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1958 Article

[There have been significant shifts in Mennonite scholarship between 1958 and 1988 on this subject. Read the two articles within that framework.]

This is a theme which has not yet been thoroughly studied. Of course the Catholic encyclopedias contain articles on the Anabaptists (F. X. Funk in the Kirchenlexikon by Wetzer and Welte, and N. A. Weber in the Catholic Encyclopedia), but the very use of the designation Wiedertäufer in German denotes not merely a popular wrong usage of the word, but rather a dogmatic judgment that ranks the Anabaptism of the Reformation period into the traditional chain of rebaptizantes in order to be able to strike at them with the traditional edicts issued against these.

The teaching office of the Catholic Church has never, to our knowledge, had any particular interest in the Anabaptists of the 16th century—not so much because they did not seem important enough, or because punishment by the temporal arm, be it that of the emperor or that of temporal or spiritual regional rulers, was effective, but because they saw no problem here; the matter had long since been settled—negatively—ever since the conflicts with heretics in baptism in the third century and in rejection of the Donatists and medieval heretics, in the establishment of a single baptism. "We believe that in the one, true, catholic, and apostolic church one (i.e., a single) baptism is given," was a statement passed at the Council of Lyons in 1274; and Augustine said in his commentary on Psalm 54: "Nor had baptism received full treatment before the outside rebaptizers (he means the Novatians) raised their objections." (See also the ruling of the Codex Theodosianus of A.D. 373: baptism must not be repeated, in C. Kirch, Enchiridion, 1910, 468, and other places in the table of contents.)

Nevertheless the Anabaptists played a part in the great general agreement Catholicism made with the Reformation in the Council of Trent. Zwingli's old opponent, Johann Faber, mentions them as early as 6 July 1536 in a preliminary opinion to Pope Paul III, as "The most ruinous sect, not unlike the errors of the Donatists," and states that it was urgently necessary to "have their books." It must not be overlooked that these words were written soon after the catastrophe of Münster, which continued to have its effect in the later councils as a horrible example. To find the Anabaptists lumped together with the Sacramentalists is not surprising. The Lutherans did the same.

In the numerous tracts connected with the Tridentine Council, the Anabaptists are opposed by Johann Haner, Johann Cochlaeus, Hieronymus Alexander, and Francis Reghini, usually in connection with the ordinance of baptism, concerning which "the Anabaptists assert that it must be repeated." Nicolas de Ponte, the orator of Duke Albrecht of Bavaria, in his speech of 27 June 1562 at the council, mentions the Anabaptists with the Zwinglians, Lutherans, Flaccians, and Manichaeists. On 1 July  1562 there was discussion in the general assembly of the council as to whether the article on the communion should be formulated against the Zwinglians and Anabaptists, or against the Protestants, with whom the two above groups are apparently not included. The Augustinian General Seripandus in the session of 17 February 1547 condemned the "Anabaptists with the Donatists." When the Concilium Tridentinum, the great work of the Görresgesellschaft, to which we owe these notes, is published, the significance of Anabaptism to the council can. be exactly determined.

At any rate, the following canons of Session VII of the council are aimed at Anabaptists: Canon 11, "If anyone says that a true and properly administered baptism must be repeated with one who has denied the Christian faith among unbelievers, when he repents, he shall be banned"; Canon 12, "If anyone says that none shall be baptized except at the age at which Christ was baptized or immediately facing death, he shall be banned"; Canon 13, "If anyone says that children are not to be reckoned among the believers after baptism because they do not have the act of faith, and must therefore be baptized again when they come to years of accountability, or that it would be better to postpone their baptism than to baptize only in the faith of the church those who do not believe by an independent act of faith, he shall be banned."

The new law book of the Catholic Church, the Codex iuris canonici, takes for granted as self-evident that infant baptism is necessary to salvation (canon 737), rules (canon 770) that children should be baptized as soon as possible, stresses (canon 732) that the rite of baptism cannot be repeated, and has the Professio catholicae fidei placed at the head. It expressly acknowledges the decisions of Trent as binding.

Catholic publication of the 16th century against the Anabaptists was not so lively as that of the Protestants; nevertheless in their polemic against the Reformation, particularly against the Sacramentalists, many a word was directed against the Anabaptists. The fact that Anabaptism emanated from the Protestant movement and set up its tenets against it, was bound to evoke a very different opposition on the part of the Protestants than that of the Catholics, who opposed Anabaptism essentially as a part of Protestantism. The Dominican Ambrosius Pelargus wrote at Freiburg i.Br. in 1530, In Anabaptistarum errores aliquot; in 1531, In Eleutherobaptistas (Against Those Who Will Not Acknowledge the Necessity of Baptism); in 1531, An fas sit in Anabaptistas adeoque in Haereticos poena capitis animadvertere. Also the booklet of Pelargus against Oecolampadius, Refutatio consilii Oecolampadii de differendo parvulorum baptismo in trimulam aut quadrimulam usque aetatem 1530 belongs in this list. (N. Paulus, Die deutschen Dominikaner im Kampfe gegen Luther, 1903, 199 ff.) The most important—because it is the only complete presentation by an eyewitness-source for the history of the Anabaptist kingdom in Münster, Hermann von Kerssenbroich's Anabaptistici furoris Monasterium inclitam Westphaliae metropolim evertentis historica narratio, comes from a Catholic, who judges from the point of view of his church.

