All things spooky

But it’s also the time of year where Catholics get it from both sides. From the Wiccans and neo-pagans, we get the accusations about hating pagans; from fundamentalists, we get the accusations that we are pagans. Meanwhile, from the larger culture, we get Ouija boards from children’s game manufacturers, horoscopes in magazines and newspapers, and all manner of bric-a-brac foretelling the future, snagging good luck and controlling our destiny.

What is a Catholic to make of it all? And what is a Catholic who wishes to share his faith to say to his neighbor who faithfully reads his horoscope every morning in the Times?

To raise this question these days is often to invite catcalls — especially when we raise it as Catholics. Our postmodern neighbor retorts, “What’s the difference between your religion with its prophets and miracles and this stuff about horoscopes and magic? If it works for some people, what’s the harm?”

Conversely, some of our evangelical Protestant friends will take a position opposite from this, yet just as hostile to the Catholic Church. “Horoscopes and séances are forbidden by Scripture,” they will say, “and that’s why Catholic prayer to the saints is evil, too. It’s all satanic.”

And finally, of course, uneducated Catholics can sometimes get fuddled by apologists for the occult who tell them horoscopes and consultation with the dead are “in the Bible,” so it must be OK. How do we navigate such turbulent waters and retain a healthy Catholic faith?

Church teaching

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A good place to start is the Catechism of the Catholic Church. God can reveal the future to his prophets or to other saints. Still, a sound Christian attitude consists in putting oneself confidently into the hands of Providence for whatever concerns the future, and giving up all unhealthy curiosity about it.

“All forms of divination are to be rejected: recourse to Satan or demons, conjuring up the dead or other practices falsely supposed to ‘unveil’ the future. Consulting horoscopes, astrology, palm reading, interpretation of omens and lots, the phenomena of clairvoyance and recourse to mediums all conceal a desire for power over time, history, and, in the last analysis, other human beings, as well as a wish to conciliate hidden powers. They contradict the honor, respect and loving fear that we owe to God alone” (Nos. 2115-2116).

If you ask most modern Catholics which of the Ten Commandments astrology or divination violates, many will say, “Thou shalt not steal,” because of the financial con involved in many of the practices; also because, being more modern than Catholic, most of us tend to think of sins against the wallet before thinking of sins against God. But the catechism teaches us to regard divination and the rest as sins against the first, not the seventh.

The First Commandment says, “You shall have no other gods before me.” The reason the Church regards divination, consulting horoscopes, astrology, palm reading, summoning the dead and all the rest of it as sinful is because they are all attempts to treat creatures like the creator. They are all attempts to wring from (and give to) creatures (whether crystals, tea leaves, stars, dead people or spirits) that which is proper only to God. And they are all, without exception, motivated by a sinful desire for power and control.

At odds with the Faith

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St. Michael the Archangel is invoked by the faithful to protect us from evil. The Crosiers

Here, for instance, is a typical ad for a “psychic” pulled from a magazine at the checkout stand: “Your personal psychic will answer questions about: love, life, relationships, career, money, the future.”

As with Faust, the legendary magician who sells his soul to the devil, the basic motivation here is not profound insights into truth. It is emphatically not to humble oneself, nor to enter into a relationship of mutual self-giving, nor even to raise one’s sights to a moderate philosophical reflection on any meaning in life; it’s a desire for gold, guns and girls. In short, it’s the full-bore pursuit of all the things with which the devil tried to tempt Jesus.

This by itself is enough to distinguish the guiding principle of the occult from anything remotely resembling the Catholic Faith. For in contrast to the teaching of Christ, the obvious goal here is not union with God, but becoming “like gods, who know good and evil” (Gn 3:5). In short, the goal is indeed power — “power over time, history, and, in the last analysis, other human beings, as well as a wish to conciliate hidden powers,” as the catechism states.

