Anathemas of Trent & Excommunication: An Explanation

Anathemas of Trent & Excommunication: An Explanation July 30, 2018

The vivid Greek term anathema, meaning “accursed,” is directed by the Council of Trent and other Catholic ecumenical councils primarily towards doctrines, rather than persons, based on the ancient practice in the Church of condemning heretical teachings — a procedure itself derived biblically from passages such as Galatians 1:8-9 and 1 Corinthians 16:22 (the latter has anathema both in Greek and in many English versions). There is nothing improper whatsoever in defining correct doctrine and rejecting contrary notions. St. Paul does this constantly. The Catholic Church, however, makes no presumption as to the eternal destiny of any individual whatsoever (not even Martin Luther, whom many Protestants might suspect was on our “damned” list).

Most emphatically: neither anathema nor excommunication means “proclaimed damned (by the Church),” as many Protestants mistakenly suppose. The more literal meanings are “out of the Church” (in the sense of divergence from its doctrines) or “out of communion” (with the sacraments and the Christian fellowship of believers). Excommunication is perfectly in accord with Pauline practices and teachings as expounded in, e.g., 1 Corinthians 5:3-5, 2 Thessalonians 3:6, 1 Timothy 1:19-20, 2 Timothy 2:14-19, 4:14-15, as well as our Lord’s express injunction in Matthew 18:15-18.

We hold that no one can be saved outside the Church, but a knowing and deliberate disobedience against it would render one unsaved. Others not formally members of the Catholic Church can be saved in their sincerity and ignorance, whether or not they are conscious that the Church was crucial in the process.

A person will end up in hell if they (continue to) fight against the Church and do not resist temptations of evil and Satan. This is essentially no different than a Protestant saying “a person will not be saved if they do not accept Christ as their Lord and Savior,” or the Bible stating that “fornicators will not inherit the Kingdom of God.” None of these examples are definitive, prophetic, absolute statements of any given person’s eternal destiny, but rather, statements of theology, of what will happen, given the fulfillment of certain conditions.

The Church does not pronounce definitively on any individual’s eternal destiny (with perhaps the exception of of Judas). The Church hopes for every person to be saved, and applies penances in order to attain that end. The point of the anathemas is not condemnation per se, but a sanction which will hopefully cause the person to realize the seriousness and peril of their situation. This is all very biblical and Pauline.

The Church has neither the intrinsic power to condemn anyone to hell (that is God’s prerogative), nor the knowledge of who is there or not (except for that which it claims in the case of canonized saints). It does however, have the power to exclude people from communion with itself, for the purpose of ultimately reclaiming their souls. A deliberate and obstinate refusal to submit to the Church in such circumstances constitutes a serious, grave, mortal sin, which — if unrepented of — self-condemns one to hell by its very nature.

The Council of Trent (in the historical context of a revolt against Catholic teaching and authority) understandably emphasized Catholic teachings and condemned divergences from it, just as councils had always done with what they considered false teaching. Vatican II had a pastoral and ecumenical emphasis, so it stressed commonalities with other Christians and even other religions. Both are valid concerns and truths.

Here is the information I have found on this question, from various sources:

1) Encyclopedia Britannica, 1985 edition, Micropaedia, Volume 1, “Anathema,” 373:

Old Testament descriptions of religious wars call both the enemy and their besieged city anathema inasmuch as they were destined for destruction. In New Testament usage a different meaning developed. St. Paul used the word anathema to signify a curse and the forced expulsion of one from the community of Christians . . . In the 6th century anathemas came to mean the severest form of excommunication that formally separated a heretic completely from the Christian Church and condemned his doctrines.

2) The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, edited by James Orr, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1956, 5 volumes, Volume 1, “Anathema,” 130:

Whereas in the Greek Fathers anathema — as herem in rabbinic Hebrew — came to denote excommunication from society, in the NT the word has its full force.

3) Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, edited by Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich, translated by Geoffrey W. Bromiley, one-volume abridgement, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1985, 57:

Paul uses the term for the object of a curse . . . Handing over to God’s judicial wrath is the idea in 1 Cor. 16:22 (cf. Gal. 1:8; Rom. 9:3).

4) The New Bible Dictionary, edited by J. D. Douglas, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1962, “Anathema,” 35:

The ecclesiastical sense of excommunication is an extension, not an example, of biblical usage, though it is not impossible that synagogue practice gave some early colouring to it.

5) The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 2nd edition, edited by by F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone, New York: Oxford University Press, 1983, “Anathema,” 50:

St. Paul uses the word to denote separation from the Christian community inflicted for sins such as preaching a gospel other than his (Gal. 1.8 f.) or for not loving the Lord (1 Cor. 16.22), whereas in other passages it simply means malediction (e.g. 1 Cor. 12.3).

In the post-Apostolic Church the earliest recorded instance of anathematizing offenders is at the Council of Elvira (c. 306). It soon became the regular procedure against heretics. . . . From the 5th cent. anathematization began to be distinguished from excommunication. Gratian explained that the latter involved only exclusion from the Sacraments and worship, whereas the former was complete separation from the Body of the faithful (Decretum, Bk. ii, can. 106), a distinction which was closely akin to Gregory IX’s distinction of ‘Major’ and ‘Minor’ Excommunication. In practice, the distinction lost its meaning, apart from the solemn ceremony which is used for anathemas.

6) The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church, edited by J. D. Douglas, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1974, “Anathema,” 39:

The NT use of the word implies exclusion, being banned, rather than complete extinction (Rom. 9:3; 1 Cor. 16:22, lect. vid.; Gal. 1:8f.; cf. 1 Cor. 12:3; Acts 23:14). The early church expanded the biblical meaning to make it synonymous with excommunication . . . From the sixth century onward, anathematizing (as complete banning from the church) is distinguished from excommunication (as exclusion from worship and the sacraments).

And now on to specifically Catholic sources, for more verification of precisely how the term is understood by Catholics and the Catholic Church:

7) Bertrand L. Conway, The Question Box, New York: The Paulist Press, 1929 [33 years before Vatican II began], 205:

Neither excommunication nor anathemas imply the Church’s condemning anyone to hell. That is the prerogative of God alone. Excommunication is a Church law, excluding a notorious sinner from the communion of the faithful (Canons 2257-2267). Its purpose is to warn the sinner of the danger he runs of incurring eternal ruin, unless he repent of his sin. The “delivering of the sinner to Satan,” which we find in the Roman Pontifical, is based on the words of St. Paul, who delivered the incestuous sinner to Satan, “that his spirit might be saved in the Day of the Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 5:5; cf. 1 Tim. 1:20).

. . . When St. Paul said “let him be anathema” who preaches an heretical gospel (Gal. 1:8), he did not condemn the heretic to hell, but stigmatized the willful teacher of false doctrines as a rebel against the Gospel of Christ. The Church, in the anathemas which accompany the canons of her Councils, merely imitates the example of the Apostle.

8) In my first book, A Biblical Defense of Catholicism (end of chapter 8 on penance), I noted the instance of St. Paul imposing discipline (penance or “binding”) on a sinner (cited by Conway above) and then “loosing” the penalty (an indulgence) later on. This is similar to the purpose and goal of the anathemas or excommunication:

1 Corinthians 5:3-5 / 2 Corinthians 2:6-8, 10-11 [RSV]

. . . I have already pronounced judgment in the name of the Lord Jesus on the man who has done such a thing. When you are assembled, and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. (see 5:1-2)

For such a one this punishment by the majority is enough; so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him . . . Any one whom you forgive, I also forgive . . . in the presence of Christ, to keep Satan from gaining the advantage over us; for we are not ignorant of his designs.

9) 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, #5: “The Catholic Church sends people to hell by excommuniucating them” (pp. 17-18):

It doesn’t. 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.