Since one of the most important measures of the Counter Reformation was the sending out of papal nuncios into the endangered regions, the reports of these emissaries naturally contain material on the Anabaptists (but probably not too abundant) in places where there were some living in territory to be recatholicized at the end of the 16th century. It must suffice here to point out this source (L. Just, "Die Erforschung der päpstlichen Nuntiaturen, Stand und Aufgaben, besonders in Deutschland," in Quellen und Forschungen aus italienischen Archiven XXIV, 1932). Details belong to the history of the Catholic territories. No less valuable are the episcopal diocesan reports to Rome, the importance of which is indicated by the work of J. Schmidlin (3 vv.), Die kirchliche Zustände in Deutschland vor dem 30jährigen Kriege nach den bischöflichen Diözesanberichten an den Hl. Stuhl (1908-10).

Though there can be no doubt that the struggle of the Anabaptists against the ethical sterility of infant baptism released a strong reaction in favor of an ethical renewal of the covenant of baptism (see Confirmation), it must also be mentioned that in the contemporary Catholic Church in connection with the revival and invigorating of the entire liturgy, the "Belebung des Taufbewusstseins" (title of a treatise by P. Parch in Bibel und Liturgie, No. 6, 1932) or "Tauf und Tauferneuerung" (Volksblatt Panache, No. 18, 1929) was vigorously discussed. The Catholic periodical for the St. Bernard pastorate in Frankfurt (Vol. VI, 1932, No. 3) stated:

"However we exert ourselves, we have no baptismal experience that goes with us. The day of our first holy communion is unforgettable, the day of our sacramental marriage stands large and ineradicable in our souls. But our baptism occurred while our soul was still in slumber, and was not yet capable of an experience. However, we live constantly from our baptism, as the tree from its roots, we constantly call ourselves by the name of Christian like a family name. Therefore the church wants to make up for the missing experience. So on Saturday before Easter she places us around the baptismal font, fills it with water, consecrates it as a sacred source of supernatural life, sprinkles us with it in memory of our first washing, gives us some to take home, that we may use it in the morning and evening. Do you think of this when the priest carries it through the church every Sunday before High Mass, when you bless yourself upon entering and leaving the church, upon leaving and returning to your home? Our annual belated baptismal experience shall be so great and powerful that we need a whole year to live it up."

Here it is not confirmation but the consecrated holy water that becomes the moment of the baptismal renewal, and it is a daily renewal.

At other places the pastor is strongly urged to speak of this first and most important sacrament from time to time in religious instruction, in preaching, and in school and explain it with translations of the ritual and prayer. Or, in contrast to the practice of administering the sacrament in a corner of the church, only before the nearest relatives, quickly and unceremoniously, "baptism should become an affair for the entire congregation with a short address. The individual Christian is expected to renew his baptism with special meditation on his baptismal day."

Historical teaching grants that in the primitive church the baptismal candidates were "mostly adults," and that the rite was preceded by the threefold question put to the candidate, whether he believed in the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost—questions which are to have meaning only in relation to original adult baptism, but are now answered by the baptized infant's godfather. Thus there are still some old Christian elements alive in the Catholic Church. But the points of contact between Anabaptism and Catholicism should not be overrated. The fundamental, radical difference remains.

The hierarchy, which Anabaptism, based on the concept of the priesthood of all believers, rejects, is everything in Catholicism; without the priest no salvation. Sociologically the Catholic Church is an institution with firmly established resources of salvation, which it gives to believers born into it, in strictly canalized methods; the Anabaptist group is a brotherhood into which one enters by the act of personal confession, and which is for its members only the form of the common life, never a compulsory institution. The living organism of all the members, which among the Dutch Mennonites eliminated even sex distinctions (in Germany the question did not become acute, and elsewhere1 Corinthians 14:34f. is binding), and which lets the Anabaptists act as a body, is in Catholicism split by the distinction between clergy and laity, which in spite of all revival of the "lay apostleship" grants the layman no independence of any kind, and keeps women from any contact with the altar (literally and symbolically).

