Anathema, Excommunication, and Heresy

The term ‘anathema’ originally referred to things that were offered to God (Catholic Encyclopedia, Anathema). Anything offered to God was therefore cut off from the one who made the offering. In offering something to God, the person may no longer make use of it himself. The root meaning of the word is to cut off or to separate, but in a religious context.

In Sacred Scripture, the word most often is used in a negative sense. When a thing is anathema, it is forbidden to be used.

{16:22} And it happened that, after these things, all the people came to Jerusalem after the victory, to adore the Lord. And as soon as they were purified, they all offered holocausts, and vows, and their promises.
{16:23} Moreover, Judith offered all the implements of war from Holofernes, which the people gave to her, and the canopy that she had taken away from his chamber, as an anathema unto oblivion [anathema oblivionis].

The people give Judith charge of all the implements of war from Holofernes, the general who tried to exterminate the Jews. But these implements are associated with grave sin, so she does not use them. So how can something that is associated with sin become an offering to God? It is the refusal to use something associated with grave sin which constitutes the offering. These implements will never be used again, they are anathema (cut off from use) forever. They are left to God, to His judgment. We can no longer be associated with them.

{21:1} And when king Arad the Canaanite, who was living toward the south, had heard this, namely, that Israel had arrived by the way of spies, he fought against them. And proving to be the victor, he led away prey from them.
{21:2} But Israel, obliging himself by a vow to the Lord, said: “If you deliver this people into my hand, I will wipe away their cities.”
{21:3} And the Lord heard the prayers of Israel, and he delivered the Canaanite, whom they put to death, overthrowing his cities. And they called the name of that place Hormah, that is, Anathema.

This place, Hormah, is cut off from use by the Israelites because it is associated with grave sin. They leave that place to the judgment of God.

{7:26} Neither shall you carry anything of the idol into your house, lest you become accursed [anathema], just as it also is. You shall detest it like dung, and you shall abominate it like defilement and filth, because it is an accursed thing [anathema].”

The term anathema in Latin is sometimes translated as accursed because the reason for cutting off, separating oneself from, all use of the thing is grave sin. Now an object cannot be cursed; it is merely an inanimate object. But an object or place associated with grave sin is in a sense accursed, because of its close association with grave sin.

Later in Deuteronomy, a city, its contents, and the persons within that city are said to be anathema:

{13:12} If, in one of your cities which the Lord your God will give to you as a habitation, you hear someone say:
{13:13} ‘The sons of Belial have departed from your midst, and they have persuaded the inhabitants of their city, and they have said: “Let us go, and serve strange gods,” ‘ which you have not known:
{13:14} inquire carefully and diligently, seeking the truth of the matter. And if you find that what was said is certain, and that this abomination is a work which has been perpetrated,
{13:15} you shall promptly strike down the inhabitants of that city with the edge of the sword. And you shall destroy it, along with all the things that are in it, even the flocks.
{13:16} Then all the household goods which are there, you shall gather together in the midst of its streets, and you shall set fire to these, along with the city itself, so that you may consume everything for the Lord your God, and so that it may be an everlasting tomb. It shall no longer be built up.
{13:17} And there shall remain nothing of that anathema in your hand, so that the Lord may turn from the wrath of his fury, and may take pity on you, and may multiply you, just as he swore to your fathers….

The grave sin of idolatry results in a condemnation of the place, so that all its people and contents are destroyed by the Israelites. The things and persons cut off from Israel in this way are called anathema. But notice in verse 16 that all these things and persons that are cut off (anathema) are in a sense offered to God. The Israelites reject the place, these things, and these persons, because of grave sin, leaving everything to the judgment of God.

{6:17} And let this city be anathema, with all the things that are within it, before the Lord. May only Rahab the harlot live, with all who are with her in the house. For she hid the messengers whom we sent.

Another city is called anathema, it is the city destroyed in the Biblical battle of Jericho. The people are destroyed because of grave sin. But Rahab, a sinful woman, was saved because her selfless act of risking her own life to save the innocent messengers was implicitly an act of perfect contrition. She repented, and so she was not under the anathema. So anathema is always related to grave sin (not every type of grave sin), but only if someone is obstinate in the sin; repentance from grave sin, exempts or frees one from such sentence.

There are other uses of the term anathema in the Old Testament, but they are much the same in meaning.

In the New Testament, the term has much the same meaning, except that now it is applied not so much to things or places, but to persons who commit grave sin and therefore are cut off from the Church. These persons are left to the judgment of God. The anathema separates the person from the Church, but the Church still hopes and prays for that person’s repentance and salvation. But the Church can no longer associate with them, because of grave sin.

[1 Corinthians]
{16:22} If anyone does not love our Lord Jesus Christ, let him be anathema! Maran Atha.

