In Search of the “Romish Doctrine” of Purgatory [Commentary on Browne: Article XXII (2)]

In the previous commentary, it was established that some versions of the Book of Common Prayer still used by traditional Anglicans require (or at least allow) prayers for the dead, on the basis that the faithful departed are capable of spiritual growth and purification. It might initially appear that this belief in purification—that is to say, purgation—after death violates Article XXII, which condemns “the Romish doctrine concerning purgatory.” Whether this is so depends on to what, precisely, “the Romish doctrine concerning purgatory” refers.

There are two common approaches to interpreting this key phrase: the first holds that the “Romish doctrine” of purgatory is that which was articulated by the Council of Trent. This is how Browne reads the phrase “Romish doctrine,” as evidenced by his statement on how this language should be understood with reference to invocation of the saints: “Our Article especially condemns the ‘Romish doctrine’ of invocation of saints, for which, of course, we must consult the decrees of the Council of Trent.”[1] Given that Trent’s decree concerning purgatory affirms little about it beyond its existence, those who take this approach tend to believe that the Article thereby condemns any and all doctrines of purgatory. The second approach maintains that the “Romish doctrine” of purgatory cannot possibly refer to the Council of Trent because the current version of the Article—wherein “the Romish doctrine” replaced “the doctrine of school authors,” the latter phrase having been drafted previously in the Forty-two Articles of 1553—was approved by Convocation in January of 1563, whereas the Council of Trent’s decree concerning purgatory is dated December 4 of that same year.[2] The “Romish doctrine” of purgatory is therefore thought to refer to “a current and corrupt practice in the Latin or Western Church,”[3] the implication being that the Article “does not condemn all doctrine that may be called a doctrine of purgatory.”[4]

One would be forgiven for thinking that advocates of the second approach have an airtight case for identifying the referent of “the Romish doctrine concerning purgatory” as something other than the teaching of the Council of Trent, given that the decree concerning purgatory was issued months after this version of the Article was approved. However, the question is complicated by the fact that mentions of purgatory are not confined to the decree of Trent specifically devoted to the topic. In fact, some Anglican commentators, upon identifying the teaching of the Council of Trent as the referent for “the Romish doctrine concerning purgatory,” locate this teaching in entirely different parts of the Council’s proceedings, issued before the Article was revised to speak of “the Romish doctrine concerning purgatory.” For example, Bishop Burnet, while acknowledging that “the formal decree concerning [purgatory] was made some months after these Articles were published,” notes that “the decree and canons concerning the mass had passed at Trent, in which most of the heads of this Article are either affirmed or supposed.”[5] Accordingly, in the twenty-second session of the Council of Trent, we find the following: “Not only for the sins, punishments, satisfactions, and other necessities of the faithful who are living, but also for those who are departed in Christ, and who are not as yet fully purified, is [the mass] rightly offered, agreeably to a tradition of the apostles.”[6] Similarly, William Baker states that “the Romish doctrine of purgatory is thus authoritatively defined by the Council of Trent,”[7] and proceeds to quote a canon from the sixth session, concerning justification: “If any one saith, that, after the grace of Justification has been received, to every penitent sinner the guilt is remitted, and the debt of eternal punishment is blotted out in such wise, that there remains not any debt of temporal punishment to be discharged either in this world, or in the next in Purgatory, before the entrance to the kingdom of heaven be opened (to him); let him be anathema.”[8]

These two allusions, incidental as they are, tell us more about “the Romish doctrine concerning purgatory” than the formal decree on the subject—purgatory is a place or state in which the faithful departed are purified via “punishments” and “satisfactions,” which punishments are of a temporal nature, “the debt of eternal punishment” having been “blotted out” by “the grace of Justification.” In comparison, the decree concerning purgatory is quite understated:

