For many Protestant Christians today the doctrine of Purgatory (especially in its medieval articulation) is blatantly wrong. The need for such a place is mainly the result of the medieval concepts of debt, penalty and merit (of Christ and the saints). To a medieval theologian Purgatory was necessary, even desirable. Thus, when Dante Alighieri went about writing his Divine Comedy, it was only natural that it would be set in three geographical locations: Hell, Purgatory and Heaven. Yet, when one sits down to read Dante’s Purgatorio attentively, the reader notices that it is not until Canto 9 of the book that Dante (and Virgil) actually reaches the gates of Purgatory: “Thou art come to Purgatory now.” Where is he in Books 1-8? Is he still in Hell? No. He’s in a place between Hell and Purgatory that is seaside, flat and covered in reeds. This area is often labeled as Ante-Purgatory. Ante-Purgatory? As a person fairly well versed in medievalia, I do not recall the theological concept of Ante-Purgatory. What is Dante up to?
The answer is quite straightforward (at least for Dante). Just as the souls of the righteous pagans are stuck in Limbo because they lack baptism, the souls that Dante encounters in Ante-Purgatory lack the grace of another sacrament: confession. Those in Ante-Purgatory are the Excommunicate, the Lethargic, the Un-Absolved and the Negligent Rulers. The commonality between each of these groups is that they lack sacramental confession and absolution. The Excommunicate are exactly that — those who have been placed outside of the community of the Church for their heretical opinions. What will bring them back into the fold? By confessing that they are heretics and repenting of their erroneous views. The Lethargic are those who could not find the time or the motivation to go to confession. This was, apparently, a common problem in the high medieval church given that the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 had to decree that each person should go to confession at least once a year! Obviously many were not doing so and it is these people that Dante has in mind. The Un-Absolved are those who died violently and were repentant but unable to be absolved by a priest. Finally, the Negligent Rulers are those sovereigns who did not attend to their earthly salvation.
Now, all four groups will enter, in time, into Purgatory. But how? Well, in Dante’s world there’s an opportunity for a post-mortem confession and, more importantly, absolution. The gate that leads into Dante’s Purgatory is called Peter’s Gate and it is guarded by a celestial being holding two keys. The imagery here is poignant. According to medieval (and some modern) exegetes, the keys given to the apostle Peter in Matthew 16:16-20 to “bind” and to “loose” are the right to grant absolution to a repentant person. Further, the right of a “simple” medieval priest to grant absolution is a power vested in him by the Pope via the proper laying on of hands in the Apostolic Succession. It goes something like this:
a. God gives “keys” (i.e., the power to absolve) to Peter
b. The Pope is the successor of Peter and therefore also has the power of the “keys”
c. Duly ordained priests are in the Apostolic Succession and are, by extension of the Pope, also given the power of the keys
d. Going to a priest for confession results in absolution
Therefore, what is actually happening in Dante’s Purgatory is that these souls, who in life were in the Church but unable or unwilling to go to confession and be granted absolution, are now finally being given absolution. This makes them like all of the other souls who enter Purgatory directly. So what do we make of Dante’s Ante-Purgatory? Well, in some ways Dante has out-theologized some of the best minds of the medieval church who never posited the need for a place like Ante-Purgatory. Dante, however, has shown that if you are going to work within accepted high medieval theological categories then you need an Ante-Purgatory. In this case, the poet trumps the theologian. But, of course, anyone who reads Dante knows that he’s not just a poet, he’s a good theologian also — even if we disagree with him!