Imagine a man and woman have a horrible fight. The man writes a scathing letter to the woman, going so far as to repeatedly say that he hates her. Time passes, and the man comes to the woman to reconcile, telling her how much he loves her and he’s sorry that he hurt her. The woman wants to be reconciled, but is still deeply hurt by the letter he wrote. She, in tears, asks him, “Do you take back what you said in your letter?” Imagine how the woman would respond if the man replied, “I love you and want us to be at peace, but I have to stick by everything I said in the letter.” Understandably, the woman would be hesitant to take the man’s apology seriously. If, in the process of trying to reconcile, he insisted on sticking with what he said in his hostile letter, the woman couldn’t take him seriously.
This illustration sums up how many Protestants feel about recent ecumenical efforts by the Roman Catholic Church. In the 1960s, the 2nd Vatican Council expressed goodwill towards Protestants, calling them “separated brethren”. The first Vatican Council a century before had merely referred to Protestants as “schismatics and heretics”. Vatican II seemed willing to concede that, by virtue of the grace conferred on them in baptism, Protestants are in a state of communion with Christ’s Body (albeit a very imperfect, incomplete state). Understandably, Vatican II has gotten people’s hopes up, making many Protestants feel that, for the first time since the 16th century, Rome is willing to recognize Protestants as Christians. Is this an accurate perspective though?
1. Are Protestants “separated brethren” or under anathema?
All is not as peaceful as it seems. For all its congeniality towards Protestants, Vatican II reaffirmed the decrees of the Council of Trent, the council that concluded this day, December 4, in 1563 and was the Roman Catholic response to the Protestant Reformation. The most recent official Catholic statement of faith, the 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church, also affirms the Council of Trent as official Catholic teaching. The Council of Trent placed under anathema anyone who believed in justification by faith alone, as well as anyone who disagreed with the Roman Catholic interpretation of the sacraments of the church. In truth, it very explicitly and in great detail anathematized every distinctive Protestant doctrine being taught in the 16th century. For those unfamiliar with the word “anathema” , in Galatians 1 Paul uses the term, referring to those preaching a false gospel in Galatia—the term literally means “God’s eternal curse.”
Understandably, some Protestants feel they are getting a mixed message from the Roman Catholic Church. If people who believe in justification by faith alone—a non-negotiable doctrine for evangelicals—are under God’s anathema, how can Catholics in any sense recognize them as “brethren”? This examiner has heard numerous attempts to somehow reconcile Vatican II with the Council of Trent, but none that have been very satisfying. It is sometimes argued that the anathemas of the Council of Trent only applied to those teaching and believing these doctrines at the time the Council convened, and not to their descendants. It is also sometimes argued that the Church uses the word “anathema” in different senses, sometimes to mean “God’s eternal curse”, sometimes to merely mean a form of church discipline, and that Trent used the word in the less severe sense.
2. Council of Trent a stumbling block for evangelicals
Truth doesn’t change—this is something both Catholics and Protestants agree on. If in the 16th century those who believed in justification by faith alone were in a state of error, so much so that they deserved to be anathematized, how can believers in justification by faith alone today be recognized as fellow Christians? The doctrine itself hasn’t changed. If it was false then, it’s false now; it if was true then, it’s true now. When the Catholic Church calls Protestants “separated brethren” and yet still venerates the Council of Trent, with all of its utter repudiation of evangelical doctrine, as infallible Catholic teaching, it’s like the woman who hears “I love you” in one sentence, and then in the next sentence hears the man insisting on sticking by his earlier letter which said, “I hate you”. Until Rome officially repudiates the Council of Trent, many Protestants will not take very seriously any rhetoric about Protestants being fellow Christians.
Incidentally, please note that the man and woman fighting is, of course, merely an analogy. If Rome sincerely believed Protestantism was wrong, it wasn’t hateful to denounce it. They could’ve done nothing else if that was their theological conviction.
There are, of course, individual Catholics who have goodwill towards Protestants and regard them as fellow Christians. It’s questionable, though, whether Roman Catholicism, as a system, regards Protestants as fellow Christians, however much Vatican II might imply this, so long as the Council of Trent is revered as infallible Catholic doctrine.
In fairness, practically all of the 16th century Reformed confessions also denounce Roman Catholics as non-Christians. The difference, though, is that Protestants are not bound by their confessional statements in the same way that Catholics are to theirs. When evangelicals see Catholics denounced as non-Christians in the Heidelberg Catechism or the Westminster Confession, they can just say they take exception to those overly harsh sections of the confessions. Protestants are not obligated to regard their confessions as infallible or without error. For instance, a member of a congregation within the Presbyterian Church in America can disagree with any number of statements within the Westminster Confession and remain a member in good standing; only those ordained to leadership are required to subscribe to it.
Catholics, on the other hand, are not really at liberty to take exception with things in the Council of Trent that they may find overly harsh. To be unwilling to believe something the Council of Trent decreed is to undermine the infallibility of the Council, which is to undermine the whole structure of Roman Catholicism itself.
3. Final Thoughts
The ecumenical movement is a great thing. Division within Christ’s Body is a tragedy that everyone who professes to be a Christian should be concerned about. Unity is important. However, unity must be based on mutual agreement on the essentials of the faith. Clearly, evangelicals who believe in justification by faith alone are not at all in agreement with the Roman Catholic Church, and this disagreement, because it regards something both sides see as essential, is an impediment to real unity. Let us work for unity and pray for unity, but let us not let ourselves be misguided into prematurely thinking we’re further along than we really are.