My understanding, is that in response to the protestant reformation, Luther in particular, the Catholic Church convened the council of Trent, and put their official doctrines on the issues into writing. One section was a list of 33 "canons" which I believe are like church laws.

Many of these canons ended with an "Anathema" being pronounced on anyone who would say such a thing. Anathema is a "curse", here's a quick dictionary lookup for it on dictionary.com:

1.a person or thing detested or loathed 2.a person or thing accursed or consigned to damnation or destruction. 3.a formal ecclesiastical curse involving excommunication. 4.any imprecation of divine punishment. 5.a curse; execration.

These are often cited by protestants to show how the Catholic church feels about the idea of being "Saved by Faith alone".

This is the source I used for the canons "https://history.hanover.edu/texts/trent/ct06.html"

Here are examples of some Canons for clarity, and the anathemas at the end:

CANON IX.-If any one saith, that by faith alone the impious is justified; in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to co-operate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification, and that it is not in any way necessary, that he be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will; let him be anathema.

CANON XII.-If any one saith, that justifying faith is nothing else but confidence in the divine mercy which remits sins for Christ's sake; or, that this confidence alone is that whereby we are justified; let him be anathema.

CANON XV.-If any one saith, that a man, who is born again and justified, is bound of faith to believe that he is assuredly in the number of the predestinate; let him be anathema

I feel like there are a lot of directions this could go, so I want to be pretty specific about the answer.

The question is Does the Catholic Church still pronounce these anathemas on protestants who believe as such?

So I feel like answers should clearly have a Yes, or a No.

If you so choose, I am also interested in, what the church means by anathema, how this plays out in the Catholic view of protestant churches, etc etc. I don't really want to get into why these canons are or are not theologically sound (I would love to, but for the sake of the scope of this question let's not).


9 Answers 9


To say of a person, "Anathema sit"—"Let him be anathema"—means simply that the person is excommunicated: regarded as having separated themselves from the body of the True Church. It appears that at an early time it corresponded to a more formal act and a more serious punishment than excommunication:

At a late period, Gregory IX (1227-41), bk. V, tit. xxxix, ch. lix, Si quem, distinguishes minor excommunication, or that implying exclusion only from the sacraments, from major excommunication, implying exclusion from the society of the faithful. He declares that it is major excommunication which is meant in all texts in which mention is made of excommunication.

("Anathema", The Catholic Encyclopedia)

But its later meaning was essentially the same as excommunication.

To say, then, with Canon IX,

If any one saith, that by faith alone the impious is justified; in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to co-operate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification ... let him be anathema.

is simply to mean that anyone who does in fact hold this belief is considered to be outside the body of the Church. And similarly for any other use of the phrase.

The phrase "let him be anathema" has fallen out of use in the last several centuries; but the concept still appears. For example, in the 1950 encyclical Munificentissimus Deus, promulgating the dogma of the Assumption of Mary, Pope Pius XII closes with

Hence if anyone, which God forbid, should dare willfully to deny or to call into doubt that which we have defined, let him know that he has fallen away completely from the divine and Catholic Faith. ... It is forbidden to any man to change this, our declaration, pronouncement, and definition or, by rash attempt, to oppose and counter it. If any man should presume to make such an attempt, let him know that he will incur the wrath of Almighty God and of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul.

Therefore, in brief: The anathemas of the Council of Trent still stand; but they are not formal curses or condemnations pronounced on individual Protestants. Rather, they are formal declarations that Protestants who hold these particular beliefs are not in communion with the True Church.

