A Correspondence with a Reader about Occult Stuff

The occult is something where I am mostly out of my depth, particularly when it comes to the Church’s pastoral responses. My passing acquaintance with it has come from press clippings from the (I think) wildly dubious and unreliable Fr. Gabriele Amorth, whom many Catholics mysteriously trust despite massive reasons not to do so, and from conversations with a diocesan exorcist I know (who seems to me to be much more reliable). Beyond that have been a few experiences of my own and friends with very low level spiritual warfare and the general teaching of the Church, which takes the devil seriously, but not so seriously as to live in fear of him.

I say all this by way of preface to a little fat-chewing between me and a reader.  Do not, I implore you, take anything I say here as anything other than the blather of a layman noodling things over with a reader.  What do I know?

***

Mark, I have some questions regarding the occult.

Today, my brother, a friend, and I were discussing some things, and the subject came up of a young priest who had had a tattoo on his arm, and anothlier priest who had never even seen the tattoo told him that some evil had been done to it, that it was cursed in some way by the person who created it.

The obvious question that comes to mind is “How did he know that?”

While I truly believe that physical objects can be blessed, and can have a positive effect, even an unwitting one (much like how praying for someone can), is it actually Catholic to believe that physical objects can be “cursed”, or that placing a curse or a hex on someone is actually efficacious? I know that the person who attempts to do this is opening himself up to the demonic, but isn’t it superstitious to believe that the attempted curse can actually work?

Here’s the Catechism:

1673 When the Church asks publicly and authoritatively in the name of Jesus Christ that a person or object be protected against the power of the Evil One and withdrawn from his dominion, it is called exorcism. Jesus performed exorcisms and from him the Church has received the power and office of exorcizing. In a simple form, exorcism is performed at the celebration of Baptism. The solemn exorcism, called “a major exorcism,” can be performed only by a priest and with the permission of the bishop. The priest must proceed with prudence, strictly observing the rules established by the Church. Exorcism is directed at the expulsion of demons or to the liberation from demonic possession through the spiritual authority which Jesus entrusted to his Church. Illness, especially psychological illness, is a very different matter; treating this is the concern of medical science. Therefore, before an exorcism is performed, it is important to ascertain that one is dealing with the presence of the Evil One, and not an illness.

So it appears the Tradition sees things, as well as people, as sometimes subjected to the power of the evil one.  As sacramentalists, we do believe that matter can be a vehicle of spiritual power by God.  We know from scripture that fallen angels can “possess” those pieces of matter called human bodies.  So I don’t see why, particularly in cooperation with willing humans, things cannot be made, if you will, “anti-sacramentals”.

At the same time, I am also aware that Paul essentially assumes that food that has been ritually offered to pagan deities and the sold at market is just food:

Some, through being hitherto accustomed to idols, eat food as really offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. (1 Co 8:7–8).

Paul clearly does not think that food offered to an idol is somehow made a vehicle of spiritual power and basically tells the Corinthians to give thanks and enjoy their food. I suspect the key to his thinking is “giving thanks”.  Paul believes that the power of God infinitely dwarfs the power of Satan.  So he tells the flock to take good things made by God that have been dedicated to the service of a pagan god (which is really a demon) and offer it with thanksgiving to God.  It does, after all, belong to Him and is therefore his good gift. Paul’s sole caveat is that, if somebody of weak conscience thinks it is wrong to eat it, those who know it is fine should abstain so as not to tempt the weaker brother to sin:

Only take care lest this liberty of yours somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if any one sees you, a man of knowledge, at table in an idol’s temple, might he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? And so by your knowledge this weak man is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. Thus, sinning against your brethren and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food is a cause of my brother’s falling, I will never eat meat, lest I cause my brother to fall. (1 Co 8:9–13).

So Paul will tell the Romans, concerning meat offered to idols:

I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for any one who thinks it unclean. If your brother is being injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. (Ro 14:14–15).

His whole emphasis is entirely *against* the notion that something dedicated to an idol–that is a false god, or demonic power–can harm you when it is received from God with thanksgiving and his sole concern is with not letting our liberty in Christ tempt others to violate their conscience.

So it appears the biblical Tradition is somewhat ambiguous here (not an unusual occurrence).

Anyway, we found an article on EWTN’s website by a Bishop Donald Montrose (Stockton, CA). He said some things I found quite questionable, and was wondering if you could direct me to some reliable sources on this kind of stuff.

