Anathemas - are they the kiss of death for ecumenism?

I was reading your site and couldn't help notice that you don't mention the subject of Anathemas, the curse that the council of Trent put on all non-Catholics (including Protestants). I was just wondering if you have studied this yourself and what you think of this. It's a pretty important thing to mention considering that the decrees of Anathemas by the council of Trent have never been withdrawn, and the council of Trent is frequently cited even in the catechism.

God always seems to send us a sincere soul like this one to unearth every unhappy event in Catholic/Protestant history. The above statement has several fundamental misunderstandings. In particular, the statement that anathemas were "put on all non-Catholics" is incorrect.  In fact, the anathemas were only put on Catholics. You had to be a "card carrying Catholic" in order to "qualify." Anathemas never applied to non-Catholics. Anathema was the most severe form of excommunication.

Someone can't be "ex-communion-icated" if they were never in communion with the Church in the first place. Also, the canonical penalty of Anathema was removed from Canon Law (Catholic Church law) in 1983. It is not in the Catechism.

Every Evangelical church has a statement of faith. This statement is, in a sense, their "doctrine," although they would not perhaps call it that.

Some Evangelical church councils would say if a person doesn't agree with that particular statement of faith they won't be "saved" or if the person loudly disagrees with it, the council may suggest they that they leave. Many of my Evangelical friends have been through 3 or 4 churches because they could not agree with the statement of faith of a particular church. So there's not that much new under the sun. The same stuff was going on 500 years ago except the stakes were much higher.

Trent anathema history - bad feelings all around

To put it mildly, there were a lot of bad feelings from all sides during the Reformation. Luther was pretty "anathemizing" (I made that word up) of the Pope. Honestly, some of his statements made the Trent declarations look like a "Hallmark" Easter card. Here's some of the stuff he said:

Luther: Revolutionary Invective / The Peasants' Revolt

"The Pope and the Cardinals . . . since they are blasphemers, their tongues ought to be torn out through the back of their necks, and nailed to the gallows!" (92:94/35)

"It were better that every bishop were murdered . . . than that one soul should be destroyed . . . what do they better deserve than a strong uprising which will sweep them from the earth? And we would smile did it happen. All who contribute body, goods . . . that the rule of the bishops may be destroyed ...." (122:377/36)

"If you understand the Gospel rightly, I beseech you not to believe that it can be carried on without tumult, scandal, sedition . . . The word of God is a sword, is war, is ruin, is scandal . . ." (109:41/37)

"If we punish thieves with the gallows . . . why do we not still more attack with every kind of weapon . . . these Cardinals, these Popes, and that whole abomination of the Romish Sodom . . . why do we not wash our hands in their blood?" (109:41/38)

"If I had all the Franciscan friars in one house, I would set fire to it . . . To the fire with them!" (51;v.6:247/39)

There was serious turmoil and confusion. The Peasant wars saw thousands of people killed on both sides. Neither side is completely innocent. Northern Ireland is still pretty shaky.

Did the council fathers at Trent misunderstand what the Reformers meant by sola fide?

Fr. John Neuhaus put it as follows.

Most scholars, whether Catholic or Protestant, agree that they did not understand the Reformers, especially Luther and Calvin, adequately. And there is slight disagreement, perhaps no disagreement, that the Reformers, especially Luther, could have expressed themselves more clearly, carefully, and consistently. Then too, keep in mind that, apart from Luther and Calvin, there were many who claimed to be advancing the Reformation under the slogan of sola fide and who were advocating precisely what Trent thought that slogan meant. Crusial to the condemnation are the words "If anyone shall say . . . " (Si qui dixerit). Trent did not condemn anyone by name. The council condemned anyone who taught what it understood by the formula "justification by faith alone." There were in the sixteenth century very considerable differences, also among Protestants, as to what was meant by key terms such as justification, faith, will, and grace. That there were misunderstandings is hardly surprising.

. . . the Catholic Church, knowing that all theological formulations fall short of expressing the fullness of truth, trusts the continuing guidance of the Spirit in a course of doctrinal development toward the ever more adequate articulation of God's Word relative to the questions posed by the time . . . it is historically and theologically judged that the council fathers at Trent were right in condemning what they understood by "justification by faith alone." In the intervening years, and especially in the theological dialogues of the last thirty years, Reformation Christians have made a convincing case that what they mean by sola fide is not what Trent condemned. (3)

Jesus said: "'Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these [cloth the naked, feed the hungry], you did not do it to me.' And these will go away into eternal punishment." (Mat 25: 45-46) The Catholic Church thinks this is significant. More about faith and works here.