10) George D. Smith, The Teaching of the Catholic Church, New York: The Macmillan Co., 1960 (two years before Vatican II began), 2 volumes, vol. 2, 707-708:

. . . the melancholy possibility must be envisaged of those who may have “cut themselves off from the structure of the Body by their own unhappy act or been severed therefrom, for very grave crimes, by the legitimate authority” (MCC, 21). In other words, the Church, as being a perfectly constituted society, has the right for grave reasons of excluding from membership. She may pass sentence of, or lay down conditions which involve, excommunication. This carries with it the deprivation of rights and privileges enjoyed by those in communion with the faithful (C.I.C., can. 2257-2267). But such a juridical penalty does not wholly nullify membership of the Church, still less does it necessarily imply the final condemnation before God of the excommunicated person.

11) John A. Hardon, S. J., Modern Catholic Dictionary, Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Co., 1980, “Anathema,” 24, and “Excommunication,” 200:

Solemn condemnation, of biblical origin, used by the Church to declare that some position or teaching contradicts Catholic faith and doctrine.

An ecclesiastical censure by which one is more or less excluded from communion with the faithful. It is also called anathema, especially if it is inflicted with formal solemnities on persons notoriously obstinate to reconciliation . . . In general, the effects of excommunication affect the person’s right to receive the sacraments, or Christian burial, until the individual repents and is reconciled with the Church . . . (Etym. Latin ex=, from + communicare, to communicate: excommunicatio, exclusion from a community.)

12) Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, edited in English by James Canon Bastible, translated by Patrick Lynch, Rockford, Illinois: TAN Books and Publishers, 1955; reprinted in 1974 from the 1952 German edition [10 years before Vatican II began], “Membership of the Church,” 311:

Public heretics, even those who err in good faith (material heretics), do not belong to the body of the Church, that is to the legal commonwealth of the Church. However, this does not prevent them from belonging spiritually to the Church, by their desire to belong to the Church (votum Ecclesiae) and through this, achieving justification and salvation.

According to the more probable opinion, represented by St. Bellarmine and most modern theologians . . . secret apostates and heretics remain members of the Church, because the loss of membership in the Church, just as much as its acquisition, on account of the visibility of the Church, can only result from external legally ascertainable facts.

Schismatics, as well as those who, in good faith, fundamentally reject the Church authority, or who dissociate themslelves from the commonwealth of the faithful subject to her. Schismatics in good faith (material) like heretics in good faith, can, by a desire to belong to the Church (votum Ecclesiae), belong spiritually to the Church, and through this achieve justification and salvation.

. . . Excommunicati tolerati, according to the opinion almost generally held today, which is confirmed by CIC 2266, remain members of the Church, even after the promulgation of the juridical judgment and even if they are deprived of many spiritual benefits . . .

As the baptismal character which effects incorporation in the Church is indestructible, the baptised person, in spite of his ceasing to be a member of the Church, cannot cut himself off so completely from the Church, that every bond with the Church is dissolved. The obligations arising from the reception of Baptism remain, even when the use of the rights connected with it are withdrawn by way of punishment. Thus the Church claims jurisdiction over baptised persons who are separated from her.

13) 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:

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

14) Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume 1, 1907 [65 years before Vatican II began], “Anathema.”


(Gr. anathema — literally, placed on high, suspended, set aside).

In the New Testament anathema no longer entails death, but the loss of goods or exclusion from the society of the faithful. St. Paul frequently uses this word in the latter sense. In the Epistle to the Romans (ix, 3) he says: “For I wished myself to be an anathema from Christ, for my brethren, who are my kinsmen according to the flesh”, i.e. “I should wish to be separated and rejected of Christ, if by that means I would procure the salvation of my brethren.” And again, using the word in the same sense, he says (Gal. i, 9): “If any one preach to you a gospel besides that which you have received, let him be anathema.” But he who is separated from God is united to the devil, which explains why St. Paul, instead of anathematizing, sometimes delivers a person over to Satan (I Tim., i, 20; I Cor., v, 5). Anathema signifies also to be overwhelmed with maledictions, as in I Cor., xvi, 22: “If any man love not our Lord Jesus Christ, let him be anathema.” At an early date the Church adopted the word anathema to signify the exclusion of a sinner from the society of the faithful; but the anathema was pronounced chiefly against heretics. All the councils, from the Council of Nicaea to that of the Vatican, have worded their dogmatic canons: “If any one says . . . let him be anathema”. Nevertheless, although during the first centuries the anathema did not seem to differ from the sentence of excommunication, beginning with the sixth century a distinction was made between the two.

