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Pinkshirt Badman wrote:

Dear Sir:

I have some questions regarding the Council of Trent and its infallibility. It was always my understanding that the whole of the Council was considered infallible, but recently, I've heard that only portions of the Council (specifically, portions that include moral teachings) such as anything including an anathema, are infallible. I've also been told that none of the Council was infallible.

  • Which of these is correct?, and
  • How does one distinguish between moral teachings and other similar teachings of the Council?
  { Was the whole Council of Trent infallible or just the moral parts and how do you distinguish them? }

Robert replied:


Thanks for the question.

It is correct to say that only the statements in the Council which begin with, "If anyone says..." and end with "let him be anathema," are considered the formally infallible statements, in the canonical sense of the term. That is why they are called canons, since it is the rule of faith that everyone must follow without exception or objection.

That principle, of course, applies to all the Church's dogmatic councils, not just the Council of Trent. Vatican I would also be considered a dogmatic council for the same reason, that is, because it contained canons with anathemas. In essence, only when the Church makes a formal, dogmatic and defined statement, that binds the faithful under pain of excommunication, does the statement become infallible and irreformable by the mere nature of its form.

Even then, however, the form itself, although possessing the language of infallibility, does not actively become infallible.  The reigning Pope must authorize it, which is certainly the case with the Council of Trent, since its canons were authorized by three successive popes.

Incidentally, it is for this same reason that Vatican II, by nature of its non-canonical form (that is, it did not have defined dogmas in the form of canons), was said by Paul VI

"not to contain any extraordinary statements with the note of infallibility,"

although, whatever Vatican II reiterated from previous dogmatic councils, would be considered infallible by nature of its content, but not form.

The specific category afforded to canons as infallible in virtue of their form, also means, consequently, that the chapters in the Council of Trent, or any Council, which preface and explain the definitions in the canons, are not, in themselves, or because of their form, infallible. They are infallible only by nature of their content (not form), since they necessarily introduce or reiterate what is finalized in the canons.

With regard to infallibility, there is no distinction between the moral teachings and other teachings of the Council. Any statement that is formal, dogmatic, defined and binding, whether it is of faith or morals, is infallible.


John replied:

Yes, the anathemas are, in fact, infallible, but! (and this is important), we need to understand exactly what the word anathema meant, by those using it. The word "anathema" is Greek, and it actually means "damn of God". However, when the Church used or uses the word, it is simply the most formal form of excommunication.

Now, let us put Trent in its proper context. At the time of Trent, almost everyone was a Catholic. Calvin and Luther were baptized Catholics. Those that followed them out of the Church were also baptized Catholics, so the anathemas were relevant.

Even today, if any Catholic gets up and preaches Calvin, Luther or Zwingli, he would be subject to the same anathema.

To those outside the fullness of the faith (not baptized as Catholics), the anathemas are meaningless. You can't excommunicate someone who isn't a Catholic!! In addition, as a result of recent dialogue, there has been a realization, that much of the dispute over justification, was indeed over words and not substance.

So some of those anathemas were based on misunderstanding. Mind you, there were lots of grounds to excommunicate Luther. However, if they had a frank discussion about what Luther meant by faith alone, and what the Church means by justification, it is possible (mind you, I say possible) that at least that issue would not have been the subject of any anathema.

Of course, Luther and the boys went on to argue Sola Scriptura, deny the papacy, and deny the ordained priesthood, among many other things.

An interesting side note is that Luther, Calvin and the rest of the rebels were invited to Trent to hammer it all out. They declined.

I hope this helps,

John DiMascio

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