Speaking of Calvinism

A reader writes:

I’m Reformed in my theology, but I have a friend that is thinking about joining the R.C. church. My friend denies some of your doctrines though (Office of Pope, Immaculate Conception of Mary, and Purgatory). I am under the impression (please correct me if I’m wrong) that he has been anathematized by the Council of Trent for rejecting these doctrines. When I ask him why he would want to become a member in a church that he has been anathematized in, he thinks that Vatican 2 changed the anathema’s of Trent.

So did Vatican 1, 2 change any anthema’s in Trent? If so, could you give me references; if not, would my friend be considered anathema if he continued to reject these above doctrines?

I would also appreciate your recommendation of any resources to study more thoroughly the above Councils. Thanks for your time.

There are several issues here, which must be addressed before I get to your question.

David Heddle, in my comments boxes below, repeats a line I’ve heard times without number whenever a Catholic takes exception to the teachings of Calvinism: “If you people actually knew something about Calvinism it might make for an interesting discussion.” I’ve heard this line applied every time a Catholic critiques sola scriptura, for instance. “Oh, that’s just a *parody* of sola scriptura. If Catholics would only address the *true* doctrine of sola scriptura, then we could have an intelligent conversation” etc. Indeed, I repeatedly run into Calvinists who will confidently tell me that the Council of Trent anathematized a phantom since no True Calvinists[TM] believe the silly ideas that Trent condemned.

It reminds me of a hiliarious conversation I once witnessed between a Catholic and Truly Reformed Guy who insisted that Scripture is “clear” and then proceeded to jettison every single normal English speaker’s definitioni of “clear” yet still went on doggedly insisting that Scripture was, in some unknowable and esoteric sense “clear”. The more tortured became his Clintonian definitions of what “clear” *really* meant (“Well, you see, there’s objective and subjective clarity“), the more my Irony Meter went off the scale. Endless dialogue just to arrive at the meaning of the word “clear” and we’re still to believe that Scripture is “perspicuous”?

Consequently, one of my principal impressions of Reformed theology is that it seems to have inherited the Catholic knack for coining jargon that baffles ordinary linguistics. Only when, you penetrate Catholic jargon (“merit” “temporal punishment” etc.) it makes paradoxical sense, whereas Calvinist jargon frequently seems to me an attempt to square the circle. So, for instance, when David says that “Limited atonement is actually infinite” my first thought is, “Then why call it ‘limited’ and not ‘infinite’?” and I am haunted by the feeling that such language is avoided because it would be too Catholic. Likewise, slogans like “faith alone” (followed by complex explanations about how James, in condemning the notion of “faith alone” (James 2:24) was not really condemning the notion of “faith alone”) leave me in the dust. They sound like attempts to keep at arms length from common sense Catholic teaching which says that we are actually saved by faith incarnate in works of love. My main impression of the Truly Reformed is that semantics are being used to keep alive a quarrel with Catholic faith that is definitely past its prime.

So when Reformed folk tell me that the propositions condemned by Trent are ridiculous caricatures of what the Reformers actually believed and that Trent therefore anathematized a turnip ghost, non-existent, straw man caricature of True Protestantism, I get confused. Especially when they follow that up by saying, “I defiantly affirm what Trent denied and so I am anathematized by your Church, am I not?” And I get even more confused when David tells me the propositions condemned by Trent are absolutely perfect descriptions of what the Reformers believed and that the Church was wrong to condemn them.

So, my reply is: Reformed people will have to discuss amongst themselves whether they really affirm what Trent denied and deny what Trent affirmed. That’s not a question I can answer since I can’t read Reformed minds. Some of you do say you deny what Trent affirms and affirm what Trent denies. If so, you are, from a Catholic perspective, partly wrong at the very least. However, you are not “anathema” for the very simple reason that anathemas were directed at members of the Catholic communion in revolt, not at people outside the Catholic communion (especially people born four hundred year later whose understanding of and freedom to submit to Catholic teaching is entirely unknown to me). For the same reason, I am not “anathema” even though I am circumcised, for the simple reason that my circumcision was not performed with a mind to rejecting Pauline teaching about justification by grace.

Supposing a person *does* fully understand the Church’s teaching (a big If) and knows it to be true and *still* freely rejects it? Then they will be responsible before God and risk hell, since the Church’s teaching is true. But those are things unknowable to mortal flesh in the case of any particular person. In all likelihood, your friend doesn’t really know the Church’s teaching about the things he rejects. It is, of course, a reasonable question to ask, “Why bother being Catholic, if you don’t believe that the Church teaches?” But it’s an even more reasonable question to ask, “What is it that draws you to the Catholic Church, and how can we help you work out your difficulties with these eminently reasonable Catholic doctrines so that you may become fully rooted in the Faith which you find yourself so attracted to?”

That’s the approach Vatican II took. It did not overturn a syllable of the condemnations and affirmations of Trent, for the simple reason that Trent was simply stating facts: Purgatory does exist, Christ did establish the Petrine office, etc (the immaculate conception was formulated later). However, it recognized that, though error has no rights, persons in error do and we can just as easily recognize the Christians in imperfect communion with the Church are half right as half wrong. We can also make allowance for a lot of ignorance of Catholic teaching after 400 years.

The task your friend needs to perform in order to go on rejecting the truths of the Church that he dislikes is pretty simple: he must show that they are not merely extrabiblical, but anti-biblical. This he will find impossible. Since the Church is the Pillar and Foundation of the Truth, which the Spirit guides into all truth, and since Christ gave it authority to teach in his name, it therefore follows that the Church does not formulate any dogma in error. That is, of course, a matter of faith and cannot be proven, just as not point of supernatural revelation can be proven. But all attempts to disprove it can be disproven.

So I would urge your friend to go ahead and check out the Church, but not to be overly quick about assuming the things he has difficulties with are contrary to Scripture or reason. I’m perfectly satisfied they aren’t myself.