–Jim Papandrea, PhD, taught me my course in Church History for my catechectical certification in the Archdiocese of Chicago. I also know him from Holy Family Parish, Inverness, IL.
Q. There are a number of books out on the writings and teachings of the Church Fathers. How is yours different?
A. This book doesn’t just talk about the Church Fathers and their teachings, it demonstrates how the Catholic Faith today is consistent with the faith and teachings of the Church Fathers. One of my goals for this book is to show that continuity, which was one of the things that drew me back to the Church. In my study of the early Church, I realized that what the Catholic Church teaches is pretty much what the early Christians believed, and what the early bishops and theologians taught. And that continuity between the faith of the early Christians and of the Catholic Church today is part of what led me to say, “I have to be part of this.”
Q. Why do you think most Protestants refuse to accept or even consider the writings of the Fathers and the practices of the early Church?
A. I think in general Protestants are gaining an appreciation for the Church Fathers, though it can often be very selective. But there is an assumption within the Protestant mentality—a modernist assumption—that people who lived more recently are necessarily smarter than people who lived a long time ago. That’s an oversimplification of it, but the point is that in many ways the Reformation plays into the Enlightenment idea that what is newer is somehow automatically better than what is older—that cutting ties to a tradition might be better than holding on to the tradition. Again, I’m over-simplifying here, but this allows Protestants today to treat important aspects of the early Church as quaint but outdated and to assume that we now know better. For example, when I teach my Protestant students that the Church has always believed in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, many of them are perfectly comfortable accepting this and yet continuing to hold a theology of the Eucharist that is strictly symbolic or memorialist, without feeling any need to consider that maybe the long history of belief in Real Presence says something about the truth of that doctrine.
Q. Which Church Father has the most to offer the modern-day reader when it comes to giving an overview of how the early Church practiced?
A. That’s a tough question, because all the Fathers offer a different perspective. It would be a little like asking which of the four Gospels has the most to offer when it comes to giving an overview of Jesus’ life. We need all four, because they give us four different perspectives. We also have to remember that, like many of the New Testament documents, the writings of the Fathers were meant to address specific situations, and so we don’t get anything like a systematic theology until the Middle Ages. Personally, I gravitate toward the Western Fathers. For doctrine, Tertullian and Novatian are extremely important, but they were rigorists, and Novatian was eventually a schismatic. So they’re a mixed bag. I like Ambrose and Leo. Many scholars would probably say Augustine, but he had his issues, too, and the Church rejected a significant portion of his teachings (e.g., election). On the other hand, most of the major controversies were in the East, and we can’t understand the results of those doctrinal debates without the likes of Athanasius and Cyril of Alexandria, not to mention the Cappadocians. If I were to suggest some of the writings of the Church Fathers to a modern-day reader who wants a good introduction to the primary sources, I would say begin with some of the earliest ones and their most important or most accessible documents. That would be Justin Martyr (I Apology) and Irenaeus of Lyons (Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching). Other interesting early documents would include the letters of Ignatius of Antioch and the Diary of Perpetua.
Q. Although the doctrine of purgatory isn’t taught explicitly in Scripture, it is referred to implicitly. Give some other examples of current Catholic practices that are found throughout the writings of the Fathers but seem to be absent from Scripture.
A. Most of the Marian doctrines probably fall into this category: the Immaculate Conception, the perpetual virginity, and the Assumption. But in the book I show how they are doctrines that logically result from our beliefs about Christ and that these ideas were already present in the faith of the early Church. The Hail Mary, like purgatory, is one of those things that Protestants might argue is not in Scripture, and yet it is based on Scripture and reflects Catholic understanding of Scripture.
Q. From an apologetic standpoint, are the teachings of the Fathers a good way to break down someone’s adherence to the notion of sola scriptura?
A. It worked with me. To be fair, the Reformers had a healthier view of Scripture and Tradition than people today who hold to a strict version of sola scriptura. But what you find when you study the history of the Church is that sola scripture leads to heresy, since heresy is the result of trying to interpret Scripture out of context, without the checks and balances of Tradition (i.e., interpretive precedent). At the Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325, the Arians were the sola scriptura party. If the Church had held to sola scriptura, it would call into question the doctrine of the Trinity—the very doctrine that defines Christianity. Now, to be clear, the doctrine of the Trinity does come from Scripture, but the word Trinity does not, and our understanding of the Trinity is the result of the interpretation of Scripture. To put it another way, if we held to a strict understanding of sola scriptura, we would not have the Nicene Creed, which is another defining element of Christianity. And yet the Creed is actually a summary of what we learn from Scripture. So to reject the authority of Tradition is to ignore the ways in which our ancestors in the Faith interpreted Scripture and to try to reinvent the wheel and do interpretation in a vacuum, cut off from those who went before us. These are the things you realize when you read the Fathers.