Another translation, the NAB, has anathema translated as accursed. Now if any person is accursed for the grave sin (the actual mortal sin of omission) of refusing to love our Lord, he cannot still be considered a part of the Church. He has separated himself from the Church by his sin. We might consider this type of sin to fall within the definition of apostasy. For a knowing and deliberate refusal to love the Lord Jesus is a type of complete abandonment of the Christian Faith.

Now any actual mortal sin will cut the person off from the state of grace. But he is still in some sense a member of the Church. He has lost the infused theological virtues of love and hope; but he still retains a true type of faith (it is dead without love, but it is still a type of faith). By faith, he still knows the path back to the state of grace (contrition, confession, satisfaction).

However, certain types of sins automatically cut off the person from the Church, specifically: apostasy, formal heresy, formal schism. As grave sins against the theological virtue of faith itself, these sins separate the person from the Church by the very nature of the sin — apart from any judgment of a Bishop, apart from any anathema issued by a Council, apart from Canon law. By the very nature of this type of sin, by the person’s own knowing deliberate act, he is cut off from the Church. Such a person is anathema.

This type of anathema is identical to automatic excommunication. The meaning of automatic excommunication is that the person has, by his own knowing deliberate grave sin, separated himself from the Church. The nature of his sinful choice is incompatible with continued true spiritual communion with the Church. Many persons who, in truth, have been automatically excommunicated (particularly for formal heresy) often continue to claim to be Catholic and continue to act as if they were teachers and leaders in the Catholic Church. And yet in the eyes of God, they are as anathema as the idols rejected by the Israelites — until and unless they repent.

The sin of apostasy involves abandoning the Christian Faith altogether (after Baptism). It should be obvious that a person who knowingly and deliberately chooses apostasy has cut himself off from the Church. Such is the very nature of his own act. But heresy and schism also anathema the person, that is, separate that person from the Church, by the very nature of the sin.

{1:8} But if anyone, even we ourselves or an Angel from Heaven, were to preach to you a gospel other than the one that we have preached to you, let him be anathema.

Sacred Scripture teaches us that not only the sin of believing a heresy, but also the sin of teaching a heresy, separates the person from the Church. The teacher or promoter of heresy, only if he acts knowingly and deliberately, commits a grave sin that is incompatible with communion with the Body of Christ. He excommunicates himself by his own act. Formal heresy is a grave sin; teaching heresy is graver still.

But in order to automatically excommunicate, the sin must be formal heresy– the knowing and deliberate rejection of any infallible teaching of the Magisterium on any matter of faith, morals, or salvation. Mere material heresy, when a person misunderstands a doctrine, or misstates a doctrine, or adheres to a theological idea without realizing that it implies another idea that is heresy, is not formal heresy because it is not knowing and deliberate. Thus, it is much easier to prove that someone has taught material heresy, than that he has committed formal heresy.

Which teachings of the Church must be believed under pain of heresy and automatic excommunication? Every infallible teaching of the Magisterium, whether taught under Papal Infallibility, or the infallibility of an Ecumenical Council, or under the ordinary and Universal Magisterium. The knowing and deliberate choice rejection of any such teaching is the sin of formal heresy; all such persons are automatically excommunicated. They have fallen under the anathema that is inherent to the sin that they have chosen.

{3:10} Avoid a man who is a heretic, after the first and second correction,
{3:11} knowing that one who is like this has been subverted, and that he offends; for he has been condemned by his own judgment.

The person who commits or teaches heresy should be offered correction. But if he refuses to be corrected, he should be avoided; he should not be treated as a brother in Christ, nor as a full member of the Body of Christ. He should be treated like an outsider.

{18:15} But if your brother has sinned against you, go and correct him, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you will have regained your brother.
{18:16} But if he will not listen you, invite with you one or two more, so that every word may stand by the mouth of two or three witnesses.
{18:17} And if he will not listen to them, tell the Church. But if he will not listen to the Church, let him be to you like the pagan and the tax collector.

Contra Akin on Anathema

Automatic excommunication is called latae sententia (wide judgment) because it applies widely to anyone who so sins. When a Bishop issues an excommunication as a result of his judgment in a particular case, it is called ferendae sententia (a brought judgment) because the excommunication is not automatic; it is brought by the case and the judge of that case (typically a Bishop).

In this article, Are YOU “Anathema”? How about Your Protestant Friend?, Jimmy Akin misrepresents the term anathema as if it only referred to a particular type of ceremony used in past times by a Bishop when a ferendae sententia excommunication was issued. That ceremony is no longer in use, so he claims that no one is anathema in the present time. However, he admits that automatic excommunication still applies.

