us, wounds of loneliness, wounds of pride or despair, wounds of sin. The mission of the Catholic Church is the salvation of souls.  That means that the Catholic Church exists to offer us healing for our wounds, a healing that is deep and that ultimately saves us from death itself. Sometimes Christians envision salvation in purely juridical terms – I’m either good or bad, and if I’m bad then I have to go before a judge to pay a penalty, unless someone else intervenes. That kind of understanding has its place within the tradition and can be useful in some ways, but it is not the primary lens through which salvation is meant to be viewed. We are not dying from sin because we have offended an angry God. We are dying from sin because sin is a sickness, a poison that infects us and reaches out into every corner of our lives, regardless of the choices we have made. Indeed, it is that wound that causes us to want to make bad choices in the first place.

But in and through the Church, we receive the medicine that we need. Through the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession), through the preaching of the Gospel, through prayer and fasting, through spiritual direction, and in so many other ways, the Lord Jesus Christ works through His Church to heal us and restore us to wholeness.

Catholicism is Weird

Earlier this year, I got to bless a room full of kids with a piece of bone from St. Thomas Aquinas. That’s weird, right? I mean, totally. And what could be better than that?

The weirdness of Catholicism is part of the joy of it. We sing in funny tones. We tell stories about great saints who have done things like levitating or reading people’s minds. We get together to worship what looks to the naked eye like a piece of bread, only we insist it has become something much more. From the perspective of the world, so much of what Catholicism does is super weird and in some cases even super offensive. But in an age in which we trumpet the idea of being non-conformist and yet participate in an endless cycle of boring consumerist trends, Catholicism is one of the few ways in which we can truly escape from the mediocrity.

The contemporary Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft wrote, “In an age that has thrown off all tradition, the only rebellion possible is orthodoxy.” The more we embrace the Catholic faith in all of its strangeness, the more we find ourselves breaking free from the worst that the world has to offer.

The Mother of God

Some Christians worry that Catholic devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary somehow obscures the place of Jesus, but my experience has been just the opposite. The more my devotion to Mary has increased, the closer to Jesus I have become. How could it be otherwise? She is His mother, after all, and so all that she says and does points us back to Him. In John 2:1-12, Jesus performs His first miracle by changing water into wine at a wedding in Cana. Mary is at the heart of this scene, urging Him along, and more importantly urging others to follow His lead, saying, “Do whatever He tells you.” She understands her Son. When I get to know the family and friends of others, it often leads me to have a new appreciation for them. The same is true here. Mary is the one who models for us how to be a disciple.

Mary is also the source of Christ’s humanity, her flesh becoming His. In that sense, we honor her as the arc, the bridge, the means by which God chose to unite Himself with us. In that respect, to fail to venerate her is to fail to fully understand just what He has done for us.

The Church Loves Women

The veneration of Mary also reminds us that the Catholic faith celebrates women. This sometimes surprises people since the common misperception is that the Church does just the opposite. Yet the teaching of the Church is not only that women ought to be treated as equal to men, but that they need to be loved, cherished, and honored for their unique gifts. Pope St. John Paul II’s 1995 Letter to Women is a grand example of that. In it, the pope thanks women for the gifts of being daughters and sisters, wives and mothers, and he advocates for things like “equal pay for equal work, protection for working mothers, fairness in career advancements, equality of spouses with regard to family rights,” as well as an end to “sexualized violence.”

The “Me Too” movement has highlighted how women are routinely regarded as mere objects for the satisfaction of men in our society. Women’s stories are not heard. Their humanity is reduced to whatever garners the attention of men. The Catholic faith does the opposite, acknowledging the humanity of women at the deepest level, that women like men are made in the image and likeness of God, that they contribute uniquely to the good of society, and that they deserve love and respect. The message of the Church is not just about women, but it is also for women and from women. Some of the greatest doctors of the Church have been women like St. Catherine of Sienna and St. Therese of Lisieux. In other words, women are not simply something the Church talks about. Women are the Church. Indeed, the Church herself is traditionally referred to as “she” and as our “mother” because she unites us to Jesus as His Bride. “The future is female,” says a popular feminist slogan. To which we might add, “So is the Catholic Church!”