. . . the anathema maranatha is a censure from which the criminal may be absolved; although he is delivered to Satan and his angels, the Church, in virtue of the Power of the Keys, can receive him once more into the communion of the faithful. More than that, it is with this purpose in view that she takes such rigorous measures against him, in order that by the mortification of his body his soul may be saved on the last day. The Church, animated by the spirit of God, does not wish the death of the sinner, but rather that he be converted and live. This explains why the most severe and terrifying formulas of excommunication, containing all the rigours of the Maranatha have, as a rule, clauses like this: Unless he becomes repentant, or gives satisfaction, or is corrected.

15) Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume 5, 1909 [63 years before Vatican II began], “Excommunication.”

Excommunication (Lat. ex, out of, and communio or communicatio, communion — exclusion from the communion), the principal and severest censure, is a medicinal, spiritual penalty that deprives the guilty Christian of all participation in the common blessings of ecclesiastical society. Being a penalty, it supposes guilt; and being the most serious penalty that the Church can inflict, it naturally supposes a very grave offence. It is also a medicinal rather than a vindictive penalty, being intended, not so much to punish the culprit, as to correct him and bring him back to the path of righteousness. It necessarily, therefore, contemplates the future, either to prevent the recurrence of certain culpable acts that have grievous external consequences, or, more especially, to induce the delinquent to satisfy the obligations incurred by his offence. Its object and its effect are loss of communion, i.e. of the spiritual benefits shared by all the members of Christian society; hence, it can affect only those who by baptism have been admitted to that society. Undoubtedly there can and do exist other penal measures which entail the loss of certain fixed rights; among them are other censures, e.g. suspension for clerics, interdict for clerics and laymen, irregularity ex delicto, etc. Excommunication, however, is clearly distinguished from these penalties in that it is the privation of all rights resulting from the social status of the Christian as such. The excommunicated person, it is true, does not cease to be a Christian, since his baptism can never be effaced; he can, however, be considered as an exile from Christian society and as non-existent, for a time at least, in the sight of ecclesiastical authority. But such exile can have an end (and the Church desires it), as soon as the offender has given suitable satisfaction. Meanwhile, his status before the Church is that of a stranger. He may not participate in public worship nor receive the Body of Christ or any of the sacraments. Moreover, if he be a cleric, he is forbidden to administer a sacred rite or to exercise an act of spiritual authority.

. . . This rational argument is confirmed by texts of the New Testament, the example of the Apostles, and the practice of the Church from the first ages down to the present. Among the Jews, exclusion from the synagogue was a real excommunication (Esd., x, 8). This was the exclusion feared by the parents of the man born blind (John, ix, 21 sq.; cf. xii, 42; xvi, 2); the same likewise that Christ foretold to His disciples (Luke, vi, 22). It is also the exclusion which in due time the Christian Church should exercise: “And if he will not hear the church, let him be to thee as the heathen and publican” (Matt., xviii, 17). In the celebrated text: “Whatsoever you shall bind upon earth, shall be bound also in heaven; and whatsoever you shall loose upon earth, shall be loosed also in heaven” (Matt., xviii, 18; cf. xvi, 19), it is not only the remission of sins that is referred to, but likewise all spiritual jurisdiction, including judicial and penal sanctions. Such, moreover, was the jurisdiction conferred on St. Peter by the words: “Feed my lambs”; “feed my sheep” (John, xxi, 15, 16, 17). St. Paul excommunicated regularly the incestuous Corinthians (I Cor., v, 5) and the incorrigible blasphemers whom he delivered over to Satan (I Tim., i, 20). Faithful to the Apostolic teaching and example, the Church, from the very earliest ages, was wont to excommunicate heretics and contumacious persons; since the fourth century numerous conciliary canons pronounce excommunication against those who are guilty of certain offences. Of the facts there can be no doubt.