Whereas the Catholic Church, instructed by the Holy Ghost, has, from the sacred writings and the ancient tradition of the Fathers, taught, in sacred councils, and very recently in this œcumenical Synod, that there is a Purgatory, and that the souls there detained are helped by the suffrages of the faithful, but principally by the acceptable sacrifice of the altar; the holy Synod enjoins on bishops that they diligently endeavour that the sound doctrine concerning Purgatory, transmitted by the holy Fathers and sacred councils, be believed, maintained, taught, and every where proclaimed by the faithful of Christ. But let the more difficult and subtle questions, and which tend not to edification, and from which for the most part there is no increase of piety, be excluded from popular discourses before the uneducated multitude. In like manner, such things as are uncertain, or which labour under an appearance of error, let them not allow to be made public and treated of. While those things which tend to a certain kind of curiosity or superstition, or which savour of filthy lucre, let them prohibit as scandals and stumbling-blocks of the faithful. But let the bishops take care, that the suffrages of the faithful who are living, to wit the sacrifices of masses, prayers, alms, and other works of piety, which have been wont to be performed by the faithful for the other faithful departed, be piously and devoutly performed, in accordance with the institutes of the church; and that whatsoever is due on their behalf, from the endowments of testators, or in any other way, be discharged, not in a perfunctory manner, but diligently and accurately, by the priests and ministers of the church, and others who are bound to render this (service).[9]

Beyond the fact that purgatory exists, and that those in purgatory are somehow “helped by the suffrages of the faithful, but principally by the sacrifice of the mass,” we are told nothing. This dearth of substance has led at least one commentator to doubt that the Article’s condemnation of “the Romish doctrine concerning purgatory” could plausibly refer to the teaching of Trent: “The decrees on these particular subjects, which were published during the last session of the Council in December 1563, were drawn up in studied moderation, and some of the strong language of our Article could hardly be truthfully said to apply to the doctrine as stated in them.”[10] However, it has already been shown that other portions of Trent’s proceedings speak of purgatory more concretely, even though the subject is mentioned only in passing.

To summarize, although it is true that the Council’s decree concerning purgatory had not been issued at the time the Article condemning the “Romish doctrine” of purgatory was approved, it is nonetheless possible to discern a distinct teaching from Trent on the subject prior to the formal decree. It is therefore unconvincing to suggest that the Article cannot be referring to the Council of Trent’s teaching in speaking of “the Romish doctrine concerning purgatory.” The import of this conclusion should not be misunderstood, however—it is precisely because the framers of the Article as it currently stands had available to them clearer intimations of the Romish conception of purgatory as understood by the Council of Trent, prior to the more veiled decree concerning purgatory, that it is possible to simultaneously affirm both that “the Romish doctrine concerning purgatory” refers to the teaching of Trent and that the particular target of this phrase was popular corruptions embodied in that teaching. Hence it does not necessarily follow, as T. P. Boultbee claims it does, that “the prohibition of our Church is the more absolute against the whole system [of purgatory] and not against some of its details[11] simply because the decree concerning purgatory is “cautiously worded” and does not mention such details. To reiterate, other portions of Trent’s proceedings speak of purgatory more concretely, and we can discern from them that the popular corruptions upheld by Trent and condemned by the Article are the idea that the faithful departed undergo suffering and punishment, and that the living can offer relief through masses, prayers, alms, and indulgences.[12]

This belief that “the state of the faithful departed is one of suffering” has rightly been called the “root error” of the Romish doctrine of purgatory, for it is upon this notion that the abuse of soliciting money in exchange for masses and indulgences on behalf of the deceased is predicated.[13] Small wonder, then, that many Anglican authors expressly deny that the faithful departed undergo suffering or punishment, as does Browne: “Under the IIId Article we saw that the Jews and the early Christians uniformly believed in an intermediate state between death and judgment. But their language and expectations, at least those of the earliest fathers, are inconsistent with a belief that any of the pious were in a state of suffering.”[14] This denial is typically supported by passages of Scripture such as Luke 23:43 (“Today thou shalt be with me in paradise”) and Revelation 14:13, the latter of which Browne invokes as follows:

