Religious coercion in Council of Trent?

From the Council of Trent, Session 7, the portion On Baptism:

“CANON XIV.-If any one saith, that those who have been thus baptized when children, are, when they have grown up, to be asked whether they will ratify what their sponsors promised in their names when they were baptized; and that, in case they answer that they will not, they are to be left to their own will; and are not to be compelled meanwhile to a Christian life by any other penalty, save that they be excluded from the participation of the Eucharist, and of the other sacraments, until they repent; let him be anathema.”

What does it actually mean? How is religious coercion explained here, if any? Thanks.


There was already a VERY long discussion of this, earlier this year. I don’t remember which forum it was on, so you’ll have to search for it.

I don’t see any coercion here at all.

This says that if someone does not affirm their baptismal promises, then they are not a Christian anymore, and cannot participate in the sacraments. No one may force the person to change their mind, but they would be excommunicated until he goes to confession. Excommunication is not a penalty, it’s exactly what the person wants.

Thanks. There is one in the non-Catholic religion which is still active. I am asking if any Catholics who are more versed in canon law who could help in clarifying this. I am not Canon law trained and simply groping in the dark based on personal understanding of the Church doctrine regarding heresy, anathemization / excommunication and apostasy.

Non-Catholics are of the view that this canon on Baptism, Council of Trent, is a ‘smoking gun’ that the Church taught coercion in religion.


How on earth can one read ‘coercion’ into this???

If one who was baptized as an infant “…are, when they have grown up, to be asked whether they will ratify what their sponsors promised in their names when they were baptized; and … they answer that they will not, they are to be left to their own will…and are not to be compelled meanwhile to a Christian life by any other penalty…”.

I’m no ‘Cannon law’ expert…but I can read plain English.

How pray tell, does being ‘left to [one’s] own will’, amount to anything resembling coercion???

And “…NOT TO BE COMPELLED…”??? Come on now…doesn’t that amount to not to be coerced??? (just a lesser included, even lower standard)? IOW–you can not coerce without compelling, but you can compel, without coercing–yet the prohibition applies to the LESSER between the two, thus including coercion).

As far as being excluded from the Eucharist–well, if they deny what was promised on their behalf at Baptism, that would entail denying the Eucharist as well, by implication.

Why should they be admitted to the Eucharist?

Do they have a birth right to desecrate it???

(and of the other sacraments–they ALL build on Baptism; if one denies Baptism, they reject all sacraments, by implication).

Help me out here…what am I missing???

Where is this supposed coercion, even by the most liberal possible interpretation???

Here is that thread.

Beware!!! It was not until the 3rd or 4th page that we got the meaning of the text correct.

Goya–What you are saying is what would be anathematized. “If anyone saith…let him be anathema”.

Reuben and all, I again encourage people to read the essays by Thomas Pink and John Lamont, two Catholics, which were linked in the original thread.

You are missing the anathema at the end… If a person says (all that stuff), let him be anathema.

However, the problem the Council was addressing was the issue of people being asked to ratify their baptism, iirc. There is no place for this ratification in Catholic theology.


Well then…chanelling the great Gilda Radner…

“Nevermind…”. :blush:

However, the problem the Council was addressing was the issue of people being asked to ratify their baptism, iirc. There is no place for this ratification in Catholic theology.

Isn’t that what we do at Confirmation? Isn’t that what we’re confirming—the Baptismal promises made on our behalf?

Just say’n…

It just means the Church can punish her members who refuse to live up to the duties imposed by their baptism. In other words, the shepherds can use their crooks to keep the sheep on the right path if necessary. Here’s how this is expressed in the current Code of Canon Law–note, both spiritual and temporal penalties are available.

Canons 1311-1312

(note the above canons refer to the “Christian faithful.” Canon 204 defines the Christian faithful as the baptized).

This Canon **PROHIBITS **coercion.

Some protestants who didn’t like infant Baptism proposed a compromise: baptize as infants, but, once people grow up, have them affirm the Baptismal promises that their sponsors made.

Trent rules that anybody who says that is anathema. You AREN’T ALLOWED to do that.

Many Canons read: “If anyone says blah blah blah] let him be anathema.” In every case, the blah blah blah part is being forbidden.

This Canon PROHIBITS coercion.

That’s how I read it at first, but in re-reading it, I see the confusion.

2 points: first, English wasn’t the original language, so I suspect there my be an issue in translation from Latin (or Italian, maybe?).

Second, in context–historical, and practical, it makes ZERO sense to interpret as authorizing coercion here. First, as you mention, it was addressed at the infant baptism issue, and the perceived need to re-baptize. Secondly, in practice…the Church simply doesn’t, and has never that I’m aware of, “coerced” people to the Faith. Trent is still ‘good law’ (for lack of a better term), so if it were intended as suggested (the ‘smoking gun’ business)–it would still be enforced.

That is simply not the case.

If a person who’s reached ‘the age of reason’ renounces his Baptismal blessing…(s)he is dismissed, with sympathy, prayers, and some hurt, sure, but (s)he’s free to leave (but certainly not to participate in the Sacraments (s)he has denounced, barring repentance). Exactly as indicated in the cited Cannon.


