On All Hallows’ Eve, or at any time, there is no point even talking about magic unless we first admit that it is real. Most Catholics are somewhat squeamish on this point. It is not the sort of subject matter that gets published in reputable theological journals. Exorcists are shoved into a dark closet, the saints are stripped of their more spectacular miracles, and the multiplication of the loaves becomes a nice story about how, if we all just share, there’s enough to go around. The specter of scientific respectability looms large over most of our public utterances.
Let’s be clear about this: We do believe in magic. We don’t forbid the wearing of amulets, the casting of spells, the summoning of spirits, and the laying on of curses because they’re silly or because they are incompatible with Catholic theology. We condemn them because they do work and they are a real usurpation of the prerogatives of the Almighty.
This is not to say that every teenage witch mixing herbs and lighting candles in her basement is actually in contact with Beelzebub. Most of the revenge spells cast on faithless ex-boyfriends probably don’t do anything except change the feelings of the spell-caster. Still, such activities open the soul to demonic interference and, where the devil can interfere with impunity, he will.
St. Thomas Aquinas makes this point when he discusses divination. Reading the entrails of goats does not necessarily put one in contact with demonic entities, but it leaves wiggle room for demons to act.
When a diviner looks into a cupful of tea leaves or studies a pattern of spilled animal guts, he must interpret what he sees. Random material is transformed into a series of signs in much the same way that ghost hunters will turn random static in the background of a recording into meaningful human speech. The work is done by the pattern-generating faculties of the human mind: Except in very rare circumstances, only those invested in believing are able to “hear” or “see” the meaning in the garble.
This leaves ample room for demons to work by suggesting the sort of signification that they wish to impart.
This is more or less impossible to study in any “scientific” way, and, for that reason, a lot of people are inclined to ask why the demons should be included in the equation in the first place. Wouldn’t it just be easier to say that the auger sees what he wants to see and says what he wants to say?
Certainly I have known of card readers who work in exactly this way, using the images as a jumping-off point to impart whatever wisdom they feel the client needs to hear. In other cases, it is obvious that people use the I Ching or the zodiac as a means of cementing decisions that they already know to be correct.
Christians often do the same thing with the Bible. For example, if someone is fairly sure that he has a priestly vocation, or knows that he has to leave his current job, a bit of reassuring bibliomancy can give the decision an air of spiritual finality.
If the spiritual dimension of this is denied, however, one falls into the classic error of scientific materialism. This is the mistake of thinking that, because the material cause of a thing is understood, it is explained in its entirety. For example, if you are in desperate financial need, you say a prayer, and a stranger comes up and hands you $40 for no earthly reason; the fact that aid came through human instrumentality does not mean that God was not its efficient cause.
Even when there are no obvious spiritual manifestations — demons floating through the air, blood dripping from the walls, magic jewels appearing through apertures to the astral world — dabbling in the occult is still perilous. In many ways, the quiet arts where demons are free to move undetected through the background, weaving a silent web of deceit, are more dangerous than the obvious forms of magic. High sorcery is terrifying, and it is not uncommon for its practitioners to turn to Christ in a moment of desperation when the dark gods come circling too close. The reading of omens, on the other hand, might encourage a woman to leave her husband, or lead people astray from their true vocation. The deception, however, is sufficiently subtle that it may go unnoticed.
The Church teaches clearly about the dangers of sorcery and divination, but there are other supernatural phenomena that are less clearly defined. Next time we’ll look at psychic phenomena, charismatic gifts, prophetic dreams and the paranormal.
Melinda Selmys is head writer at VulgataMagazine.org.