Here’s the article:

http://www.ewtn.com/library/bishops/occult.htm

“Examples are … placing figures of oriental or Indian gods in the house, and so on. Much of the modern jewelry worn about the neck is now actually representative of something used in witchcraft. Usually people wear this jewelry innocently … If we are wearing jewelry that corresponds to a zodiac sign, or if we wear something that is representative of witchcraft, we can open ourselves unwittingly to the kingdom of darkness … Wearing something that represents the occult, even in an innocent way, is symbolic of our being under the power of darkness.”

Not sure I buy this completely, particularly since “occult” is a pretty wooly word. Is it any non-Christian symbol or just a symbol specifically dedicated to satan or some non-Christian deity? I know a little church here in Washington, built in the late 19th century that has a swastika in the window.  It was a variation on the cross a century ago, as well as an ancient Aryan symbol of eternal returns (so symbolic of resurrection).  And of course, the Church has a long history of borrowing and “repurposing” pagan symbols: Easter eggs, Christmas trees, wedding rings, haloes, etc.  Some symbols, of course, can’t be repurposed because their meaning is now so strongly laden with other connections (swastikas, stars and stripes, corporate logos, various New Age pagan bric-a-brac).  But lots of stuff is fuzzy and patient of multiple meanings or private sentimental attachments.  I have trouble believing a tourist who brings back a laughing Buddha statue from his trip to Beijing as a memento of the trip where he met his wife is really “opening himself to the kingdom of darkness”.  Indeed, I’m not even sure Buddhism counts as a religion.

First thing here — I know of people who have kept statues of Buddha or a Chinese or Indian deity because they simply admired Buddha’s wisdom or because they were fans of Oriental art or collected historical and cultural artifacts. How is this any different from statues of Athena as representing wisdom? If the person does not believe in the actual existence of such divinities, then who cares? (unless it causes scandal) Otherwise we’re saying that the evil is in the statue itself, which seems odd.

Well, recall the warning about objects being subject to the dominion of the Evil One.  The Church thinks it is possible to do that.  Some objects and symbols (and persons) can be so subjected, not because divinities are real, but because fallen angels with powers we do not understand can be.  I’m skeptical such powers can affect somebody who is not *cooperating* with them (if even Jesus could not heal “because of their lack of faith”) I’m skeptical that infinitely less powerful demonic powers can do much damage to somebody who innocently buys a cursed trinket at a swap meet because she thought it was pretty.  But on the other hand, I do think (and CCC 1673 suggests there are grounds for thinking) that material objects can be, if you will, focal points of demonic power in some way–particularly in combination with human malice (in cases where people utter curses) or in combination with human weakness (where wounded and psychologically or spiritually wounded people are vulnerable to the attacks of the devil).  So my inclination is to, in general, heed the bishop’s warning.  After all, why do I *need* occult paraphernalia in my life?

Also, when he writes of charms and amulets and the like, he seems to be implying that the power of evil is in the symbol itself, and not in the intention of the wearer (or even the creator). This is obviously nonsense, as most occult symbols are themselves cribbed form somewhere else, or mean entirely different things in different cultures (a pentagram was symbolic of the Five Wounds of Christ in the Middle Ages, and today is the national symbol of Morocco and Ethiopia as the Seal of Solomon). In fact, if we were to take this to its extreme, wouldn’t former pagan practices that are today innocent holiday customs be taboo (Christmas trees, misteltoe, etc.)?

A whole lot depends on the meaning intended as you note.  And yes, pagan symbols can be and are repurposed and redeemed  But my mind keeps going back to CCC 1673 too.  The key is to really redeem and repurpose such images, not leave them as anti-sacramentals. Some things, particularly natural things can easily be rededicated to the worship of God, since all natural things are made by God and only become occult symbols by being twisted.  But it’s pretty hard to take a piece of art like this and repurpose it to honor God.  Its entire purpose is to mock God.

Also, here:

“In our day, hard rock music played by “satanic” musical groups presents additional problems … The evil is found in the musical combination of words, rhythm and noise. ”

While I do not dispute that there is much evil in music and other entertainment media, I always thought that the evil rests on the lyrics and on the way something influences a particular person, and is not present in the music itself. This smacks of the whole “rock and roll is inherently evil” trope, which was also used to attack jazz, the waltz, Romantic music, etc. Sometimes, as with Gustav Holst’s The Planets, one may even know that the creator wrote it to have astrological significance, but the music is still enjoyable and beautiful.

