I had lunch with a Baptist friend of mine, who was troubled about CCC 1271. Yeah, he’d been reading the Catechism (which puts him ahead of a lot of Catholics). He was very uncomfortable with the idea that the Eucharistic Sacrifice is offered for the faithful departed that they might enter Heaven. It had everything – the Eucharist, prayers for the dead, purgatory, and a seeming emphasis on works instead of faith. Of course, it’s directly faith here, but I can see why this would be a general “yikes!” moment for Protestants. Here’s my best explanation of why we believe this to be so. I put aside two major issues: the point of justification (Baptism v. moment of belief) and the Eucharist, because those weren’t really his question. It was more just, why pray for the faithful departed at all, if Christ saved us once and for all on the Cross? Here’s my response:
I. The “Once for All” Sacrifice of Christ Can Be Applied as Often as Necessary
All of our forgiveness has a single source: the Sacrifice of Christ on the Cross in c. 33 A.D. There can be, and are, multiple applications of that same Infinite source, without diminishing it. So, for example, every sinner who turns to Christ for forgiveness is forgiven at that moment. They went from being unsaved to saved, and Christ doesn’t have to re-die for that to be possible. I think we agree on this point. Both of us say that at least once in our lives, this application has occurred, either in our initial point of belief, or in our Baptism.
II. Post-Justification Sins: Mortal and Venial.
After you believe and are baptized, there’s still the possibility of sin. That’s why we pray daily for forgiveness in the Our Father (Matthew 6:12-13). And note that the forgiveness we pray for is even conditional on an action of our own: “as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
Now, post-justification sin takes two forms. Mortal, or deadly, sin re-separates us from Christ. If we do one of these sins, we risk damnation. This is the situation I’ve argued Simon the Sorcerer was in. He believed and was Baptized (Acts 8:12), which is exactly what it takes to get saved (Mark 16:16). In other words, the plain language of Scripture teaches up that he got saved. But after that, he sinned (Acts 8:18-19), and became resnared by sin (Acts 8:20-23). This is also the situation of the heretics in 2 Peter 2. They were ransomed by Christ, and then denied Him, earning damnation (2 Peter 2:1). Like the angels who fell from Heaven, they fell from grace (2 Peter 2:4). 2 Peter 2:20-22 says that they had escaped corruption by knowing Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (it explicitly points to their washing, in v. 22), but became re-entangled in sin, and are worse off than before they were saved. So these are all cases where someone was “once saved,” but isn’t saved any longer. But that doesn’t mean each and every sin cuts a believer off from Christ, or we’d all be damned.
Venial sin isn’t deadly to a Christian (it is to a non-Christian). So, James 5:16-17 says that:
If anyone sees his brother sinning, if the sin is not deadly, he should pray to God and he will give him life. This is only for those whose sin is not deadly. There is such a thing as deadly sin, about which I do not say that you should pray.
All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that is not deadly.
So two conditions: it must be a brother in Christ (that is, a Christian), and the sin must not be mortal. If the person isn’t a believer, they’re not saved. If the person is a believer, but commits unrepented-of mortal sin, they’re not saved (that’s Simon, and the heretics of 2 Peter 2, again). But most believers commit venial sins – sins which aren’t enough to cut us off from Christ, but which are still sins.
Here’s why venial sins matter. Revelation 21:27 says that “nothing impure” will ever enter Heaven. We are purified by Christ at the point of initial justification, yet we re-dirty ourselves through subsequent sin. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t need to ask for forgiveness. So we still need to be re-forgiven (since we’ve re-sinned), but we don’t need to be re-baptized. That’s what Jesus suggests in John 13:10, as well – those who have already “had a bath” (been baptized) don’t need another bath. They just need their feet washed (the removal of the dirt which builds up every day).
But what about those Christians who die in a state of venial sin? They’re saved (because they’re Christian believers, not cut off from Christ by mortal sin), but are not completely cleansed of sin (since they’ve sinned since Baptism, and not turned to God for forgiveness of these venial sins). They cannot yet enter Heaven, because they have impurities, and nothing impure enters Heaven. 1 Corinthians 3:10-15 describes the process as a fiery purgation. Paul is dealing only with believers, who have the foundation of Christ. Some of them build upon this foundation well, with gold, silver, and costly stones; others build upon it poorly, with wood, hay, and straw. On the Day of Judgment, each man’s “work” (Paul’s term), “will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work.” He continues, “If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.”
So Christians who have a foundation of Christ, but build upon it poorly, with a life of unrepented venial sins, will be saved, but will suffer loss (after death, you’ll note, from the context). These are the “fires of purgatory.” We’re being purged of our impurities, not out of God’s wrath, but out of His Goodness (since we don’t want those sins in us anyways). Hebrews 12:5-11 says that it’s precisely His children who God painfully rebukes and disciplines. Catholics view purgatory as more of the same – God is rebuking and disciplining the saved, to prepare them for Heaven, since they’ll be perfect by the time they enter Heaven. Note that God rebuking and disciplining us doesn’t diminish Christ’s Sacrifice. Or put better, Christ’s Sacrifice doesn’t eliminate the need for God’s rebuke and discipline. In fact, Hebrews says it’s only the saved who need rebuke and discipline. Hebrews 12:8 says that God doesn’t do this with the damned because there’s no point, and v. 10 says that this is necessary “that we may share in His holiness.”
III. CCC 1371 is Soundly Biblical, and Comports with Historical Christianity
This gets us (finally) to the initial question. CCC 1371 says that “the Eucharistic sacrifice is also offered for the faithful departed who ‘have died in Christ but are not yet wholly purified,’ so that they may be able to enter into the light and peace of Christ.” It then provides two quotes from two prominent early Christians supporting this. The first is from St. Monica, quoted favorably by her son, St. Augustine, in his book Confessions. Augustine lived from 354-430 A.D., and is one of the Fathers of Western Christianity. He’s one of the two greatest theologians since St. Paul (the other being St. Thomas Aquinas). His mother, St. Monica, was born in 331. The second quote is by St. Cyril of Jerusalem (313-386 A.D.). To put this in historical context, these are two prominent Christians discussing prayers for the dead before the Nicene Creed as we know it is even completed. This is ancient Christianity. It also pre-dates Christianity. We see prayers for the dead explicitly in 2 Maccabees 12:43-45. A few things you should note. First, Jews at the time of Christ believed these books were canonical, and He never refuted them. He even quoted, on numerous ocassions, from the Greek version of the Old Testament, which contained these books as Scripture. Second, the early Christians nearly all believed that this book was canonical. Even those who thought that they weren’t viewed the books as edifying and orthodox (the question was only whether they were inspired, and/or whether they should be read in Church). So there was basic unanimity on the idea that prayers for the dead are healthy and right.
In conclusion, we pray for those who died in venial sin (just as James 5:16-17 says to) that they may enter into the light and peace of Christ – that is, that the discipline of God may be short, merciful, and successful in achieving the goals which Hebrews 18:10 says it is intended for (to share in the holiness of Christ forever). Hope that helps!