  • 3
    This is soft-peddling nearly to the point of ridiculousness. Even in a Protestant ecclesiology your last two sentences are contradictory: there is not much you can to to condemn or curse a man than to formally exclude him from the church. And in Catholic theology which denies salvation apart from their definition of true church this is even more serious. Just say yes, the anathemas still stand—Rome has not revoked those pronouncements. Trying to put a different spin on the word as if it's not a serious thing to soften the blow is just disingenuous.
    – Caleb
    Commented Jul 19, 2017 at 19:34
  • 5
    @Caleb It's an excommunication. That doesn't at all mean it's not a serious thing; but an excommunication is as canon law states a medicinal penalty, designed not to punish but to correct. An excommunication is not a curse (an invocation of evil on someone) or a condemnation (a declaration that they are evil). It's a declaration that they've left the church, designed to prod them into rejoining. Can they be saved? Not if they persist in error; but that's not the point of discussion here. Commented Jul 19, 2017 at 19:44

Yes, all dogmas the Church has defined still stand today.

The anathematized propositions in the Council of Trent are dogmatic definitions expressed negatively. A dogma is "A truth proposed by the Church as revealed by God," the denial of which incurs excommunication (source); dogmas are "truths which have fallen from heaven" (Lamentabili §22).

In his 1907 encyclical Pascendi Dominici gregis, Pope St. Pius X called the heresy of Modernism the "synthesis of all heresies" (§39). One tenet of Modernism is that dogmas evolve, do not express immutable truth, and are formulae for producing religious feelings. According to the Modernists (Pascendi §13),

the formulae too, which we call dogmas, must be subject to these vicissitudes [of "religious sentiment"], and are, therefore, liable to change. Thus the way is open to the intrinsic evolution of dogma. An immense collection of sophisms this, that ruins and destroys all religion. Dogma is not only able, but ought to evolve and to be changed. This is strongly affirmed by the Modernists, and as clearly flows from their principles.

Pascendi §§26-28 overview the Modernists' heresy of the evolution of doctrine, concluding with this quote from the First Vatican Council's Dei Filius (my emphasis):

For the doctrine of faith which God hath revealed has not been proposed, like a philosophical invention, to be perfected by human ingenuity, but has been delivered as a divine deposit to the Spouse of Christ, to be faithfully kept and infallibly declared. Hence, also, that meaning of the sacred dogmas is perpetually to be retained which our holy mother the Church has once declared; nor is that meaning ever to be departed from, under the pretense or pretext of a deeper comprehension of them.


This is quite a serious subject for those who believe in One Body, Spirit, Hope, Lord, Faith, Baptism, God and Father.


There are two views. One is that the word “anathema” has been banished from official Catholic usage and is replaced by the word “excommunication”. The former anathemas continue in a form today, but as excommunications from the Catholic Church with the Pope as her head. Two, the minority view, is that the current Catholic Church leadership in so making these changes (and others) has denied their faith and anathemas remain in full force against all. This minority view is upheld by sedevacantism (empty chair of Peter). This answer looks only at the first.

The OP showed Trent’s usage of the word. Here is another from the First Vatican Council 1870 when Pope Pius IX announced this:

  1. Likewise all other things which have been transmitted, defined and declared by the sacred canons and the ecumenical councils, especially the sacred Trent, I accept unhesitatingly and profess; in the same way whatever is to the contrary, and whatever heresies have been condemned, rejected and anathematized by the Church, I too condemn, reject and anathematize.

This true Catholic faith, outside of which none can be saved, which I now freely profess and truly hold, is what I shall steadfastly maintain and confess, by the help of God, in all its completeness and purity until my dying breath, and I shall do my best to ensure [2] that all others do the same. This is what I, the same Pius, promise, vow and swear. So help me God and these holy gospels of God.

As mentioned, however, most Catholic’s now view anathemas as voided and replaced by excommunication.

The 1983 Code of Canon Law, which is now in force, does not contain the word "anathema",[18] and the Pontificale Romanum, as revised after the Second Vatican Council, no longer mentions any particular solemnities associated with the infliction of excommunication.

Anathema meant exclusion from the Church because of heresy. It applied to all. Paul had used the term to say let those who do not love Christ be anathema. This sense was later refined to those who didn’t believe the dogmas of what came to be called the Roman Catholic Church or Roman Church.

Excommunication, however, now applies only to the baptized and living. It is “the forfeiture of spiritual privileges of ecclesiastical society” within the Catholic Church.

