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Catholic Dictionary




Solemn condemnation, of biblical origin, used by the Church to declare that some position or teaching contradicts Catholic faith and doctrine.

"If anyone," Paul wrote to the Galatians, "preach to you a gospel besides what you have received, let him be anathema: (Galatians 1:9). Reflecting the Church's concern to preserve the integrity of faith, the Fathers anathematized heretics in a variety of terms. Polycarp called Marcion the firstborn of the devil. Ignatius saw in heretics poisonous plants, or animals in human form. Justin (c. 100-65) and Tertullian (160-220) called their teachings an inspiration of the Evil One. Theophilus compared them to barren and rocky islands on which ships were wrecked, and Origen said they were pirates placing lights on cliffs to lure and destroy vessels in search of refuge. These primitive views were later tempered in language, but the implicit attitudes remained and were crystallized in solemn conciliar decrees. The familiar anathema sit (let him be anathema, or excommunicated) appears to have been first applied to heretics at the Council of Elvira (Spain) in 300-6, and became the standard formula in all the general councils of the Church, as against Arius (256-336) at I Nicea in 787. (Etym. Greek anathema, thing devoted to evil, curse; an accursed thing or person; from anatithenai, to set up, dedicate.)