Addressing Jimmy Akin’s Statements on Catholic Anathemas

Addressing Jimmy Akin’s Statements
on Catholic Anathemas

John Salza
April A.D. 2024


            On April 25, 2024, Jimmy Akin of Catholic Answers debated Protestant apologist James White at the First Baptist Church in Livingston, Louisiana on the topic of justification (Akin also debated White on sola Scriptura the previous evening). Before addressing the topic at hand, I wish to say that I respect a good share of Mr. Akin’s work as a Catholic apologist and thought he exposed White’s deficiencies during cross-examination. Indeed, it is my regard for Akin’s abilities that actually led me to write this critique, because in his efforts to find common ground with his opponent and the Protestant audience (which he admitted was his objective), I’m afraid he went too far, in my opinion, in conciliating them about Catholic anathemas, among other things.

            In regard to anathemas, I believe Akin made some misleading and even erroneous statements that I wish to address in this article. To set the stage for our analysis, after quoting St. Paul’s teaching in Galatians 1:8-9, where St. Paul uses the term “anathema” (v.9),[1] Akin claimed that James White has misrepresented the Church’s use of the term, by twisting it to mean that anyone who rejects the Church’s dogmatic canons (i.e., Trent’s canons on the Mass) “is under the anathema of God.”[2]

Now, even though the theological and ecclesiastical meaning of anathema was not particularly relevant to the debate resolution (which was on justification), Akin was presumably attempting, in part, to prove that his opponent did not understand Catholic teaching. This is a legitimate debate tactic, designed to sow doubt about what else an opponent might assert about Church teaching. However, I don’t think it works well with James White, who actually does know Catholic teaching, and simply rejects it.

But Akin’s primary intention, again, seemed to be to placate his Protestant audience by exempting them from the “severity” of the Church’s dogmatic anathemas. This intention was made manifest when, at the end of his discussion on anathemas, Akin cheerfully proclaimed to his audience, by clapping his hands and giving two thumbs up: “So let’s hear it everybody, for not having to be under an anathema. That’s good news!”[3] Given the audible reaction in the video, Akin’s “play nice” approach did not appear to impress.

Unfortunately, I fear that Akin’s approach left his Protestant audience (who are objective heretics and schismatics) with the impression that they weren’t as alienated from the one true Church as James White would have them believe, since they were no longer under the anathemas of the Catholic Church. This is most unfortunate. While diplomacy in debates is always recommended, it cannot be at the expense of truth. In some respects, then, on the issue of anathemas, James White seems closer to the truth than Jimmy Akin. Let us now look at Akin’s claims about anathemas, in more detail. 

Mr. Akin’s Claims about Catholic Anathemas

 Mr. Akin made the following claims about the Catholic Church’s use of anathemas, which he also displayed on an overhead slide. We will quote Akin’s claims verbatim and then provide our replies (we have reordered them from how they appeared on the slide to better explain). 

Akin: “Anathemas no longer exist – they were abolished with the 1983 Code of Canon Law.”

Reply: While Mr. Akin opened his debate by stating that we should not quarrel about words (referring to 2Tim 2:14) but only about the substance of doctrine, Akin ironically did not apply his principle to his explanation of anathemas, because in concluding that anathemas have been abolished, he focused exclusively on the absence of the “word” anathema in the 1983 Code (or the “accidents”), and not on the substance of anathemas, which were retained in the Code.

While the 1983 Code no longer refers to one cut off from the Church as anathema, the “substance” of the censure of anathema - namely, its meaning and effects – is in fact retained in the 1983 Code of Canon Law, through the canonical censure of excommunication. This is the case, even if the “accidents” (the word “anathema”) are not used in the 1983 Code.

We draw this conclusion by first looking to the 1917 Code which explicitly states that anathema is simply another word for excommunication. Canon 2257 of the 1917 Codes provides: 

§ 1. Excommunication is a censure by which one is excluded from the communion of the faithful with the effects that are enumerated in the canons that follow and that cannot be separated. § 2. Moreover, it is called anathema especially if it [i.e., the excommunication] is inflicted with the formalities that are described in the Roman Pontifical. 