All the other “terrors of the Lord” are put forth in their strongest light “to persuade men;” but this [i.e., purgatory], which would be naturally so powerful, and which has been made so much of in after-times, is never brought forward by the Apostles. Nay! St. John declares that he had an express revelation concerning the present happiness of those, that sleep in Jesus, namely, that they were blessed and at rest.[15]

For this reason, “the Romish doctrine concerning purgatory”—which at its core posits that the faithful departed undergo suffering and punishment—is rejected by the Article, as are its consequent abuses, chief among them pardons and indulgences. Yet, as mentioned in the previous commentary, a number of Anglican authors have acknowledged the possibility of spiritual growth among the faithful departed:

We may perhaps believe that the Intermediate State in the case of those, who have departed this life in God’s holy fear, is a state of purification and preparation for the Beatific Vision and the life of heaven, and that many, whose conversion here is maimed and imperfect, may by purgation ripen to such a degree of perfection as they are capable of, before they can endure the presence of God.[16]

This spiritual growth or purification is a kind of purgatory, not to say the “Romish doctrine” of purgatory. Indeed, “The name ‘Purgatory’ does not itself mean more than a place of some kind of purification.”[17] Given its popular association with Romanism, however, it is advised not to use the term when speaking within an Anglican context.[18]

Now some Anglicans who affirm spiritual purification in the faithful departed believe that such purification must be accompanied by suffering. As C. S. Lewis puts it, “I assume that the process of purification will normally involve suffering. Partly from tradition; partly because most real good that has been done me in this life has involved it.”[19] Others speculate that while “the state of the faithful departed [is] primarily one of rest and refreshment,” disciplinary suffering is also experienced.[20] As we have seen, though, “There is no indisputable evidence in Scripture of suffering after death for those who die in grace, in a state of salvation. On the contrary, the dominant aspect of the biblical hints concerning their state is that of rest, comfort, and peace.”[21] In addition, “The doctrine of suffering in Purgatory is plainly not divinely revealed, and in spite of its Western acceptance has no ecumenical authority. It is purely speculative, and is properly based upon rational inference from experience of the laws of moral development.”[22] These considerations, together with the abuses that have historically arisen in connection with the idea that the faithful departed suffer, should deter Anglicans from entertaining this belief. The possibility of painless purification in the intermediate state is not incoherent[23] and has been put forth as a possible account of the condition of the faithful departed.[24] Moreover, such an account is implicit in the 1928 Prayer Book’s Burial Service, where Revelation 14:13 is required to be read during the service, alongside discretionary prayers for the continued growth of the faithful departed.[25] There is no hint or suggestion that they suffer, thus avoiding the excesses and abuses of the Romish doctrine of purgatory.

All this being said, Anglicans are in no way obligated to believe that the faithful departed undergo spiritual growth or purification, for it is also widely held among Protestants that Christians attain total purification at the moment of death.[26] Indeed, the Westminster Confession maintains this as an article of faith,[27] and it is not my intention to suggest that Anglicans cannot or should not hold this belief themselves. Rather, my object has been to show that the Article can plausibly be undestood as excluding only “the Romish doctrine concerning purgatory,” rather than any and all doctrines of spiritual purification among the faithful departed. Unlike other contrivances and conceits that have been imposed upon the Articles, it is not an unnatural contortion of its language to read Article XXII in this way.

As a brief coda, it should be noted that the doctrine of pardons condemned by the Article logically follows from not only the Romish doctrine of purgatory, but also the doctrine of supererogation. If there are in fact “superabundant merits of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the saints,” then it is not impossible to suppose that the Pope and his ministers can draw upon these merits and grant indulgences as “a remission of the temporal punishment of sins in purgatory.” If, however, these first two doctrines are shown to be false, then, in the words of Browne, “the practice of granting indulgences, which rests on them, must necessarily be condemned.”[28] For this reason, nothing else need be said of them here.


