The Evangelical Universalist Forum

The Heresy Of Universalism

So, I was looking in the Catholic encyclopedia on Universalism and found that it was never condemned as heresy but was condemned as heterodoxy. There’s a difference. As Wikipedia states:

I guess this is how Holy Family (the Catholic church I attend) can still remain Roman Catholic and be Universalists. I’m happy I’m not a heretic in being a Universalist Catholic.

From the Catholic Encyclopedia:

Actually it wasn’t condemned at the Ecumenical Council there, although it was condemned by Pope Vigilius in connection with that Council – a subtle point: he ratified Emperor Justinian’s anathemas under protest of condemning the reputation of trinitarian scholars who died in good faith with the Church, but the Council did not ratify those anathemas per se (although it cited universalistic passages against Origen and Theodosius, not for comment on the universalism but supposedly as evidence against their Christologies).

The RCC condemned universal salvation at the Council of Trent much later, if I recall correctly, rather like the Eastern Orthodox condemned it in Council much later (adding Didymus the Blind, super-orthodox president of the Alexandrian catechetical school, to the list while they were at it). But those were long after the Ecumenical Councils per se, although the RCC still called theirs EcuCouncils for a long time, and still technically do.

It may or may not be a coincidence that attacking the (largely universalistic) two main catechetical seminary groups as doctrinal authorities (which to be fair the two groups had already instigated quite harshly between themselves), setting up a two-way fight between Emperor and Pope on who should be the final single arbiter on orthodox doctrine, leading to outright schism between the two lungs of the Church eventually, should coincide with attempts at having universal salvation declared heretical – events that succeeded at the popular level even if not technically at the Councilar (or not until after the schism).

I’m rather doubtful in any case that the RCC regarded universalism as passibly heterodox in distinction from being heretical, until fairly recent times (in this century). The latest Great Catechism still pronounces strongly against it, and that was under a Pope who was fairly sympathetic to it.

As a practical matter, though, it seems to be hovering currently between a mild heterodoxy (definitely wrong but not dogmatically exclusionary) and a legitimate theological opinion that scholars may hold and argue for so long as they don’t claim dogmatic status for it (as currently in the Eastern Orthodox).

So I agree, don’t worry too much about it. :slight_smile: Respect the Holy Mass and supportive fellowship with your local congregation, and trust the Trinity to save sinners from sin, and be asking (as George MacDonald advised) “What would You have me to do?” in helping people trust God more.

(But to be safe, don’t take a teaching position in favor of ‘katholicism’ either. That’s where people usually get in trouble.)

I’m going to ask my teacher about this tonight and how she can profess Universalism and be a Roman Catholic. I will get back with you.

Jason, I’m not familiar with that council. Where was it held, and in what year was it held?


My teacher told me that the councils and catechisms aren’t necessarily infallible. They change. Moreover, only under certain circumstances and conditions does the pope speak infallibly and this is after a long discussion with Cardinals and Bishops. He can write a book, endorse, or say something that is completely wrong and heretical. It’s only when he claims to be speaking infallible that he is the Vicar of Christ. My teacher assured me that she is Catholic and Universalist.

The difficulty with this is not really concerning the possibility of a heretic being Pope, but of a heretic remaining Catholic, since manifest heresy - in the traditional RC teaching is enough to render someone outside the (RC) Church. There has been a lot of debate over the last 50 years or so as to whether a Pope who taught heresy would automatically cease to be Catholic, and hence cease to be Pope. I am reviewing a book at the moment entitled A Catholic Reading Guide to Universalism, and will get back to you if there is anything specific about how to remain in assent to the dogmas about hell and damnation and at the same time universalist.

I’d also like to see a reference for this one if possible Jason, as I don’t recall ever seeing that it was even on the agenda. Given that the purpose of the Council was largely to address the teachings of Luther i’d be surprised if it considered the question at all. Trent actually affirms the possibility of Baptism of Desire (in voto), a development of the teaching of the earlier Council of Florence which defined extra ecclasiam nulla salus (outside the church, no salvation).


Edit: of course, on another level one might say that Trent implicitly condemns universal salvation through its stress on the Sacraments and submission to the Roman faith being necessary for salvation.

Hi Ghost,

I think it’s very likely. Before things were handed over, Caiaphas was the Jewish HIGH PRIEST who is said to have organized the plot to kill Jesus. Caiaphas is also said to have been involved in the Sanhedrin trial of Jesus. According to the Gospel accounts, Caiaphas was the major antagonist of Jesus. Yet the Holy Spirit uses him and speaks a prophecy through him.

In like manner God can use bad popes

I only saw a reference to it myself a little while ago, but it was in a source I thought seemed reliable – Ramelli’s book on Bardaisan perhaps. I’ve been reading other things recently.