One of the differences in this new view is the distinction between Christians and others. Christians may be excommunicated, but, for example, Pagans may not be.

So, a Christian departing from the Catholic Church whose head is the Pope by, for example, believing in any of the five solas, or rejecting any of the four Marian dogmas, or denying the Eucharist as sacrifice, means you are excommunicated from that society. If the Christian by virtue of baptism dies in that state of mortal sin, being excommunicated, they teach, the Christian will go to hell.

To return into communion with the Catholic Church whose view of itself is as the One True Church, you must go through their Sacrament of confession. But this is a different matter. Suffice to say, if one rejects their teachings on their dogmas of their faith, one’s rejection of one of their Sacraments seems like a trifle. Most Evangelicals for example believe only in two Sacraments (Baptism, Eucharist (Thanksgiving or Lord’s Supper) as sacrament).


So, the answer is it depends on which Catholic you ask whether anathemas continue or not. Bottom line is that they may not agree on the term, but they agree on the excommunication and all of its repercussions.


Eph. 4:4-6 1 Cor. 16:22 http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05678a.htm https://www.ewtn.com/library/councils/v1.htm https://www.catholic.com/magazine/print-edition/anathema https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anathema https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Excommunication_(Catholic_Church) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Excommunication#Catholic_Church http://www.scborromeo.org/ccc.htm https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sacrament https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/One_true_church

  • wow! this was great. You really got the direction i was trying to go, i wanted to keep the question basic and answerable, but my real curiosity was the Catholic view of Protestants in light of these Anathemas.
    – L1R
    Commented Jul 20, 2017 at 16:50

Yes, the Anathemas of the Council of Trent still stand today and forever.

They are the dogmatic (decisively declared, irreformable [because it is the truth] interpretation or declaration on the faith of the Church), that is, infallible, magisterial teaching of the Church in an Ecumenical Council.

In other words, as far as authentic Catholicism goes, Protestantism remains to be in the errors it was first in when it was founded, and will remain to be so until he accepts "the Catholic Faith, which except a man believe faithfully and firmly, he cannot be saved" (Athanasian Creed).

Does the Catholic Church still pronounce these anathemas on protestants who believe as such?

Yes, but this assumes that, like with belief in Christ, you know you should be following it, but refuse to knowingly. It does not apply to everyone: it can't sever anyone from the Body of Christ who is not a member thereof. For example, it does not apply to people who have never heard of a 'Jesus' or 'Catholic Church'. In fact, they only apply to members of the Body of Christ who stray into error, strictly speaking.

  • Yes, dogmas are infallible (or irreformable, as once Vatican I council father preferred to call it).
    – Geremia
    Commented Jul 20, 2017 at 15:31
  • Yes, thanks. Don't know how the word infallible didn't make it in there. Commented Jul 20, 2017 at 19:42
  • @SolaGratia The Athanasian Creed goes on to define the Catholic Faith in specifics concerning the Trinity, the Incarnation, and other specified details. Is it an accepted or common interpretation, in the Roman Church, that "the Catholic faith" referred to in the Athanasian Creed is not limited to the articles stated within the Athanasian Creed as constituting that faith? I am not aware of any such authoritative interpretation of the Athanasian Creed, but I wonder if you know of anything. Your answer seems to suggest so.
    – davidlol
    Commented Jul 20, 2017 at 22:14
  • I'm not aware of such an interpretation; I'm not sure one exists where the ulterior intent of the author of the Creed is investigatied. The Athanasian Creed, we can confidently say, implicitly contains the truths of the whole faith, not just the fundamentals named. Just like with the Nicaean-Constantinopolitan, or Apostles'. In any case, it refers to the one true faith, and that's certain. There were not admitted 'other forms' of the one catholic faith, which was the only valid, authentic Christian faith around. No Creed is exhaustive or explicit. The core beliefs are under simple 'headings.' Commented Jul 21, 2017 at 13:51

An "Anathema" most assuredly is not a curse.

