Separated Brethren or Anathema?


Hello all,

Perhaps someone could clear this up for me. Vatican II (I think) classifies Protestants, say for example, Southern Baptists such as myself, as “separated brethren”. Meanwhile, the Council of Trent declares that those who hold beliefs like mine as being anathematized. How do you reconcile these two positions?


The “separated brethren” is diplomatic language to engage in interfaith dialogue. What is meant is what is written in the Council of Trent.


Anathema used to be the most severe penalty available in the Catholic Church. It was excommunication par excellence, complete with ceremony, closing a book, ringing a bell, and throwing candles on the floor. Today, anathema is no longer on the books, leaving excommunication the highest available penalty.

The beliefs, however, remain condemned.

Further, as a non-Catholic, you couldn’t be subject to anathema or excommunication anyway, since you’re outside the legal jurisdiction of the Catholic Church. The penalty pieces of the Trent anathemas applied only to Catholics. The dogmatic pieces apply all throughout.

“Let him be anathema” is simply a formula by which councils condemned heretical propositions. St. Paul uses the formula first in his Epistle to the Galatians.


There is a big difference between a Southern Baptist living in AD 2019, with perhaps family heritage ranging back 10 generations or so, and a person who holds a belief like yours who was living at the time of Trent (remember that people who were holding those beliefs were separating themselves from the Catholic Church in order to hold those beliefs. IOW, it would be comparable to a 10th generation Southern Baptist standing up in your church, telling you that your beliefs were crazy and that your church was wicked, its members were going to hell, etc unless they all joined you in a new ‘purified’ church that contained beliefs that were in absolute opposition to yours.

Obviously the people responding to you would feel very much more strongly about your words and actions to ‘your own people’ than they would if a 10th generation Lutheran came in to your church and said the same things. . .because the Lutheran wasn’t a full blown member of your church who ‘turned against you’.

The people who were born and raised Protestant in today’s world weren’t ever Catholics who ‘turned against the Church.’ (yes, there are some protestants today who were born Catholic and apostasized. I’m not talking about them. I am talking about those Protestants who were born and raised in the protestant faith). So they weren’t ‘personally guilty’ of rejecting the Catholic faith.


Re: separated brothers

Think of the parable of the prodigal son .

Is the son who left, still a son of his father even though separated from him? Yes
Is he still brother to his brother although separated from him? Yes

was that a consequence free issue? No.

Re: Vat II

Are you perhaps thinking of “Lumen Gentiun” ?

If so,

As you can see, in that document

“anathema” is not used.
separated brethren is used twice in the document. In paragraphs 67 & 69. In context that isn’t addressing the issue you bring up.

Could it be you’re thinking of paragraph 14 in Lumen Gentium?

open the link (Lumen Gentium) above for context

Re:anathema and Trent


“Let him be anathema” is just a formula to say that the preceding proposition is not the Gospel (it mimics the Apostle St. Paul who said if someone brings a different Gospel, let him be anathema). So when Trent says “if anyone says X, let him be anathema” it means that X is contrary to the Gospel. For someone to be anathema is to treat them as not a member of the Church–that’s where the “separated” in separated brethren comes from (others mentioned “anathema” as a canonical penalty, but this is something different).

The “brethren” part comes from that fact that all who are born again in baptism are the adopted sons of God. A bond is created through baptism that can never be broken, even by heresy or apostasy. That’s why we don’t re-baptize Protestants when they convert.

But remember, while heresy does separate from the Church, just being wrong does not make one guilty of heresy. As St. Augustine explained:

But though the doctrine which men hold be false and perverse, if they do not maintain it with passionate obstinacy, especially when they have not devised it by the rashness of their own presumption, but have accepted it from parents who had been misguided and had fallen into error, and if they are with anxiety seeking the truth, and are prepared to be set right when they have found it, such men are not to be counted heretics.

Someone born into a Protestant community nowadays is less likely to be guilty of the sin of heresy than someone at the time of Trent who made the active decision to defect from the faith.


That was then, this is now.

Time cools that sort of thing



People get all bent out of shape over Trent…but that was primarily directed at heretics leaving the Church.


objectively speaking, heresy doesn’t subside in history, nor do people escape from it

Protestantism is one of the great heresies in history


I had never heard of the document you referenced to, but thank you for your reply.


