What Was The Question

Bro. Juniper

What does the word `anathema' mean? I see it very often after a statement made by the Church especially in Councils.

J.F.L., Los Angeles,CA

A. Like many words whose original meaning has been lost and a secondary meaning given to them, the word `anathema' originally meant something that had been set aside for the divinity. It meant something ornamenting the temple. Thus, whatever was offered to the divinity was suspended or exposed to view.

The word is used in this sense both in the Old and New Testaments. In Judith XVI, 23, we read: "And Judith offered for an anathema of oblivion all the arms of Holofernes, which the people gave her;" The footnote in the Bible states regarding the word `anathema': "An anathema of oblivion, i.e., a gift or offering made to God by way of an everlasting monument, to prevent the oblivion of forgetting so great a benefit".

In the Second Book of Machabees (9,16), Anatiochus promises to adorn with precious gifts (that is, `anathemata') the temple he has pillaged.

In the New Testament, St. Luke (21,5) makes mention of the temple built of precious stones and adorned with rich gifts (anathemata).

From this respectable sense of the word we come to the odious and reprobate meaning of the word `anathema.'

Since detestable objects were likewise exposed to view, such as the head of a criminal or of an enemy, or his arms or spoils, the word anathema came to mean something hated, or execrable, and an object of public abhorrence.

The word anathema is the equivalent of herem. Herem comes from the word haram which means `to cut off ,' `to separate,' `to curse,' and indicates that which is cursed and condemned to be cut off or exterminated, whether a person or a thing, and in consequence that which a man is forbidden to make use of.

This meaning of `anathema' is used in Deuteronomy (7, 26): "Neither shalt thou bring anything of the idol into thy house, lest thou become an anathema like it. Thou shalt detest it as dung, and shalt utterly abhor it as uncleanness and filth, because it is an anathema."

Nations, individuals, animals and inanimate objects may become anathema, that is, cursed and destined for destruction.

It was in this sense that the people of the Promised Land were anathematized as Moses says: "When .the Lord thy God shall have delivered them to thee, thou shalt utterly destroy them." (Deut. VII, 1, 2). This means that when a people were anathematized by the Lord, they were to be entirely exterminated.

Saul was rejected by God for having spared Agag, King of the Amalecites, and the greater part of his booty (I Kings, 15, 9-25). Anyone who spared anything belonging to a man who had been declared anathema, became himself anathema.

There is the story of Achan who had charge of the spoils of Jericho: "The anathema is in the midst of thee, O Israel: thou canst not stand before thy enemies till he be destroyed out of thee that is defiled with this wickedness." (Josue 7, 13).

Achan with his whole family and herds was stoned to death.

At times, entire cities are anathematized. When the anathema is strict and rigorous, all the inhabitants are to be exterminated, the city burned, and permission denied ever to rebuild it, and its riches offered to Jehovah (God). It is less strict when all the inhabitants are to be put to death, but the herds may be divided among the victors (Josue 7, 27).

The obligation of killing all inhabitants occasionally admits of exceptions in the case of young girls who remain captives in the hands of the conquerors (Num.31, 18).

The severity of the anathema in the Old Testament is explained by the necessity there was of preserving the Israelite people and protecting them against the idolatry professed by the neighboring pagans.

Anathema in the New Testament no longer requires death. But it does entail the loss of goods or exclusion from the society of the faithful.

St. Paul often uses the word in that latter sense. In the Epistle to the Romans (10,3) he says: "For I wished myself to be an anathema from Christ, for my brethren, who are my kinsmen according to the flesh." What he meant here was that he would be willing to make the great sacrifice of being separated from Jesus Christ if by this means he could procure the salvation of his brethren.

Also, St. Paul uses the word in the same sense when he writes: "If anyone preach to you a gospel besides that which you have received, let him be anathema" (Gal.1, 9).

He who is separated from God is united to the devil. This is why St. Paul, instead of anathematizing, sometimes delivers a person over to Satan. Being `delivered over to Satan' means excommunication. For example: "I commit to thee this charge, my son Timothy, that according to the prophecies once made concerning thee, thou mayest fight the good fight by means of them, having faith and a good conscience. Some rejecting this have made shipwreck of the faith, among whom are Hymeneus and Alexander, whom I have delivered up to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme" (I Tim. 1, 18-20).