If anyone says that the Catholic Church curses anyone, let him be anathema.

Is not a curse.

It's a prescription, I thought the same thing you're saying but just a happened to watch a podcast with noted apologist Jimmy Akin last week wherein it was casted (on whatever it is that they cast it on up there) something to the effect:

The penalty of anathema, like all excommunications, was medicinal and meant to prompt the person to repent. Thus there was also a special ceremony for lifting the anathema and receiving him back into fellowship once he did.


There's a few other bullet points that Mr. Akin points out, but that's the gist of it. The big thing to note is that these are not latae sententiae excommunications, but the kinds of Bells and Candles excommunications shown in a movie like Becket.

So no, you still can't believe in the things Protestants teach that Catholics don't teach and say you hold fast to the teachings of the Catholic Church, but you're not excommunicated because you think Martin Luther had a good idea here or there.


First of all, I state that the previous response by Matt Gutting regarding the meaning of the anathema expression, and the previous responses by Geremia and Sola Gratia regarding the lasting value of dogmas defined by ecumenical councils, are all correct. I just think that it is important to add to those answers that the practice of stating a dogma of faith by way of pronouncing an anathema on anyone who affirms the contradictory statement did not begin with the Council of Trent and moreover is not peculiar to the Roman Catholic Church (as separate from the Eastern Orthodox since 1054). Rather, that practice began in the First Council of Nicaea in 325 [1] and continued in subsequent ecumenical councils, of which the first seven, from Nicaea I to Nicaea II in 787, are held as such by Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox alike.

Since it is possible that some readers will learn from [1] that the original Creed of Nicaea (which is not the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed used today) anathematizes those "who assert that the Son of God is of a different hypostasis or substance [Gr: ousía]," and to prevent those readers from thinking that this contradicts the first anathema of the Constantinople II Ecumenical Council (553), "If anyone does not confess [...] a consubstantial [Gr: homoousios] Trinity, one Godhead worshipped in three Hypostases or Persons [Gr: Prosopa]: let him be anathema." [2], I point out that the apparent contradiction is the result of the term "hypostasis" having two possible meanings in philosophy and being used in one of them by Nicaea (namely, as synonym of ousía in a particular, not universal, sense) and in the other by Church documents from 382 onward (namely, as synonym of hypokeimenon, the individual, particular, concrete subject).

I hope that the Constantinople II Council's 14 main anathemas and 15 subsequent anathemas against origenism will suffice to show that definition of dogmas by way of anathemas has always been the rule, not the exception, in the Church, and thus dispel any perception of Trent's anathema language being kind of odd.

[1] https://earlychurchtexts.com/public/creed_of_nicaea_325.htm

[2] https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/const2.asp


To answer this question we have to address two issues:

  1. What did the anathemas in Trent mean?
  2. What does the R.C.C. say about salvation today?

First of all, the anathemas in Trent were condemnations to hell. Take, for example, Session 6, canon 12:

Canon XII -- Si quis dixerit, fidem justificantem nihil alind esse, quam fiduciam divinae misericordiae peccata remittentis propter Christum; vel eam fiduciam solam esse, qua justificamur: anathema sit.

CANON XII.-If any one saith, that justifying faith is nothing else but confidence in the divine mercy which remits sins for Christ's sake; or, that this confidence alone is that whereby we are justified; let him be anathema. http://traditionalcatholic.net/Tradition/Council/Trent/Sixth_Session,_Canons.html

We notice several details about this. This canon was specifically composed against Martin Luther who believed one was saved by grace alone apart from ones works.