. . . Undoubtedly the Church cannot (nor does it wish to) oppose any obstacle to the internal relations of the soul with God; she even implores God to give the grace of repentance to the excommunicated . . .

Considered from a moral and juridical standpoint, the guilt requisite for the incurring of excommunication implies, first, the full use of reason; second sufficient moral liberty; finally, a knowledge of the law and even of the penalty. Where such knowledge is lacking, there is no contumacy, i.e. no contempt of ecclesiastical law, the essence of which consists in performing an action known to be forbidden, and forbidden under a certain penalty. The prohibition and the penalty are known either through the text of the law itself, which is equivalent to a juridical warning, or through admonitions or proclamations issued expressly by the ecclesiastical judge. Hence arise various extenuating reasons (causae excusantes), based on lack of guilt, which prevent the incurring of excommunication:

(1) Lack of the full use of reason. This excuses children, also those who have not attained the age of puberty, and, a fortiori, the demented. Inadvertence, however, is not presumed; while it may affect moral responsibility and excommunication in foro externo, it is no obstacle to juridical guilt.

(2) Lack of liberty resulting from grave fear. Such fear impairs the freedom of the will, and while it exists contumacy or rebellion against the laws of the Church cannot be presumed. Evidently, a proper estimation of this extenuating reason depends on the circumstances of each particular case and will be more readily accepted as an excuse for violating a positive law than in palliation of an offence against the natural or Divine law.

(3) Ignorance. The general principle is, that whosoever is ignorant of the law is not responsible for transgressing it; and whosoever is ignorant of the penalty does not incur it. But the application of this principle is often complicated and delicate. The following considerations, generally admitted, may serve as a guide:

(a) All ignorance, both of law and of fact, is excusatory.

(b) The ignorance known as “invincible” always excuses; it may also be called inculpable or probable ignorance.

(c) There are two kinds of culpable ignorance, one known as crassa or supina, i.e. gross, improbable ignorance, and supposing a grievously guilty neglect in regard to knowledge of the law ; the other is affected ignorance, really a deliberate ignorance of the law through fear of incurring its penalty.

(d) Ordinarily, gross ignorance does not excuse from punishment. But it does so only when the law formally exacts a positive knowledge of the prohibition. The laws that inflict excommunication contain as a rule two kinds of expressions. Sometimes the offence only is mentioned, e.g. “all apostates, heretics’s, etc., or “those who absolve their accomplices in a sin against chastity” (Const. “Apost. Sedis”, I, 1, 10).

Sometimes causes are inserted that exact, as a necessary condition, the knowledge or effrontery of the culprit, e.g., “those who knowingly read books” condemned under pain of excommunication, “regulars who have the audacity to administer the Viaticum without permission of the parish priest” (Const. “Apost. Sedis”, I, 2; II, 14). Gross ignorance excuses in the second case but not in the first.

(e) For many authors, affected ignorance is equivalent to a knowledge of the law, since by it some avoid enlightening themselves concerning a dreaded penalty; these authors conclude that such ignorance never excuses. Other canonists consider that this penal law is to be strictly interpreted; when, therefore, it positively exacts knowledge on the part of the culprit, he is excused even by affected ignorance. As, in practice, it is not always easy to establish the shades of difference, it will suffice to remark that in a case of occult excommunication the culprit has the right to judge himself and to be judged by his confessor according to the exact truth, whereas, in the forum externum the judge decides according to presumptions and proofs. Consequently, in the tribunal of conscience he who is reasonably persuaded of his innocence cannot be compelled to treat himself as excommunicated and to seek absolution; this conviction, however, must be prudently established.

