Rabbi Marc Gellman writes about religion for Newsday.
My recent column on life after death for our souls generated many comments. Some Catholics, like F., of Idaho Falls, Idaho, gently tweaked me: "I'm sure not the only one to tell you this, but your [statement about] purgatory was way off base. Catholicism has not 'backed off its view' in that regard. Please see the CCC [Catechism of the Catholic Church] 1030-1032. You may need to fire those 'Catholic' advisers you have and get a new bunch. Please use the CCC first and then direct questions to knowledgeable Catholics."
Dear F.: My comments about recent Catholic teachings, actually the teaching of Pope Benedict XVI, were based on a report from CNS (Catholic News Service) about the pope's remarks at his weekly general audience Jan. 12, 2011, where he was speaking about the mystical writings of St. Catherine of Genoa.
Although St. Catherine is the author of a "Treatise on Purgatory," Pope Benedict said, "She never received specific revelations about purgatory or the souls that are being purified there." Rather, her deep prayer and focus on the conflict between human sin and God's love led her to understand how logically a person who has sinned would not be worthy to be in the presence of an all-loving, all-perfect God, the pope said.
Unlike most Catholics of her day, he said, she was convinced purgatory "was not a place, but a process." "The soul that is aware of the immense love and perfect justice of God consequently suffers for not having responded correctly and perfectly to that love," the pope said, adding that "the suffering is purgatory." So, my dear F., even though purgatory clearly remains a firm belief, particularly of the Catholic Church, it may perhaps now be imagined more as a state of suffering rather than a place of suffering.
There has been a more substantial change in the theology of the Catholic Church regarding the judgment of unbaptized souls after death. It is the belief in "limbo" as a place for unbaptized babies. On April 20, 2007, the Vatican's International Theological Commission released a report arguing that "there was good reason to hope unbaptized babies who die go to heaven," according to CNS. I was, of course, not consulted on this statement, but I endorse its humanity and compassion completely.
I strongly believe that our souls go through a kind of spiritual debriefing about their embodied life here on Earth. As a Jew, I believe that the book of the good and bad deeds of my dear father, Sol, was closed when he died, but not completely.
In accordance with the teachings of Judaism, I believe that when I said the prayer for the dead called the kaddish every day for almost a year after my father's death, whatever merit attached to the saying of that prayer redounded to the benefit of his soul during his judgment time in the World to Come. My father taught me this prayer, and so it is to his credit, even after death.
In any event, I may be a rabbi, but I believe our souls are indeed judged. I deeply admire and respect the teachings of Catholicism.