Why Do Catholics Pray for the Dead?

Why Do Catholics Pray for the Dead? November 12, 2022


“Why Do Catholics Pray for the Dead?”


A Catholic News Agency feature for All Saints’ Day with the above headline was written by senior Rome Correspondent Hannah Brockhaus. One of The Guy’s colleagues immediately critiqued that wording because Eastern Orthodox Christians likewise pray for the dead, although in a different mode from Catholics, as we’ll see.

Perhaps the appropriate question should instead be: Why don’t Protestants pray for the dead when these other Christians do?

There’s long-established history behind the practice of Christians during their earthly life praying to benefit fellow believers who are dead. This was commended by revered theologians of the early church and by the early 5th Century, St. Augustine said “the whole Church observes this practice which was handed down by the Fathers.” He stated that through parishioners’ prayers, Masses, and donations, “there is no doubt that the dead are aided, that the Lord might deal more mercifully with them than their sins would deserve.”

The modern Orthodox catechism “The Living God” (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press) teaches that just as Jesus and St. Stephen prayed for forgiveness even for the people who were executing them, so “the prayer of the righteous can also help to obtain forgiveness for a sinner even if he is already dead.”

At this point, Protestants will object that the Bible does not teach such a concept. Their founding principle of sola scriptura means Christian beliefs are defined solely by explicit teachings in Scripture and not by church traditions, even ones that are longstanding and deep-seated.

This raises the important difference among these three branches of Christianity over the text of the Bible. Protestantism from its beginnings adopted Judaism’s official list of the books in what Christians speak of as the “Old Testament.” Catholic and Orthodox Bibles follow a different list from ancient Jews with added “deuterocanonical” books. One of these extra books provides these churches the one biblical example of such a practice, in 2 Maccabees 12:38-45.

In the second century before New Testament times, Judas Maccabeus led a revolt against Syrian occupiers who required Jews to worship pagan gods and defiled the Jerusalem Temple with an idol. (Judaism’s Hannukah season celebrates the overthrow of Syria’s offensive religious tyranny.) After one pivotal battle, it was discovered that dead Jewish soldiers were wearing pagan amulets, a major sin against the one true God. Therefore, Judas collected offering money “sent to Jerusalem to provide for an expiatory sacrifice.” This expressed belief in the resurrection, “for if he were not expecting the fallen to rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead….Thus he made atonement for the dead that they might be absolved from their sin.”

In Orthodox liturgy, the church prays not only for “rest to the souls” of the deceased but, as in Maccabees, that God will pardon “every transgression which they have committed, whether by word or deed or thought.” The Orthodox catechism cites the prayers of saints in heaven in Revelation 5:8 and 8:3 to affirm the shared spiritual communion between Christians in this life and those who are “away from the body and home with the Lord.”

Catholicism adds to that the dogma of Purgatory, which was formulated after the great 11th Century split with Orthodoxy at the ecumenical Councils of Florence (1439) and Trent (1545-1563). Purgatory is defined as an intermediate state following death where souls that have been saved undergo punishment for sins to be purified and enter Heaven in the presence of a righteous God. Catholicism uniquely includes a system of granting “indulgences” in response to parishioners’ prayers, Masses, good works and donations that can mitigate sufferings and shorten the time individuals spend in Purgatory.

Orthodoxy does not teach any of this, and Protestant creeds either omit all mention of Purgatory or specifically reject it.

Indulgences were the issue that originally sparked the Protestant break from the papacy. On All Saints’ Eve of 1517, Martin Luther’s “95 Theses” asserted that this system had become an evil means to simply raise money that distorted Christian belief. He also insisted that “the penitential canons are imposed only on the living and, according to them, nothing should be imposed on the dying,”

Catholicism’s later Council of Trent denounced as blasphemy the “illicit profits” that some had obtained in this way. Trent also condemned with anathema those who denied the church’s power to grant indulgences. Catholic writers note that early on Luther expressed his own continued belief in Purgatory. But he opposed the indulgence system and soon specified that Purgatory is not found in the Bible and cannot be a required belief.

Some Catholic writers find support for Purgatory in a difficult text from St. Paul, 1 Corinthians 3:12-15: “The work of each will come to light, for the Day [i.e. of Judgment] will disclose it. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each one’s work. . . . If someone’s work is burned up, that one will suffer loss; the person will be saved, but only as through fire.” The Catholic Study Bible, issued with church imprimatur, comments that this passage “has sometimes been used to support the notion of purgatory, though it does not envision this.”

The church’s current belief and rules for indulgences are elaborated in the Code of Canon Law and an apostolic constitution issued by Pope Paul VI in 1967, which dropped the former specifics on remission of days and years of punishment. The church states that its indulgences draw upon the merits of an infinite “treasury” of prayers and good works built up by the Virgin Mary and all other saints. “In this way they attained their own salvation and at the same time cooperated in saving their brothers in the unity of the Mystical Body.” For Catholicism, control over indulgences is part of the “keys of the kingdom” and the power of binding and loosing that Jesus granted St. Peter and his successors as pope  (see Matthew 16:19).

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