Thank you all for your varied responses. I guess the definitions are often different depending on whom one asks.


none given


Practically speaking, they mean the same, but one is said more diplomatically. Anathema would mean “you’re separated, repent!” and “separated brethren” tells US to talk to them like brothers. Right now they were born separated, they believe in what they do (mostly) from no fault of their own and from myths that exist about Catholics. As St. Ignatius of Loyola allegedly put it, there is nothing in the world about which people are so misguided as about God. There were cruel discrimination policies from both sides toward the other, so term “separated brethren” reminds us they are still our brothers in Christ- in imperfect union, that is.


UNITATIS REDINTEGRATIO is the Vat II document on ecumenism, and is the main place you’ll find the term “separated brethern”. Here’s a significant excerpt:

3. Even in the beginnings of this one and only Church of God there arose certain rifts,(19) which the Apostle strongly condemned.(20) But in subsequent centuries much more serious dissensions made their appearance and quite large communities came to be separated from full communion with the Catholic Church - for which, often enough, men of both sides were to blame. The children who are born into these Communities and who grow up believing in Christ cannot be accused of the sin involved in the separation, and the Catholic Church embraces upon them as brothers, with respect and affection. For men who believe in Christ and have been truly baptized are in communion with the Catholic Church even though this communion is imperfect. The differences that exist in varying degrees between them and the Catholic Church - whether in doctrine and sometimes in discipline, or concerning the structure of the Church - do indeed create many obstacles, sometimes serious ones, to full ecclesiastical communion. The ecumenical movement is striving to overcome these obstacles. But even in spite of them it remains true that all who have been justified by faith in Baptism are members of Christ’s body,(21) and have a right to be called Christian, and so are correctly accepted as brothers by the children of the Catholic Church.(22)


If I condense this article into a simple understandable summary it is saying: Properly baptized non-Catholic Christians are members of Christ’s body ie the catholic Church of God where all are brothers in Christ. Although these brothers are not in full communion with Rome, it is no longer acceptable for Catholics to refer to them as divisive or Schismatic or to implicate that hell is their eternal destiny. Do I have that right?


Yes, due to ignorance. The Church has always held that ignorance can reduce culpability. Individuals can be divisive, heretical, schismatic, etc, but aren’t necessarily so just by virtue of being outside of the Church in some capacity.



Ignorance isn’t considered a permanent condition or excuse for anyone, particularly when, once one is given the knowledge of truth, and they don’t change, THEN they are guilty of the condition(s) they are in.

From the CCC

1791 This ignorance can often be imputed to personal responsibility. This is the case when a man “takes little trouble to find out what is true and good, or when conscience is by degrees almost blinded through the habit of committing sin.” In such cases, the person is culpable for the evil he commits.

said another way

“if we sin deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth”… [Heb 10:26…]

IOW ignorance isn’t permanent . When one doesn’t change their actions once given the truth, THEN the consequences for their actions fall on them. Ignorance is no longer an excuse


Yes, I don’t disagree with this. But ignorance can be permanent depending on various things such as our level of maturity, intelligence, opportunity to gain knowledge of the gospel, etc. In one sense we’re all on various levels of understanding. But, yes, all humans are obliged to overcome acedia-and seek the truth as best they can with whatever they’re given. I think the Parable of the Talents sheds light on this.


Heaven is intimate union with God, not merely the hearing and professing of doctrines that some like to reduce it to. The kind of ignorance/knowledge we are talking about involves the whole person, not just the intellect.

For example:
There are some Catholics who are baptized and brought up in the faith, and at the same time had terrible experiences in the Catholic Church. Are they culpable for rejecting what they have experienced of Catholicism? I doubt it. Someone who suffered abuse or mistreatment in the Church? Someone who endured a dead and hypocritical faith at home?

How about my UCC friend who is the best model of Christ I can think of? He grew up in a family and was imbued with that tradition. Is he going to hell? I really don’t think so. The faith he grew up in is an integral part of him. He knows Catholic doctrine because we talk about it. His faith has led him to love as one with Christ, and that’s what heaven is.

Creeds don’t get you a ticket to heaven, and neither does an unopened baptism.


Ok. Either way the ignorance we’re talking about here is ignorance of the gospel-of the fullness of truth of the Christian message. That’s the starting point that people need to hear. What we do with that from there on will vary for reasons such as those you’ve stated. In the end God judges by the heart, which He alone knows with perfect clarity.

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