  1. See also Gilbert Burnet, An Exposition of the Thirty-Nine Articles, ed. James R. Page (New York: D. Appleton & Company, 1842), 284; T. P. Boultbee, An Exposition of the Thirty-Nine Articles (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1871), 183‒84; and William Baker, A Plain Exposition of the Thirty-Nine Articles (London: Rivington’s, 1883), 123.
  2. Boultbee, Exposition, 182‒83, and Charles Hardwick, A History of the Articles of Religion, 3rd ed. (London: George Bell & Sons, 1876), 127, 131. See also A. P. Forbes, An Explanation of the Thirty-Nine Articles, 2nd ed. (Oxford and London: James Parker and Co., 1871), 302‒303; John Henry Newman, “Remarks on Certain Passages of the Thirty-Nine Articles,” in The Via Media of the Anglican Church, vol. II (New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1891), 295; Edgar C. S. Gibson, The Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, 2nd ed. (London: Methuen and Co., 1898), 538; B. J. Kidd, The Thirty-Nine Articles: Their History and Explanation (London: Rivington’s, 1899), 189; and E. Tyrrell Green, The Thirty-Nine Articles and the Age of the Reformation, 2nd ed. (London: Wells, Gardner, Darton & Co., 1912), 146‒47.
  3. Forbes, Explanation, 303. See also James Beaven, A Catechism on the Thirty-Nine Articles (Oxford and London: John Henry Parker, 1850), 69‒70; Newman, “Remarks,” 295‒96; G. F. Maclear and W. W. Williams, An Introduction to the Articles of the Church of England (London: Macmillan and Co., 1895), 263n2; Gibson, Thirty-Nine Articles, 538; and Green, Thirty-Nine Articles, 146.
  4. Arthur Fenton Hort, Life and Letters of Fenton John Anthony Hort, vol. II (New York: Macmillan & Co., 1896), 336, italics original. See also Newman, “Remarks,” 294‒97, and Kidd, Thirty-Nine Articles, 193.
  5. Burnet, Exposition, 284, italics original.
  6. J. Waterworth, ed. and trans., The Canons and Decrees of the Sacred and Œcumenical Council of Trent (London: C. Dolman, 1848), Twenty-Second Session, Chapter II, “That the Sacrifice of the Mass is propitiatory both for the living and the dead,” 155,
  7. Baker, Exposition, 123.
  8. Waterworth, Council of Trent, Sixth Session, Canon XXX, 48,
  9. Waterworth, Council of Trent, Twenty-Fifth Session, “Decree Concerning Purgatory,” 232‒33,
  10. Gibson, Thirty-Nine Articles, 538.
  11. Boultbee, Exposition, 186, italics original.
  12. On the affirmation of indulgences, see Waterworth, Council of Trent, Twenty-Fifth Session, “Decree Concerning Indulgences,” 277‒78,
  13. Kidd, Thirty-Nine Articles, 193. See also Kidd, Thirty-Nine Articles, 191; Gibson, Thirty-Nine Articles, 552‒53; and Maclear and Williams, Introduction to the Articles, 268.
  14. See also H. C. O’Donnoghue, A Familiar and Practical Exposition of the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion (London: Taylor and Hessey, 1816), 181; Thomas Waite, Sermons, Explanatory and Practical, on the Thirty-Nine Articles (London: Baldwin, Cradock, and Joy, 1826), 321; and George Tomline, Elements of Christian Theology, 14th ed., vol. II (London: T. Cadell, 1843), 305‒306.
  15. See also O’Donnoghue, Exposition, 182; William Beveridge, An Exposition of the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England (London: James Duncan, 1830), 425; Burnet, Exposition, 289‒90; Tomline, Elements, 306‒307; Piers C. Claughton, A Brief Comparison of the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England with Holy Scripture (Oxford: John Henry Parker, 1843), 74‒75; Baker, Exposition, 125; Robert Louis Cloquet, An Exposition of the Thirty-Nine Articles (London: James Nisbet & Co., 1885), 584; Gibson, Thirty-Nine Articles, 552; Green, Thirty-Nine Articles, 148; and Arthur J. Tait, Lecture Outlines on the Thirty-Nine Articles (London: Elliot Stock, 1910), 153.
