Diana WALSH PASULKA. Heaven Can Wait: Purgatory in Catholic Devotional and Popular Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. pp. 207+x. $29.95 hb. ISBN 978-0-1953-8202-0. Reviewed by Ryan MARR, Mercy College of Health Sciences, Des Moines, IA 50309

Diana Walsh Pasulka begins her 200-page book about purgatory with the story of an Ursuline nun, named Sister Mary, who works in a college campus ministry and does not believe that purgatory is a doctrine of the Church anymore. Midway through an informal lecture given by Pasulka to a group of students, Sister Mary intervened to inform those gathered that purgatory conceived as a post-mortem experience is an outmoded doctrine, and that if we are to retain any semblance of the concept it should be “interpreted as being here on earth” (4). Pasulka shares this story as evidence of an existing disparity between official church teaching on purgatory and beliefs about it held by the faithful. According to Pasulka, this disparity is not a phenomenon that has only manifested itself recently. To the contrary, theological debates about how best to understand purgatory have been a consistent feature in Western Christianity since the advent of the medieval era, and lay Catholics have felt quite comfortable either in rejecting elements of official teaching or going beyond it in exuberant displays of folk devotion. In fact, during most of the Church’s history, there appears to have been more disagreement than consensus among Roman Catholics concerning this doctrine.

Pasulka locates the primary source of this disagreement in what she refers to as “the materiality of purgatory,” which she identifies as “its most persistent and problematic feature” (23). By the “materiality of purgatory,” Pasulka has in mind the idea that, although the doctrine refers to a supernatural phenomenon, purgatory has rarely been conceived of as a purely spiritual experience. That is to say, at various points throughout history, purgatory has been represented as “a spiritual state associated with non-corporeal souls,” but one in which these same souls have the capacity to feel the pain inflicted by purgative fire and, in some cases, to leave physical evidence of their experience as a testimony for the living (ibid.). Additionally, during certain eras in specific parts of the world, devout Catholics have believed that purgatory could be directly accessed through an earthly entrance—the most famous being a cave on the island of Lough Derg in Ireland, commonly referred to as St. Patrick’s Purgatory. While popular devotion at this site has remained steady, the precise expression of this devotion has changed over time. Today, thousands of pilgrims continue to flock to Lough Derg annually, though popular belief in the cave being an entrance to purgatory has all but disappeared.

The transformation that this specific devotion has undergone, Pasulka posits, relates to a broader shift in understandings of purgatory at the level of the universal Church. Specifically, Pasulka traces what she sees as a shift away from purgatory’s status as “a physical place of tactile punishment to its status as being perceived as a… ‘process,’ devoid of spatiality” (ibid.). As a further consequence of this shift, the purgative process has come to be viewed as “more gentle” and less punitive (7). This shift is particularly evident in papal treatments of the doctrine. Since the time of Pope Pius IV (rd. 1559-1565) up through the papacy of Benedict XVI (rd. 2005-2013), popes have generally discouraged speculation about the materiality and spatiality of purgatory, upholding instead the notion of purgatory as “a condition of existence” (to borrow a phrase from John Paul II). From Pasulka’s vantage point, this “spiritualizing” of purgatory has become a broader trend in Catholic theological conversations since the nineteenth century, as certain devotional expressions around the doctrine came to be viewed as incongruous with a scientific worldview. By framing purgatory as a state of being, Catholics could retain traditional ideas about the role of suffering in the process of spiritual growth without having to defend the idea of a place where individuals who have died suffer pains inflicted by a literal fire.

According to Pasulka, not all Catholics have embraced this shift. In support of this claim, Pasulka provides an overview of several active Catholic apostolates who are attempting to reassert, in her words, “the empirical aspects of purgatory” (147). In her interactions with the leaders of these apostolates, Pasulka has sensed an underlying uneasiness with the changes brought about by the Second Vatican Council. She writes: “Although many of the leaders of the movement emphatically align themselves with the magisterium of the Church and the decisions of its hierarchy, they voice an implicit, and often explicit, criticism of Vatican II” (145). In the view of these Catholics, at Vatican II the Church’s leadership effectively reconciled itself with Enlightenment values, initiating a cultural shift within the Church that placed greater emphasis on worldly affairs over and against concerns about the supernatural, such as what happens to persons after they die. Consequently, the ethos of the contemporary Church is “apathetic to belief in purgatory” (159). When contemporary Catholics, especially those living in Europe and North America, do stop to reflect upon the afterlife, they tend to assume that those who die immediately go to either heaven or hell—the vast majority of them, it is supposed, reaching heaven. For these reasons, prayers and penances offered on behalf of deceased loved ones are far less likely to play a central role in the devotional lives of Catholics today than they have in previous eras of Christian history. The members of these apostolates fit into the historical pattern that Pasulka highlights, in that their understanding of purgatory is related to, but does not directly match the theological guidance of ecclesiastical leadership.

More seasoned scholars of purgatory might challenge certain elements of Pasulka’s narrative. Such challenges are bound to arise in response to a monograph that covers as broad a range of historical periods as Pasulka’s does. The merit of Pasulka’s work, however, does not ultimately rest upon whether its interpretation of history can completely withstand all challenges. Its merit, rather, is grounded in the wealth of fascinating material on theological and devotional traditions related to the doctrine of purgatory that Pasulka has amassed. The breadth of Pasulka’s survey, as well as the accessibility of her writing style, makes Heaven Can Wait an ideal option for use in the classroom. In a 300- or 400-level course on eschatology, for example, this book could be assigned as a discussion starter leading into more systematic reflection on purgatory, and would likely pique students’ curiosity more readily than, say, a selection from a catechetical text or conciliar document. Pasulka’s monograph might also serve as a useful entry point into a historical study of Catholic devotional life at the level of folk piety.  

If Pasulka’s work were to be used as a textbook, however, the instructor would want to clarify a few points where Pasulka’s analysis is a bit imprecise. For example, in chapter four Pasulka claims that, “Many [English Protestant] considered [John Henry] Newman, and other members of The Oxford Movement, to be secret agents of the pope. In response to these accusations Newman published Apologia Pro Vita Sua (A Defense of the Author’s Life), which outlines the reasons for his eventual conversion” (119). While the Apologia did outline the reasons behind Newman’s conversion to Roman Catholicism, he published the book not to defend himself against the charge of being a secret agent of the pope, but specifically in response to Charles Kingsley’s accusation that Roman clergy were willing to dispense with the truth for the sake of expediency.

A slighter imprecision shows up in the introduction to the book, where Pasulka claims that in the late 1980s Pope John Paul II came to recognize that “the Tridentine liturgy, or the Roman Rite in its extraordinary form (Latin), was important for many who had grown up with it, and for many within the Catholic hierarchy, such as the followers of [Marcel] Lefebvre” (14). Using the phrase “extraordinary form” in this instance is anachronistic, since this terminology did not enter ecclesiastical parlance until the promulgation of Benedict XVI’s motu proprio Summorum Pontficum in 2007. Furthermore, what distinguishes the so-called Tridentine liturgy from the reformed liturgy is not the use of Latin, which is permitted in the Novus Ordo as well, but the precise prayers and rubrics of the older form of the rite. These minor hiccups, though, do not detract from the overall quality of Pasulka’s work. The reader who dives into Heaven Can Wait will be well-rewarded with a fascinating and insightful overview of the history of purgatory in Catholic devotional and popular culture. I highly recommend the book.