The Church has a doctrine. The Church exists (among other things) to proclaim the Gospel, and is being led by the Spirit into all truth, and in a sinful world, that entails not only saying what is the case, but also what is NOT the case. The way this is often done in authoritative Church documents (conciliar or papal) is through anathemas. An anathema is an official declaration that someone who believes something erroneous is placed outside the visible boundaries of the Church, because he does not hold the faith of the Church.
As a result of this, sometimes, you will hear Protestants say that because of the Trent anathemas, Catholics believe that all Protestants are going to Hell. But this is simply not true, and is based on a pretty basic misunderstanding of Catholic theology.
According to Catholicism, what will send you to Hell? The simple answer is a mortal sin.
What makes a mortal sin?
What is a mortal sin? It is a wilfull, deliberate, unrepentant, and grave rejection of God. This is classical orthodox Christian theology: God doesn’t “send you to Hell”, you send yourself to Hell. You reject God, and God is bound to obey your choice because He respects your freedom.
In other words, to have a mortal sin, you need two components: an objective component and a subjective component. There needs to be an objective sinful act, concerning a grave matter (the Ten Commandments), but the act alone does not make a mortal sin–there also needs to be the subjective component of the deliberate rejection of God.
To take a silly example: I’m at an airport baggage claim, and I take your suitcase. Maybe I just mistook it for my suitcase. Or maybe I know it’s your suitcase, and I want its contents. In either case, the objective facts are the same–I took your suitcase. But in one case, it’s a mortal sin–theft–and in the other, it’s not a sin at all.
This is why the Catechism will never say that any specific act is a mortal sin. Instead, it speaks of grave sins. A grave sin is an act that by its very nature is always sinful, and can be a mortal sin, depending on the circumstances and the subjective position of the person. The Catechism cannot tell you “X is a mortal sin”, because what is and isn’t a mortal sin depends on knowing things that are unknowable (except to God), namely a person’s subjective disposition at the time of the act.
For example, lying is a grave sin. But lying to your grandma by telling her her awful new dress is just fetching, and lying to your grandma to swindle her out of her life savings is not the same kind of thing. Probably, the former is a venial sin, and the latter a mortal sin.
One way of looking at it is to say that this is just good old Roman, jesuitical, legalistic hair-splitting. Another way of looking at it is that it is a recognition of God’s sovereignty. Only God knows the heart of man, and that is ultimately what a mortal sin is: a rejection of God in your heart, made decisive once it is instantiated in a deliberate act. Therefore the Church cannot arrogate to itself God’s role in judging us.
Circling back, what does this tell us about anathemas? An anathema is a declaration about an objective situation: objectively, someone is placed outside the visible boundaries of the Church. That gives you one component of the mortal sin. But it says nothing–because it cannot say anything–about the subjective component of the situation. Therefore it doesn’t say anything about mortal sin. Therefore it doesn’t say anything about going to Hell.
Again, it is not legalistic hair-splitting, it is a recognition of God’s sovereignty as judge.
Sometimes, Protestants will say that this is an “exception” snuck into the backdoor by Vatican II. This, again, is not true. Even the comicbook version of the pre-Vatican II Baltimore Catechism talks about “baptism of intention”–for those who, had they known everything they should have known, would have embraced the Catholic faith whole and entire. This is also known as the concept of “invincible ignorance.” If you don’t know something is a sin, is God going to send you to Hell for it? No, says the Catholic faith, because there isn’t the subjective element of mortal sin.
For example, let’s say your Protestant pastor tells you Catholics believe all Protestants are going to Hell. Well, that’s not going to make you inclined to look into Catholicism, especially if you know that Paul wrote that anyone who believes that the Messiah Jesus was raised from the dead will be saved. But you have rejected Catholicism based on false information, so have you made a willful, deliberate choice to reject the Catholic faith? No, you have not. Therefore–or, at least, it can plausibly be argued anyway–you have not committed a mortal sin.
Now, maybe all Protestants are going to Hell! (If so, probably most Catholics too.) God is a sovereign judge!
This is not a problem exclusive to Catholicism. In every branch of Christianity, up and down the centuries, teachers of impeccable orthodox credentials have believed in a massa damnata–the vast majority will be damned–and others have believed in either universal salvation, or quasi-universal salvation (most will be saved). The same New Testament that says “few are chosen” also proclaims that God’s mercy is bigger than we can imagine and His iron will to save all mankind. Put that in your pipe and smoke it. All our traditions wrestle with this tension in various ways.
This “loophole” can be made as big as Creation. According to classical Christian thinking, sin is a form of slavery, because true freedom is conformity to the mind of God. But this raises an obvious question: if what makes a sin is a free decision, and sin is a form of unfreedom, then isn’t all sin in the end “moot”? But doesn’t this turn human beings into puppets? Welcome to the tension. In the end, we can just bow at God’s mystery and grace.
Circling back to our damned-or-not Protestants, you might say, well, ok, but this exception only works for Protestants who haven’t looked into Catholic claims. “Educated” Protestants, who know their Bible and have seriously looked into Catholic theology, and rejected it, those guys are clearly in trouble, right? Well, maybe.
But it also reflects a poor understanding of human psychology and human nature. Nobody is as good at fooling themselves as the “smart” and the “educated.” Hans Urs von Balthasar, who Karl Barth recognized as the theologian who understood his thinking best, really believed that Barth’s rejection, despite his formidable erudition, was based on a misunderstanding, rather than a true willful rejection, of Catholic truth (and reading Barth, it’s hard not to disagree). And certainly in my own experience with internet Protestants, I see self-deception more than I see willful rejection.
Even Luther. He still proclaimed his rejection of the Catholic faith on his deathbed. But maybe he lied out of pride, and said a silent prayer of repentance! Or maybe he was just insane (there’s certainly a plausible case there).
Of course, at the same time, at some point, you have to have a healthy fear of God. I don’t know how much your legalistic defense will avail you on Judgement Day. Certainly not as much as true repentance. Even though it makes little sense to speak in this way, one would have to say that your “odds” aren’t great, and this is something you should certainly keep in mind.
But when we deceive ourselves, we also deep-down know that we’re deceiving ourselves. At which point is self-deception “invincible ignorance” and at which point is it self-deception that we’re consciously, or semi-consciously, and therefore accountably, complicit in? Again–“oh the depth and wonders of the mystery of God!” These are really questions only He can, and will, answer. And once He does, we will see how it all makes sense.
In the meantime, the Church, by the grace of the Spirit, does not usurp His role.