  16. Maclear and Williams, Introduction to the Articles, 268. See also Burnet, Exposition, 290; Baker, Exposition, 125‒26; Gibson, Thirty-Nine Articles, 552‒53; Kidd, Thirty-Nine Articles, 191; Darwell Stone, Outlines of Christian Dogma, 3rd ed. (New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1903), 253, 265; Green, Thirty-Nine Articles, 149; John Henry Newman, “The Intermediate State,” in Parochial and Plain Sermons, vol. III (New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1916), 376‒78; E. J. Bicknell, A Theological Introduction to the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, 2nd ed. (New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1925), 348‒49; Edward Arthur Litton, Introduction to Dogmatic Theology, ed. Philip E. Hughes (London: James Clarke and Co., 1960), 314‒19, 562; and Francis J. Hall, Anglican Dogmatics: Francis J. Hall’s Dogmatic Theology, ed. John A. Porter, vol. 2, Bk. X, Eschatology (Nashotah, WI: Nashotah House Press, 2021), 577‒78, 593‒95. According to Jerry L. Walls, this is essentially the Eastern Orthodox account of purgatory as well, understood as “a process of growth and maturation for persons who have not completed the sanctification process” (Heaven: The Logic of Eternal Joy [New York: Oxford University Press, 2002], 52). Some Lutheran dogmatists have also affirmed spiritual growth among the faithful departed. See, e.g., Hans Lassen Martensen, Christian Dogmatics: A Compendium of the Doctrines of Christianity (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1874), 457, and Karl Friedrich August Kahnis, Lutherische Dogmatik, 2nd ed., II, 498, cited in Francis Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, vol. III (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1953), 513. Others, however, have rejected the idea. See, e.g., Henry Eyster Jacobs, A Summary of the Christian Faith (Philadelphia: General Council Publication House, 1905), 491‒92; John Theodore Mueller, Christian Dogmatics (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1934), 618; and Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, 513‒14.
  17. Hall, Anglican Dogmatics, 595.
  18. See Hort, Life and Letters, 336, and Bicknell, Theological Introduction to the Thirty-Nine Articles, 357n1.
  19. C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1964), 109. See also Forbes, Explanation, 344‒45, 348, and Hort, Life and Letters, 336.
  20. Bicknell, Theological Introduction to the Thirty-Nine Articles, 356‒57. See also Hall, Anglican Dogmatics, 596‒97. A comparable belief is said to be held by “our English Papists at Rhemes” in Thomas Rogers, The Catholic Doctrine of the Church of England, ed. J. J. S. Perowne (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1854), 217.
  21. Hall, Anglican Dogmatics, 595.
  22. Hall, Anglican Dogmatics, 596.
  23. Jerry L. Walls, Purgatory: The Logic of Total Transformation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 88.
  24. Newman, “Remarks,” 297.
  25. Protestant Episcopal Church, The Book of Common Prayer (New York: Oxford University Press, 1928), 333‒35.
  26. Walls, Heaven, 53. See also Walls, Purgatory, 6, 43, 56. Unsurprisingly, those who affirm some kind of purification among the faithful departed are skeptical of the idea of instantaneous purification. See, e.g., Gibson, Thirty-Nine Articles, 553; Bicknell, Theological Introduction to the Thirty-Nine Articles, 357; Walls, Heaven, 54; and Hall, Anglican Dogmatics, 593.
  27. “Westminster Confession,” ch. XXXII, sec. I,
  28. See also Waite, Sermons, 324; Beveridge, Exposition, 431; Baker, Exposition, 126; Cloquet, Exposition, 596; and Maclear and Williams, Introduction to the Articles, 270‒71.


James Clark

James Clark is the Book Review Editor at The North American Anglican. His writing has appeared in Cranmer Theological Journal, Journal of Classical Theology, and American Reformer, as well as other publications.

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