I agree that paranoid Christians can wind up jumping at their shadows about every silly thing and acting as though Satan is lurking under every rock. That’s not healthy either.  Satan always urges us to fear him too much or too little.  Catholics are not to cower, but to conquer.  Our approach to purity is supposed to be Christian, not Pharisaic.  Not to mention the fact that Scripture itself makes use of astrological symbolism.    This is not to say astrology (or occult symbols and charms) are okay to dink around with.  But it is to say we need not fear them either.  Everything in the natural world (and much of human artifice) can be received with gratitude and offered to God with gratitude.

When I like a song and there’s the odd lyric that rubs me the wrong way, I just ignore it. Led Zeppelin and other bands used occult symbolism at times, and Bob Dylan used tarot symbolism in some songs, but it just strikes me as vain and superstitious, and makes me feel sad for the guys themselves who opened themselves up to that kind of thing, not afraid that the music itself will contaminate me — if the song is too  steeped in that kind of stuff, I usually delete it or skip it. I certainly wouldn’t assume it means that ALL of a band’s music is dangerous to everyone.

Seems sensible.  The Catholic habit of mind is “Test everything, hold fast what is good.”  And, by the way, the whole “tarot is occult in origin” thing is false.  It’s actually Catholic in origin:

The same goes for movies and TV shows. Something may not me entirely in line with the Christian worldview, but be a good piece of drama as a whole. Shouldn’t adult Christians be able to discern things like that, and not assume evil is present in the medium itself?

But bearing in mind that merely because something is lawful that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is good.

Anyway, just some thoughts.Thanks.

Thanks!  And take my thoughts with a grain of salt.

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  • Joseph

    Sounds sensible to me.

  • Mark S. (not for Shea)

    Regarding the whole Black Mass controversy:
    .
    Even though I think it is abhorrent and disgusting, I can’t help but see a little backhanded compliment in it. You’ll note that there are no Satanic versions of revival tent meetings, neo-pagan ring around the rosies, or even against the cups of grape juice. There’s only one real antagonist that the Enemy is interested in fighting.

    • Joseph

      Exactly. And the satanists don’t steal grape juice and french bread from Protestant churches either.

  • http://janalynmarie.blogspot.com/ Beadgirl

    For what it is worth, according to some priests in The Rite by Matt Baglio (which I highly recommend), objects can be cursed.

  • Jacob

    My knowledge of the occult comes through having in-laws who are central African in origin; You’d be surprised how much of the world (Africa, South America, Asia) outside of our North American / European bubble is absolutely steeped in witchcraft and the occult. You might also be surprised how much of that stuff is actually happening here too.
    From the stories I hear, it is hard to separate truth from fiction, but I believe it is definitely possible for objects to be cursed. I also don’t think you need to “let” demons harm you (demons tormented many saints after all), but a strong prayer life (and having others pray for you) make a huge difference in how much harm can be done to you.
    Some of the “rules” of curses I’ve deduced:
    1) Your family and people who in some way are close to you have much more ability to curse you (that is, call on the demonic to do something bad to you).
    2) Gifts are often used to curse (what you give to someone else or what is given to you)
    3) Exorcists (real,Roman Catholic priest exorcists) often have people who are suffering from a curse do a prayer or series of prayers along with use of blessed oil and/or salt to get free from it.

    I don’t pretend to know 1% of what there is to know, but I think the safest thing is to associate as little as possible with people who are into the occult, and be careful about giving or accepting gifts if you think someone may be into that stuff.

    Believe it or not, I’m a scientist, but I can’t write this stuff off after what I’ve heard from eyewitnesses that I don’t think are lying. It isn’t healthy to get too interested in occult, but it is also unwise to assume there is no danger there.

    • Rebecca Fuentes

      Yes. Some of my in-laws have used “Mexican witchcraft”, including types of divination and curses. It is real. I think your last sentence says it best.

      • kenofken

        As the resident occultist, I can tell you that the richest and most active traditions of folk/practical spellwork are those of the Mexican/Latin American, traditionally Catholic cultures. Those folks are the real deal. They have very well developed conceptual systems and a deep history with it and an uninhibited ground-level relationship with the spiritual and natural worlds that most of us in the Western European traditions have only begun to relearn. They live and breathe this stuff and see no contradiction whatsoever in their witchcraft and embrace of Catholicism.

