The Catholic Church has always taught and always will teach that mortal sin cannot be forgiven after death.
This is true. But the interesting question is why mortal sins can't be forgiven after death. It's not because God has ceased to be merciful. It's not because God no longer desires the salvation of the mortal sinner. It's because the sinner is now definitively fixed in hatred of God and thus eternally rejects God's offer of forgiveness; he will not repent, he has no desire to repent. As Cardinal Ratzinger writes:
Christ afflicts pure perdition on no one. In himself he is sheer salvation. Anyone who is with him has entered the space of deliverance and salvation. Perdition is not imposed by him, but comes to be wherever a person distances himself from Christ. It comes about whenever someone remains enclosed within himself. Christ's word, the bearer of the offer of salvation, then lays bare the fact that the person who is lost has himself drawn the dividing line and separated himself from salvation. (Eschatology, pp. 205-206)
Returning to my discussion with Fr Giryus, it may well be true that with regard to the Particular Judgment there is a real disagreement between Catholics and Orthodox, though I certainly do not see this as being a consequential or church-dividing difference. But I do think that the difference may in fact be a problem of semantics and the difficulty of talking about and coordinating "life in time" and "life after time." I suspect we all think of the intermediate period of life after death as almost a parallel time-line, beginning with the Particular Judgment and concluding with the Final Judgment. We have our time and our time pretty well matches up to the chronology of those who have died and now live in Hades/Paradise awaiting the resurrection. But as natural as this is for us to think like this, surely it is wrong. While it is inevitable for us to employ temporal and spatial language to speak of life beyond death, the simple fact is, we have no idea what we are talking about and therefore cannot speak in literal terms. Truly it is mystery. We are speaking, after all, of our entrance into eternity. All of our language breaks down. All we can do is speak metaphorically, figuratively, symbolically; all we can do is make pictures and tell stories. Thus Hans Urs von Balthasar:
Man as an individual and as a species (for everyone's actions are interwove with everyone else's) must be drawn into a judgment. It is vain to speculate about the "point in time" of this judgment--for example, about the diastasis between the particular judgment after the death of the individual and the general or Last Judgment at the end of history--since we can do this only within an intratemporal perspective, whereas this final judgment must by definition take place at the threshold of eternity. Or to put it more exactly ...: it takes place on the threshold between the "Old Eon" and the "New Eon"--and this is not a threshold that can be captured with our chronological understanding of time. (Explorations in Theology, IV:445-446).
Catholic theology since the Middle Ages has tried to think of the Particular Judgment and the Final Judgment stereoscopically, rather than linearly. It has done so because of reflection on the meaning of the Ascension of Christ: Christ has risen into the eternity of the Father and has taken all of the redeemed with him. Heaven is now open to all who are in Christ, for Christ is Heaven. "For to me to live is Christ and to die is gain" (Phil 1:21). Is this not the meaning of the Harrowing of Hell?
To die is to enter into transforming encounter with the Risen Savior who is our Judge. How can we meaningfully speak of this eschatological event in temporal terms? What would such language signify? Do we really want to think of the intermediate period as a period of time? Ratzinger again:
Christ as judge is ho eschatos, the Final One, in relation to whom we undergo judgment both after death and on the Last Day. In the perspective we are offered here, those two judgments are indistinguishable. A person's entry into the realm of manifest reality is an entry into his definitive destiny and thus an immersion in eschatological fire [which, for Ratzinger, is the risen Christ himself]. The transforming "moment" of this encounter cannot be quantified by the measurements of earthly time. It is, indeed, not eternal but a transition, and yet trying to qualify it as of "short" or "long" duration on the basis of temporal measurements derived from physics would be naive and unproductive. The "temporal measure" of this encounter lies in the unsoundable depths of existence, in a passing-over where we are burned ere we are transformed. (p. 230)
Does this not rhyme with the New Testament, where it is so clearly taught that already believers in Christ already, in a sense, live beyond judgment and share in the life of resurrection glory? This does not mean that there is no Final Judgment awaiting us, yet the New Testament, especially John and Paul, speak as if the Final Judgment has been projected from the future into the present. The judgment is now; the judgment is yet to come. We have been raised in Christ and yet we await our resurrection. In Christ we live the mysterious union of the eschatological now and not yet.
The Orthodox concern, so it seems to me, is to insist that we may and should pray for the dead, for every single person who has lived and died, without exception, and that this prayer is a blessing to them. The Catholic agrees wholeheartedly with this concern. If one wishes to picture this as a "praying people out of Hell," I do not see any substantive Catholic objection. If the prayers of Pope Gregory the Great contributed to the eternal salvation of the Emperor Trajan, all we can do is but rejoice and follow the Pope's example in remembering the departed in our own prayers, no matter how wicked they may have been. The Catholic theologian might want to add the qualifier that if Trajan has indeed embraced the forgiveness of Christ, then by definition he did not die in a state of mortal
sin--but this is a qualification that only theologians care about. The Catholic hopes and prays for the salvation of all. May every human being ultimately accept the forgiveness and mercy of Christ and be raised into his Kingdom. Kyrie eleison.