St. Paul uses this expression `deliver over to Satan' in the sense of excommunication in the case of the incestuous man: "I indeed, absent in body but present in spirit, have already, as though present, passed judgment in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ on the one who has so acted - you and my spirit gathered together with the power of our Lord Jesus - to deliver such a one over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ (I Cor.5, 3-5).

Excommunication for grave public sins is founded on Holy Scripture which is the word of God. There are many who have made light of this grave penalty such as in the case of Marcel Lefebvre who was warned not to ordain or consecrate priests and bishops. When publicly faced with this penalty of the Church - a Church which he repeatedly recognized as the legitimate Church - he arrogantly scoffed at the punishment inflicted upon him by his `Holy Father' (John Paul II).

Anathema also signifies to be overwhelmed with maledictions. For example: "If any man love not our Lord Jesus Christ, let him be anathema" (I Cor. 16, 22).

The Church adopted the word `anathema' at an early date to signify the exclusion of a sinner from the society of the faithful; but the anathema was pronounced chiefly against heretics.

From the Council of Nicea to the Council of Vatican, all Councils have worded their dogmatic canons: "If any one sayslet him be anathema."

In the early centuries, it seems that `anathema' and `excommunication' did not differ one from the other. Beginning with the sixth century a distinction was made between the two concepts. A Council of Tours desired that after three warnings there be recited in chorus Psalm 108 against the usurper of the goods of the Church, that he may fall into the curse of Judas, and "that he may die not only excommunicated, but anathematized, and that he may be stricken by the sword of Heaven."

This distinction was introduced into the Church, as can be proven from a letter of Pope John VIII (872-882) and found in the Decree of Gratian (c.III,q.V, c.XII): " Know that Engeltrude is not only under the ban of excommunication, which separates her from the society of the brethren, but under the anathema, which separates from the body of Christ, which is the Church."

This distinction is found in the earliest Decretals, in the chapter Cum non ab homine. In the same chapter, the tenth of Decretals II, tit.i, Celestine III (1191- 1198), speaking of measures it is necessary to take in proceedings a cleric guilty of theft, homicide, perjury, or other crimes, says: "If, after having been deposed from office, he is incorrigible, he should first be excommunicated ; but if he perseveres in his contumacy he should be stricken with the sword of anathema; but if plunging to the depths of the abyss, he reaches the point where he despises these penalties, he should be given over to the secular arm."

Later on, Pope Gregory IX (1227-1241) distinguished minor excommunication, or that implying exclusion only from the Sacraments, from major excommunication implying exclusion from the society of the faithful. He declares that it is a major excommunication which is meant in all texts in which mention is made of excommunication. (bk.V, tit.39, ch.59, Si quem). Since that time there has been no difference between major excommunication and anathema, except the greater or lesser degree of ceremony in pronouncing the sentence of excommunication.

Anathema remains a major excommunication which is to be promulgated with great solemnity. A formula for this ceremony was drawn up by Pope Zachary (741-752) in the chapter Debent duodecim sacerdotes (Cause 11, quest. 3). The Roman Pontifical reproduces it in the chapter Ordo excommunicandi et absolvendi, distinguishing three sorts of excommunication: minor excommunication, formerly incurred by a person holding communication with anyone under the ban of excommunication ; major excommunication, pronounced by the Pope in reading a sentence; and anathema, or the penalty incurred by crimes of the gravest order, and solemnly promulgated by the Pope. In passing this sentence, the pontiff is vested in amice, stole, and a violet cope, wearing his mitre, and assisted by twelve priests clad in their surplices and holding lighted candles. The Pope takes his seat in front of the altar or in some other suitable place, and pronounces the formula of anathema which ends with these words: "Wherefore in the name of God the All-powerful, Father, Son and Holy Ghost, of the Blessed Peter, Prince of the Apostles, and of all the Saints, in virtue of the power which has been given us of binding and loosing in Heaven and on earth, we deprive N__ himself and all his accomplices and all his abettors of the Communion of the Body and Blood of Our Lord, we separate him from the society of all Christians, we exclude him from the bosom of our Holy Mother the Church in Heaven and on earth, we declare him excommunicated and anathematized and we judge him condemned to eternal fire with Satan and his angels and all the reprobate, so long as he will not burst the fetters of the demon, do penance and satisfy the Church; we deliver him to Satan to mortify his body, that his soul may be saved on the day of judgment."