. . . Excommunication, it must be remembered, is a medicinal penalty intended, above all, for the correction of the culprit; therefore his first duty is to solicit pardon by showing an inclination to obey the orders given him, just as it is the duty of ecclesiastical authority to receive back the sinner as soon as he repents and declares himself disposed to give the required satisfaction.

16) Kevin Orlin Johnson, Why Do Catholics Do That? A Guide to the Teachings and Practices of the Catholic Church, New York: Ballantine Books, 1994, 52:

But we should note at this point that the Church has never condemned anybody, never said solemnly that so-and-so is in Hell. She can’t, because that would be contrary to her mission. No Christian can, in fact, because we’re supposed to judge as we would be judged. The Church can excommunicate somebody, and always has (1 Cor 5:9-12, for instance), but that’s different. It means announcing publicly that this person has acted so scandalously that he cannot receive the sacraments; this allows — even calls for — reconciliation. And even if the person dies excommunicated, the Church prays God to forgive him.

17) Pope Pius IX, Quanto Conficiamur Moerore, August 10, 1863 [99 years before Vatican II began]:

It is known to us and to you that they who labor in invincible ignorance of our most holy religion and who, zealously keeping the natural law and its precepts engraved in the hearts of all by God, and being ready to obey God, live an honest and upright life, can by the operating power of divine light and grace, attain eternal life, since God who clearly beholds, searches, and knows the minds, souls, thoughts, and habits of all men, because of His great goodness and mercy, will by no means suffer anyone to be punished with eternal torment who has not the guilt of deliberate sin.

18) Jimmy Akin, “Justification by Faith Alone.”

Many Protestants today realize that Catholics adhere to the idea of salvation sola gratia (by grace alone), but fewer are aware that Catholics also do not have to condemn the formula of justification sola fide (by faith alone), provided this phrase is properly understood . . . Whether a Catholic will condemn the idea of justification by faith alone depends on what sense the term “faith” is being used in. If it is being used to refer to unformed faith then a Catholic rejects the idea of justification by faith alone (which is the point James is making in James 2:19, as every non-antinomian Evangelical agrees; one is not justified by intellectual belief alone).

However, if the term “faith” is being used to refer to faith formed by charity then the Catholic does not have to condemn the idea of justification by faith alone. In fact, in traditional works of Catholic theology, one regularly encounters the statement that formed faith is justifying faith. If one has formed faith, one is justified. Period.

. . . A Catholic would thus reject the idea of justification sola fide informi but wholeheartedly embrace the idea of justification sola fide formata. Adding the word “formed” to clarify the nature of the faith in “sola fide” renders the doctrine completely acceptable to a Catholic.

. . . if a Protestant further specifies that saving faith is a faith which “works by charity” then the two soteriological slogans become equivalents. The reason is that a faith which works by charity is a faith which produces acts of love. But a faith which produces acts of love is a faith which includes the virtue of charity, the virtue of charity is the thing that enables us to perform acts of supernatural love in the first place. So a Protestant who says saving faith is a faith which works by charity, as per Galatians 5:6, is saying the same thing as a Catholic when a Catholic says that we are saved by faith, hope, and charity.

. . . a document written a few years ago under the auspices of the (Catholic) German Conference of Bishops and the bishops of the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany (the Lutheran church). The purpose of the document, titled The Condemnations of the Reformation Era: Do They Still Divide?, was to determine which of the sixteenth-century Catholic and Protestant condemnations are still applicable to the other party. Thus the joint committee which drafted the document went over the condemnations from Trent and assessed which of them no longer applied to Lutherans and the condemnations of the Augsburg Confession and the Smalcald Articles, etc., and assesses which of them are not applicable to Catholics.