I’m sorry, but you are misreading it. The canon was addressing a proposal by Erasmus, not by Protestants. We’ve been over all this in the original thread.

For a perspective from two Catholic professors on the CC and coercion of the baptized, please read the essays of Thomas Pink and John Lamont linked into the original thread.

The canon was not about rebaptism, but about a proposal by Erasmus, which the Council condemned in its entirety.

The canon is also not about coercing people into Catholicism, but about the CC retaining the right to coerce those already members, who were baptized as infants. See Genesis’ post above.

For the most part, the CC has not endorsed coercion of anyone into Catholicism, but there have been exceptions. Around the beginning of the 13th century papal approval was given to using coercive means towards Jews to convert them, although the Pope made a distinction between those who could be coerced into converting under duress (that category could be legitimately baptized) and those who were absolutely unwilling (that category were not to be baptized).

This is how people think now, thanks in part Erasmus’ influence ultimately gaining favor, but it wasn’t how the issue was viewed until modern times.

Thanks folks for the input and the somewhat lively response. :smiley:

Initially I too was surprised at the accusation of Church coercion but reading the said canon thoroughly and with cross reference with other Council (Fourth Lateran, canon 3 - penalties for heretics. Thanks Abide for the link), there was indeed some form of coercion though it was not as what some non-Catholic posters made it out to be. One even appeared to suggest that coercion include burning on stake and shaming of the accused by parading him on the street.

The coercion is mainly spiritual (excommunication) while secular penalties were entrusted to the secular authority. It is true when being anathematized, a person especially a clergy/church official would lose the privilege that he had in the church, like properties or monetary remuneration.

I would be fine with that especially when we speak of excommunication -

“the primary purpose behind excommunication is the personal reform of the offender. When excommunication works, it honors all these ends and accomplishes all these goals. When it does not work, it is probably the result of the individual’s hardening of the heart against the grace of conversion that, more than anything else, the Church wishes to accomplish.” - Excommunication and the Catholic Church, Dr. Edward Peters

At this point in time I concur with this but I am open to more ideas and input that may augment this. So do please go on. :slight_smile:

This is also what I could think of - that the ratification mentioned was a confirmation of our Baptismal vows.

God bless.


One thing that I think many of us forget (myself included) when we see references to the Church’s right to use “coercion” in regards to Canon Law, is that these canons do not just apply to the laity (the ordinary members sitting in the pews), but they also apply to members of the clergy and religious orders (nuns, monks, etc.). This is a situation that calls for a much more complex application of those laws.

In many non-Catholic Christian churches, at least in those which are independent and self-governing, much of their membership is only comprised of a minister and the regular members of their independent congregation. I don’t think they have a lot of rules about how they might handle the issue of fidelity among their members. It seems to me that they probably just come and go on a regular basis, because many people tend to go wherever they find a church that they like. I do realize that there are others that have some more formal structure (Lutherans, etc.), so I would think they might be more understanding of the need for certain regulations, common to all churches under their organization.

But, even those who have a common structure of law among their many member churches, when they look at the Canon Laws of the Catholic Church, they still tend to only look at them being applied to the general congregation. They don’t have the same kind of hierarchical structure, and don’t understand the concept of Priests and Religious who take life-long vows (such as obedience, poverty, chastity, etc.), which may make a huge difference in how any Canon Law would apply to them.

Some penalties that the Church might apply are specifically targeted at different members, according to their personal position in the Church. Whether they are clergy, extraordinary ministers, members of a religious order, or just a regular member of the laity, their position or office will determine which penalties are appropriate for the offense, and how those penalties are applied. Some members might only be required to perform simple acts of penance, while others might be subject to a formal excommunication. In the case of a Priest, not only might it include their loss of participation in the sacraments, but also their ability to perform the sacraments, as well as a loss of residence and of pay. It’s a much more complicated issue than most people might think it would be.

So, many of the concerns voiced (and accusations made) by people on the outside, about what kinds of “coercion” the Catholic Church might try to use against anyone wanting to leave the Church, are mostly due to a misunderstanding of Canon Law, or possibly the result of over active imaginations. Especially among those who keep looking at what took place over 500 years ago, when there was an entirely different kind of political structure in place, that blurred the lines between civil law and Canon Law. Those kinds of situations no longer exist in the modern world.

I certainly understand that it’s a good thing to always remember what happened, so it can never happen again. But, I also think it’s time to set those sad memories aside and try to look forward to a brighter future, instead of living in the dark shadows of an unfortunate past.

I guess an example of that could have been the case with Teutonic Order, the Grand Master of which has converted to Protestantism, but chose to keep the Order’s land in Prussia for himself… The canon would say that he does not get to keep those lands just because no one asked him if he wants to be a Catholic “in time”.

Looks like something similar happened with some prince-bishoprics in the Holy Roman Empire.

And one more thing… Looks like Karl Keating has answered a similar question for EWTN some time ago ( with a note that the canon concerns discipline and not doctrine.

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