Questions and Answers

Some questions have recently come in, and I am happy to answer.

Would you please show me where Rome has changed its position on the doctrines of justification by faith alone and Sola Scriptura since Trent?

This is an easy one.  The Catholic Church has not changed its position on these doctrines since the Council of Trent.  Trent remains on the books, and it will remain so.  I will say that the Church has come to understand a little better what the Reformers were saying back in the day, details that may have been missed in the heat of the moment.  And so some clarifications have been made in the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification by the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church.  This doesn’t mean Trent has changed, and I know many Lutherans don’t like the “concessions” that were made.  So, the issues are not settled, but it’s also not nothing.

Also, will you show me where Rome has reversed its previous position in declaring me, a Protestant minister anathema for administering the sacraments and denying transubstantiation?

The short answer to this is: here.  But that only raises the further question: how can the Catholic Church accept Protestants as brothers in the Lord, when the declarations of the Council of Trent still stand?  Well, I am glad you asked!

The answer to the question turns on the question of what an anathema is.  As the link I provided in my last post on this topic explains, an anathema, in Catholic practice, was a particularly solemn form of excommunication.  By definition, excommunications can only apply to those within one’s communion.  You cannot kick out someone who was already outside.  That is why I say that Trent applied to Catholics.  The Reformers were Catholics.  Those Christians they took with them were also Catholics.  Most contemporary Protestants are not Catholics (i.e., they were not baptized Catholic), though undoubtedly some are.  I was.

Futhermore, the 1983 revision of the Code of Canon Law dropped the canonical penalty of anathema from the books.  It no longer exists.  The question of why it was taken off the books is beyond my pay grade.  For whatever reasons, the penalty was apparently rarely used, and so I surmise it was thought superfluous.  I say rarely used, because to be triggered, the person had to commit the offense, and then be dragged to Rome for a trial.  And that was probably hard to make happen.  “Oh sure, I’ll go to Rome with you.  What for?”

So how can it be that Trent is still on the books, if anathemas are off the books?  Of what value is Trent?  Another good question 🙂  This is where the other purpose of the anathema kicks in.  It is generally held that these types of declarations (i.e., whoever believes such and such, let him be anathema) are indications that some truth proposition has been definitively revealed.  In other words, these anathemas form at least a portion of the Catholic dogmatic bedrock.  They point out, “such and such is true”.  Thus, they are portions of the faith that must be held by all Catholics.  Denial of these truths by Catholics constitutes heresy, which carries with it an excommunication (with a healthy list of exceptions and caveats).  Again, excommunications can only apply to those within the communion of the Catholic Church, as stated in Canon Law:

Merely ecclesiastical laws bind those who have been baptized in the Catholic Church or received into it, possess the efficient use of reason, and, unless the law expressly provides otherwise, have completed seven years of age. (Canon 11)

Last question.

Your final paragraph seems to indicate that my heresies are acceptable (as opposed to Luther’s) since I am not Roman Catholic. Is it truly Rome’s position that heresy is not damnable so long as one is not Catholic?

It would be hard to say “heresies are acceptable”.  Heresy is the denial or obstinate doubt (cf. CCC 2089) of a truth.  That can never be a good thing.  The question you are asking, however, turns on the notion of culpability.  Given that any sin (e.g., heresy) has been objectively committed, what is the subjective culpability of the individual for its commission?  In seeking to answer this question, the Church bears in mind our Lord’s precept:

And that servant who knew his master’s will, but did not make ready or act according to his will, shall receive a severe beating.  But he who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, shall receive a light beating. (Luke 12:47-48)

And so, in setting out the principles by which culpability is measured, the Church says:

A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience.  If he were deliberately to act against it, he would condemn himself.  Yet it can happen that moral conscience remains in ignorance and makes erroneous judgments about acts to be performed or already committed.  This ignorance can often be imputed to personal responsibility. This is the case when a man “takes little trouble to find out what is true and good, or when conscience is by degrees almost blinded through the habit of committing sin.” In such cases, the person is culpable for the evil he commits.

Ignorance of Christ and his Gospel, bad example given by others, enslavement to one’s passions, assertion of a mistaken notion of autonomy of conscience, rejection of the Church’s authority and her teaching, lack of conversion and of charity: these can be at the source of errors of judgment in moral conduct.  If – on the contrary – the ignorance is invincible, or the moral subject is not responsible for his erroneous judgment, the evil committed by the person cannot be imputed to him. It remains no less an evil, a privation, a disorder.  One must therefore work to correct the errors of moral conscience.  (CCC 1790-1793)

So the Church acknowledges that people can have varying levels of culpability for the sins they objectively commit.  Ultimately, the culpability of an individual is between himself and God.  It would be impossible for anyone outside the situation to make that judgement.  Which is why the Catholic Church has not said that Protestants (or Catholics, for that matter) are “damned”.  Granted that evils untold are committed in this world, and granted that the Church has the duty to speak out against those evils, it is nevertheless the case that the Church knows squat about an individual’s level of culpability for these actions, and thus remains happily out of the business of condemning people to hell.  As if she could!

All of this answer to the last question pertains, again, especially to Catholics.  The Church would be loath, I think, to even apply the word “heresy” to non-Catholics.  People do apply it that way, and distinctions can be made between material and formal heresy, but at the end of the day, the Church prefers simply to call non-Catholic Christians separated brethren, or, more basically, Christians.

Hope this helps!

* CCC = Catechism of the Catholic Church


~ by Rob on October 14, 2008.

5 Responses to “Questions and Answers”

  1. Thanks for taking time to deal with my questions. My reading of Trent and other pre-Vatican II documents seem (to me at least) to be saying very different things that what you are saying.

    It is hard, if not impossible for me to come to any conclusion other than that Councils and Popes have contradicted themselves. I am sure we disagree on that point.


    “This Guy”

  2. You’re welcome. We surely disagree on whether councils and popes have contradicted themselves. And that is as it may be. But the rest of your response seems to boil down to, “Sure, that’s what Catholics say their documents mean, but I think they mean something else.” Which, you know, I guess you’re free to do. But the Catechism clearly states that Protestants are “brothers”. Now, you are certainly free to take out airtime on ABC before the season-opener of Lost to publicize how you think this peace-and-love-Catholicism is in despicable contradiction to the old slash-and-burn kind. And if true, that would be a valuable service to the world. But since the promulgation of the Catechism, or rather the documents it cites, you are not free to say we think that all Protestants are damned. Because that would be bearing false witness.

  3. Is it Rome’s position that I am a “brother” even though I deny papal infallibility, Marian dogma, the sacrificial nature of the mass, embrace justification by faith alone and sola Scriptura, administer the Lord’s Supper, etc?

  4. I’ll answer that in a separate post.

  5. […] We’ve already discussed the issue about whether the Catholic Church has actually condemned all Protestants to everlasting hellfire.  We’ve also seen the curious tendency to not check the basic elementary facts about what the Church teaches when discussing what the Church teaches, all of this by people who are obviously very devoted to Christ and very intelligent.  And furthermore, the strange habit of refusing to listen to any answer you might give that doesn’t fit the pre-determined paradigm.  Again, very good, very likable, very intelligent people.  Very cuddly, gooey and delicious […]

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