It wasn’t regarded as an Ecumenical Council for sure – the RCs went on to do that, but the EOx didn’t. I’ll have to see if I can find the reference again. I’m pretty sure it doesn’t matter, not being an EcuCouncil. It did surprise me that Didymus was eventually added to the anathema list. And someone else, not Evagrius he was always jumped on for being too outré, someone else with an E name that surprised me…

Anyway, until I find the ref again, anyone should certainly take it as vague hearsay. :stuck_out_tongue:

Re Trent: I’m likely to have mixed that up with a prior medieval Council. I saw the reference in the same generally sympathetic place as the mention of the later condemnation of universalism explicitly in the EOx after the East/West schism.

Hopefully when I finish my current reading schedule I can get back to wherever I saw the refs eventually.

Update: I don’t think I was recalling (on the EOx side) David Bentley Hart’s reference to the 1583 edition of the Synodikon, from his recent backpage article in First Things, but to be fair I have to admit I can’t rule out that I was mis-remembering that. :confused: I did find it in my recent reading list, when I went looking around briefly for where I saw (or thought I saw) the refs to later more explicit condemnations on either side after the Seven EcuCouncils.


According to the Catholic Jimmy Akin when “anathema” is used in the councils it isn’t talking about a condemnation to hell but a disciplinary measure to reconcile.

Part of the problem is that this wasn’t how prior Popes (even up until the 19th century, even into the 20th) understood papal infallibility. It’s a very modern understanding, based on having to acknowledge that, for example, even declarations of anathemas can be in error (due to some embarrassing inadvertances such as anathematising anyone using an English Biblical translation different from one which subsequently had to be corrected after its first printing for errors).

In other words, the modern hierarchy in effect denies Pope Vigilius was speaking ex cathedra when he ratified Justinian’s anathemas against universalism on his own authority – most of which don’t count against trinitarian Christian universalism, but at least one of which principally includes it under anathema – but that sure wasn’t how Vigilius or those citing him as a source of Catholic dogma meant to be regarded.

Ditto for his successor Pelagius I, writing to Childebert in April 557 not long afterward (from his letter “Humani generis” in the Fide Pelagii), who writes that his faith and hope includes that the wicked remaining by their own choice with the “vessels fit for destruction”, who either did not know the way of the Lord, or knowing it left it when seized by various transgressions, will be given over by God to the punishment of eternal and unquenchable fire, that they “may burn without end” – clarifying what he meant by the addition.

No one anywhere doubts that by 1215 the Roman Catholics meant unending punishment by reference to the Latin phrase for “everlasting punishment”, and the Lateran Council IV (known among the RCs as Ecumenical XII) affirms this in its first chapter on the Catholic faith in preparation for anathematizing the Albigensians, the Waldensians, Joachim, etc. Is a Roman Catholic Ecumenical Council supposed to be regarded as possibly errant in teachings of faith and morals by Roman Catholics? (It also stressed that salvation is only possible within the Catholic Church, and that this is only possible through receiving the sacraments, and that no one can accomplish effective reception of a sacrament except by a priest rightly ordained under the Pope.)

Innocent IV in conjunction with the First Council of Lyons (Ecumenical XIII against Frederick II), although he did not send out dogmatic decrees himself, concurred with the Council in sending out the letter “Sub Catholicae” on March 6, 1254, to the Bishop of Tusculum, who represented the Apostolic See (of Roman Catholicism) among the Greeks, with instructions on how to instruct converts from Eastern Orthodoxy to Roman Catholicism within the traditions of the Eastern Rites, article 24 of which states, “Moreover, if anyone without repentance dies in mortal sin, without doubt he is tortured forever by the flames of eternal hell.” This was part of instruction on how they should regard purgatory, in distinction from hell. Is this teaching by an RC EcuCouncil on proper faith to be regarded as possibly errant by Roman Catholics?

Clement VI writing to challenge the Catholicon (also known as the Consolator) of the Armenians in Sept 20, 1351, goes far in distinguishing purgatory from final hell again, and also the primacy of the Pope so that he cannot be judged in his pronouncements by any creature (and never has been and never shall be, not any past or future pope) but only by God alone, also that anyone dying in protest against any Pope thus goes into hopelessly final and unending punishment.

No one anywhere thinks the RCs were teaching any kind of post-mortem salvation per se by the 1400s, so when Pope Eugenius IV issued Papal Bulls regarding the Jacobites and the Greeks and the Armenians (setting terms for being in union with Rome) at the Council of Florence (which met from 1438-1445, known among RCs as the 17th Ecumenical), there isn’t any doubt what he means by distinguishing hell from purgatory in the Bull to the Greek Church, or what he means in the Bull to the Jacobites that no one can be saved if they die outside explicit communion with the Roman Catholic Church but shall instead go into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels – none regardless of good deeds even for Christ “can be saved, unless he has remained in the bosom and unity of the Catholic Church”.

