Response to a Catholic Apologist

Adalis2 asked:

Does anyone in here like to respond to the following catholic apologist explanation of anathema?

This is an interesting challenge. In his opening paragraph, the author of the referenced article, Jimmy Akin, asserts:

The word anathema is one of the most misunderstood terms in anti-Catholic apologetics. Almost all anti-Catholics, from the lowbrow end of the spectrum to those who give themselves airs of scholarship, misunderstand it.—Jimmy Akin, Anathema (This Rock, Volume 11, Number 4, April 2000) Copyright © 1979-2005 Catholic Answers. All Rights Reserved.

I agree completely with both points Akin makes here. Farther down the page, however, I found arguments with which I disagree or which beg comment. In addressing these, I wish to make clear that what I have to offer are my own views, and are not intended to defend or justify the work of other non-Catholic writers.

In the following paragraphs, Akin addresses Mike Gendron's assertion that together, the Ecumenical Councils of Trent and Vatican II generated over 100 anathemas against those who believe that “salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.”

Akin responds to this statement by pointing out that the word “anathema” is not used in any of the 20 documents produced by Vatican II. This does not seem unusual, for this council produced not a single dogmatic definition the violation of which would result in anathematizing the offender.

The Council of Trent produced some 127 canons bearing the statement “let him be anathema.” This council also produced a few of what I choose to call crypto canons. Though not clearly identified as canons, these crypto canons include statements such as found, for example, at the conclusion of the Doctrine on the Sacrament of Penance, which imposes penalties on those who disagree that the canons which follow are to be inviolately observed:

These are the things which this sacred ecumenical council professes and teaches concerning the sacraments of penance and extreme unction, and it sets them forth to be believed and held by all the faithful of Christ. Moreover, the following canons, it says, must be inviolately observed, and it condemns and anathematizes forever, those who assert the contrary.-- Denzinger 910 [Emphasis not in original]

As Akin correctly points out, far fewer than 100 of the Trent canons specifically address salvation. The Decree on Justification includes 33 canons that might be considered to deal with God's salvific process as understood by the Catholic Church.

Akin errs, however, when he posits that there are no canons which “properly understood, condemn the three points of soteriology Gendron names.” Canon 9 of the Decree on Justification, for example, certainly appears to condemn the doctrine of salvation by faith alone:

Can. 9. If anyone shall say that by faith alone the sinner is justified, so as to understand that nothing else is required to cooperate in the attainment of the grace of justification, and that it is in no way necessary that he be prepared and disposed by the action of his own will: let him be anathemaDenzinger 819

The “proper” Catholic understanding of justification by faith is explained in chapters 8 and 11 of the decree.

Akin continued with a quote from James White's book The Roman Catholic Controversy, which he followed with a comment from “a knowledgeable friend,” who suggested that White's statement may have been calculated to deceive persons ignorant of how the word “anathema” is used. I know James White well and I confidently declare that his intent was to educate; certainly not to deceive. The Catholic apologist then reasonably suggested that those who do not properly understand the term make an effort to discover how Catholics use and understand the word. He follows this suggestion with a brief etymological study of the word “anathema.”

The Catholic Church has not always maintained different understandings for the words “anathema” and “excommunication,” as Akin explains:

Originally, the Church did not differentiate between excommunication and anathema, which is why ecumenical councils have traditionally constructed their dogmatic canons using the formula "If anyone says . . . let him be anathema," meaning that anyone teaching the condemned proposition is to be anathematized or cut off from Christian society.—Akin, Op. cit.

