The Charity of Anathema vs. the Medicine of Mercy

The present crisis contains within it a lesson about the spiritual crisis afflicting the Church over the past few generations. The social distancing, which, it is hoped, will avert disaster, is in fact the same thing the Church has practiced for centuries in the spiritual order, and particularly in the period of Modernism — with great benefit to innumerable souls.

The Charity of Anathema

From 1794 (when Pius VI universally condemned the proto–Vatican II Synod of Pistoia with Auctorem Fidei) until 1958 (the death of Venerable Pius XII, who condemned the same substantial errors in his 1950 Humani Generis), the Magisterium opposed Modernism in all its forms — political, economic, moral, spiritual, as well as doctrinal and ecclesiastical.[1] While utilizing certain forms of “modern” technology or knowledge to benefit the Church (e.g., Leo XIII’s cautious permission of historical methods in Providentissimus Deus), the Church’s pastoral approach to Modernism was the same as Trent to Protestantism: the charity of anathema. Von Hildebrand:

The anathema excludes the one who professes heresies from the communion of the Church, if he does not retract his errors. But for precisely this reason, it is an act of the greatest charity toward all the faithful, comparable to preventing a dangerous disease from infecting innumerable people. By isolating the bearer of infection, we protect the bodily health of others; by the anathema, we protect their spiritual health[.] …

And more: a rupture of communion with the heretic in no way implies that our obligation of charity toward him ceases. No, the Church prays also for heretics; the true Catholic who knows a heretic personally prays ardently for him and would never cease to impart all kinds of help to him. But he should not have any communion with him. Thus St. John, the great apostle of charity, said: “If any man say, I love God, and hateth his brother; he is a liar” (I Jn. 4:20). But he also said: “If any man come to you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into the house[.]” (2 Jn. 1:10). [2]

An act of charity is an act intended for the good of another for the sake of God. The health of the soul is more excellent than the health of the body. Thus, the anathema is the supreme act of charity because it saves innumerable souls from a contagious source of eternal damnation, in the same way as quarantine can save innumerable people from deadly disease.

Therefore, since Luther and before, the Church understood that this deadly disease of heresy threatened the eternal salvation of innumerable faithful. She continued to perform the supreme act of charity: the anathema. The reason the Church opposed Modernism no less than Protestantism was due to the fact that Modernism and Protestantism are substantially the same error: an overthrow of the Catholic faith and Christ the King and the Luciferian exaltation of the individual conscience as satanic lord even over reality itself. This idea is indeed the infectious disease of satanic pride leading souls to eternal damnation. There can be no greater danger than this contagious poison.

Historical Dominance and Effectiveness of This Charity

The period of the Church’s opposition to Modernism spans some 164 years (1794–1958). Taking a generation as roughly 25 years, this period encompasses 6.56 generations of the Church. If we include Trent within this calculation (1563–1958), the period is 395 years or 15.8 generations. Thus, the Church for 6–15 generations utilized the charity of anathema against the wholesale revolution begun by the Protestant heretics and continued by their Modernist spawn. The Church did not cease a constant charity for these poor souls afflicted with the virus of heresy.

But as Lehner documents, the Church was under near constant pressure to conform itself to the Protestant and Modernist revolutions from the start. But by the charity of the anathema, the pressure on the Church from her enemies without was met with an equal or stronger pressure from within. The vehemence of condemnation in opposition to errors was able to keep the faithful safe. As a result, as Marshner observes, after the initial Protestant split, which largely broke upon “national” boundaries, most of the faithful were held within the Church by this bulwark of defense from the ever-increasing pressure to surrender to the enemies of Holy Church. Even more, the Church grew through active missionary zeal throughout the world.

Thus, during this period, it was understood that these forces were indeed enemies in need of the charity of anathema, for the sake of converting the enemies to the one true Church and only hope for salvation, but also to keep the faithful safe from infection in their souls. This overarching pastoral understanding reached its climax in the message of Fatima (wherein it was said that God was punishing the world and called all men to repent) and the pontificate of St. Pius X (who vehemently condemned Modernism as the “synthesis of all heresies”). Nevertheless, even as the Church grew throughout the world, in Europe, the anathema increasingly fell on deaf ears and hardened hearts, and, as Chadwick documents, secularization was gripping the continent by 1900.

The “Medicine of Mercy” and the Sickness of Original Sin

In 1962, Pope John XXIII introduced a pastoral approach different from the charity of anathema: the “medicine of mercy.” It was believed by Pope John and his party that, due to the increased secularization, the charity of anathema was no longer effective in converting the enemies and keeping the faithful safe. Instead, the Church should refrain from this charity and instead attempt to present the truth of the Faith without condemnations. Not only this, but mankind had even achieved — notwithstanding their rejection of the Faith — some sort of progress in themselves. Thus did Pope John rejoice that mankind had progressed toward a “new order” so much that “men of themselves are inclined to condemn [their own errors]” [3].

