The Consolation of Anathemas

Titian’s “Presentation of the Virgin,” 1538

Who is she that cometh forth as the morning rising,
fair as the moon, bright as the sun,
terrible as an army set in battle array? (Song 6:10)

Happy Feast of the Presentation of the Virgin! This article is dedicated to that Blessed Lady whom the Church greets in her Office with the words: “Rejoice, O Virgin Mary, for thou alone hast destroyed all heresies in the whole world.”


One evening not long ago, the Missus and I found ourselves engaged in edifying conversation with a dear priest friend.

Minds and hearts glowed as we shared cookies and excerpts from the nineteenth ecumenical Council of Trent, reflecting on various points of dogma that were enshrined at that Council and the deepening of spiritual insight effected by meditation on those truths in our present situation.

Swapping Canons and commentary for over an hour, we eventually reached a sated pause – that kind of pause which comes after a hearty Thanksgiving meal, when friends and family push back from the table a bit, take a lingering sip from their glass, and breathe a happy sigh of contentment. The conversation with our priest and friend had been a source of profound spiritual and intellectual nourishment, a feast on the very rich fare of Catholic doctrine. The cookies were great, too!

It was at this point that our priest friend uttered a one-liner which we still recall with a hearty chuckle. Ever the witty prelate, he checked his watch as he rose from an armchair with a sigh, saying:Sweet Anathema3

“Well, as much as I’d love to stay and hear you whisper sweet anathemas to me, I have to be going now.”

Brilliant! Bring on the t-shirts and coffee mugs.

Reflecting later on the subject of anathemas, I was reminded of their twofold use by Popes and Councils throughout history, to both infallibly expound points of Catholic doctrine, and to impose canonical penalties on those who held to false propositions: a practice derived from the command of Christ and the example of the Apostles (cf. Mt 18:15–18, Gal 1:8–9, 1 Cor 16:22).

Such a form of teaching is clear and direct, and from the earliest centuries has frequently been employed in response to contemporary questions or confusion on a matter of doctrine. The apparatus is simple: a Pope or Council proclaims true doctrine on a given subject, then includes any number of precise propositions which violate this truth, attaching to each a formal condemnation – frequently by appending some form of the Latin phrase anathema sit, stating that a given thing is “accursed,” “cut off,” “set outside” the true Faith.

For example, here is one from the Second Council of Nicaea, addressing the binding force of Catholic Tradition:

“If anyone rejects all ecclesiastical tradition either written or not written, let him be anathema.” DZ 308*

This kind of “teaching by negation” finds a simple depiction in G.K. Chesterton’s observation that “there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands.” When anathemas are declared, contemporary “falling angles” are called forth against the truth for all to hear and understand, since “faith cometh by hearing” (Rom 10:17). Rome has spoken, the matter is settled. Henceforth, to hold such an error, or to deny or doubt the truths which they contradict, destroys the virtue of faith in the individual and, if they are baptized, places them in heresy.

This is why the Christian Faith is always necessarily propositional – this is an extension of what has been called the “law of the Incarnation” and the “scandal of the particular” (Benedict XVI’s Spirit of the Liturgy speaks well of this dynamic: a helpful review of this work can be found at Adoremus here).

Just as the Son of God became Incarnate in a particular Body, at a particular time and place claiming unique and universal Lordship, so too must faith in him entail our submission to a saving body of doctrine; we assent to this Truth-in-Person by cleaving to the defined content of His revelation, bowing in humility before a “sacred deposit” that is external to man and independent of him, given on the authority of God Who reveals. This deposit is retained whole and entire in the Catholic Church, which alone possesses both divine power and mandate to expound and propagate it.

At this point, one begins to see why anathemas can be regarded by all as a source of edification and cause for joy.

Anathemas as Consolations

Jesus Teaching Binding
The binding doctrine of Christ

Because the human intellect is designed for the truth, when the mind apprehends truth, a certain interior joy or consolation attends – for when a thing fulfills its nature, it brings delight. This joy and consolation is usually greater or lesser depending on the degree to which the intellect is ordered properly, much as the trained athlete will enjoy exercise, whereas the couch potato experiences it as suffering (at least at first). By continually assenting to divine truth, exploring it and abiding by it in our actions, we experience increasing measures of interior freedom; we are becoming properly ordered creatures.

For this reason, as Truth Incarnate, Jesus Christ reminds His hearers for all time that it is only by coming unto Him (Jn 10:9), abiding in His word (Jn 8:32), keeping His commands (Jn 14:15) that true human freedom may at last be acquired. He is our Great King and Lawgiver, come to impart the fullness of life.

