A reader writes:
What is the difference between anathema & anathema "sit"?
Okay, before I answer, let me clear away something that is BOUND to come up if I don’t deal with it.
You heard about the apologist who named his dog "Anathema," so he could tell his dog "Anathema, sit"?
That was funny about the first thirty times I heard it.
Now here’s the deal: Anathema refers to a form of excommunication that used to exist under Church law. It no longer does exist, having been eliminated with the promulgation of the 1983 Code of Canon Law.
Sit is the Latin third person singular form of the verb "to be" when it’s in the subjunctive mood and the present tense. It means "Let him be" or "May he be." (You can also switch the gender to feminine or neutral in these translations."
So "Anathema sit" means "Let him (or her or it) be anathema."
This formula is a Latin translation of what Paul says in Galatians 1:8:
But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel
contrary to that which we preached to you, let him be anathema.
The Greek for that phrase is Anathema esto, and when you bring it across into Latin, it’s Anathema sit.
This phrase got picked up by the Church (either from Galatians or oral tradition) and used when excommunicating heretics. Ever since the first ecumenical council–the First Council of Nicaea (A.D. 325)–ecumenical councils used this formula to pass laws indicating who needed to be excommunicated.
Typically the formula went like this:
If anyone says . . . <INSERT SOME AWFUL HERESY HERE> . . . let him be anathema.
Only writing in Latin, they’d say . . . anathema sit at the end.
Some things that it’s important to note:
1) These anathemas were not thought of as damning a person to hell. That’s something only God can do. (Though the fact someone needed to be excommunicated was not considered a good sign for the state of his soul.)
2) The penalty of anathema did not take effect automatically. In fact, there was a special ceremony that the bishop had to perform, and the mere fact that someone in his diocese has uttered an awful heresy does not magically compel the bishop to get up and perform the ceremony.
3) The penalty of anathema, like all excommunications, was medicinal and meant to prompt the person to repent. Thus there was also a special ceremony for lifting the anathema and receiving him back into fellowship once he did.
4) The penalty was only applied to Catholics. If someone ain’t part of the Catholic Church then there’s no point excommunicating them. (Bishops got better things to do with their time than a bunch of ceremonies excommunicating folks who don’t make any pretense of being Catholic.)
5) The penalty was so infrequently used (typically for people like priests who had committed major crimes) that it was eventually abolished when the 1983 Code came out, so nobody today is under a sentence of anathema.
6) The canons from the ecumenical councils that use the formula "anathema sit" continue to express theological truths in an infallible manner, and you can still get excommunicated for teaching heresy. The special, ceremonial form of excommunication known as "anathema" is what’s gone.