Whereas Anabaptism strictly speaking has no sacraments, i.e., it knows no means of grace attached to outward symbols, but rather sees in communion and baptism acts of confession on the part of the believer or the believing community, the seven Catholic sacraments are interpreted as being strictly "sacramental"; independently of the state or quality of the recipient the means of grace is attached to the so-called material of the sacrament with partly spiritual and partly physical effect and becomes effective by the mere performance of the rite. The charge of sacrament magic cannot be denied (though it does not apply to all individual cases). This is particularly true of baptism.

The principle (canon 737 of Codex jour. can.) that baptism is necessary to salvation (also in the Lutheranism of the Confession of Augsburg of 1530) is carried out to its furthest implications. Salvation actually depends on the act of baptism, even though the damnation of children dying unbaptized is not expressly stated and a particular act of grace is possible in such a case. In an emergency —and only then—can a layman, or even a woman administer baptism, father or mother only if there is danger of death and no one else is at hand; very exact stipulations are made about a possible baptism of an unborn child or of limbs that have made their appearance in the world, or the baptism of monstrosities, or on conditional baptism (for instance, in case of doubt as to whether the child is living or dead) (canon 742-49).

There are unbridgeable differences between Catholicism and Anabaptism.  -- Walther Köhler

1990 Update

The opening statement in the 1958 article on "Catholicism and Anabaptism" (above) namely, "this is a theme which has not yet been thoroughly studied," remains as valid in 1988 as it was in 1955. Anabaptist studies have given some attention to medieval and Catholic roots of Anabaptism but most interpreters have continued to work with medieval Catholicism as "background to the Reformation" rather than a subject in its own right, leading to a degree of misinterpretation. Readers should consult articles on Anabaptism, historiography, monasticism, mysticism, and Michael Sattler for information about these studies.

The Roman Catholic Church emerged out of medieval Catholicism by way of the Catholic Reformation (Council of Trent, 1545-1563). Mennonites generally continued the strong anti-Catholicism that was evident in the polemical writings of the 16th-century Anabaptists. Anabaptists survived primarily in Protestant lands, owing to the ruthless recatholicization of Hutterites in Moravia and the persecution-induced exodus of Anabaptists from Bavaria, Austria, Tyrol, etc. Mennonites thus had little contact with Catholics until their resettlement in parts of Alsace and Bavaria in the 17th-19th centuries, their immigration to and missionary work in Latin America in the 20th century, and their late-20th-century migration to the urban centers of North America.

Mennonite missionary memoirs and publicity literature of the early and mid-20th century were often written in an anti-Catholic tone. Catholics were portrayed as superstitious and idolatrous at best and, occasionally as lazy and dirty. Like the 16th-century Anabaptists, Mennonites were convinced that the Roman Catholic church was an apostate form of Christianity.

This has changed slightly in the later 20th century. Internal changes in Catholicism are responsible in part; the Mennonite exodus from rural subcultures and entry into businesses and professions in large cities has also played a role. A professor at Mennonite Biblical Seminary, C. J. Dyck, was an observer at the Second Vatican Council (1963-1965), the reform council that symbolizes the most significant changes in Roman Catholic life and thought. Some Mennonite periodicals reported on these events (partially analyzed by Bartsch). Roman Catholic leaders in North America have become active in discussions of the issues of war and peace, often drawing on Mennonite theologians' and activists' work, sometimes working cooperatively in peace organizations. North American Mennonite interest in spiritual formation and worship renewal have drawn to some degree on Roman Catholic resources. Mennonites in Paraguay and Colombia have had limited conversations with Roman Catholic leaders; Mennonite missionaries and Mennonite Central Committee workers in many countries have worked with Roman Catholics in a variety of projects. Mennonite World Conference was represented at the international inter religious day of prayer called by Pope John Paul II at Assisi in 1986. Some Mennonites have interacted extensively with Latin American proponents of liberation theologies. (These theologies are viewed by the official teaching office of the Roman Catholic Church as potentially un-Catholic.)

Despite these changes, in many Mennonite circles, rural as well as urban, lay as well as theologically trained, considerable residual suspicion of Catholicism remains. Theologically literate Mennonites are suspicious of Catholic understandings of priesthood, sacrament, tradition, and teaching office; grass-roots Mennonites continue elements of the traditional Protestant rejection of Catholicism as idolatrous and apostate.

Exceptions to the above generalizations are illustrated by the pamphlet by Hans-Jürgen Goerz. Goerz passes over the "Constantinian Fall" theory of church history, places the "fall of the church" in the Gregorian Reform of the 11th century (a viewpoint remarkably similar to recent scholarship on the growth of the papacy), and maintains a tone of cautious openness toward a wide variety of Catholic teachings.

