The formation of the idea or Catholic doctrine of Purgatory was quite surprising. The collapse of the Carolingian empire by the eleventh century led to a new settled order in Western society. The chief way of procuring wealth by plunder through warfare, slavery, and kings being protected by warlords through handouts had come to an end. In order to gain new sources of wealth and revenue, the nobility turned to exploiting farming production from their lands which led to the draining of marshes, deforestation, and stricter regulation of the lands and their inhabitants. Many of the locals became serfs and farmers who thus became property for their lords. Despite this, all this led to better food supplies and more wealth. This transformation in farming production changed the nature of the church’s ministry in society, with an increased attention to the poorer classes. This led to the formation of parishes for local communities.
The parish became a new source of revenue for the church as it taxed farmers a biblical tithe to be paid to the church. The church itself had no qualms in enserfing a large portion of the population to gain more revenue. However, at the same time, many clergy became concerned about sins, like avarice and usury, this new wealth produced among the population. As sins multiplied, so did the means of remedying sin. In earlier times, salvation had been set up to benefit the clergy and the rich who had the financial means to pay monks to pray for them and perform penances on their behalf to avoid Hell. However, the parish and tithe system abolished this old system, as the church now had to deal with newer ways to cope with the hopes and fears of a general population who didn’t have the money to pay others to pray for them. So the church resurrected an old theology developed in the 2nd and 3rd centuries by two Alexandrian theologians, Clement and Origen, who came up with the idea of a middle state between Heaven and Hell. In this new doctrine, there isn’t enough time on earth to do penance for all of one’s sins and enter then into heaven, but one could complete his or her penance in the afterlife after death in this time-limited middle state before entering Heaven. By the 1170s, theologians called this region “Purgatory”. As we all know, this official doctrine of the Catholic Church would become a point of major contention centuries later.
This is so interesting to see how economics can affect doctrine and theology in such a manner; it wasn’t so much the Bible or rigorous biblical exegesis that prompted this theology but more so to alleviate the fears of a growing population/congregation under the demands and conditions of serfdom. I’m beginning to see a general pattern in theology now where a human need, predicament, or dilemma arises and then a theological answer or answers are provided to give solutions or psychological/spiritual comfort to allay our instinctive fears (be it death, disease, poverty, food, procreation, loneliness, etc.). So it makes sense in the modern age where in times of economic uncertainty as we live in now give rise to theologies like the “health & wealth” or “prosperity” gospel. Oftentimes, it is what we wish or desire God (or the Bible) to do for us that drives our worship of Him instead of the other way around; we’ll come up with creative and elaborate ways and justifications to fulfill this illusion regardless of what reason, nature, or the Bible tries to tell us.