National Catholic Register


Abracadabra, Catholics: Do You Believe in Magic?

BY Melinda Selmys

October 10-23, 2010 Issue | Posted 10/1/10 at 7:40 PM


Halloween always brings the fear of something stirring in the cemetery. A witch’s coven burning the cross as they dance, cackling under the moon and clad only by the sky. Black masses where the blood of unborn children is poured into the maw of Moloch. A voodoo doctor with his grim cauldron full of venomous toads and living bats. That sort of thing.

The specter of the supernatural conjures up a number of interesting questions. What is magic? Is there such a thing as “good magic”? Is there any such thing as magic at all?

Phenomena that get referred to as “magical” break down into five categories: sorcery, charlatanry, charisms, miracles and the paranormal.

Sorcery is the kind of magic that is most strictly forbidden by the Church. Its highest forms include the Faustian pact signed and sealed with blood for the devil; the evocation of disembodied spirits with chalk circles and symbols of mastery; witchcraft with its charms and potions, talismans and spells; Egyptian or Babylonian rituals passed on to the adepts of ancient secret societies; and the channeling of ascended masters, obscure archangels and spiritually evolved beings from the planet Fruit Loop.

Does sorcery work? All I can offer from firsthand observation is anecdotal evidence. I knew of a woman who offered her soul to Satan in order to get good marks in college and a man who, after a particularly violent bout of stomach flu, sold his for the privilege of never throwing up again. She did get good marks. He has never vomited since. The surprising thing is not that they got results, but that they were willing to exchange their immortal souls for such trifles.

Slightly less grievous are the various forms of magic that derive from non-Christian metaphysics. These usually claim some sort of moral neutrality or have a system where certain spells are “good” and others “bad.” Druidism, voodoo and the various forms of shamanism, for example, fall into this category.

These are more difficult to analyze because they involve a variety of elements. Some rituals are not magical at all and are simply non-Christian forms of religious practice. Others involve the propitiation of false gods to gain their favor. Some simply induce a subjective experience that puffs up the pride and creates the illusion of elite magical authority where there is, in fact, none. Or the wonder-worker may be a simple con man, as was the case with the priests of Bel in the Book of Daniel.

Lastly, there are superstitions. These forms of magic may claim to be compatible with Christianity, or with a scientific worldview, and don’t directly involve the invocation of any kind of supernatural entity — astrology, chiromancy, the enneagram. These practices generally fall into the category of what St. Thomas Aquinas calls “sortilegium.” They don’t particularly open up the soul to direct demonic influence but do present the danger of culpable stupidity.

Superstitions of this sort are generally prompted by a desire to have special knowledge or to have greater control over one’s affairs and one’s environment. As such, they involve a certain amount of pride. More importantly, they can lead to bad, and even uncharitable, decision-making.

Palm readings and horoscopes claim to be able to help you tell the character of another person without actually getting to know them; this can lead to arbitrary prejudice or suspicion against those who have done nothing more grievous than inherit Dad’s nose.

Charlatanry is more straightforward. It produces both the showman and the scam artist. There is no moral problem with the former; the only potential risk is that a sufficiently credulous audience will think that the “mind reader” has actually discerned the intimate details of their personal lives by reading the electromagnetic ether when, in fact, the real achievement was rifling through pockets in the coat-check room during intermission. However, as most people are intelligent enough to know that stage magic is a matter of illusion and prestidigitation, it is generally harmless fun.

Equally obvious is the fact that the straightforward scam artist is committing a sin — namely theft. The difficulty is that a certain number of people are what we might call “accidental” or “innocent” scam artists. These are people who are genuinely deluded by their own claims. Cases like this are particularly difficult and sensitive because the people may believe that they are doing good, and their actions may have demonstrably good results. For example, let’s say someone believes they are being harassed by ghosts. Some ghostbusters come in, collect EVP recordings and help the ghost “cross over.” The ghostbusters may genuinely think that they are talking to a real ghost and that they have honestly helped a poor soul escape an earthly purgatory. The person who hired the ghostbusters might genuinely experience relief from ghostly oppression. The people involved may even be Christian, and their faith might not suffer from the experience. The difficulty is that the same results can be achieved by a reasonably charismatic confidence trickster with a little bit of good banter.

Charisms and miracles are similar to one another, but not the same. A miracle is an event that lies outside of the ordinary laws of nature and that God performs with or without human instrumentality. A charism is an ability given to a particular individual by God for the edification of the soul and of the Church. According to one theory, the charismatic gifts are not supernatural or miraculous abilities but a restoration of preternatural gifts that were lost during the Fall.

Finally, there are all of the phenomena that get lumped together as “paranormal.” This is a mixed bag. It probably involves a mixture of demonic activity, angelic apparitions, religious experience, mental illness, hallucinations, hoaxes, misunderstood charismatic abilities, mistaken interpretations of natural occurrences, trumped up self-delusions, strange natural phenomena that Western science does not yet understand, and the effects of psychopharmaceuticals deliberately or accidentally ingested.

The exact status of these things varies and is not well defined. In the rest of this series, we’ll try to look at some of them in more detail, to tease out the differences between the sinful, the miraculous and the merely bizarre.

Melinda Selmys is head writer at