The word anathema is one of the most misunderstood terms in anti-Catholic apologetics. Almost all anti-Catholics, from the lowbrow end of the spectrum to those who give themselves airs of scholarship, misunderstand it.
For example, toward the more lowbrow end of anti-Catholicism, the article “Apostolic or Apostate,” by Mike P. Gendron, states, “Many Christians are unaware that the Catholic Councils of Trent and Vatican II issued over 100 anathema’s [sic] (condemnations) on anyone who believes salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. All these condemnations are still in effect today.”
Gendron has obviously never read Trent or Vatican II. Vatican II did not use the term anathema in any of its documents. And while Trent’s canons do use the term, there are nowhere near one hundred canons devoted to the subject of salvation nor any canons that, properly understood, condemn the three points of soteriology Gendron names.
We find similar confusion about the term among those presenting themselves as intellectuals. In his book The Roman Catholic Controversy, James R. White, in summarizing Trent’s canons on the Eucharist, states that, according to the Council, “anyone who denies the truthfulness of any of these proclamations is under the anathema of God” (164).
When I read White’s statement to a knowledgeable friend, he busted out laughing. After he quieted down, he suggested that perhaps the statement was calculated to deceive those who didn’t know how the term anathema is used, since it is absurd to those who do know. I said, in keeping with charity, we shouldn’t infer that this is a case of deliberate deception, but only that it exposes White’s ignorance and his determination to criticize without proper research.
However that may be, the widespread presence among anti-Catholics of chucklers like those committed by Gendron and White suggests that some time spent on the meaning and use of anathema is warranted.
Though the term is Greek, it reflects a concept that is found in the Old Testament. The Hebrew equivalent of anathema is kherem, which refers to a thing devoted to the Lord—a thing solemnly offered to God in a manner frequently involving its complete destruction. Kherem is often rendered in English by the terms “devoted thing,” “dedicated thing,” or thing placed “under the ban.” The Old Testament applies kherem to physical objects (Deut. 7:26, 13:17), livestock (1 Sam. 15:21), individual people (1 Kgs. 20:42), groups of people (Is. 34:5, 43:28), entire towns (Josh. 6:17), and lands or pieces of land (Lev. 27:21, Zec. 14:11, Mal. 4:6). Things to be placed under the ban by men were either destroyed (Lev. 27:28) or given to the priests (Num. 18:14, Ezek. 44:29). A land under the ban was a land that had been cursed (Zec. 14:11, Mal. 4:6). Paradoxically, something could be kherem either because it was holy or because it was unholy.
The Greek term anathema shares something of this paradox. It is derived from the roots ana– (on, upon, among, between) and tithemi (to place, put, set). Etymologically, the word suggests something placed among the holy things (i.e., in a temple)—a sense preserved in the variant term anathema (Luke 21:5). The more common anathema has the sense of a curse and is applied in the New Testament to a curse by which individuals bind themselves (Acts 23:14), to individuals who reject the true gospel (Gal. 1:8–9), who do not love Christ (1 Cor. 16:22), or who are otherwise separated from Christ (Rom. 9:6). It is applied by b.asphemous false prophets to Jesus himself (1 Cor. 12:3).
Of special interest are Paul’s ecclesiastical uses of anathema—Galatians 1:8–9 and 1 Corinthians 16:22—in which Paul says that if a person is guilty of certain faults then “let him be anathema.” Minimally, this directed the Christian community to hold the offender in a certain regard. This involved his exclusion from fellowship, as clearly must be done in the case of a person preaching a false gospel. Such exclusion—for a variety of offenses—is attested to elsewhere in the New Testament (e.g., Matt 18:15–18), and often spoken of as “handing [the offender] over to Satan” so that he might suffer without the Church’s protection and thus be driven to repentance (1 Cor. 5; 2 Cor. 2:5–11; Tit. 3:10).
Later in Church history, this exclusion to provoke repentance received the name “excommunication.” Originally, the Church did not differentiate between excommunication and anathema, which is why ecumenical councils have traditionally constructed their dogmatic canons using the formula “If anyone says . . . let him be anathema,” meaning that anyone teaching the condemned proposition is to be anathematized or cut off from Christian society.
Among ecumenical councils, this usage began with the first—I Nicea (A.D. 325)—which applied the formula to those denying the divinity of Christ. Since then the formula has been used by all ecumenical councils that have issued dogmatic canons. (Since Vatican II did not issue any dogmatic canons, it never used the term anathema).
Over time, a distinction came to be made between excommunication and anathema. The precise nature of the distinction varied but eventually became fixed. By the time of Gregory IX (1370–1378), the term anathema was used to describe a major excommunication that was performed with a solemn pontifical ceremony. This customarily involved the ringing of a bell, the closing of a book, and the snuffing out of candles, collectively signifying that the highest ecclesiastical court had spoken and would not reconsider the matter until the individual gave evidence of repentance.
Such solemnities have been rare in Church history. They remained on the books, however, as late as the 1917 Code of Canon Law, which provided that, “Excommunication . . . is called anathema especially when it is imposed with the solemnities that are described in the Roman Pontifical” (CIC  2257 §§ 1–2).
