Inspired by the remarks of an anti-Catholic, who offers a snippet from the Council of Florence’s Cantate Domino, an opinion about Trent, and an erroneous conclusion that it is somehow impossible for a Catholic to call him a brother in Christ. First of all, let us acknowledge that I do not offer this post for the sake of the anti-Catholic, who a priori (based upon what I’ve seen) suspects anything coming from a Catholic and rejects anything distinctively Catholic. I write not for his sake, but rather for the sake of those who are genuinely interested in a Catholic reply (I do not say the Catholic reply) to what he says. Given what I consider to be his undisguised hatred of all things Catholic, it seems pretty uncontroversial to point out that the anti-Catholic is in no way, shape, or form a fair critic. This being the case, I think that it would be imprudent to accept his criticisms as representative of an objective assessment of what the Church teaches on the subject at hand (or any other subject related to the Catholic Church, for that matter).
Let’s work our way backwards. He says that Catholics cannot call him a brother in Christ. This opinion is uninformed. Vatican II explicitly says, in Unitatis Redintegratio §3:
The differences that exist in varying degrees between [separated Churches and ecclesial communities] 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, and have a right to be called Christian, and so are correctly accepted as brothers by the children of the Catholic Church. [Emphasis added]
Hence we are indeed authorized by the Magisterium to say that Protestants are our brothers in Christ. The Council provides an interesting footnote related to this statement. It’s from the Council of Florence and Pope Eugenius IV’s bull Exultate Deo. I don’t have access to the particular resource cited in UR, but Exultate Deo is quoted in Denzinger §696 (which you may find here), and I strongly suspect that they have this sentence at least in mind:
Holy baptism, which is the gateway to the spiritual life, holds the first place among all the sacraments; through it we are made members of Christ and of the body of the Church. [Emphasis added]
Now if Protestants have been baptized validly, then they too “are made members of Christ and of the body of the Church” just as we are, and consequently (as UR says) may rightly be called Christians and brothers in Christ (and the Church generally does accept Protestant baptisms as valid). Rather surprising, isn’t it, that the Fathers of VII appeal to the Council of Florence in defense of their assertion that baptized non-Catholics may be called our brothers? I mean, considering that the anti-Catholic attempts to wield the same Council against this very thing?
He also appeals to the Council of Trent, and suggests that its anathemas are still in force. Well, that depends upon what he means. What the Council wrote in its constitutions is certainly “still in force,” since it constitutes a dogmatic expression of the truths of the Faith. But the same thing can’t exactly be said about the canons of Trent with respect to Protestants today. Why? Because the canon law of the Catholic Church doesn’t apply to non-Catholics. But most Protestants today were never members of the Catholic Church. Consequently they have never been bound by Catholic canon law in any way. Does this mean that the Church has changed its opinion of Protestant errors? Not at all. But to say that an opinion one holds is wrong is something entirely different from saying that he is subject to canon law.
More relevantly perhaps for the present subject is the fact that we say Protestants are our brothers in Christ not because they agree with us, and not because their errors do not matter, but because of their baptisms. Their connection with us is obviously imperfect because of their errors, but the connection itself is grounded upon something that cannot be done away.
Lastly now, with respect to the content of Cantate Domino, the relevant portion is this:
It firmly believes, professes, and proclaims that those not living within the Catholic Church, not only pagans, but also Jews and heretics and schismatics cannot become participants in eternal life, but will depart “into everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels” [Matt. 25:41], unless before the end of life the same have been added to the flock; and that the unity of the ecclesiastical body is so strong that only to those remaining in it are the sacraments of the Church of benefit for salvation, and do fastings, almsgiving, and other functions of piety and exercises of Christian service produce eternal reward, and that no one, whatever almsgiving he has practiced, even if he has shed blood for the name of Christ, can be saved, unless he has remained in the bosom and unity of the Catholic Church.
This simply cannot be understood correctly apart from the same Pope and Council’s own Exultate Deo, to which Vatican II appealed (as we saw above). In order to become participants in eternal life, CD says, we must be “added to the flock,” and this is done by means of Baptism (as ED clearly states). Well, in general Protestant baptisms are valid and accepted by the Church as such. But this by itself is insufficient to qualify them as either “heretics” or “schismatics,” since the vast majority of them today were never Catholic. You can’t be a heretic or schismatic in the eyes of the Catholic Church if you were never formally a Catholic.
So: Catholics aren’t being inconsistent today when they call Protestants their brothers in Christ. We have warrant from the Church to do so. Old condemnations of heretics—particularly when torn from their context—don’t change that.
One last observation is probably worthwhile. When Protestants become Catholics, the fact that they weren’t previously Catholic is made clear by the fact that they take membership vows. Now if their baptisms alone made them formal members of the Catholic Church, this step would be superfluous. But it’s not, because they weren’t. :-)