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The man who put purgatory on the map

A N Wilson suggests that purgatory only became part of Church doctrine in 1274

By on Friday, 17 June 2011

Last week the publication of Dante in Love by A N Wilson, an Anglican, contradicted the idea that those of the Protestant faith and purgatory do not go together. Wilson’s fascinating book is a poignant reminder of Dante Alighieri’s vivid account of purgatory in The Divine Comedy. Despite the Anglican Church during the Reformation rejecting what it called “the Romish doctrine” of purgatory, Wilson shows that Dante’s epic has been revered by huge numbers of non-Catholics from Gladstone and Coleridge to Pound and Eliot.

Wilson’s book is even dedicated to the Anglican Primate himself, Dr Rowan Williams. The presence of the Archbishop of Canterbury among the sparkling literary throng at the Rebecca Hossack Gallery gave an additional piquancy to the evening. Dr Williams found himself bearded (the appropriate word) by such Catholic literary luminaries as Lady Antonia Fraser and Cristina Odone. He was clearly enjoying himself, finding the experience more paradisal that purgatorial.

Wilson claims that just 26 years after purgatory officially became part of Church doctrine Dante’s epic of sin and salvation “put purgatory on the map”. Many Catholics will, however, dispute Wilson’s dating. Western Catholics generally accept that purgatory goes back to the early Church Fathers. Wilson, though, emphasises that it was not until the second Council of Lyons in 1274 that purgatory was defined as “the place of purification through which souls pass on their way to paradise”.

An argument in favour of this late date is that, despite purgatory being an official Catholic doctrine, it does not have the same importance in the eastern churches. The codification in Lyons was less than two decades prior to the falling of the last Crusader castle at Acre. After the Crusades, Latin influence in the East waned.


After the referendum in Malta which backed a change in legislation to allow couples to divorce, international newspapers claimed that the Philippines would now be the sole country in the world where married couples could not divorce.

The media overlooked the absence of civil Personal Status Law (family law) in the Middle East. In the vast arc stretching around the southern and eastern Mediterranean what law is applicable in terminating a marriage is determined by faith. So if a couple are divorcing or separating in Damascus, Beirut or Jerusalem the code they come under is limited by their religion, whether Muslim, Jewish or Christian. Tunisia and Turkey are the only exceptions.
Conversion facilitating a divorce is the topic of a paper I am giving in Jerusalem at a conference on conversions in the Holy Land. Jonathan Kuttab, a Christian lawyer here, told me: “In the Middle East religion is like an ethnic identity. You don’t have to go to the mosque, go to a church, go on a pilgrimage, to belong to a particular religion. It is a legal and social identity, rather than just a matter of conscience and belief. As it is an issue of real identity and a legal status, it cannot be changed easily. Missionaries are frowned on by communities.”

Explaining why some Catholics and Anglicans quietly convert to another religion so they can divorce, he said: “Only close friends might know. You can still have your Christmas tree. It has nothing to do with faith. They think: ‘I will become a member of another tribe which allows divorce, I return to my church if they let me.’ ”

  • John

    I’ve grown up Catholic but I’ve been greatly influenced by the Orthodox in recent years and I have become very skeptical of the the existance of Purgatory. It is not referenced by Jesus at all and it has only been something enacted by the Church in recent centuries? Why now and not back during the days of the early church fathers?

  • penny

    What Pope Benedict said about purgatory in Spe Salvi struck me; I understood it as explaining that Purgatory is any life-changing, purifying encounter with Christ; and that this can take place before death (or after).  This made a lot of sense to me.