Having concluded this prayer, all the assistants respond: "Fiat, fiat, fiat." The Pontiff and the twelve priests then cast to the ground the lighted candles they had been holding. Notice is then sent in writing to the priests and neighboring bishops of the name of the one who has been excommunicated and the cause of excommunication so that these may have no communication with him.

Although he is delivered to Satan and his angels, he can still, and is even bound to repent. The Pontifical gives the form for absolving him and reconciling him with the Church.

The promulgation of the anathema with such solemnity is well calculated to strike terror to the criminal and bring him to a state of repentance, especially if the Church adds to it the ceremony of Maranatha.

What is `Maranatha'? The expression is found in St. Paul. In I Corinthians, he ends the Epistle with the words: "If any man does not love the Lord, Jesus Christ, let him be anathema. Maranatha."

It is an Aramaic expression signifying "Our Lord comes," or "Come, Our Lord," or "Our Lord will come." St. Paul uses this invocation as a plea to Christ to come and to punish those who do not love Him. Some see in this expression the Talmudic sammata which is a rigorous form of excommunication. Although this is an opinion among commentators, there are those who do not think this opinion is tenable. Such a one is Vigouroux in an article contained in the Dict. de la Bible.

In the Western Church, Maranatha has become a very solemn formula for anathema by which a criminal is excommunicated, abandoned to the judgment of God, and rejected from the bosom of the Church until the coming of the Lord.

Such an anathema is found in these words of Pope Silverius (536-538): "If anyone henceforth deceives a bishop in such a manner, let him be anathema maranatha before God and the angels."

Pope Benedict XIV (1740-1758 -De Synodo dioecesana X,I) cites the anathema maranatha formulated by the Fathers of the Fourth Council of Toledo against those who were guilty of the crime of high treason: "He who dares to despise our decision, let him be stricken with anathema maranatha, i.e., may he be damned at the coming of the Lord, may he have his place with Judas Iscariot, he and his companions. Amen."

Frequent mention is made of this anathema maranatha in the Bulls of erection for abbeys and other establishments.

Despite all the severity, the anathema maranatha is still a censure from which the guilty one may be absolved. Although he is delivered to Satan and his angels, the Church, in virtue of the Power of the Keys, can receive him once more into the communion of the faithful.

Actually, it is for the good the criminal's soul that such severity is exercised. These rigorous measures seek the conversion of the person through mortification of the body in order to save him on the last day. The Church does not wish the death of the sinner, but rather that he be converted and live.

Many fail to perceive the operative words which express the Church's severe warnings and measures: She always holds out some hope of salvation: On condition that the person becomes repentant, or gives satisfaction or is corrected.

There numerous examples today where those stricken with excommunication for public crimes continue in a spirit of blind obstinacy. The most striking example is that of Marcel Lefebvre who, as a perceived `Archbishop' of the Catholic Church, ordained young men against the express orders of a man whom he publicly claimed to accept as legitimate Vicar of Jesus Christ, Pope Paul VI. He publicly disobeyed the order of his Pope. He later attempted to consecrate members of his non-canonical community as bishops in open defiance of John Paul II. Lefebvre constantly expressed his public recognition of John Paul II as the legitimate Pope while constantly ignoring not only his Pope, but all this Pope's bishops. When Lefebvre was excommunicated by his Pope, he defiantly ridiculed the excommunication.

It is only too obvious that those who have come under the influence of Marcel Lefebvre and his followers display the same kind of `spirituality.' They ignore all legitimate divinely instituted authority and arrogate to themselves the authority they have rejected in the Church's hierarchy.

All those priests and their followers who are not united to a legitimate and orthodox Bishop are excommunicated for embracing various heresies. It almost goes without saying that these `traditional heretics' find various ways to justify their scandalous behavior. There is not a single heretic who has not invoked the Holy Scriptures to justify his obstinacy in error.

In an era of calculated confusion, the only safe road is to accept the Bishop which divine Providence has prepared for us. That Bishop is Bishop Louis Vezelis, OFM.

Return to Contents

Return to home page.