The Church Loves Children

Despite the horrors we have seen perpetrated by some leaders in the Church in recent years, historically the Catholic Church has always taught that the family is sacred and children are great gifts from God. This can be seen in many ways, from the Church’s relentless defense of children in the womb and migrant children, and the Church’s efforts to end human trafficking, to the World Meeting of Families, World Youth Day, and the development of Catholic schools, hospitals, orphanages, and other institutions designed specifically to care for children throughout their childhood years. As a father of two children with a severe form of autism, it is particularly gratifying to know that the Church loves my kids and believes they are as worthy of love and respect as any other human being.

Building a Better World

The Catholic social justice tradition is unparalleled in its advocacy for human rights. The entire concept of “human rights” has its origin in the teaching of the Church about the inherent dignity of every human person. My own walk back to the Church was greatly influenced by figures like Dorothy Day, St. Teresa of Calcutta, and St. Oscar Romero who fought for the poor and the disenfranchised. The Catholic Church has long advocated for the rights of workers, an end to abortion, an end to capital punishment, the eradication of nuclear arms, and the moral imperative for all of us to work towards healing the planet from pollution and the effects of global warming.

You Can Party With Us

The Catholic poet Hilaire Belloc wrote, “Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine / There’s always laughter and good red wine. / At least I’ve always found it so, / Benedicamus Domino!” Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati is famously pictured standing at the top of a mountain smoking a pipe. Is the point that Catholics like to smoke and drink? Well, some of them do. But the point is actually much bigger and better than that. The Catholic faith isn’t afraid of pleasure. In fact, Catholicism deeply celebrates all the good things that give pleasure in this world, such as good wine, good food, gregarious laughter, and so forth. All of these need to be enjoyed within reason. Obviously, there are ways in which pleasure seeking, when it becomes an end in itself, is a destructive force. But taken in moderation, with the understanding that all good pleasures we experience in this world are merely foretastes of the pleasure of knowing God in the next, the Catholic Church acknowledges that pleasure is a good thing and a healthy thing to want in our lives.

Sex is Good

Some people might hear that the Church approves of pleasure and object that this cannot be since the Church does not approve of sex. Those people would be frightfully misinformed! The Church teaches clearly and consistently that sex is good. I have written before about the way in which our world today is unable to acknowledge the greatness of sex. The Church teaches that sex belongs in the context of marriage not because sex is bad but precisely because sex is so good. It reaches its fullest, most beautiful potential within a covenant of grace in which two people who have been bonded to each other for life can afford to be vulnerable and honest with each other, giving the whole of themselves to each other. Pleasure, then, is one of the great goods of sex, not isolated on its own but in conjunction with the entire self-giving that sex involves. As Pope Francis put it to a group of young people in 2015, “It is right to try for a genuine love that knows to give life, that does not search to use the other for its own pleasure. A love that makes sacred the life of the other person: ‘I respect you, I do not want to use you.’”

Knowing Jesus

All of the previous reasons culminate in this one: Being Catholic is to know Jesus. The heart of the Catholic faith is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the good news of what He has done for us and His continued reign over His Church through the work of the Holy Spirit. In the Eucharist, we receive Jesus directly, in body and spirit. In the Church’s teaching, we hear the voice of Jesus speaking to our hearts. In the living of the Catholic faith, we constantly see Jesus at work in the world. We hear Him crying out to us in the suffering of the poor and the sick. We know His joy and His saving grace in the love of parents and children, husbands and wives, and friends for one another. There is nowhere in my life that I have found greater intimacy with Christ than in the Catholic Church.

Why prayer is hard

Delicate is not a word that people often associate with God. Strong, loving, nurturing perhaps, but not delicate. In addition to sounding precious and far more feminine than many people are comfortable with, it is also a word that suggests fragility and by implication weakness. Nonetheless, while it may be too much to say that God is Himself delicate—He is after all the Lion of Judah who roared all of creation into being—it is completely fair to say that the way that we relate to God in a fallen world is delicate.