Anathema comes from the Bible

Scripture says:

But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we preached to you, let him be accursed {anathema}. As we have said before, so now I say again, If any one is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed {anathema}. (Gal 1:8-9)

Of course many denominations use these verses to hurl "anathemas" at other denominations.

We got an email (copied verbatim) from a Seventh Day Adventist about the Catholic Church that said:

Hugh, Christ said ... doctrines of devils and demons would be in the church ...If your in Babylon, get out quick, the Lord is coming soon ...

Now if this isn't hurling an "anathema" we don't know what is. By the way, we respond to the Babylon charge here.

It comes down to a question about who has the authority to interpret Scripture. Luther said everybody who believes in Jesus has that authority. Luther, wanted to exclude the book of "James" from the Bible. We don't think God gave him that authority. By the time Luther died there were many factions and arguments. In the last 500 years, the Reformation has split into 30,000 denominations that have interpretations of Scripture that are in conflict with each other. Many claim they are the "Remnant." They can't all be the Remnant. This scattering of the flock does not seem to be consistent with Jesus' wish for unity. (Jn 17:20-23, 1 Cor 1:10; 12:25 Phil 1:27 Eph 4:13-15, Eph 4:5). In a way, there is a new Reformation every time someone starts a new church plant with a statement of faith. None of these denominations hold to what Wesley, Calvin and Luther originally envisioned or taught. In particular, they have strayed quite far from what the founders of the reform taught about contraception and about Mary.

Catholics say the Magisterium of the Church has the authority to interpret Scripture. That makes most of our Evangelical friends flip out, but the Catholic Church has stayed more or less intact and together on its interpretation of Scripture for 2000 years. That is a powerful testimony that the Church is receiving some serious Grace. Catholics think there is good Biblical evidence that the Church has been given this authority.  (Mat 16:18-19, 18:18, 28:20; Jn 14:16, 25, 16:13).

The Catholic Church protected the Bible for hundreds of years before the Gutenberg press was invented in 1436. Century after century, Monks in Monasteries faithfully copied Scripture. It would take each monk a lifetime to copy one Bible by hand with a quill pen and a bottle of ink. Thousands of faithful Catholics dedicated their lives to this work. Catholics protected the Bible over the centuries of wars, famines, plagues, the fall of Rome, fires, and threats from all sides. This was long before any other denomination existed. And the Catholic Church chose which books to include in the Bible in the Synod's of Hippo (393 AD) and confirmed it at Carthage (397 AD). The Church put this list of books into doctrine at Trent. We love the Bible. Honest!

The scholar Peter Flint, the non-Catholic who wrote the only existing complete translations of the Dead Sea Scrolls into English, said there wouldn't be a Bible today if it wasn't for the Catholic Church.  He said "without the Church there would be no Bible, just hundreds of books and letters floating around." Peter Flint is not a Catholic.

The Church is concerned about the idea that everyone has a valid interpretation of Scripture. They feel that claiming everyone has an inspired, accurate interpretation of every Bible passage is comparable to a person who isn't an engineer praying to God earnestly for way to build a bridge and then surfing the internet looking for plans to build it. Perhaps this non-engineer can find the perfect plan and build a perfect bridge but there is extreme danger that the bridge will collapse when the first truck drives over it. Many denominations have collapsed this way. The recent Episcopalian and United embrace of Gay ordination is perhaps the most vivid example of how this approach is problematic. This does not mean that the Catholic Church is squashing individual interpretation of the Bible. In fact, individuals like Thomas Aquinas, Thérèse de Lisieux and many others have helped the Church tremendously in its understanding of Scripture.

Do the Anathemas apply to today's Protestants?

The anathemas were only declared against people who already belonged to the Church. They did not apply to someone say in Japan who had never heard the Gospel.  They did not apply to Protestants who never belonged to the Catholic Church, which means it almost never applied Protestants after the Reformation. Anathema was the most severe form of excommunication. Someone can't be "ex-communion-icated" if they were never in communion with the Church in the first place. And those who were "anathemized" could be reconciled to the Church at any time through the sacrament of confession and reconciliation. We have to take into account the distinction between what the Church called a "material" heretic and a "formal" heretic. The Church considered a "material" heretic to be someone who never belonged to the Church and never knew what the Catholic Church taught. They did not fall under Trent anathemas.