Roman Catholicism has a high view of the institutional church, her tradition, and her teaching office. Mennonites have similarly held a high view of the visible church, depending, however, on unwritten rules and structures, in contrast to the highly developed theology, priesthood, and canon law of the Roman Catholics. Similarly, since the Anabaptist movement, Anabaptists and Mennonites have taught a memorialistic view of baptism and communion as mere signs rather than sacraments (dynamic symbols), which places Mennonites at the opposite extreme from the Roman Catholic understanding of the use of visible and physical things in sacral worship. Practically speaking, Mennonites have also made use of created things in a sacralized way, failing however, to develop a theology of sacrament to explain the relationship of spirit and matter. -- Dennis D. Martin

See also Bolivia; History; Restitutionism; Congo, Democratic Republic of


Catholic authors who wrote against Anabaptism and Mennonitism

Corbachius, Joh. Contra Anabaptistos. Cologne, 1535.

Costerus, Franc. Toetsteen van de versierde Apostolische Successie eens Wederdoopers . . . Antwerp, 1603.

de Bisschop, P. Spieghel der Waterlantscher Wederdooperen Leughenkonst . . . Rotterdam, 1597.

de Usingen, Bartholomeus Arnoldi. Anabaptismus contra Rebaptisantes. Cologne, 1529.

Dickius, L. Adversus impios anabaptistarum errores. Haganoae, 1530.

Duncanus, Martin. Anabaptisticae haereseos confutatio. Antwerp, 1549.

Elder, Georg. Evangelische Inquisition wahrer und falscher Religion. Dillingen, 1573, reprint Ingolstadt, 1580.

Erhard, Chr. Salus ex inimicis. Goliaths Schwerdt. Ingolstadt.

Erhard, Chr. Gründliche kurtz verfaste Historia, von Münsterischen Widertauffern . . . Munich, 1589.

Faber, Johann. Adversus Doctorem Balthasarum Pacimontanum. Leipzig, 1528.

Fischer, C. A. Von der Widertauffer verfluchten Ursprung, Gottlosen Lehre . . . Bruck a.d. Teya, 1603.

Fischer, C. A. Antwort auff die Widerlegung so Clauss Breutel der Widertauffer König . . . Bruck, 1603.

Fischer, C. A. Vier und funfftzig Erhebliche Ursachen—Warumb die Widertauffer nicht sein im Land zu leyden. Ingolstadt, 1607.

Fischer, C. A. Der Hutterischen Widertauffer Taubenkobel. Ingolstadt, 1607.

Gallus, C. Malleus Anabaptistarum. Arnhem, 1606.

Peter, Cunerus. Den Schilt teghen die Wederdopers. Lyons, 1568.

(Walraven, S.) Successio Anabaptistica . . . Cologne, (1603), (1612).

Other Bibliography

Dyck, C. J. "The Literature of Vatican Council II: A Bibliographical Commentary." Anglican Theological Review 49 (1967): 263-80. Does not deal with Mennonites.

Eisenblätter, Winfried. "Katholische Auseinandersetzung mit dem Täufertum." Mennonitische Geschichtsblätter Jg. 22, n.F. 17 (1965): 47-53.

Erb, Peter C. "A Reflection on Mennonite Theology in Canada." Journal of Mennonite Studies 1 (1983): 179-190.

Erb, Peter C. "Between Presumption and Despair." Why I Am a Mennonite, ed. Harry Loewen. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1988: 62-76.

Gerlach, Horst. Die Mennoniten in katholischer Sicht. Karlsruhe: H. Schneider, ca. 1964: 8pp.

Goerz, H. Die Urgemeinde: Die Katholische Kirche; Die Reformation—Drei kurze kirchengeschichtliche Studien. Yarrow, BC: Columbia Press for the author, n.d. [ca. 1980].

Hege, Christian and Christian Neff. Mennonitisches Lexikon, 4 vols. Frankfurt & Weierhof: Hege; Karlsruhe: Schneider, 1913-1967: v. II, 472-74.

[Johnson], Janeen Bertsche. "What Mennonites Have Been Saying About Catholics." Student Paper, Bluffton College, 1986.

Juhnke, James C. A People of Mission: A History of General Conference Mennonite Overseas Missions. Newton, KS: Faith and Life, 1979: 150-58.

Kauffman, J. Howard and Harder, Leland, eds. Anabaptists Four Centuries Later: A Profile of Five Mennonite and Brethren in Christ Denominations. Scottdale, PA : Herald Press, 1975: 248-252.

Martin, Dennis D. "Anabaptist Discipleship and Anabaptist and Mennonite Spirituality." Mennonite Quarterly Review, 62 (1988): 5-25.

Mennonite Weekly Review (19 February 1987): 6.

Mennonite Reporter (25 April 1988): 12.

Author(s) Walther Köhler
Dennis D. Martin
Date Published 1990

Cite This Article

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Köhler, Walther and Dennis D. Martin. "Roman Catholic Church." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1990. Web. 29 Jul 2021.

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Köhler, Walther and Dennis D. Martin. (1990). Roman Catholic Church. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 29 July 2021, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, pp. 532-535; vol. 5, pp. 776-777. All rights reserved.

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