From context and history we know very well what this anthema looked like. Here's the text from the papal bull, Exsurge Domini speaking against Luther:

As far as Martin himself is concerned, O good God, what have we overlooked or not done? What fatherly charity have we omitted that we might call him back from such errors? For after we had cited him, wishing to deal more kindly with him, we urged him through various conferences with our legate and through our personal letters to abandon these errors. We have even offered him safe conduct and the money necessary for the journey urging him to come without fear or any misgivings, which perfect charity should cast out, and to talk not secretly but openly and face to face after the example of our Savior and the Apostle Paul. If he had done this, we are certain he would have changed in heart, and he would have recognized his errors. He would not have found all these errors in the Roman Curia which he attacks so viciously, ascribing to it more than he should because of the empty rumors of wicked men. We would have shown him clearer than the light of day that the Roman pontiffs, our predecessors, whom he injuriously attacks beyond all decency, never erred in their canons or constitutions which he tries to assail. For, according to the prophet, neither is healing oil nor the doctor lacking in Galaad.

But he always refused to listen and, despising the previous citation and each and every one of the above overtures, disdained to come. To the present day he has been contumacious. With a hardened spirit he has continued under censure over a year. What is worse, adding evil to evil, and on learning of the citation, he broke forth in a rash appeal to a future council. This to be sure was contrary to the constitution of Pius II and Julius II our predecessors that all appealing in this way are to be punished with the penalties of heretics. In vain does he implore the help of a council, since he openly admits that he does not believe in a council.

Therefore we can, without any further citation or delay, proceed against him to his condemnation and damnation as one whose faith is notoriously suspect and in fact a true heretic with the full severity of each and all of the above penalties and censures. https://www.papalencyclicals.net/leo10/l10exdom.htm

Note the words, "condemnation" and "Damnation." There can be no doubt as to what "anathema" means historically speaking.

Likewise, just to make sure there's no ambiguity, earlier on in Exsurge Domini we read:

With the advice and consent of these our venerable brothers, with mature deliberation on each and every one of the above theses, and by the authority of almighty God, the blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and our own authority, we condemn, reprobate, and reject completely each of these theses or errors as either heretical, scandalous, false, offensive to pious ears or seductive of simple minds, and against Catholic truth. By listing them, we decree and declare that all the faithful of both sexes must regard them as condemned, reprobated, and rejected . . . We restrain all in the virtue of holy obedience and under the penalty of an automatic major excommunication….

Moreover, because the preceding errors and many others are contained in the books or writings of Martin Luther, we likewise condemn, reprobate, and reject completely the books and all the writings and sermons of the said Martin, whether in Latin or any other language, containing the said errors or any one of them; and we wish them to be regarded as utterly condemned, reprobated, and rejected. https://www.papalencyclicals.net/leo10/l10exdom.htm

Notice the words, "Major excommunication." What is Major Excommunication? The Catholic Encyclopedia describes it this way:

Ceremony of Excommunication (as described in The Catholic Encyclopedia)

Anathema remains a major excommunication which is to be promulgated with great solemnity. A formula for this ceremony was drawn up by Pope Zachary (741-52) in the chapter Debent duodecim sacerdotes, Cause xi, quest. iii. The Roman Pontifical reproduces it in the chapter Ordo excommunicandi et absolvendi, distinguishing three sorts of excommunication: minor excommunication, formerly incurred by a person holding communication with anyone under the ban of excommunication; major excommunication, pronounced by the Pope in reading a sentence; and anathema, or the penalty incurred by crimes of the gravest order, and solemnly promulgated by the Pope. In passing this sentence, the pontiff is vested in amice, stole, and a violet cope, wearing his mitre, and assisted by twelve priests clad in their surplices and holding lighted candles. He takes his seat in front of the altar or in some other suitable place, amid pronounces the formula of anathema which ends with these words: "Wherefore in the name of God the All-powerful, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, of the Blessed Peter, Prince of the Apostles, and of all the saints, in virtue of the power which has been given us of binding and loosing in Heaven and on earth, we deprive N-- himself and all his accomplices and all his abettors of the Communion of the Body and Blood of Our Lord, we separate him from the society of all Christians, we exclude him from the bosom of our Holy Mother the Church in Heaven and on earth, we declare him excommunicated and anathematized and we judge him condemned to eternal fire with Satan and his angels and all the reprobate, so long as he will not burst the fetters of the demon, do penance and satisfy the Church; we deliver him to Satan to mortify his body, that his soul may be saved on the day of judgment." Whereupon all the assistants respond: "Fiat, fiat, fiat." http://conclarendon.blogspot.com/2012/09/excommunication.html

After they give the person the Major Excommunication, they anathematize him. Then notice the words, "Condemn to eternal fire" Then the priests chant, "Fiat, fiat, fiat."