These are taken directly from the 30th edition of Denzinger’s Sources of Catholic Dogma, sitting at hand on my desk as I type (although that wasn’t where I recently saw admission that the RCs explicitly denied universalism at a Council subsequent to the Seven); which admittedly has been through at least one more edition since then – in fact a new edition was recently released which I don’t have yet – so I can’t confirm whether they are included anymore as legitimate sources of RC dogma, and so as papally supported or promulgated teachings on faith and morals (at least where those categories clearly apply to the topics), but they demonstrably were up until recently.

That being said, this edition was printed in 1955, well before the new minimalist understanding of papal infallibility started being promoted by modern Popes. Among other things, his final teaching is considered intractable, even before (i.e. even if it happens to be against) the consent of the Church or a Council; and dogmatic sources (regarded as such in 1955 at least) claim no Pope has ever made an error in teaching faith or morals. But assent and obedience are due to his decrees even when not on the dogmatics of faith and morals.

Pope Pius IX taught by dogmatic revelation at the Vatican Council (known to the RCs as Ecumenical XX), from July 18, 1870, that “We… teach and explain that the dogma has been divinely revealed: that the Roman Pontiff, when he speaks ex cathedra, that is, when [in] carrying out the duty of the pastor and teacher of all Christians in accord with his supreme apostolic authority, he explains a doctrine of faith or morals to be held by the universal Church, through the divine assistance promised him in blessed Peter, operates with that infallibility with which the divine Redeemer wished that His church be instructed in defining doctrine on faith and morals; and so such definitions of the Roman Pontiff from himself, but not from the consensus of the Church, are unalterable. But if anyone presumes to contradict this definition of Ours, which may God forbid: let him be anathema.”

That admittedly doesn’t seem to be the modern understanding of papal infallibility among the recent hierarchy (including the recent popes), but that was Pius’ understanding, and still seems to be among many RCs today both in the laity and in eccelsial positions. The broadness wasn’t meant to be so vague that almost nothing counts as ex cathedra; the broadness was meant to be so broad as to be maximally inclusive of any declaration by any Pope when teaching anyone at any time the faith and morals of the Christian Church per se.

No doubt, but anyone dying while still in anathema was taught, from positions of dogmatic authority, as being hopelessly lost.

The disciplinary restorative measure was: come back, or die permanently lost.

That probably isn’t what’s being taught today, but that was what was taught for the longest time, from positions that either must count as ex cathedra or else which render the whole concept of ex cathedra effectively meaningless.


I’m trying to get ahold of the priest at the church about this. I want to see what they really believe. First I was told on the phone by one of the men there that they were hopeful universalists and then the teacher of the class claimed to be universalist. There’s something wrong here.

That’s not what James Akin states. This was a response to claims that no one can be saved outside the church and how the anathemas at the council of Trent condemned Protestants. Akin assures that the Catholic church considers Protestants to be brothers and sisters in Christ. The anathemas at the counsel of Trent did not condemn anyone to hell but were disciplinary measures.

The Roman Catholic Church believes that now (at some high levels, not necessarily in popular teaching), but that wasn’t always the teaching. I didn’t bring up Trent because things were already starting to change back a bit by then, with the idea that someone can be silently wishing they were RC but not yet. But it was still only an extension of the principle of someone dying wishing to receive communion with the RC but being unable to by circumstances.

I’m only saying things have changed, and pretty drastically, in the RCC. Not that the change is a bad thing, and not that you should be worried about it. :slight_smile:

But the RCs have an institutional habit of acting like their current positions on faith and morals were always what was taught by the RC hierarchy on a topic, and that just isn’t true.

But I don’t want you to be upset if you run into other RCs insisting on what was previously taught because it was quite clearly previously taught. What is currently being taught is itself in conjunction with other things that had been previously taught, so it isn’t an innovation, it’s an internal reformation, sort of like how the Counter-Reformation also involved internal reformation (as well as defense against the Reformation of the time).

As a Catholic I believe the Holy Spirit is constantly unwrapping the meaning of God’s final revelation in Jesus Christ. So if the Catholic Church is being led to accept the possibility of final forgiveness for all mankind it just means God has given the Church more understanding. God calls us to pray for all of the dead. I don’t think God would lead the Church to do that if there wasn’t at least a possibility that all of the dead could be saved.

An argument could perhaps be made that since the RCC did in various ways keep passing down both gospel assurances (total scope and total victory of salvation), God’s purposes haven’t failed, even though the RCC failed in interpreting the data properly. I.e., it isn’t the Church that’s infallible in teaching, but God Who is infallible despite the fallibility of the Church in interpreting and, to some extent, passing that teaching along consistently.

(This would be an extension of the precept that God will be faithful even if man is unfaithful.)