Evangelicals/Protestants have put Anathemas on Catholics and on each other

Since the Reformation, many Evangelicals and other Protestant denominations have also hurled some nasty anathemas at each other. Perhaps they have not used the "A" word but they have nevertheless said stuff like "if you don't are not saved, you are damned to hell"  A tour around the internet will come up with some pretty strong statements all around and there are especially some pretty nasty things that some Fundamentalists have said  about the eternal destiny of Catholics.

In a way, Vatican II was an attempt to reach out across the hard feelings that were born around the Reformation and the Council of Trent. The Council of Trent was a response to the Reformation. The Catholic Church was getting hit with an unprecedented attack on its theology, and it responded strongly and firmly. Vatican II was, in part, an attempt to respond to the new realities of a multi-denominational world.

Vatican II did not undo the anathemas, which were declared "infallibly" against members of the Catholic Church who were teaching against Church doctrine during the Reformation. However, Vatican II clarified the position the Church has always held, that many non-Catholics will be saved through the compassion of Jesus and his Church because Jesus knows the heart of everyone and he knows the difference between a hardened mean spirit against the Church and an honest searching seeker who has not yet reached the doors of the Catholic Church. This distinction would also apply to people who have honestly left the Church because some extenuating circumstances where the Church teaching was not presented to them in an authentic way, or if they exposed to an horrendous experience at the hand of a crappy Catholic in authority over them, which sadly happens sometimes, and which Jesus predicted would happen. (Mat 13:30) In that case, the greater sin may fall upon the person who poorly represented the Church or its teaching. That is why so much responsibility falls upon us as Catholics to present the Gospel in a clear and loving way. Many "card carrying" Catholics won't make it to heaven because they have separated themselves from God through grave sin. (i.e., some "Catholic" politicians who push abortion).

Catholicism does not use "Anathema" anymore

The current Catechism does not mention anathema, it only references Trent. Nowhere in its text does it use the word "anathema". This anathema issue was put to bed by 1983 Canon law. The anathemas per se do not apply today, since the 1983 Code of Canon Law (CIC) abolished the canonical penalty of anathema, which was a form of excommunication.

The Pope apologized for "Excommunications" during his Millennium reconciliation service. We believe that he was, in part, referring to many of the incidents around the Reformation. Some of those excommunications were wrong. One particularly bad one was the excommunication of John Calvin's father which left John bitter against the Church. The Pope has done his best to meet with many Evangelical leaders including Billy Graham. We don't think he would he meet with someone he has "abandoned to hell."

Does the Catholic Church have the power to condemn somebody to hell?

No it does not. Catholic doctrine never taught that it did. Only God can condemn someone to hell. Karl Keating responded to the question about whether excommunication condemns someone to hell as follows:

Only God can condemn anyone to hell. That isn't within the Church's power, and no Catholic ever claimed it was. The Church's role is to help people to heaven by teaching and sanctifying. Of course, people can ignore the teaching and reject the grace. If they do and end up in hell, they go there by their own choice.

Excommunication is a Church penalty which excludes a notorious sinner or someone grossly disobedient from the communion of the faithful. It doesn't mean the person ceases to be a Christian. Its purpose is to warn the individual that he risks losing his soul unless he repents. (2)

It also is an example to others. If we let someone publicly preach against the Catholic teaching yet allow them to remain in communion with the Catholic Church, we are basically sanctioning a heresy, which would be confusing to other Catholics who are striving for holiness.

We see the Holy Spirit working in the lives of many Evangelicals. We see the Holy Spirit working in the Catholic Church. Yeah, there are big problems. We can't hope to solve them without Christ's intervention. But let's find opportunities where we can work together to save marriage, protect the unborn and keep out children clear of sex and drugs. Let's be friendly. Let's work, pray, and worship together where we can.


(1) Dr. Art Sippo gave some of the ideas for this article

(2) Karl Keating, What Catholics Really Believe: Setting the Record Straight: 52 Answers to Common Misperceptions About the Catholic Faith, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1992; reprinted in 1995,

(3) Evangelical and Catholics Together: Toward a Common Mission, edited by Charles Colson and Richard John Neuhaus, Dallas: Word Publishing, 1995, Neuhaus' chapter, "The Catholic Difference," 175-227; quote from 209-210:

(4) Dave Armstrong's site provided some of the research herein. A further discussion of Anathemas is here.