It is only with complete duplicity and absurdity that anyone would conclude that, at Trent, they weren't condemning Luther and others to condemnation in hell.

But it gets even worse. In canon XII, notice the words, "Si quis dixerit." Notice the future perfect. They weren't content to just condemn Luther to hell. They also had to drive that anathema into the indefinite future with the indefinite pronoun followed by a future perfect. According to them, anyone and everyone who follows in Luther's teaching will also burn in hell forever.

So that covers Trent. What about the second issue: The R.C.C.'s view of protestants today. Who knows? And I don't mean that in a snarky way. What I mean to say is that the Roman Catholic Church in modern times changes its views with each pope. Consider the encyclical, Lumen Gentium:

Lumen gentium §16 says: "For they who without their own fault do not know of the Gospel of Christ and His Church, but yet seek God with sincere heart, and try, under the influence of grace, to carry out His will in practice, known to them through the dictate of conscience, can attain eternal salvation." https://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/most/getwork.cfm?worknum=71

Note the words, "do not know of the Gospel of Christ." In Hebrews 11:6 it says that "without faith it is impossible to please God." But in more modern times the Roman Catholic Church has even gone to the extreme of saying that people who don't even know who Jesus is will end up in heaven.

In that sort of culture and context, there is no framework and foundation to conclude what they might do with Protestants today.

  • So there is "anathema" pronounced against those who say the burning of heretics is against the will of the Spirit (Exsurge Domini)? christianity.stackexchange.com/q/95127/47250 and christianity.stackexchange.com/q/95127/47250 Commented Jun 23, 2023 at 11:46
  • 1
    In the document the pope condemns/damns Luther and all those who follow him. Then, at the very end of the document he outlines "poisons" and "errors" that have to be corrected. One of them is the (false) teaching that burning at the stake is wrong. The pope is very much for burning at the stake. Likewise, one has to look back and laugh, that earlier on in the document, he chides Luther for not trusting him when he gave Luther an offer of safe passage—when years before, safe passage was given to Huss and yet the pope lied and burned him at the stake anyway. so much for 'safe passage.'
    – user24895
    Commented Jun 23, 2023 at 13:17
  • "The pope is very much for burning at the stake" The question is, was he infallibly for it? Catholics seem divided on the question. Commented Jun 24, 2023 at 13:42

The Catholic Church has modified its position in regards to Protestants considerably since the Vatican II Counsel of the 1960s. While the Church considers the original Protestants anathematized it does not apply that classification to most Protestants living today who have never been part of the Catholic Church (unlike the original Reformers they did not consciously rebel against the Church but were simply born into it). But of course, this does not apply to people who are raised Catholic and become Protestant (Where the Trent anathemata apply).

Anyway the Official Statement of this is called, “Unitatis redintegratio” The Roman Catholics take a similar stand to people “born into Protestantism” as they do with the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox, considering them “separated brethren”, of the One Church. In 2007, “This position was clarified in Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.”