             In Stanislaus Woywod’s classical commentary on the 1917 Code of Canon Law, we also read: “Excommunication is also called anathema, especially when inflicted with the formalities described in the Pontificale Romanum. (Canon 2257).”[4] It should be noted that the Church’s recent legislation which equates anathemas with excommunications is precisely how the Church universally described this censure (a cutting off of communion with the Church for grave sin) up to around the sixth century. It was only during the Middle Ages that anathema slowly came to be treated as a type of aggravated excommunication, due to their ceremonial declaration, which later made its way into the Roman Pontifical.[5]  

Now, canon 21 of the 1983 Code says that “later laws must be related to earlier ones and, insofar as possible, must be harmonized with them.” As applied here, canon 1331 of the 1983 Code, which enumerates the effects of the censure of excommunication, relates back to canon 2257 of the 1917 Code, which announces the same (“the effects [of excommunication] are enumerated in the canons that follow”), and which equates excommunication with anathema. In fact, the canons addressing excommunication in the 1983 Code closely correspond to canons in the 1917 Code (such as new/old canons 751/1325, and canons 1364/2314, addressed below).

Hence, while it is true that in the 1983 Code excommunications are no longer called anathemas, it is also true that these terms were interchangeable in the 1917 Code. It is also true that the 1983 Code retains many of the effects (or substance) of anathemas which it now exclusively calls excommunications, and which can be incurred either latae or ferendae sententiae (even if a ceremony is no longer used). While the accidents have changed, the substance remains the same (the term “anathema” was simply subsumed into the term “excommunication”). Indeed, there is harmony between the old and new canons which enumerate the effects of anathema/excommunication.

The 1983 Code’s use of the word “faculty” instead of the term “jurisdiction,” which was used in the 1917 Code, is another example of the new Code retaining the substance of meaning of a term while changing the accidents (the words used to describe the meaning). Just because the 1983 Code generally replaces the term “jurisdiction” with “faculties” does not mean the new Code has “abolished” jurisdiction in the Church! Mr. Akin would certainly agree. The term “jurisdiction” has been effectively subsumed into the term “faculties.” It is the same with the term “anathema” as it relates to the new Code. As Catholic apologist Ron Conte has observed: 

Akin’s claim that anathema no longer exists is based on his narrowing of the term to refer only to the ceremony associated with ferendae excommunication. The ceremony is no longer used, but both ferendae and latae excommunications still exist. The basis of the term anathema is not the extraneous ceremony, but the separation of the person from the Church due to grave sin.[6] 

Hence, using Mr. Akin’s own principle of substance over accidents, it is misleading for Akin to claim that anathemas, especially those which pertain to apostasy, heresy and schism, no longer exist today. In fact, Akin himself equated anathemas with excommunications when he told his audience that anathemas don’t apply to non-Catholics and thus non-Catholics cannot be excommunicated from the Catholic Church (which is further addressed below). 

Akin: “Anathemas did not take effect automatically. They were a judicial sentence imposed by a bishop with a special ceremony.” 

Reply: Again, this statement is misleading and even erroneous when read in light of the totality of Church history. As noted above, in the earliest centuries of the Church, [7]  as well as in the Church’s more recent legislation, anathemas and excommunications were viewed as one and the same censure and, further, the censure could be incurred automatically. While it is true that, for a period of time, primarily during the Middle Ages, anathemas were juridically imposed by a bishop with a special ceremony, Akin makes it sound like this was the exclusive means by which anathemas were incurred throughout Church history. That is not so. 

            As we read in canon 2257, §2 of the 1917 Code, excommunications are also called anathemas, “especially if” (Latin, praesertim si) inflicted with the formalities that are described in the Roman Pontifical. Woywod says exactly the same thing in his commentary. The language of canon 2257 effectively abolishes the distinction between anathemas and excommunications, and further underscores that anathemas (or excommunications) could be incurred either automatically (latae sententiae) [8]  or imposed by a condemnatory sentence (ferendae sententiae) of a bishop (“inflicted with the formalities”) in special ceremony.

Why does canon 2257 tells us we can refer to excommunications as “anathemas,” whether declared or not, but “especially if” the censure is inflicted with special ceremony? Because the ceremony gives juridical effect to the censure in the external forum, thereby emphasizing the true sense of the biblical meaning of the word (Greek anathema – set aside, separated, cut off). On the other hand, latae sententiae excommunications that are not declared by the Church are only occult censures, and thus have no juridical effect in the external forum.

            When equated with latae sententiae excommunication, the censure of anathema that Akin says was not incurred automatically is actually found in substance in canon 2314, §1, °1 of the 1917 Code, which says: “All apostates from the Christian faith and each and every heretic or schismatic: Incur by that fact (ipso facto) excommunication.” Canon 1364, §1 of the 1983 Code is the corresponding canon which similarly says: “An apostate from the faith, a heretic or a schismatic incurs a latae sententiae excommunication…”

These canons affirm the perennial canonical tradition of the Church, that excommunications (or anathemas per the 1917 Code) do take effect automatically, with no need for a declaration or special ceremony, by the very fact that the offense of apostasy, heresy or schism has been committed. Again, Mr. Akin’s claim is really based on a quarrel about words, and not the substance of the Church’s longstanding canonical tradition and practice.  