When it came to the issue of justification by faith alone, the document concluded:

“[T]oday the difference about our interpretation of faith is no longer a reason for mutual condemnation . . . even though in the Reformation period it was seen as a profound antithesis of ultimate and decisive force. By this we mean the confrontation between the formulas ‘by faith alone,’ on the one hand, and ‘faith, hope, and love,’ on the other.

“We may follow Cardinal Willebrand and say: ‘In Luther’s sense the word ‘faith’ by no means intends to exclude either works or love or even hope. We may quite justly say that Luther’s concept of faith, if we take it in its fullest sense, surely means nothing other than what we in the Catholic Church term love’ (1970, at the General Assembly of the World Lutheran Federation in Evian).

If we take all this to heart, we may say the following: If we translate from one language to another, then Protestant talk about justification through faith corresponds to Catholic talk about justification through grace; and on the other hand, Protestant doctrine understands substantially under the one word ‘faith’ what Catholic doctrine (following 1 Cor. 13:13) sums up in the triad of ‘faith, hope, and love.’ But in this case the mutual rejections in this question can be viewed as no longer applicable today

“According to [Lutheran] Protestant interpretation, the faith that clings unconditionally to God’s promise in Word and Sacrament is sufficient for righteousness before God, so that the renewal of the human being, without which there can be no faith, does not in itself make any contribution to justification. Catholic doctrine knows itself to be at one with the Protestant concern in emphasizing that the renewal of the human being does not ‘contribute’ to justification, and is certainly not a contribution to which he could make any appeal before God. Nevertheless it feels compelled to stress the renewal of the human being through justifying grace, for the sake of acknowledging God’s newly creating power; although this renewal in faith, hope, and love is certainly nothing but a response to God’s unfathomable grace. Only if we observe this distinction can we say

“In addition to concluding that canons 9 and 12 of the Decree on Justification did not apply to modern Protestants, the document also concluded that canons 1-13, 16, 24, and 32 do not apply to modern Protestants (or at least modern Lutherans).”

During the drafting of this document, the Protestant participants asked what kind of authority it would have in the Catholic Church, and the response given by Cardinal Ratzinger (who was the Catholic corresponding head of the joint commission) was that it would have considerable authority. The German Conference of Bishops is well-known in the Catholic Church for being very cautious and orthodox and thus the document would carry a great deal of weight even outside of Germany, where the Protestant Reformation started.

Furthermore, the Catholic head of the joint commission was Ratzinger himself, who is also the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome, which is the body charged by the pope with protecting the purity of Catholic doctrine. Next to the pope himself, the head of the CDF is the man most responsible for protecting orthodox Catholic teaching, and the head of the CDF happened to be the Catholic official with ultimate oversight over the drafting of the document.

Before the joint commission met, Cardinal Ratzinger and Lutheran Bishop Eduard Lohse (head of the Lutheran church in Germany) issued a letter expressing the purpose of the document, stating:

“[O]ur common witness is counteracted by judgments passed by one church on the other during the sixteenth century, judgments which found their way into the Confession of the Lutheran and Reformed churches and into the doctrinal decisions of the Council of Trent. According to the general conviction, these so-called condemnations no longer apply to our partner today. But this must not remain a merely private persuasion. It must be established in binding form.”

I say this as a preface to noting that the commission concluded that canon 9 of Trent’s Decree on Justification is not applicable to modern Protestants (or at least those who say saving faith is Galatians 5 faith). This is important because canon 9 is the one dealing with the “faith alone” formula (and the one R.C. Sproul is continually hopping up and down about). It states:

“If anyone says that the sinner is justified by faith alone, so as to understand that nothing else is required to cooperate in the attainment of the grace of justification . . . let him be anathema.”

The reason this is not applicable to modern Protestants is that Protestants (at least the good ones) do not hold the view being condemned in this canon. Like all Catholic documents of the period, it uses the term “faith” in the sense of intellectual belief in whatever God says. Thus the position being condemned is the idea that we are justified by intellectual assent alone (as per James 2). We might rephrase the canon:

“If anyone says that the sinner is justified by intellectual assent alone, so as to understand that nothing besides intellectual assent is required to cooperate in the attainment of the grace of justification . . . let him be anathema.”