(Wikipedia Quote) J. M. R. Tillard goes into detail, in New Catholic Encyclopedia, about "the development of a carefully nuanced vocabulary, consistent with Vatican II Ecclesiology," which evolved from "the idea of membership in favor of that of incorporation" and has its categorization found in the dogmatic constitution Lumen gentium (LG) which Tillard describes: Catholics are defined as "'being incorporated' (incorporatio), qualifying the term with the adverb 'fully' (plene) and emphasizing that full incorporation requires the presence of the Holy Spirit."[b] Non-Catholics and catechumens are defined as "'being linked' (conjunctio) to the Church, again carefully stressing the role of the Holy Spirit in each case."[c] Non-Christians are defined as "'being related' (ordinantur), a term that suggests a dynamic relationship, an orientation toward the Church."[d] "Every shade of difference in meaning among these terms is important," emphasizes Tillard. "But the terms acquire their full force only in the light of the most authoritative commentaries on them," UR and Nostra aetate (NA). "Then, supposing the nuances indicated, the richness of such expressions as the following becomes clear: 'Churches and ecclesial communities';[e] 'separated brethren';[f] 'separated Churches and ecclesial communities';[g] 'full communion'—'imperfect communion'."[10][h] "But thanks to its ecclesiology," wrote Tillard, "Vatican II was able to affirm at the same time that Churches or ecclesial communities separated from the Catholic Church are part of the single Church, and that nevertheless incorporation in Christ and His Church possesses within the Catholic Church the fullness that it does not have elsewhere."



Do the Anathemas Pronounced in the Council of Trent still stand today?

The short answer is yes.

Does the Catholic Church still pronounce these anathemas on protestants who believe as such?

The short answer is no.

Now let me explain.

Many Protestants misunderstand the idea of anathema, as in the formula used by the councils of Church in rejecting various doctrines — most particularly the canons of the Council of Trent in rejecting Protestant doctrines:

Canon IX. If any one shall say, that by faith alone the impious is justified; so as to mean that nothing else is required to co-operate in order unto obtaining the grace of justification, and that it is not in any respect necessary that he be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will; let him be anathema. (Council of Trent, Sixth Session [1547], Decree concerning Justification [trans. Theodore Alois Buckley])

(For the most piercing and enlightening commentary I’ve ever read on these pronouncements of Trent concerning justification and other doctrines, you should read my dear frend Laura, a former Protestant like myself who can sweep away Protestant questions and confusion like nobody else I know.)

So anathema: To translate the word etymologically and literally, it can mean “accursed”; even “devoted to destruction.” Many Protestants understand that when the Council of Trent declared holders of these doctrines to be “anathema,” it was “devoting them to destruction” or even pronouncing “eternal damnation” on them — such that Protestants think that to “anathematize” someone is to “damn them to hell.” Naturally, Protestants are rather offended by this, and rightly hold that any Church that would pronounce eternal damnation on someone is not acting according to God’s will — which is that all men should be saved (1 Timothy 2:4).

But that’s not what the council was saying at all. Through generations of use, beginning even with the usage of St. Paul in the New Testament, anathema came to mean something other than its literal, etymological meaning — particularly in Latin, and particularly in the councils of the Church. Anathema sit (“Let him be anathema”) became a legal formula, something repeated by the councils to announce a particular, traditional judgment. When the councils pronounced holders of a doctrine anathema, it marked a formal excommunication from the Church: nothing more and nothing less.

Excommunication, too, is often misunderstood; even though it is a biblical doctrine that many Protestants practice (I have heard them refer to it euphemistically as “disfellowship,” but the concept is the same): to remove one who is unrepentant in sin or incorrigibly teaching error from one’s church body, as St. Paul recommended in 1 Corinthians 5, even using language evocative of anathema (“deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh”, v. 5).

Simple logic dictates that the Church was not pronouncing a permanent, irrevocable damnation here: If that were so, then the Church would not have gone to such great effort to win back our separated Protestant brethren during the Counter-Reformation (notably through the efforts of the Jesuits) and ever since:

If any holder of Protestant doctrines was irretrievably damned — if the Church wanted to damn him — then why bother? Many, many separated brothers, even whole countries, such as Poland and Lithuania, were brought back to the Catholic faith, and accepted with open and loving arms.

Also, for what it’s worth, the canons of the councils of the Catholic Church apply only to members of the Catholic Church: after one has formally separated from the Catholic Church and rejected its authority, then its disciplinary pronouncements have no more bearing on him. The declaration of anyone as “anathema” at the Council of Trent does not technically apply to Protestants today, only to Catholics who were espousing those doctrines. You can’t very well be excommunicated from something you were never formally a part of.

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