From painful prison to hopeful purification : changing images of purgatory in selected U.S. Catholic periodicals, 1909-1960

Date of Award


Degree Name

Ph.D. in Theology


Department of Religious Studies


Advisor: William L. Portier


Prior to 1960, U.S. Catholic periodicals regularly featured articles on the topic of purgatory, especially in November, the month for remembering the dead. Over the next three decades were very few articles on the topic. The dramatic decrease in the number of articles concerning purgatory reflected changes in theology, practice, and society. This dissertation argues that the decreased attention to the doctrine was the result of changing images associated with the doctrine. Throughout the history of the doctrine, images varied between those that emphasized purgatory as a painful prison for the dead and those images that emphasized hopeful purification or growth as an image of purgatory. The contrasting images tended to induce fear or hope and were associated with liturgical practices such as funeral liturgies and extreme unction." As theologians of the twentieth century retrieved patristic and biblical sources of these and other practices, the images of souls in a painful prison were replaced with the more hopeful images. Changes in the understanding of and practices associated with purgatory over the course of two millennia are analyzed using five recurring themes: the nature of purgatory, the inhabitants of purgatory, time associated with purgatory, connections between the living and the dead, and practices associated with purgatory. The sources of material about purgatory are divided into five categories: official Church teaching, popular understanding, narratives, theological reflections, and practices. All of these sources and themes can be found in the periodicals of the twentieth century. America, Ave Maria, Ecclesiastical Review/ American Ecclesiastical Review, Liguorian, Homiletics and Pastoral Review, and Oratre Fratres/ Worship all contain articles about purgatory, especially in the month of November. Some of these periodicals addressed a predominantly lay audience and some targeted a predominantly clerical audience. The images of suffering souls are frequently used to encourage prayers to alleviate their suffering. As the hopeful images became more normative, the urgency of praying for the deceased lessened. The decreased attention to purgatory occurred prior to Vatican II. Concurrent with the changing images of purgatory was a changing U.S. Catholic identity. As Catholics become more affluent, the culture of suffering seemed irrelevant. As the upwardly mobile Catholics moved to the comforts of the suburbs from the challenges of city neighborhoods, the images of purgatory also changed. Practices evolved so that there was less need to pray for the dead and, therefore, less sense of connection with the dead. This seems to be an unintended consequence of the changing images. Theologically the retrieval of eschatology as central to the message of Jesus pushed the traditional notions of Last Things to the margins. The theology of Vatican II reflected a shift in eschatology from the next world to this world and from individual salvation to corporate salvation. Images of fire as hopeful purification at the moment of death become part of the theological discussion after Vatican II."


Catholic Church United States Theology 20th century, Catholic Church Periodicals, Vatican Council (2nd : 1962-1965 : Basilica di San Pietro in Vaticano) Influence, Purgatory History of doctrines 20th century, Theology; purgatory; ressourcement; U.S. Catholic periodicals; eschatology; devotionalism; religious practices

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Copyright 2013, author