In my examinations of Roman Catholicism, I strive to be factual. However, it came to my attention recently that I had an imprecise understanding of the anathema canons of the Council of Trent. A little background:
In response to the Protestant Reformation, pope Paul III convoked the Council of Trent (1545-1563), which decreed over one-hundred canons clarifying Roman Catholic doctrine. Several canons specifically addressed doctrines being taught by the Reformers including the Good News! Gospel of salvation by God’s grace alone, through faith alone, in Jesus Christ alone. Persons who held to the Protestant doctrines were declared “anathema” (Greek and Latin: something dedicated, especially dedicated to evil, cursed). See here for a listing of the Tridentine anathemas.
For centuries, many Protestants have been claiming that, by issuing the Tridentine canons, the Roman church had forthwith and forever cursed/condemned ALL Protestants. But Catholic apologists point out that that understanding is mistaken.
Recently, I was listening to a podcast of a Catholic radio talk show and the host was discussing this issue.
Called to Communion – 5/27/2019 podcast
Host: David Anders (photo above), Moderator: Thom Price
Thom Price: So we’re going to lead off this special memorial Day mailbag program with a question. This is an anonymous text that came in: How can Protestants simultaneously be, quote, separated brothers and sisters, and at the same time, anathema, as the Council of Trent proclaims in at least eight of its canons? How can one be a damned Christian?
David Anders: Thanks. I appreciate the question. The premise of the question is faulty, that the anathema pronounced by the Council of Trent does not constitute a judgement of damnation. So you’re incorrect in (your) understanding of what an anathema is. An anathema – and by the way, anathemas no longer exists in the Catholic church – but an anathema was an ecclesiastical penalty, right. It’s a form of excommunication and it would have been executed against members of the Catholic church that professed the errors in question; the particular errors that were being rejected at the Council of Trent. And the way those anathemas would read would be, “If anyone says blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, let him be anathema.” Well, you know, even then, if someone was not a member of the Catholic church then ecclesiastical penalties wouldn’t apply to them. The anathema applied specifically to members of the Catholic church that would have committed these crimes against the church’s doctrines. So, even then, it wouldn’t have applied to somebody who had been raised in the Protestant church. Today, there are no anathemas. We don’t use that ecclesiastical penalty anymore. So it’s a false dichotomy, the one you raised.
So, technically, the anathemas of Trent were ecclesiastical excommunications of all of the former members of the church who had embraced the Protestant doctrines. The Protestants’ children and future descendants who had never been baptized as Catholics were not being directly addressed by the anathema canons since they had never been members of the church.
Okay. Fair enough. I get it. However, the descendants of the first-generation Protestants who also held to Protestant beliefs were obviously still considered to be heretics by the church, just like their predecessors. In countries where Catholicism held sway and was allied with the ruling monarch, Protestant “heretics” were viewed as traitors and in many cases were tortured and executed, whether the offender was a first-generation Protestant or a descendant. So while we duly note the ecclesiastical fine print, the end results were the same for early-Protestant grandparents and their grandchildren. The bottom line to all of this is that, while contemporary Catholic apologists like David Anders attempt to softsoap the Tridentine anathemas, they served as a death sentence for millions and have never been officially rescinded.
“The greatest concern of the Ecumenical Council is this, that the Sacred Deposit of Christian Doctrine should be guarded and taught more efficaciously [with a] renewed, serene, and tranquil adherence to all the teachings of the Church in their entirety and preciseness, as they still shine forth in the acts of the Council of Trent and the First Vatican Council.” – pope John XXIII, opening speech to the Second Vatican Council, October 11, 1962
Postscript: Why does the Catholic church no longer issue anathemas? The RCC boasts that it is “Semper Eadem,” always the same, but that is clearly not the case. At Vatican II, the formerly-militant Roman church changed its approach and declared all Protestant heretics to be “separated brethren.” The success of this ecumenical about-face has proven the old adage that you can catch more flies with honey than vinegar.