Akin: “Anathemas did not apply to non-Catholics (bishops have better things to do than perform endless ceremonies, and you can’t be excommunicated from the Catholic Church if you’re not a Catholic.)” 

Reply: This claim is also erroneous (and note that Akin here appears to equate anathema with excommunication, as he does elsewhere). Under the 1917 Code, anathemas (or excommunications) did apply to baptized non-Catholics. That is because the Church applied her jurisdiction to all the baptized, with limited exceptions. Canon 12 of the 1917 Code says that all the baptized (even those baptized outside the Catholic Church) are subject to the Church’s ecclesiastical laws, except for those who do not have sufficient use or reason or completed seven years of age: 

Those who have not received baptism are not bound by merely ecclesiastical laws, nor are those baptized who do not enjoy sufficient use of reason, nor are those who, although they have attained the use of reason, have not yet completed seven years of age, unless the law expressly provides otherwise. 

            The 1983 Code revised the application of the Church’s canonical obligations to those who are baptized into the Catholic Church or received into it. The corresponding canon 11 of the 1983 Code says: 

Merely ecclesiastical laws bind those who have been baptized in the Catholic Church or received into it, possess the efficient use of reason, and, unless the law expressly provides otherwise, have completed seven years of age. 

            A commentary on the 1983 Code makes it clear that even Protestants, who were baptized in the Catholic Church but defected, are bound by the Church’s ecclesiastical laws, except those which confer rights: 

Once a Catholic by baptism or reception, one always remains a Catholic (semel catholicus, semper catholicus). Even those who have joined another religion, have become atheists or agnostics, or have been excommunicated remain Catholics. Excommunicates lose rights, such as the right to the sacraments, but they are still bound to the obligation of the law; their rights are restored when they reconciled through the remission of the penalty…Although such Catholics have formally joined another religion or made it known in some formal way that they are not Catholic, they are still Catholic in virtue of baptism or reception, and may be reconciled to the Church whenever they choose to conform to the requirements of the law.[9] 

In light of the foregoing, you can hopefully see the problem with the “good news” that Mr. Akin proclaimed to the Protestants at the First Baptist Church of Livingston, Louisiana, about them not being “under an anathema” or “excommunicated from the Catholic Church.” As the current Code of Canon Law provides, those Protestants in the audience who were baptized or received into the Catholic Church, had sufficient use of reason and completed seven years of age (and you can bet there were some), but afterwards defected to their heretical sect, remain Catholics (semel catholicus, semper catholicus) and thus “are still bound to the obligation of the Church’s law.” That means they are subject to the Church’s canonical censures, including excommunication. Indeed, the commentary refers to these as “excommunicates” who have lost their rights but whose obligations to the law remain.

Again, Akin’s primary purpose for introducing the anathema material appeared to be to walk back the traditional and canonical meaning of anathema as it relates to those who are cut off from the true Church. But the Church’s anathemas, particularly for the offenses of heresy and schism, have primarily a medicinal and salvific remedy in view, designed to bring about an awareness of the gravity of rejecting God’s truths, and ultimately, repentance and conversion.

While most of the ex-Catholics in that Baptist sect probably could not have cared less about being excommunicated by the Church, only God knows how the truth would have impacted them. One must first be informed he is laboring under the personal burden of a censure before doing something about it. In my view, Akin missed an opportunity; in fact, he only confirmed his audience in their heresy and schism. 

Akin: “Anathema does not mean ‘damned by God.’” 

Reply: While Akin listed this as his first claim, we address it last, because it underscores the most important point, and that regards the eternal salvation or damnation of souls. Although it is true that the canonical censure of excommunication does not mean one is infallibly damned by God, it is certainly a strong indicator of the path to damnation, because excommunication separates oneself from the Catholic Church (either spiritually or juridically, or both), and there is no salvation outside the Roman Catholic Church.[10]

            Mr. Akin was quick to limit anathemas to “the judicial sentence imposed by a bishop with a special ceremony,” while claiming that anathemas do not mean the person is “damned by God” (which would mean the anathematized person would not even be in a state of mortal sin). It is not clear whether Mr. Akin has actually read any of the ceremonies of anathema that have been used by the Church. For example, the Catholic Encyclopedia reproduces a formula of anathema found in the Roman Pontifical that was originally drawn up by Pope Zachary (741-752 A.D.) which says: 

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.[11] 