Q. It seems that rejection of authority has always been an issue, from the fall of Adam and Eve to the Arian heresy to the Protestant Reformation and beyond. Taking that rejection into another sphere, would you say that rejection of authority (in this case of the Founding Fathers and the Constitution) has led to a similar outcome in the current moral climate in America?
A. Yes, I think so. But it’s also a rejection of tradition. That same humanist/enlightenment mentality that says what is newer is automatically better, and that people who live now are necessarily more enlightened than those who lived in the ancient world, has led to a kind of relativism that makes the individual his or her own highest authority. None of what came before me—whether it’s authoritative writings (Scripture, the Constitution) or authoritative Tradition—carries as much weight as what I think, because I should have the last word on what is right and wrong, at least for me. If I disagree with the authority or the Tradition, then the authority or Tradition must be wrong and should be changed. That’s the mentality we’re dealing with.
Q. What Did the Church Fathers Say About Purgatory?
A. From a time even before the earliest surviving quotes from the Church Fathers on this subject, we know that the belief in purgatory existed among the grassroots of the faithful. A second-century document known as The Acts of Paul, which contains the story of the “The Acts of Paul and Thecla,” mentions the practice of prayer for the dead in such a way as to imply a belief in purgatory—and it does this as though its readers should not be surprised by it. Although this document is not authoritative for the Church, it does show that as early as the second century, a writer could take it for granted that Christians believed that it was beneficial to pray for the souls of the dead, which also tells us that they believed in purgatory. Another famous document, the Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas, is actually the diary of an early third-century martyr, Perpetua, executed for her faith as public entertainment in an arena in North Africa in the year 203. In this story, as well, it is assumed that those who have died can benefit from the intercession of the living.
Let’s look at what some of the Church Fathers had to say about Purgatory…
St. Cyprian, bishop of Carthage (c. 250)
Cyprian was the bishop of Carthage, in North Africa, during one of the worst and most devastating persecutions the early Church faced at the hands of the Roman Empire. In a letter, he explains the difference between those who are forgiven for their sins by the Church and those who die as martyrs:
“It is one thing to stand for pardon, another thing to attain to glory: it is one thing, when cast into prison, not to go out thence until one has paid the uttermost farthing; another thing at once to receive the wages of faith and courage. It is one thing, tortured by long suffering for sins, to be cleansed and long purged by fire; another to have purged all sins by suffering. It is one thing, in fine, to be in suspense till the sentence of God at the day of judgment; another to be at once crowned by the Lord.”
Cyprian asserts that those who die as martyrs have no need of the purification of purgatory, for they “have purged all sins by suffering,” and “at once receive the wages of faith and courage,” which is, “to be at once crowned by the Lord.” On the other hand, those who do not die as martyrs suffer a different kind of torture, that is, they suffer grief for their sins. They are “tortured by long suffering for sins, to be cleansed and long purged by fire…” This is clearly a reference to purgatory.
Lactantius, lay teacher of North Africa (c. 300)
Similarly, Lactantius wrote that it was possible for a person to reach a point of sanctification in this life which would exempt him from purgatory, but that this was not likely, since for most of us our sins outweigh our goodness.
“But when he shall have judged the righteous, he will also try them with fire. Then they whose sins shall exceed either in weight or in number, shall be scorched by the fire and burnt.”
It would be a mistake to read this as physical fire. Lactantius seems to have understood the fire as “real,” in a way, but he described it as a kind of spiritual fire that would purify souls.
St. Gregory, bishop of Nyssa (c. 380)
Bishop Gregory preached a sermon on the dead, in which he combined his understanding of 1 Corinthians 3:15 with 2 Peter 1:4, which says we “may become partakers of the divine nature.” But, Gregory wrote, no one is “able to partake of divinity until he has been purged.
It should be clear from our brief study that anti-Catholic legends claiming that the concept of purgatory was invented in the early Middle Ages are untrue. There are many other early Church Fathers that could be quoted here, including Hilary of Poitiers, John Chrysostom, and Gregory the Great, but it will suffice to conclude with Augustine.”