“Over time the penalty of anathema became administered only rarely, and eventually it was judged that the extra ceremony was no longer needed. As a result, the 1983 Code of Canon Law abolished the penalty of anathema, and so it no longer exists under Church law. This means that nobody today is anathema in the sense that the term is used by councils and canon law documents. Excommunication still exists as a penalty, and some excommunications are even automatic, but the special, ceremonial form of excommunication known as anathema does not.”

Akin’s claim that anathema no longer exists is based on his narrowing of the term to refer only to the ceremony associated with ferendae excommunication. The ceremony is no longer used, but both ferendae and latae excommunications still exist. The basis of the term anathema is not the extraneous ceremony, but the separation of the person from the Church due to grave sin.

The true meaning of anathema is essentially excommunication: being cut off from the Church due to certain types of grave sin. This separation from the Church still exists in Canon law. For example:

“The 1917 Code of Canon Law punished abortion with excommunication. The revised canonical legislation continues this tradition when it decrees that ‘a person who actually procures an abortion incurs automatic (latae sententiae) excommunication’. The excommunication affects all those who commit this crime with knowledge of the penalty attached, and thus includes those accomplices without whose help the crime would not have been committed. 71 By this reiterated sanction, the Church makes clear that abortion is a most serious and dangerous crime, thereby encouraging those who commit it to seek without delay the path of conversion. In the Church the purpose of the penalty of excommunication is to make an individual fully aware of the gravity of a certain sin and then to foster genuine conversion and repentance.” (Pope John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, n. 62)

The term is perhaps not found in Canon law any longer, but the essential meaning and penalty, that of excommunication, remain in effect. Furthermore, the sins of apostasy, formal heresy, and formal schism automatically excommunicate by the nature of the act, under the unchangeable eternal moral law, regardless of Canon law.

The term anathema is found in Sacred Scripture, in both Testaments. So, according to the teaching of Christ, it cannot have been abolished or no longer exist:

{5:17} Do not think that I have come to loosen the law or the prophets. I have not come to loosen, but to fulfill.
{5:18} Amen I say to you, certainly, until heaven and earth pass away, not one iota, not one dot shall pass away from the law, until all is done.
{5:19} Therefore, whoever will have loosened one of the least of these commandments, and have taught men so, shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever will have done and taught these, such a one shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

Taylor Marshall, commenting on Akin’s post, offers this insight:

When the Canons of the Council of Trent say “If anyone says X, let him be anathema,” they do not mean: “If any one says X, let us perform the solemn type of excommunication that the bishop performed using a special ceremony.”

If that were the case, Tridentine bishops would have been busy on every day of the week snuffing candles while Europe was boiling with Lutherans, Calvinists, and Anabaptists (who had been previously baptized Catholics). An anathema does not necessarily require a liturgical act to validate it. If that were the case then the canons of Trent and Vatican I would be void after the 1917 Code.

Even today, if a Catholic *formally* and *knowingly* believes and/or teachers an anathematized statement (e.g. “there are not seven sacraments”), he is anathema. He cannot receive Holy Communion and he has fallen from the state of grace. Heresy is a mortal sin and the term “anathema” still expresses this reality. Canon law cannot retroactively change the *meaning* of an infallible Ecumenical Council such as Trent or Vatican I.

I agree. Every anathema issued by any Ecumenical Council is still in force. Such anathemas are issued to protect the truths of the Faith and the souls of the faithful against anyone who knowingly and deliberately rejects an infallible teaching of an Ecumenical Council. This type of anathema does not require a ceremony; it is identical to automatic excommunication. And even if a Council does not issue an anathema, formal heresy against any infallible teaching of the Magisterium necessarily and inherently results in the person being cut off from the Church. The anathema is implied by this particular type of grave sin, under the eternal moral law, regardless of Canon law.

As for Protestants, they are in a state of separation from the Church; they are in a state of material heresy and schism. For by Baptism they entered the Church, but they refuse to believe the teachings of Her Magisterium. Some Protestants might be guilty of actual mortal sin for knowingly rejecting the Church and Her teachings. But all adult Protestants, who know the Church and Her teachings well, are guilty of objective mortal sin. For the rejection of any infallible teaching of the Magisterium is objectively a grave sin. For the Pope, and each Ecumenical Council, and the Magisterium, and the temporal authority of the Church have authority over the whole world, and over every human person.

{28:18} And Jesus, drawing near, spoke to them, saying: “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth.
{28:19} Therefore, go forth and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,
{28:20} teaching them to observe all that I have ever commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, even to the consummation of the age.”


Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and Bible translator

Saint Thomas on Heresy
What is Heresy?
My book of moral theology: The Catechism of Catholic Ethics
My work with Sacred Scripture:

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