            While we reiterate that the censure of excommunication or anathema does not mean the person is infallibly damned by God, Akin’s characterization of the import of anathemas is gravely misleading, and his dismissal of the prospect of eternal damnation troubling. This is because, from Nicea I to Vatican I, the Church has attached her anathemas to dogmas which must be believed as a matter of divine law by all men (including the members of the First Baptist Church in Livingston, Louisiana). These doctrines are and remain infallibly true, for all men, without regard to whether or not an anathema or excommunication is attached to them. A willful rejection of these truths is a mortal sin against the Faith and thus do lead one to eternal damnation (those who die in mortal sin go to hell).[12]

This is precisely why we engage in Catholic apologetics! To convict the hearts of Protestants that they are bound, by divine law, to enter into the Catholic Church to save their souls. That is the bottom line and end game. We speak the truth and let the chips fall where they may. In his efforts to find common ground, Mr. Akin was not able to find an opportunity to emphasize the necessity for Protestants to renounce their errors and heresies; in fact, some of them may have left that night with the distinct impression that they were exempt from any such obligation.

Unfortunately, Akin made it appear that the heretical teachings of Protestant sects, at least on the doctrine of justification, were not that different from those of the Catholic Church, since he stated there was agreement on the “substance” of the doctrine of justification, relegating many of the differences to a mere quarreling about words (which would be news to the Tridentine Fathers, who condemned the substance of Protestant doctrine; a Catholic apologist may be able to find a way to agree with Protestants on the “accidents” of justification, as Mr. Akin did, but certainly not on the “substance”). In light of the foregoing, we think it is fair to say that James White’s understanding of anathema might be closer to the Catholic understanding than that of Jimmy Akin.




[1]As we said before, so now I say again: If any one preach to you a gospel, besides that which you have received, let him be anathema” (Gal 1:9).

[2] White, The Roman Catholic Controversy, p. 164, at 23 minutes.

[3] At 26 minutes. Mr. Akin said the same thing the night before, in his debate on sola Scriptura. To the question, “Are Protestants anathematized?,” Akin responded: “No, they’re not.” He then said “Let’s hear it for everybody who is not anathematized!,” and clapped his hands.

[4] Woywod, The New Canon Law – A Commentary and Summary of the New Code of Canon Law, New York: Joseph F. Wagner; London: B. Herder, 1918, p. 171.

[5] As Francis Edward Hyland says: “Most canonists seemed to be of the opinion that there was never an essential difference between anathema and excommunication” (Excommunication: Its Nature, Historical Developments and Effects, 1928, p. 24). From the period of revelation to the sixth century, the terms were synonymous. From the sixth century to Pope Gregory IX, anathemas referred to “major excommunications” which were declared by authority. Gregory IX eliminated this distinction by providing that “excommunication,” used without any modification, would be understood to mean “major excommunication,” even though excommunication could be incurred automatically, without a declaration. Pope Pius IX abolished the distinction between major and minor excommunications. Thus, under the 1917 Code, excommunication is also called anathema, and especially when inflicted with solemnities. Under the 1983 Code, the term anathema is no longer used, but the substance of anathemas is retained.  

[6] Conte, “Anathema, Excommunication and Heresy,” 2011.

[7] These ancient laws were eventually included in Pope Gregory IX’s Quinque Libri Decretalium of 1234 A.D., which was a collection of canon laws first compiled by St. Raymond Penyafort beginning in 1230, and served as the Church’s “manual” of canon law until the Pio-Benedictine Code of 1917.

[8] While latae sententiae excommunications are incurred automatically, they also can be declared by competent authority to have been incurred (which is different from ferendae sententiae, which imposes the censure).  The bishops of the Society of St. Pius X serve as such an example. Their illicit episcopal consecrations on June 30, 1988 resulted in latae sententiae excommunications for schism, and Pope John Paul II declared on July 2, 1988 that they had incurred the censures of excommunication. While the declared censures were lifted by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009, the SSPX bishops’ (and priests’) ongoing, formal adherence to the Lefebvrian schism would still subject them to latae sententiae excommunication under canon 1364 for schism.

[9]  John P. Beal, James A. Coriden and Thomas J. Green, New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law, Paulist Press, 2000, p. 63-64.

[10] For eternal salvation, one must be spiritually united to Catholic Church (united to the Church’s Soul through faith, hope and charity), and also juridically united to the Church’s Body in re (actually) or in voto (in desire).

[11] Catholic Encyclopedia, Anathema,

[12] As noted, those who are baptized or received into the Catholic Church and who deny or doubt a divinely revealed truth which the Church teaches as divinely revealed, are automatically excommunicated from the Church as heretics.