While reading on anathema in one of the older books in my library, I came across a brief look at the development of Catholic understanding of the term:

Anathema . . . In ecclesiastical language, it appears for the first time in the Council of Helvira (305) with a not-well-defined meaning. Later in the canons of Laodicea and of Chalcedon, anathema adds to excommunication the idea of a special curse which aggravates the penalty of separation from the Church. In the Decretales anathema corresponds to major excommunication, fulminated in the most solemn manner. In current discipline, it is no more than excommunication inflicted with those external solemnities contained in the Pontificale Romanum . . . Anathema, in actual Church discipline, is the term also used for ipso facto excommunication incurred by those denying a solemnly defined truth, as is concluded principally from the dogmatic canons of the Council of Trent and the Vatican Council: “If anyone denies [this truth] . . . let him be anathema,” i.e., excommunicated.—Pietro Parente et al, Dictionary of Dogmatic Theology, Trans by Emmanuel Doronzo; © 1951 The Bruce Publishing Company; has Imprimi Potest, Nihil Obstat & Imprimatur

Akin provided a very brief summary of the “external solemnities” mentioned in the above quotation. As might be anticipated, the procedure for imposing anathema involved a variety of symbolic activities used, no doubt, to give evidence of the Church's imposition of penalties and to impress bystanders with their mystical qualities. The Catholic writer correctly states that such solemnities have been performed only rarely in Church history and the term anathema is not to be found in the 1983 Code of Canon Law.

I believe that it should be known that it was not necessary that anathema be imposed only in external solemnities described in the Pontificale Romanum. Perhaps Mr. Akin was not aware that some offenses by their very nature resulted in ipso facto excommunication as mentioned in the above quotation from Professor Pietro Parente and associates. It should also be noted that Parente cites the canons of the Council of Trent and the Vatican Council in support of his position.

For those who may be unfamiliar with the term ipso facto, I offer this definition:

Main Entry: ip·so fac·to

: by the fact or act itself : as the result of the mere act or fact : by the very nature of the case [does one, ipso facto, become a censor when he warns against such censorship -- H.C.Gardiner] [training in speech ... is ipso facto training in personality--A.T.Weaver]-- "ipso facto." Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged. Merriam-Webster, 2002. (12 Jan. 2006).

After dealing with the etymology of the term anathema and its historical understanding and use, Akin attempts to refute some “nearly ubiquitous” views subscribed to by those he identifies as “anti-Catholics.”

1. An anathema sentenced a person to hell. This is not the case. Sentencing someone to hell is a power that is God's alone, and the Church cannot exercise it.—Akin, Op. cit.

He is correct. Anathema, like excommunication, placed someone outside the pale of the Catholic Church:

EXCOMMUNICATION. An ecclesiastical censure which excludes a person from the communion of the Faithful, with consequent disabilities and deprivations . . . Excommunicants lose the right of attending divine service and receiving the sacraments.—Donald Attwater, Gen. Ed., A Catholic Dictionary, © 1942 The MacMillan Company, p. 191. Has Nihil Obstat & Imprimatur

Participation in some of the Catholic sacraments is obligatory if one is to remain in the good graces of Mama Church. Thus, I believe it accurate to state that the Council of Trent established anathemas which, whether imposed solemnly or ipso facto, had the effect of condemning the sinner to Hell until such time as he had repented and was returned to the bosom of the Church. While Vatican II imposed no anathemas, the same cannot be said of Vatican I, which produced 18 anathemas in the Canons of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith and one in the First Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of Christ.

2. An anathema was a sure sign that a person would go to hell. Again, not true. Anathemas were only warranted by very grave sins, but there was no reason why the offender could not repent, and those who repent aren't damned.Ibid

Answered above.

3. An anathema was a sure sign that a person was not in a state of grace. This is not true for two reasons: (a) The person may have repented since the time the anathema was issued, and (b) the person may not have been in a state of mortal sin at the time the anathema was issued.—Akin, Ibid.

The wording here is a study in obfuscation. I fully agree that only God can know with certainty the eternal state of anyone. That being true, then it must follow that there can be no sure sign that a person is or is not in a state of grace. It seems likely, however, that loss of sanctifying or habitual grace in the Catholic understanding must result from the act or belief that led to the imposition of anathema or excommunication.

Certainly it is possible that an anathematized individual may have repented of the action or belief that caused him to be anathematized; however, I believe it would be true to state that at the moment of being anathematized he was not in a state of grace.

The argument that a person may not have been in a state of mortal sin when the anathema was imposed does not hold water. It is just as easy to declare that an individual was in a state of mortal sin when the anathema was imposed. Without supporting evidence, neither position can be proved definitively. It seems likely to me, however, that failure to accept and believe doctrinal statements proposed by the Extraordinary Magisterium may well constitute the grievous sin of denial of truth, as understood in the Roman Church.

