Ask Father Leo: Questions on purgatory and the issues with cohabitation

Dear Fr. Leo,
I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around the idea of purgatory. I believe in a just and merciful God, but this doctrine feels like it forgets that God’s perfect justice was shown by Jesus’ sacrifice, thus also showing His perfect mercy toward all men. While, ultimately, I do believe there is a place (purgatory) of atonement for righteous, but “imperfectly purified” souls (again demonstrating God’ mercy), there’s a problem for me with the heavenly math. If souls in purgatory require prayers from the rest of us to get to heaven and God is timeless, then how is it that God doesn’t act on behalf of those receiving these prayers, even outside of time? –  R
Dear R,
Excellent questions! It is important here to distinguish between the souls in purgatory needing our prayers as opposed to them benefiting from our prayers.  If we believe in an all-powerful, all-merciful God (and we do!), the souls in purgatory do not need our prayers for salvation. As the Book of Wisdom says, “The souls of the just are in the hands of God.” (Wisdom 3:1). Everyone in purgatory goes to heaven.  Period.   However, they can and do benefit from our prayers.
One way to think of purgatory is to liken it to Homecoming. There is the game and the fancy dinner dance afterwards.  Now, I don’t know about you, but when I was in high school, it always seemed to rain at the Homecoming game. It was fun, but it was messy! Now, if you were a player on the field or in the band, or even in the stands, would you go straight from the mess on the stadium to the fancy dinner dance?  No, of course not! There is that intermediate step where you go to the locker room, take off your gear, hit the showers, get your fancy clothes on, comb your hair, and whatnot.  Then, when you are presentable, you go to the dance.
Purgatory is kind of like that. It’s a stage of purification where God’s love cleanses us of all we may have been clinging to, or that is clinging to us, that is not worthy to enter heaven, the ultimate Homecoming. To run with the analogy a bit farther, God can do all the scrubbing of the souls himself, but we can help them out as well.  Say your buddy asks you to bring him a towel or toss him the soap. You can make the process that much easier if you give him a hand.
Here’s another example. Say you are on your way to the Homecoming dance in your car.  As you go along, you see your buddy walking to the dance on the side of the road. It’s a nice day and not that far.  He will make it in due time.  However, how much better if you offer him a ride. Strictly speaking, he doesn’t need a lift.  He will get there eventually.  However, he can greatly benefit if you give him a ride.
Our prayers for the Church being purified are like that. God can do it all himself, of course. But how much better if we join with God in the work of grace.
Dear Fr. Leo,
It is becoming more common that Catholics are giving into the cultural norm of having sex before marriage and living together, “to see if it works.” I have searched the bible for anything that supports NOT doing that.  I know the church has a position.  I just want to know what it is.  Could you please clear this up for me? – S
Dear S,
Sure.  First, a simple Google search of “biblical prohibition of sex outside of marriage” will yield over 14 million results.
Shacking up and having sex outside of marriage is always a bad idea, and not just for spiritual or moral reasons. Citing numerous studies, psychologist Therese DiDonato, Ph.D., has written several articles in Psychology Today as to why cohabitation is a bad idea.
“Substantial evidence associates cohabitation with negative relationship outcomes. Pre-marital cohabitation is viewed as a risk factor for divorce as it predicts later marital instability, poorer marriage quality, and less relationship satisfaction (Kamp, Dush, Cohan, & Amato, 2003; Stanley et al., 2004). Compared to married couples, cohabiting couples argue more, have more trouble resolving conflicts, are more insecure about their partners’ feelings, and have more problems related to their future goals (Hsueh, Rhabar, Morrison, & Doss, 2009).” – Psychology Today, July 25, 2014.
It’s hardly surprising. If you think about it, the essential characteristics of marriage are permanence and indissolubility. In a word, marriage is about commitment.  Cohabitation is just the opposite. It is characterized by a lack of commitment. Where there is no commitment, somebody is going to get hurt.  To expect the benefits of a committed, married relationship without making the commitment only leads to frustration.
By contrast, the Sacrament of Marriage is a living sign of God’s love and God’s faithfulness in the midst of the Church and the world. The freedom of a permanent, committed relationship gives the couple the freedom to love unconditionally, to mirror God’s faithfulness and its fruitfulness. Love by its very nature is lifegiving. It’s no coincidence that within the context of the Sacrament of Marriage, sexual union becomes both the beautiful act by which the marriage covenant is renewed and by which children are conceived. As Dr. Scott Hahn once said, “We are talking about a love so intense in its expression, nine months later you may have to give it a name!”


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