Sometimes waiting on God will make you sweat. It is possible to sit in front of the Blessed Sacrament for hours and be completely unable to focus. That danger is even greater if you are trying to pray and reach out to God in your home, at work, or while driving a car. Distractions abound. And just at the moment when you finally sense God, just as quickly you may lose it, like a bubble that pops the second you touch it.

Knowing God takes work. This ought to be a fairly obvious thing to reason out. Knowing anyone or anything takes work. You can neither learn math by simply putting a textbook up close to your head nor build an intimate and close friendship without ever inviting someone into your life. Why would it not be the same with God? Yet we often assume that it should be. We expect knowing God to be easy and obvious. Many people who say they want to know God turn and walk away the first time they realize that it is going to be hard.

Distractions are not the only difficulty either. Even the most committed monks and ascetics find it challenging to stay in and with God throughout prayer. It can be overwhelming to be in His presence and aware of Him. Sometimes we reach for the distractions as a defense mechanism because the full weight of really knowing God is too much to carry.

Why all the difficulty? It is, at least in part, because when we pray we are essentially trying to hold lava in a paper cup. It is easy to forget the radical otherness of God, especially because as Christians we sometimes take  the Incarnation for granted. But really, if we understood the implications of the miracle of God taking on flesh, we would be in constant fear and awe. God is so much more powerfully real than we are that Moses could not be permitted to see anything but His hindquarters lest he die. Almost every encounter with an angel in the Scriptures begins with human beings falling down in fear because the glow of the angels is so overpowering simply because they have been in the presence of God. Yet today we expect there to be not the least bit of friction when, as sinners and weak creatures, we ask the God of the universe to speak directly into our hearts and minds.

Of course, God wants to be with us. The good news of Jesus is rooted in that truth. The Sacraments communicate the full reality of God to us by the most ordinary and unobtrusive means. The Eucharist particularly makes it possible for us to take the full reality of God in the person of Jesus into us, His Body given into our bodies, His soul and divinity touching us deeply, regardless of whether we feel it or not, or whether we are distracted, or whether we are in the mood for it. In that sense, knowing God is easy. All we need to do is show up.

But even if we are rooted in the grace of the Sacraments, there is still a longing in our hearts to know God further in prayer. We want to feel Him, to know He is present. It is a natural desire, but it is not something that can be forced. God is not a high we can induce or a tame pet we can invite onto our laps. He is sovereign and moves as He will. But His desire is to be with us. He delights in knowing us and He delights in us reaching out to know Him.

God does the heavy lifting when we pray. We stress over finding the time to pray, fighting back the distractions, and focusing our minds. We think that means we are working hard. But think about all that God must overcome in order to enter into a place of intimacy with us in prayer. His Holy Spirit has to traverse the great gap that exists between us and Him. He has to make it possible for the paper cups that are our hearts to be able to hold the lava. Everything we do seems like small potatoes in comparison with that.

We cannot be fully aware of the fact that God loves us all the time, at least not on this side of eternity. If we were so aware, we would never be able to do anything but be struck dumb in adoration. We would not be able to drive our cars or brush our teeth or pay our taxes. But the more room we make in our lives for quiet prayer, the more that the realization of God’s love begins to color and shade even those moments of profound boredom or sadness that mark our lives. The more we pray intentionally, the more the whole of our lives become offerings of prayer.

Creating the space for adoration is tough. There is no way of knowing before we begin how God will show up to us or if He will even show up at all (at least in a way that we recognize through our limited perception). Yet the need for such prayer is deep in our hearts. We need to learn the art of prayer, to adjust ourselves to receive that which God has for us. The most difficult things we do in life are often those which yield the greatest rewards. Prayer is the most difficult thing we will ever do, but it is only when we give ourselves to prayer that we really begin to live.