The last clause of that quote ought not go unnoticed. For when we seek security by placing our faith in power and self rather than in the love of the Blessed Trinity, we necessarily find ourselves, sooner or later, in a universe of fear — fear of greater powers who believe in themselves more strongly still. This is the source of a zillion schemes for appeasing spirits, dealing with hexes and the whole complex jungle of superstition which is rife not only in pre-Christian paganism, but in the post-Christian supermarket checkout-stand culture, as well. It’s a god-eat-god world.

A dangerous pursuit

“But,” says the skeptic, “this is the 21st century! Surely you don’t take demons seriously!”

Well yes, the Church does. After all, Jesus and Paul did, casting out demons and warning about principalities and powers (Mk 1:21-28; Eph 6:12). Sniffing, “but this is the 21st century!” in the face of this evidence is exactly like sniffing, “but this is Tuesday the 12th!” What does the date have to do with whether God created immortal spirits called angels, or with the fact that some of them abused their free will, rejected God and his creation (including us) and thereby became what we call demons? The date has nothing at all to do with the fact that, to this day, Satan remains what Jesus called him: “a murderer from the beginning ... a liar and the father of lies” (Jn 8:44).

This is why the Church, fearing much more for our souls than our wallets, condemns all necromancy, all astrology, all attempts to seek revelation from spirits or crystals or powers — even ones that are undertaken for an ostensibly good reason (like calling on familiar spirits to heal a sick loved one). It is all still tantamount to idolatry and is still, at root, an attempt to wring from (and give to) a creature what is proper only to the creator. And when the creature is a fallen angel, they come not to serve, but to dominate, deceive and destroy. The serious pursuit of occult power by puny humans surrounded by such spirits is analogous to the mouse’s serious pursuit of the cat. Fallen angels hate God. They also hate what is in God’s image — namely you and me. They even hate themselves. To seek them for any reason is to lay oneself open to grave spiritual danger, including the possibility of irrevocably severing ourselves from our relationship with God.

Jesus casting out demons
Throughout the New Testament, Jesus was credited with casting out demons. Newscom

Only God holds power

“But,” someone might reply, “sometimes people simply find they have prophetic dreams or insights or some other strange thing. Think of the warnings given to the seers at Fatima. Are they guilty of violating the First Commandment?”

No. As the catechism points out, “God can reveal the future to his prophets or to other saints.” God can do whatever he likes. But precisely because he is God, we are obliged to hear and heed his word to us that divination, spiritism, horoscopes and consulting the dead are “abominable practices” (Dt 18:10-12). The point is this: Don’t try to force his hand or make an end run around him. If there is something we need to know, he will tell us.

“That’s your interpretation of Scripture,” says the astrology devotee. “But Matthew 2 tells us the Magi (that is, astrologers) knew of the coming Messiah because they had ‘seen his star in the East.’ So astrology is perfectly biblical.”

In reply, the Catholic might answer that a better way to put it is that astrology is imperfectly biblical. The biblical and Catholic truth that astrology imperfectly reflects is this: Everything is connected. However, what the Magi don’t understand very clearly is how everything is connected. They do not clearly understand how the Israelite religion fits in with their Babylonian lore of the stars, but they are convinced that God is somehow doing the connecting and they are aware that it’s somehow entangled with the long-foretold “King of the Jews.” But the crucial fact that eludes them all is the nature of this connection between everything — until they get to Bethlehem.

It is precisely here that we, as Catholics, do have the perfectly biblical revelation that the modern astrologer ignores. For we know the end to which God was leading Israel and the Magi. He was leading to Jesus Christ. So when he graciously spoke to the Magi in terms of their own culture, he led them not into more astrology but to the Incarnate Word of God, and thus to the fullness of his revelation. His grace built on their Babylonian nature and helped them to understand the perfectly biblical revelation that everything is connected in Christ — and only in Christ. For in Christ “the whole fullness of divinity dwells bodily ... in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col 2:9, 2:3). To continue looking to stars or tea leaves for supernatural revelation in the face of this overwhelming gift is turning your back on Niagara Falls and trying to catch rain in a thimble.

