These words have struck fear into many hearts, but they have not been heard much after Vatican II. I suspect, however, that these words will be heard more in the future — bravo!
To often people think that an "anathema" or excommunication is a curse the Church puts on someone –condemning them to hell. However, that is not the case. It means a separation. Originally the word came from the Old Testament meaning a votive offering to a false god. It was repugnant and separate from the true God — something to be shunned and condemned.
One who is anathema or excommunicated is excluded from the Church and thus the grace of God in the sacraments. It is NOT a curse or condemnation to hell. It has two purposes: to purify the Church of corrupting influence and sin and second, it is a redemptive action which is intended to impress upon the sinner or heretic the seriousness of their sin and to be bring them to repentance.
By the way, excommunication or anathema was not something invented by the Catholic Church. The word "anathama", often translated "accursed", is used at least six times in the New Testament. Paul uses the word was used by Paul in his epistles. For example:
"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 accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, If any one is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed." (Galatians 1:8-9, RSVCE)
Following Paul, the Church uses the word too. The Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible (Harmony Media) says:
"The Church took the term at an early date to signify the exclusion of a sinner from the society of the elect in the sense of an excommunication. The purpose of the censure was to vindicate justice, deter others from crime, shock the offender with a sense of the magnitude of his sin, and finally bring him to repentance."
Excommunication is a healing action of the Church. It is intended to bring purity and unity to the community and restoration to the sinner.
My friend and Canon Lawyer Ed Peters has an interesting blog on Excommunication with a list of all those who have recently been excommunicated. His website has a lot of other information available on the topic. Click here. You can also pre-order Ed's new book Excommunication and the Catholic Church.