Are former Roman Catholics still condemned by the numerous anathemas pronounced by the Council of Trent and Vatican Council II? Some priests say the anathemas have been rescinded because they do not want to thwart the current ecumenical movement that is drawing "separated brethren" back home to Rome. But is this just their opinion or can their statements be backed up by Vatican authority?
Several years ago a Roman Catholic priest was invited to speak at the Sunday morning worship service for First Baptist Church of Plano. I attended the service out of curiosity. What on earth would a Catholic priest have to say to 1100 Southern Baptists? His message was an exhortation for Catholics and Protestants to come together in Christian unity. During the message he said, "Just as the Jews were surprised when God extended salvation to the Gentiles, we Catholics are now
surprised he is extending salvation to you Protestants." After the message, most of the congregation got into a reception line to thank the priest for coming in a spirit of unity. I also joined the line to meet the priest and when I finally had the chance to address him, I asked: "How can the Roman Catholic Church encourage unity with Protestants when you condemn us with over 100 anathemas for not believing your dogmas?" As he observed all the people standing in line listening, he said: "All those anathemas are no longer in effect." I responded: "Oh really, when were they rescinded?" He replied: "After a period of time they just go away." This Catholic priest of 35 years either did not know his church's teachings on anathemas or he was deliberately attempting to deceive the unsuspecting.
Recently, as a guest on a radio program in Omaha, Nebraska, I was asked if the anathemas pronounced by the Councils of Trent and Vatican II are still in effect today. I explained that since "infallible" councils of Bishops pronounced the anathemas, they are immutable. However, a Catholic apologist challenged my statement by declaring the 1983 Code of Canon Law changed the decrees pronounced by the Council of Trent.
This prompted me to investigate the Vatican's official position on anathemas. According to the Roman Catholic Church, the eternal destinies of Catholics and former Catholics hang in the balance on this issue of anathemas. My research began in The Catholic Encyclopedia, which gives full and authoritative information on Catholic doctrine. In the encyclopedia I found the differences between canons, dogmas and decrees. Canons are irreversible "short, dogmatic definitions with an anathema attached to them." Decrees are disciplinary regulations that can be changed and have no anathemas attached. (These are the decrees the Catholic Apologist had confused with anathemas that cannot change.) Infallible dogmas are "the last word of supreme teaching authority; there must be no possibility of reopening the question in a spirit of doubt; [the dogma] must settle the matter for ever." How do we know an infallible dogma? Whenever "an anathema is attached to doctrinal teaching of a general council, it is a certain sign of an infallible definition." Dogmas "will be for all time immutable truths" because they "have been defined and delivered to us by the Church" with "an infallible testimony." When a teaching doctrine is elevated to a dogma, Catholics "are bound to believe them in order to maintain the bond of faith."
Some Catholics do not believe the Eucharist becomes the physical presence of Jesus Christ through the "miracle" of transubstantiation. These Catholics may not be aware that the rejection of this dogma is unacceptable to their church. In fact, it puts them under condemnation. From the council of Trent, the "infallible" Bishops, speaking with one voice, gave us Canon I: "If any one denies, that, in the sacrament of the most holy Eucharist, are contained truly, really, and substantially, the body and blood together with the soul and divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ, and consequently the whole Christ; but says that He is only there as in a sign, or in figure, or virtue; let him be anathema."
Whenever the pontiff pronounces an anathema, he uses a formula which ends with these words: "Wherefore in the name of God...in virtue of the power given us of binding and loosing in Heaven and on earth, we deprive (Name) 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."
Former Catholics who are now born-again Christians need not to worry! If God is for us, who is against us? Who will bring a charge against God's elect? Who is the one who condemns? (Rom. 8:31-34). Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword [or the Roman Catholic Church]? (Rom. 8:35).
Clearly, we see three characteristics of anathemas. They are immutable, which means they can never be rescinded. They condemn former Catholics to the torments of everlasting hell unless they do penance and return home to Rome. They also condemn current Catholics who do not believe every dogma.
An example of an anathema imposed on Roman Catholics that many of them reject today is the one concerning indulgences. According to Vatican Council II, the Roman Catholic Church "condemns with anathema those who say that indulgences are useless or that the Church does not have the power to grant them" (Vol. 1, p. 71). An indulgence defined by Rome is "a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian...gains under certain defined conditions" (Vol. 1, p. 75). They can always be applied to the dead by way of prayer, the Rosary or the sacrifice of the Mass. "The faithful who use with devotion an object of piety (crucifix, cross, rosary, scapular or medal) after it has been duly blessed by any priest, can gain a partial indulgence." (Vol. 1, p. 77). Most Catholics who reject this ungodly dogma on indulgences ignore the fact that they stand condemned by their church. This has always puzzled me. Why would Catholics trust their church's teachings on salvation, while at the same time, ignore their teachings on condemnation?
All former Catholics, who have been justified by God through faith in the finished work of Christ, must use this information to educate others. We must contend for the faith by informing our pastors and evangelical leaders who are encouraging unity with Rome.
Whenever we are rebuked in our efforts to contend for the faith we must always remember the words of Paul, "be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord" (1 Cor. 15:58).
We must also proclaim the truth to Catholics who ignore or reject the anathemas imposed upon them. Only God has the power to save and condemn. We find only two anathemas in His Word. "If any man love not the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be Anathema" (1 Cor. 16:22). Paul also wrote, "If we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned!" (Gal. 1:8). Scripture is our most trustworthy source for knowing the truth on these critical issues!