Prayers to the saints

This, by the way, is also why there is a difference between prayers to and for the dead in the Catholic Tradition and séances in occultism.

First, of course, prayer to a saint is not worship any more than bowing to an audience or kneeling to propose marriage is. “Pray” is simply an old-fashioned word for “request,” as in “I pray thee, do thou get me another beer, and I shall reckon it an act of kindness withal.” So in asking me to pray for you, you are “praying to” me in the sense the Catholic Church means it. To “pray to” the saints is not to adore them as gods. Rather, it is simply to address them as fellow members of the Body of Christ.

“Yes, but you aren’t dead. Why is asking the dead for prayers not like a séance?”

Because to pray to the dead in Christ is to do precisely what those who consult the dead in séances do not do: to consciously place both oneself and the saint addressed in the Communion of Saints, which is united with the Blessed Trinity and, in the Trinity, with us. In other words, Catholic prayer to the dead fully acknowledges our connectedness entirely within Christ. Necromancy and séances studiously ignore that and attempt to contact the dead directly.

The biblical foundations for this are straightforward. First, we are “one body in Christ and individually parts of one another” (Rom 12:5). Second, the blessed dead, connected with us in Christ, are indeed aware of earthly doings (cf. Heb 12:1, Mt 17:1-8). Third, Scripture promises that those in Christ shall, in glory, “be like him,” (1 Jn 3:2) and “be conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom 8:29).

And so, even on this earth, we are given the glorious task of carrying out his work by praying for one another and exercising spiritual gifts for the building up of the Body of Christ (cf. Rom 12). The Church, believing the reality that we go from one degree of glory to another (cf. 2 Cor 3:18), has always believed that this glorious participation in the saving work of Christ will be ours in even fuller measure when we enter into heaven. And since we are “members one of another,” we can, in Christ and only in Christ, seek the prayers and help of fellow members of the Body, both here and in heaven.

The bottom line is this: Séances are not the same as prayer to the saints, for the same reason magic is not the same as miracles and horoscopes are not the same as prophecy. Séances, magic, horoscopes and divination are parodies of a reality that God offers us: the reality of our connectedness in Christ.

In God we trust

This brings us to the core truth: Namely, everything the occult claims to give us is a cheap imitation of what God actually wills us to have.

The devil promises a Ferrari and delivers a Yugo.

Satan says, “You shall be like gods” and delivers death. Meanwhile, God dies to give us wisdom, knowledge, power, love, true riches, assurance about the future and even communion with the whole Body of Christ, both living and dead. These are all our proper heritage in Christ (Eph 1:18-19, 3:14-21). He even promises to make us “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pt 1:4) and “conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom 8:29), which is to be like God. That is why the whole strategy of the powers and principalities who hate God and us is concentrated on getting us to forget those two little words: “in Christ.”

But if we do not forget them, if we remember our Lord’s command to obey him and thereby abide in him as he abides in us (cf. Jn 15:4), then far from being snookered by the occult, we shall “bring to light for all what is the plan of the mystery hidden from ages past in God who created all things so that the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known through the Church to the principalities and authorities in the heavens. This was according to the eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Eph 3:9-11).

Mark Shea is the author of “Salt and Light: The Commandments, the Beatitudes, and a Joyful Life” (Servant, $15.99). He writes the “Catholic and Enjoying It” blog at Patheos.com.

When dealing with the occult, how far is too far?
Hell,” says Lady Macbeth, “is murky,” and one of the marks of the occult is bad lighting. It’s hard to tell where the borders are. So Catholics, especially scrupulous Catholics, often wonder things like, “Am I sinning if I read a fortune cookie?” Meanwhile, other Catholics can err in the opposite direction and see no real harm a little dabbling in the occult now and then “for fun.”

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