The following are some thoughts of Robert Francis Romulus Bellarmine (Robert Bellarmine was canonized by Pope Pius XI in 1930, and declared a Doctor of the Universal Church in 1931.) on 1 Corinthians 3:11-15. I don't present this as though it is the only thing that Roman Catholics have ever said about this, nor as something I would endorse (I don't endorse it). Instead, this is presented as an example of Roman Catholic scholarship that rejects the typical "pop apologetics" arguments for Purgatory.
The translation below is by Charles Hastings Collette and is taken from Bellarmine, On Purgatory (volume 2 - of his works, I believe), Book 1, Chapter 4 (and following?).
The difficulties of this passage are five in number.
1. What is understood by the builders?
2. What is understood by gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, and stubble?
3. What is understood by the day of the Lord?
4. What is understood by the fire, of which it is said that in the day of the Lord it shall prove every one’s work?
5. What is understood by the fire, of which it is said, he shall be saved, yet so as by fire?
When these things are explained the passage will be clear.
The first difficulty, therefore, is, who are the architects who build upon the foundation? Augustine, in his book on faith and works, chapter 16th and elsewhere, thinks that all Christians are here called by the apostle architects, and that all build upon the foundation of the faith either good or bad works. Chrysostom, Theodoret, Theophylact, and Œcumenius, appear to me to teach the same upon this passage. Many others teach that only the doctors and preachers of the Gospel are here called architects by the apostle. Jerome insinuates this in his second book against Jovinianus. The blessed Anselm and the blessed Thomas hold the same opinion on this passage, although they do not reject the former opinion. Many more modern think the same, as Dionysius the Carthusian, Lyra, Cajetan, and others.
The other difficulty is rather more serious. For there are six opinions. Some by the name of foundation understand, a true but an ill-digested faith; by the names of gold, silver, and precious stones, good works. By the names of wood, hay, and stubble, mortal sins. Thus Chrysostom upon this place, who is followed by Theophylact. The second opinion is, that Christ or the preaching of the faith is understood by the name of foundation; that by the names of gold, silver, and precious stones, are understood Catholic expositions; by the name of wood, hay, and stubble, are understood heretical doctrines, as the commentary of Ambrose and even Jerome seem to teach. The third opinion by the name of foundation understands living faith, and by the name of gold, silver, and precious stones, understands works of supererogation, &c. Thus the blessed Augustine in his book on faith and works. The fourth opinion is that which is held by those who explain by gold, silver, &c., to be meant good works, by hay and stubble, &c., venial sins. Thus the blessed Gregory in the fourth book of his dialogues, chapter 39th, and others. The fifth is of those who understand by gold, silver, &c., good hearers, and by stubble bad hearers, &c. Thus Theodoret and Œcumenius. The sixth opinion, which we prefer to all, is, that by the name of foundation is to be understood Christ, as preached by the first preachers. By the name of gold, silver, &c., is to be understood the useful doctrine of the other preachers, who teach those who have now received the faith. But by the name of wood, hay, &c., is to be understood the doctrine, not heretical or bad, but the singular doctrine of those preachers who preach catholically to the catholic people, but without that fruit and profit which God requires.
The third difficulty regards the day of the Lord. Some understand by the name of day the present life, or the time of tribulation. Thus Augustine in his book on faith and works, c. 16, and Gregory in his 4th book of dialogues, c. 39. . . . But all the ancients seem to have understood by that day, the day of the last judgment, as Theodoret, Theophylact, Anselm, and others.
The fourth difficulty is, what is the fire which, in the day of the Lord, shall prove every one’s work? Some understand the tribulations of this life, as Augustine and Gregory in the places noted, but these we have already rejected. Some understand eternal fire, but that cannot be, for that fire shall not try the building of gold and silver. . . . Some understand it to be the pains of Purgatory, but that cannot be truly said.
- First, because the fire of Purgatory does not prove the works of those who build gold and silver. But that fire of which we speak shall prove every one’s work what it is.
- Secondly, the apostle clearly makes a distinction between the works and the workmen, and says concerning that fire, that it shall burn the works but not the workers: for he says, if any one’s work shall remain, and if any work shall burn: but the fire of Purgatory, which is a true and real fire, cannot burn works, which are transitory actions, and have already passed.
- Lastly, it would follow, that all men, even the most holy, would pass through the fire of Purgatory, and be saved by fire, for all are to pass through the fire of which we are speaking. But that all are to pass through the fire of Purgatory and to be saved by fire is clearly false: for the apostle here openly says, that only those who build wood and hay are to be saved as by fire: the Church, also, has always been persuaded that holy martyrs and infants dying after baptism are presently received into heaven, without any passage through fire, as the Council of Florence teaches in its last Session. It remains, therefore, that we should say that the apostle here speaks of the fire of the severe and just judgment of God, which is not a purging or punishing fire, but one that probes and examines. Thus Ambrose explains it on Psalm 118, and also Sedulius.
The fifth and last difficulty is, what is understood by the fire, when he says, but he shall be saved, yet so as by fire? Some understand the tribulations of this life, but this cannot properly be said, because then even he who built gold and silver would be saved by fire. Wherefore Augustine and Gregory, who are the authors of this opinion, when they were not satisfied with it, proposed another, of which we shall speak by-and-by. Some understand it to be eternal fire, as Chrysostom and Theophylact. But this we have already refuted. Others understand the fire of the conflagration of the world. It is, therefore, the common opinion of theologians, that by the name of this fire is understood some purgatorial and temporal fire, to which after death they are adjudged, who are found in their trial to have built wood, hay, or stubble.