Yet the penalty was used so seldom that it was removed from the 1983 Code of Canon Law. This means that today the penalty of anathema does not exist in Church law. The new Code provided that, “When this Code goes into effect, the following are abrogated: 1º the Code of Canon Law promulgated in 1917 . . . 3º any universal or particular penal laws whatsoever issued by the Apostolic See, unless they are contained in this Code” (CIC  6 §1). The penalty of anathema was not renewed in the new Code, and thus it was abrogated when the Code went into effect on January 1, 1983.
With this as background, the absurdity of the things said by anti-Catholics about the anathemas pronounced by Trent and other councils is plain. A number of errors are nearly ubiquitous in anti-Catholic writings:
1. An anathema sentenced a person to hell. This is not the case. Sentencing someone to hell is a power that is God’s alone, and the Church cannot exercise it.
2. An anathema was a sure sign that a person would go to hell. Again, not true. Anathemas were only warranted by very grave sins, but there was no reason why the offender could not repent, and those who repent aren’t damned.
3. An anathema was a sure sign that a person was not in a state of grace. This is not true for two reasons: (a) The person may have repented since the time the anathema was issued, and (b) the person may not have been in a state of mortal sin at the time the anathema was issued.
Anathemas—like penalties imposed under civil law—rest on the judgment of the court, which must make its decision based on the evidence presented. It cannot directly examine the conscience of the individual in question. Thus, while anathemas were imposed on account of gravely sinful behavior, this was not a guarantee that it was mortally sinful. For a grave sin to become mortal, it must be performed with the requisite knowledge and consent, and while an offender might have given every appearance of these conditions, they might not be there in reality—e.g., through a hidden cognitive or volitional impediment.
4. Anathemas were meant to harm the offender. No. Anathemas were simply a major excommunication performed with a special papal ceremony, and, like all excommunications, their intent was medicinal, not punitive. The goal was to protect the Christian community from the spread of evil doctrines or behaviors and to prompt the individual to recognize the nature of his actions. While being deprived of the fellowship of the Church is not pleasant, this does not change the fact that the fundamental orientation of excommunications and anathemas is medicinal, not punitive.
5. Anathemas took effect automatically. While the Church does have penalties that take effect automatically (latae sententiae), the penalty of anathema was not one of them.
This should be obvious from the fact that a special pontifical ceremony had to be performed as part of the anathema. Obviously, the mere fact that someone utters a heresy in some part of the world does not cause the pope to suddenly stop what he is doing and perform a specific ritual concerning this person.
The anathemas of Trent and other councils were like most penalties of civil law, which only take effect through the judicial process. If the civil law prescribes imprisonment for a particular offense, those who commit it do not suddenly appear in jail. Likewise, when ecclesiastical law prescribed an anathema for a particular offense, those who committed it had to wait until the judicial process was complete before the anathema took effect.
6. Anathemas applied to all Protestants. The absurdity of this charge is obvious from the fact that anathemas did not take effect automatically. The limited number of hours in the day by itself would guarantee that only a handful of Protestants ever could have been anathematized. In practice the penalty tended to be applied only to notorious Catholic offenders who made a pretense of staying within the Catholic community.
7. Anathemas are still in place today. This is the single most common falsehood one encounters regarding anathemas in the writings of anti-Catholics. They aren’t in place today. The penalty was employed so infrequently over the course of history that it is doubtful that anyone under an anathema was alive when the new Code of Canon Law came out in 1983, when even the penalty itself was abolished.
8. The Church cannot retract its anathemas. Anti-Catholics love to repeat this falsehood for rhetorical flourish. But again, it isn’t true. The Church is free to abolish any penalty of ecclesiastical law it wants to, and it did abolish this one.
Because the penalty has been abolished, a word should be said about the status of the conciliar canons that employed this penalty. In addition to prescribing the imposition of a juridical penalty, the phrase anathema sit (“let him be anathema”) also came to be one of the phrases that the Church traditionally has used to issue doctrinal definitions.
Catholic scholars have long recognized that when an ecumenical council applies this phrase to a doctrinal matter, then the matter is settled infallibly. (If a council applied the phrase to a disciplinary matter, then the matter would not be settled infallibly, since only matters of doctrine, not discipline, are subject to doctrinal definition.)
Thus, when Trent and other ecumenical councils employed anathema sit in regard to doctrinal matters, not only was a judicial penalty prescribed but a doctrinal definition was also made. Today, the judicial penalty may be gone, but the doctrinal definition remains. Everything that was infallibly decided by these councils is still infallibly settled.
This has consequences under current canon law. Those things that are both divinely revealed by God and proposed as such by the Church cannot be obdurately denied or doubted without the offense of heresy (CIC  751). Heresy does carry a penalty of automatic (latae sententiae) excommunication (can. 1041, 2º), though this does not apply to those who have never been members of the Catholic Church (can. 11), and even then there is a significant list of exceptions (can. 1323).
Unfortunately, there is little likelihood that passionate anti-Catholics such as Gendron, White, and numerous others will get the facts straight, openly admit their error, and actively work to counteract the damage they have done by spreading so much misinformation on this subject. But one day it will all get straightened out—by God.