“Therefore have I loved thy commandments above gold and the topaz.” (Psa 119:127)

Furthermore, our King has extended His divine teaching authority through time and space by means of the Magisterium of the Catholic Church. Thus employed by Popes and Councils under the charism of infallibility, anathemas are greeted with rejoicing: for it is here that the Church can be found exercising her solemn teaching office, in that divine authority entrusted to her by her Founder who declared: “He that hears you hears Me” (Lk 10:16). Anathemas remain for all time as an enduring testament to that unity of doctrine abiding within the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.

Upon hearing the clear condemnation of error and proclamation of truth that anathemas betide, like John the Baptist the Catholic faithful can reflect that the Church, the Bride of Christ, truly “belongs to her Bridegroom” – and those who wait and listen for Him, are filled with joy when they “hear the Bridegroom’s voice” teaching “the way of God in truth” (cf Jn 3:29, Lk 20:21).

Indeed, those who belong to the Good Shepherd must ever strive to know and love right doctrine, that they may not “follow the voice of a stranger” (cf. Jn 10:1-6). In a time of so many dilutions and distortions of the true Faith, those shepherds entrusted with the care of the sheep must take special care to do likewise, as commissioned by their Lord.

What follows, then, is a short list of condemned errors taken from the Councils of Trent and Vatican I, respectively – favorites of mine for the truths they enshrine.

If you have your own favorites, feel free to add them below.

Join our after-dinner “anathema review session,” and enjoy!

*NOTE: For brevity in citations, included here are reference numbers to Denzinger’s The Sources of Catholic Dogma, Thirtieth Edition (1957), abbreviated DZ.

Sweet Anathemas

Pope Boniface VIII in Anagni with Cardinals 1303_Bologna Manuscript

COUNCIL OF TRENT on Justification:

  • If anyone says that man is absolved from his sins and justified because he firmly believes that he is absolved and justified, or that no one is truly justified except him who believes himself justified, and that by this faith alone absolution and justification are effected, let him be anathema. DZ 824
  • If anyone says that the commandments of God are, even for one that is justified and constituted in grace, impossible to observe, let him be anathema. DZ 828
  • If anyone says that a man who is justified and however perfect is not bound to observe the commandments of God and the Church, but only to believe, as if the Gospel were a bare and absolute promise of eternal life without the condition of observing the commandments, let him be anathema. DZ 830
  • If anyone says that Christ Jesus was given by God to men as a Redeemer in whom to trust, and not also as a legislator whom to obey, let him be anathema. DZ 831
  • If anyone says that there is no mortal sin except that of unbelief, or that grace once received is not lost through any other sin however grievous and enormous except by that of unbelief, let him be anathema. DZ 837
  • If anyone says that he who has fallen after baptism cannot by the grace of God rise again, or that he can indeed recover again the lost justice but by faith alone without the sacrament of penance, contrary to what the holy Roman and Universal Church, instructed by Christ the Lord and His Apostles, has hitherto professed, observed and taught, let him be anathema. DZ 839

COUNCIL OF TRENT on the Sacraments:

  • If anyone says that the received and approved rites of the Catholic Church, accustomed to be used in the administration of the sacraments, may be despised or omitted by the ministers without sin and at their pleasure, or may be changed by any pastor of the churches to other new ones, let him be anathema. DZ 856
  • If anyone says that baptism is optional, that is, not necessary for salvation, let him be anathema. DZ 861
  • If anyone says that faith alone is a sufficient preparation for receiving the sacrament of the most Holy Eucharist, let him be anathema. And that so great a sacrament may not be unworthily received, and therefore unto death and condemnation, this holy council ordains and declares that sacramental confession must necessarily be made beforehand by those whose conscience is burdened with mortal sin, however contrite they may consider themselves. If anyone shall presume to teach, preach or obstinately assert, or in public disputation defend the contrary, he shall be eo ipso excommunicated. DZ 893
  • If anyone denies that sacramental confession was instituted by divine law or is necessary to salvation; or says that the manner of confessing secretly to a priest alone, which the Catholic Church has always observed from the beginning and still observes, is at variance with the institution and command of Christ and is a human contrivance, let him be anathema. DZ 916
  • If anyone says that extreme unction is not truly and properly a sacrament instituted by Christ our Lord and announced by the blessed Apostle James, but is only a rite received from the Fathers or a human invention, let him be anathema. DZ 926 