And every non-antinomian Protestant would agree with this, since in addition to intellectual assent one must also repent, trust, etc.

So Trent does not condemn the (better) Protestant understanding of faith alone. In fact, the canon allows the formula to be used so long as it is notused so as to understand that nothing besides intellectual assent is required. The canon only condemns “sola fide” if it is used “so as to understandthat nothing else [besides intellectual assent] is required” to attain justification. Thus Trent is only condemning one interpretation of the sola fide formula and not the formula itself.

I should mention at this point that I think Trent was absolutely right in what it did and that it phrased the canon in the perfect manner to be understood by the Catholic faithful of the time. The term “faith” had long been established as referring to intellectual assent, as per Romans 14:22-23, James 2:14-26, 1 Corinthians 13:13, etc., and thus everyday usage of the formula “faith alone” had to be squashed in the Catholic community because it would be understood to mean “intellectual assent alone”

The Church could no more allow people to run around indiscriminately using the faith alone formula than other confusing formulas. While this formula can be given a perfectly orthodox meaning, that is not how it will be understood by the masses. There must be continuity in the language of the faithful or massive confusion will result.

. . . The historic meaning of the terms “believe” and “faith,” which are still the established meanings outside the Protestant community, tend to reassert themselves in the Protestant community when people aren’t paying attention, and antinomianism results.

. . . I feel like banging my head against a wall whenever I hear R.C. Sproul and others representing canon 9 as a manifest and blatant condemnation of Protestant doctrine, or even all Protestants . . .

. . . The phrase “faith alone” (Greek, pisteos monon), occurs exactly once in the Bible, and there it is rejected:

“You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. (Jas. 2:24)”

Without going into the subject of what kind of justification is being discussed here (which is misunderstood by most Evangelical commentators on Catholicism, see below), the phrase “faith alone” is itself rejected. Even though Protestants can give the phrase orthodox theological content, the phrase itself is unbiblical. If we wish to conform our theological language to the language of the Bible, we need to conform our usage of the phrase “faith alone” to the use of that phrase in the Bible.

This understanding is not some innovation of Vatican II, nor is it any reversal. It is a development. One need only look at how St. Thomas Aquinas viewed the matter of “salvation ‘outside’ the Church.” St. Robert Bellarmine (mentioned in the excerpt from Ludwig Ott above) is 16th century, and Aquinas is 13th century. This is nothing new, it has only been more developed. Ecumenism has undergone rapid development in the 20th century, especially since World War II and Vatican II. But it is not a contradiction of older teaching (only of emphases and style, one might say).

Ecumenism is a solid aspect of Catholic theology. It was less developed in the past than it is now. But ecumenism is both biblical (e.g., the Roman centurion and passages such as Romans 2:12-16) and patristic (e.g., St. Augustine’s opinion that Donatist baptism was valid).

The Tridentine anathemas are still true and binding from a Catholic perspective. But in some cases what they condemned were not orthodox (confessional) Lutheran or Calvinist beliefs. This is the issue being discussed among scholars. As Fr. Neuhaus pointed out, this was perfectly understandable due to the doctrinal and ecclesiological confusion of that period, and the fact that even Lutheran confessions contradicted Martin Luther in some key aspects, such as double predestination and free will.

Philip Melanchthon (Luther’s successor) adopted free will, and the Lutheran confessions followed his lead, rather than Luther’s position in his book, The Bondage of the Will. Trent may condemn, for example, antinomianism. Virtually all Protestant bodies do so as well, so that the mistake would be to equate “orthodox Protestantism” with antinomianism. But Trent simply condemned propositions, not entire bodies like the Lutherans. This is part of its genius, I think.


(originally 5-20-03, incorporating portions from 1996 and 1998; abridged on 7-30-18)

Photo credit: Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae: Council of Trent (1565): anonymous Italian [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]


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