Thus, the underlying assumption of the Medicine of Mercy was that in this new epoch, man was in a different state from where he had been during the era of the anathema. As such, he was no longer helped by the charity of anathema, since he was not only recognizing his own errors, but even progressing in some sense toward a higher state of being or consciousness. As Dignitatis Humanae puts it, “[a] sense of the dignity of the human person has been impressing itself more and more deeply on the consciousness of contemporary man.” Or as Gaudium et Spes says, “Modern man is on the road to a more thorough development of his own personality, and to a growing discovery and vindication of his own rights.” It was believed that this was a radically “new age of human history” (Gaudium et Spes 54) for mankind, and thus a new approach was necessary.

The charity of anathema, on the other hand, had been based on a strong emphasis that man was laboring under the burden of Original Sin — his will was weakened, his intellect darkened, and he was inclined to evil. Modernism’s central assertion was that mankind was not afflicted with Original Sin. As Rao notes, this had lead Bl. Pius IX to proclaim the contrary with his dogma of the Immaculate Conception in 1854, asserting that all men were afflicted with Original Sin save one human only: Our Lady and Queen. The infectious disease of heresy was simply a virus that aggravated the existing condition of Original Sin, the sickness with which every man was born.

The optimism of Pope John and Vatican II concerning a new epoch of man where he did not need the charity of anathema implied — at the very least — that man had changed his natural state of sickness and inclination to evil to some sort of healthier condition. Von Hildebrand exposed his folly when he proclaimed that “Christ alone has changed history essentially” and that:

… [t]erms such as nineteenth century man or modern man are ambiguous. No such universal exist; there are only intellectual and cultural trends that have a transitory dominance. The idea of modern man as a norm to which we all should conform is either deceitful or meaningless. Even if understood only as a bearer of a temporarily prevalent mentality, modern man can never be a norm for us[.] …

[T]here is no closed, homogenous epoch in history; there is no “modern man.” And most important of all, man always remains the same in his essential structure, in his destiny, in his potentialities, in his desires, and in his moral dangers; and this is true notwithstanding all the external changes that take place in the external conditions of his life. There is and has been but one essential historical change in the metaphysical and moral situation of man: the advent of Christ and the salvation of mankind and reconciliation with God through Christ’s death on the Cross. [4]

Therefore, since “modern man” was the same in essence, the charity of anathema could potentially help man in any age. Whatever dramatic changes had come about in this period, man was still the same man as he had been centuries prior — afflicted with Original Sin, in desperate need of the mercy of God.

Instead, as Ratzinger stated, Gaudium et Spes (and by implication the entire “medicine of mercy” program) “played the role of a counter-Syllabus to the measure that it represents an attempt to officially reconcile the Church with the world as it had become after 1789” [5]. Thus, just as the Syllabus (1864) had continued the charity of condemnations, the Medicine of Mercy acted contrary to it, seeking not the charity of condemnation, but the “mercy” of reconciliation. If man had indeed changed dramatically as Vatican II said, a new approach was necessary. Instead of condemnation, reconciliation. Still, it was hoped that since man had ignored the condemnation, such reconciliation would bring about a new springtime of faith and conversion for modern man.

The approach failed to bring about this intended renewal. Ratzinger said even in 1984:

Certainly, the results [of Vatican II] seem cruelly opposed to the expectations of everyone, beginning with those of Pope John XXIII and then of Paul VI: expected was a new Catholic unity and instead we have been exposed to dissension which — to use the words of Paul VI — seems to have gone from self-criticism to self-destruction. Expected was a new enthusiasm, and many wound up discouraged and bored. Expected was a great step forward, and instead we find ourselves faced with a progressive process of decadence which has developed for the most part precisely under the sign of a calling back to the Council, and has therefore contributed to discrediting for many. The net result therefore seems negative … it is incontrovertible that this period has definitely been unfavorable for the Catholic Church.” [6]

Why has Vatican II been a failure? Because, as I have written elsewhere, the disease was misdiagnosed by the dominant party at Vatican II, who refused to listen to the cries of wiser men warning about the sickness of Original Sin and the infectious disease of heresy. Thank God that after just a few generations, this false “medicine of mercy” is not convincing the youth anymore, who are increasingly turning to the traditional Faith and liturgy, as Benedict’s letter accompanying Summorum Pontificum observed. But still, the older generation with episcopal power holds onto the false “medicine of mercy” hoping for the springtime that never came. How bad will the infection get before they realize the true disease and the true remedy?


[1] Here we are discussing Modernism in the broad sense, as a general revolution against all prior customs, laws, and tradition. Thus it would also include feminism, communism and liberalism (with certain qualification) together with the strict doctrinal movement about which St. Pius X used the term.

[2] Dietrich von Hildebrand, The Charitable Anathema (Roman Catholic Books: 1993), 5–6. Emphasis in the original.

[3] Novum rerum ordinem…Hodie homines per se ipsi ea damnare incipere videantur. Pope John XXIII, Address Gaudet Mater Ecclesia (Oct. 11, 1962)

[4] Dietrich von Hildebrand, Trojan Horse in the City of God (1967), 153, 157. Emphasis in the original.

[5] Le texte joue le rôle d’un contre-syllabus dans la mesure où il représente use tentative pour une réconciliation officielle de l’église avec le monde tel qu’il était deveneu depuis 1789. Josef Ratzinger, Les Principes de la Theologie Catholique Esquisse et Materiaux (Paris: Tequi, 1982), 427

[6] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, L’Osservatore Romano (English edition), December 24, 1984

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