However, as presented, I must agree that being subject to anathema is no sure sign that a person was not in a state of grace. God alone can know with certainty the eternal state of a person.

4. Anathemas were meant to harm the offender. No. Anathemas were simply a major excommunication performed with a special papal ceremony, and, like all excommunications, their intent was medicinal, not punitive. The goal was to protect the Christian community from the spread of evil doctrines or behaviors and to prompt the individual to recognize the nature of his actions. While being deprived of the fellowship of the Church is not pleasant, this does not change the fact that the fundamental orientation of excommunications and anathemas is medicinal, not punitive.Ibid

I agree that as originally intended, anathemas, like excommunication, were designed to bring the sinner to repentance and to restoration within the community of believers. We see clear evidence in Paul's dealings with the incestuous sinner in Corinth who was first cast out of the congregation and then, having repented, restored.

5. Anathemas took effect automatically. While the Church does have penalties that take effect automatically (latae sententiae), the penalty of anathema was not one of them.—Ibid

I do not accept Akin's position here. For my reasons, see Pietro Parente above.

6. Anathemas applied to all Protestants. The absurdity of this charge is obvious from the fact that anathemas did not take effect automatically. The limited number of hours in the day by itself would guarantee that only a handful of Protestants ever could have been anathematized. In practice the penalty tended to be applied only to notorious Catholic offenders who made a pretense of staying within the Catholic community.Ibid.

I believe that Aklins is wrong. Once again, see Pietro Parente above.

7. Anathemas are still in place today. This is the single most common falsehood one encounters regarding anathemas in the writings of anti-Catholics. They aren't in place today. The penalty was employed so infrequently over the course of history that it is doubtful that anyone under an anathema was alive when the new Code of Canon Law came out in 1983, when even the penalty itself was abolished.--Ibid.

Agree; with reservations. There was a period of time when anathema was considered to be just another way of saying excommunicated. I suspect that the anathemas imposed with that understanding may very well remain in effect today, even though the word “anathema” is no longer to be found in the Code of Canon Law. In that, as I understand it, anathema is an ecclesiastical penalty of the Catholic Church, canon lawyers would be needed to argue the specifics of any case before a Church tribunal in order to determine the condition of an anathematized person

8. The Church cannot retract its anathemas. Anti-Catholics love to repeat this falsehood for rhetorical flourish. But again, it isn't true. The Church is free to abolish any penalty of ecclesiastical law it wants to, and it did abolish this one.—Ibid.

Once again, I agree with Akin's position.

Though the judicial penalties once imposed for failure to accept doctrinal definitions have faded into history, the definitions remain as infallible teachings of the Catholic Church

This has consequences under current canon law. Those things that are both divinely revealed by God and proposed as such by the Church cannot be obdurately denied or doubted without the offense of heresy (CIC [1983] 751). Heresy does carry a penalty of automatic (latae sententiae) excommunication (can. 1041, 2º), though this does not apply to those who have never been members of the Catholic Church (can. 11), and even then there is a significant list of exceptions (can. 1323).Ibid.

Sigh! I reckon that, having been born into and raised within the suffocating embrace of Mama Church, I should start looking for a good canon lawyer to plead my case. Naah. That would be pointless, since not even wild horses could haul me back into the Romish cult.

In his parting shot, Akin misses the ball again.

Unfortunately, there is little likelihood that passionate anti-Catholics such as Gendron, White, and numerous others will get the facts straight, openly admit their error, and actively work to counteract the damage they have done by spreading so much misinformation on this subject. But one day it will all get straightened out—by God.Ibid

Wrong again, Mr. Akin. I cannot imagine anyone being more anti-Catholic than me, yet I have made a sincere effort to respond to your arguments and, which should not be surprising to anyone who has read much of my work, agree with some of the points you make.

On the other hand, I do agree that God will sort things out one day as every soul who ever lived will be called before the Great White Throne. I pray daily for a number of Catholics whom I hope to see in heavenly mansions prepared for them.

And that is all I have to say on this matter.

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