One of the things that the Roman Catholic Church does in its councils and in its official writings is to pronounce anathema upon those who would disagree with some of its declarations. Since the Roman Catholic Church has pronounced anathema upon those who would deny its teachings (the Council of Trent did this), we need to look at what is meant by the term so that we might better understand this curse.
In Noah Webster's 1828 dictionary of the English-language, anathema is defined as "Communication with curses. Hence, a curse or denunciation by ecclesiastical authority, a company exit indication. This species of excommunication was practiced in the ancient churches, against notorious offender; all churches were warned not to receive them; all magistrates and private persons were admonished not to harbor or maintain them, and priests were enjoined not to converse with them, or attend a funeral."
Dictionary.com defines anathema as "A formal ecclesiastical ban, curse, or excommunication. A formal and denunciation; a curse."
The Catholic encyclopedia says, "In the New Testament anathema no longer entails death, but the loss of goods or exclusion from the society of the faithful . . . At an early date the Church adopted the word anathema to signify the exclusion of a sinner from the society of the faithful; but the anathema was pronounced chiefly against heretics."1 Obviously, a Catholic anathema is a very serious thing, but Catholic anathema does not necessarily mean that a person thus anathematized goes to hell.
The final and infallible authority on what anathema means is the Bible. By turning to its pages we can see what God says when he pronounces anathema. We find the use of the word in several verses. Here are four that are relevant.
- 1 Cor. 12:3, "Therefore I make known to you, that no one speaking by the Spirit of God says, "Jesus is accursed" (anathema); and no one can say, "Jesus is Lord," except by the Holy Spirit."
- 1 Cor. 16:22, "If anyone does not love the Lord, let him be accursed. Maranatha."
- Rom. 9:3, "For I could wish that I myself were accursed (anathema), separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh."
- Gal. 1:8-9, "But even though we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we have preached to you, let him be accursed (anathema). 9 As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed (anathema)."
The first two verses listed above render the word "anathema" as accursed. It would seem in the first verse that it is referring to generic condemnation and cursing. The second is not as clear contextually as to the meaning, but it definitely is a very negative statement. But the last two verses are most informative. In Rom. 9:3 Paul says that to be accursed, anathema, is to be separated from Christ. If anyone is separated from Christ, then that person is damned. Paul says in Gal. 1:8-9 that if anyone preaches a false gospel, he is to be accursed--anathema. Undoubtedly a false gospel cannot save and instead brings damnation. This seems to be another way of demonstrating that to be accursed (anathema) is to be damned.
We can see that the Bible uses the term to mean separated from Christ. If someone is separated from Christ, he is lost. But is this what is meant in Roman Catholic theology? Apparently not since a Catholic anathema is not a pronouncement of damnation (separation from Christ) but a declaration that an individual is excluded from the fellowship of the Roman Catholic church which includes denial of Communion and the Catholic sacraments.
So, when official Roman Catholic documents pronounce anathema, it means that the person is not in right standing with their church, is not to take the sacraments, and might be under discipline. It is an excommunication and at the very least a very strong condemnation of the person's actions and/or beliefs as being against the Catholic Church.
- 1. Catholic Enyclopedia, "Anathema"