A purgatory of love

There is an allegory often falsely attributed to C.S. Lewis that in the life to come we will only be able to eat with spoons, forks, and knives that are more than a meter long. Those who are in hell will be tortured by this because they will never be able to feed themselves, while those who are in heaven will feed each other.

The fairly obvious point is that hell is made of selfishness while heaven is made of selflessness. Those in hell see only themselves, while those in heaven see only each other. The big problem with the illustration is that neither group seems all that interested in seeing God. Presumably, if anyone is getting fed at all in heaven, it is the Lord who will feed us.

That said, as I was pondering this image recently, it occurred to me that it works far better as an image of purgatory rather than heaven.

I went back and forth on my thoughts on purgatory before I was Catholic. I could accept the idea that there might be a state in which God removes from us the remaining stains of sin before we are able to come into His presence. This was, in fact, the understanding of purgatory that Lewis held, as he wrote about in his Letters to Malcolm. It did not distress me that such a state was not explicitly described in Holy Scripture (or at least not described in a part of Scripture that would be acceptable to Protestants). It seemed to me to fit well with the general thrust of how the Bible describes God’s interaction with us. God’s holiness is so bright and powerful that we sinners cannot walk into His presence lest we be destroyed. It is only when we are transformed and our sin is removed that we can stand before God.

But what still bothered me, at least for a time, was the gnawing suspicion that purgatory as the Catholic Church describes it adds to the completed work of Jesus Christ on the cross. If we can serve time in some sort of supernatural prison to shave off our guilt, did the sacrifice of Jesus really atone completely for us? If I can say prayers that somehow help a soul in purgatory along the path to heaven, am I not adding my own effort to that of Our Lord?

“That there should be some fire even after this life is not incredible,” said St. Augustine in the Enchiridion of Faith, Hope, and Love, “and it can be inquired into and either be discovered or left hidden whether some of the faithful may be saved, some more slowly and some more quickly in the greater or lesser degree in which they loved the good things that perish, through a certain purgatorial fire.” Love lives right at the center of the doctrine of purgatory, but it is not only the love that comes directly from God but the love that God diffuses in and through us. The extent to which we have given and received love determines the degree to which we suffer as we move towards our ultimate union with God.

Believing my prayers for a person in purgatory are effective is no more an addition to the work of Jesus than it is to believe my prayers for a friend in the hospital are effective. It is my own union with God, forged in His love, that makes such prayer effective. I operate not as an independent agent, dispensing my own graces, but as a part of the Body of Christ, humbly assumed as an instrument of His love. Could He do it without me? Sure. But He chooses to do it through me, by means of my prayers, and in so doing He purifies me as well by making me look outside of myself. As I become more loving in this life, I grow closer to a fully realized communion with God in the next.

Sometimes we envision the purifying fire of God as something external, burning away impurities in much the same way that a flame burns off rust or melts wax. But if all purgatory is good for is changing our external appearance, to hell with it. The purity we need is in our hearts, as Our Lord so aptly points out (Matthew 15:10-20). That is a transformation that cannot happen in an individualistic way. It cannot just be me and Jesus. It must be me in Jesus, loving those whom He loves, losing all sense of self-possession in favor of a new identity as one who loves in Christ.

I have dear friends who have died who were true and lively believers. They may already be in heaven. Or they may be in purgatory. I do not know. I rejoice for them either way since either ultimately leads into God’s embrace. Sometimes I pray for them and sometimes I ask them for their prayers for me. If they are already in heaven, I imagine my prayers for them do them no harm. If they are in purgatory, perhaps my prayers for them might do them some good. But even if they are in purgatory, I am sure that they benefit from the opportunity to offer prayers for me and others. Every calling out of the self, every calling to use the long forks and spoons to feed others, is a small act of purification, offered not in competition with the completed work of Jesus but in continuity with it as a genuine fruit of the Spirit.

That Jesus would live as one of us and die for us is the ultimate blessing. That we get to participate in the manifestation of that grace, not only in our own hearts but in the hearts of others, is as deep a love as I can imagine.