COUNCIL OF TRENT on the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass:

  • If anyone says that in the Mass a true and real sacrifice is not offered to God; or that to be offered is nothing else than that Christ is given to us to eat, let him be anathema. DZ 948
  • If anyone says that the sacrifice of the Mass is one only of praise and thanksgiving; or that it is a mere commemoration of the sacrifice consummated on the cross but not a propitiatory one; or that it profits him only who receives, and ought not to be offered for the living and the dead, for sins, punishments, satisfactions, and other necessities, let him be anathema. DZ 950
  • If anyone says that the canon of the Mass contains errors and is therefore to be abrogated, let him be anathema. DZ 953
  • If anyone says that the ceremonies, vestments, and outward signs which the Catholic Church uses in the celebration of Masses, are incentives to impiety rather than stimulants to piety, let him be anathema. DZ 954
  • If anyone says that the rite of the Roman Church, according to which a part of the canon and the words of consecration are pronounced in a low tone, is to be condemned; or that the Mass ought to be celebrated in the vernacular tongue only; or that water ought not to be mixed with the wine that is to be offered in the chalice because it is contrary to the institution of Christ, let him be anathema. DZ 956

COUNCIL OF TRENT Profession of Faith:

  • I likewise undoubtedly receive and profess all other things delivered, defined, and declared by the sacred Canons, and general Councils, and particularly by the holy Council of Trent, particularly concerning the primacy of the Roman Pontiff and his infallible teaching. I condemn, reject, and anathematize all things contrary thereto, and all heresies which the Church hath condemned, rejected, and anathematized. This true Catholic faith, outside of which no one can be saved, which I now freely profess and to which I truly adhere, I do so profess and swear to maintain inviolate and with firm constancy with the help of God until the last breath of life. And I shall strive, as far as possible, that this same faith shall be held, taught, and professed by all those over whom I have charge. I N. do so pledge, promise, and swear, so help me God and these Holy Gospels of God. DZ 1000

[FIRST] VATICAN COUNCIL on Divine Revelation, Faith, and Reason:

  • If anyone shall have said that the one true God, our Creator and our Lord, cannot be known with certitude by those things which have been made, by the natural light of human reason: let him be anathema. DZ 1806
  • If anyone says that it is impossible, or not expedient, that human beings should be taught by means of divine revelation about God and the worship to be given to Him: let him be anathema. DZ 1807
  • If anyone says that divine faith is not to be distinguished from natural knowledge about God and moral matters, and consequently that for divine faith it is not required that revealed truth should be believed because of the authority of God Who reveals it: let him be anathema. DZ 1811
  • If anyone says that divine revelation cannot be made credible by external signs, and that therefore men and women ought to be moved to faith only by each one’s internal experience or private inspiration: let him be anathema. DZ 1812
  • If anyone says that it is possible that at some time, given the advancement of knowledge, a sense may be assigned to the dogmas propounded by the Church which is different from that which the Church has understood and understands: let him be anathema. DZ 1818

[FIRST] VATICAN COUNCIL on the Papal Office and Power:

  • If anyone says that blessed Peter the apostle was not appointed by Christ the Lord as prince of all the apostles and visible head of the whole Church militant; or that it was a primacy of honor only and not one of true and proper jurisdiction that he directly and immediately received from our lord Jesus Christ Himself: let him be anathema. DZ 1823
  • If anyone says that it is not by the institution of Christ the Lord Himself (that is to say, by divine law) that blessed Peter should have perpetual successors in the primacy over the whole Church; or that the Roman Pontiff is not the successor of blessed Peter in this primacy: let him be anathema. DZ 1825
  • If anyone says that the Roman Pontiff has merely an office of supervision and guidance, and not the full and supreme power of jurisdiction over the whole Church, and this not only in matters of faith and morals, but also in those which concern the discipline and government of the Church dispersed throughout the whole world; or that he has only the principal part, but not the absolute fullness, of this supreme power; or that this power of his is not ordinary and immediate both over all and each of the Churches and over all and each of the pastors and faithful: let him be anathema. DZ 1831
  • We teach and define as a divinely revealed dogma that when the Roman Pontiff speaks EX CATHEDRA, that is, when, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church, he possesses, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, that infallibility which the divine Redeemer willed his Church to enjoy in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals. Therefore, such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are of themselves, and not by the consent of the Church, irreformable. So then, should anyone, which God forbid, have the temerity to reject this definition of ours: let him be anathema. DZ 1839-40

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