        • http://www.likelierthings.com/ Jon W

          uninhibited ground-level relationship with the spiritual and natural worlds

          What do you mean when you use the word “spirit”? Do you conceive of a spirit as a person (or potentially so); that is, roughly, a being that exercises intellect and free will?

          • kenofken

            From my experience of them, yes. Intellect and free will? That varies widely. Personally, I don’t do a lot of spirit work, other than honoring my ancestor and those of my extended family and coven at Samhain. Communing with them is really not my talent. The one time I tried in a serious way, the answer from my own ancestors was, in so many words “figure life out for yourself, punk, we had to. We do more to help you than you realize or appreciate.” So that was that.

            I also don’t think much of Ouija. I think it can be hazardous for the unprepared, and for all of that, a great many spirits don’t have anything interesting or intelligent to say. It’s sort of like dialing random pay phones (back when they such things). Nine times out of ten, if anyone picks up, they’re likely to be a poor conversationalist, or an outright idiot. I don’t see magick/”occult” practice as supernatural. I see it as entirely natural and arising from aspects of reality that we cannot, at present, quantify but which we can intuit and work with.

            My practice is more devotional that spell-oriented, although the two are intertwined in many ways. I’m not afraid to ask my gods and goddesses or my ancestors for help, but I’m not one to try to summon up spirits and bribe/compel them to do my bidding. It’s unwise to owe anyone/thing more powerful than you a favor, if you get my drift. Especially someone you barely understand, if at all.

            • http://www.likelierthings.com/ Jon W

              It’s unwise to owe anyone/thing more powerful than you a favor, if you get my drift. Especially someone you barely understand, if at all.

              Yeah, I was going to ask: if they’re personal, they are potentially evil. And if you don’t really know who or what you’re dealing with, doesn’t that make it a sketchy practice to enlist their help with stuff?

  • Aaron

    This reminds me of the story of Bl. Bartolo Longo, a former Satanist priest. After his conversion to Christianity and confession, his spiritual director assured him that his Satanic priesthood was void and had no hold over him, because it was a lie and a falsehood. He was still uncomfortable with the idea that he was somehow still consecrated to the devil, and almost despaired, until he heard the call to propagate the Rosary. I think that, more than likely, the lingering effects of his past sins still tormented him, until he did penance and made reparation for them. I don’t know that the Devil still had a hold on him, but I think Satan was instead trying to attack and tempt him with those thoughts.

  • http://lovedasif.com Drusilla Barron

    About two years ago, I was injured by someone who claimed to be doing gentle massage therapy to help treat fibromyalgia. She was actually performing Cranial Sacral Therapy (CST), a repackaging of Hindu chakras and kundalini that is taught at many massage therapy schools in the world. The teachers of CST do not inform their students about the “therapy’s” antecedents. Neither do students learn that the ultimate goal is to cause “energy” to flow to elicit an “emotional release.” For someone with a traumatic past, such releases are often flashbacks. Of course, the students also have no training in psychology or how to respond to those they harm. (For long, the practitioner who injured me, someone who was a friend which is why I trusted her, innocently insisted that sometimes memories arise. She eventually learned flashbacks are not simply memories.)

    As a result, I conducted a fair amount of research into New Age/Occult practices. I both wanted to avoid being injured again and be able to inform others with concerns similar to mine. I found the Church’s teaching, Jesus Christ: The Bearer Of The Water Of Life (http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/interelg/documents/rc_pc_interelg_doc_20030203_new-age_en.html) to be very helpful and highly recommend it.

    Recently, in writing about my past, I’ve also begun to learn about demonic oppression which can occur as a result of traumatic experiences. Fr. Chad Ripperger seems to be the expert on the topic. I have so much left to learn so can’t yet make a judgement on the phenomenon but I do find his work, and that of others, syncs with the experiences of many who have experienced severe trauma.

    My conclusion, thus far, is don’t go anywhere near New Age/occult. Just stay away. It may not matter but what is to be gained by dabbling. I’m not referring to that which the Church baptizes. But as to practices and activities that are easily associated with New Age/occult, why take the risk when we can so easily be unaware of the repercussions of such exposure. And, always, follow the teaching of the Church.

    Drusilla Barron (http://lovedasif.com)

  • http://www.likelierthings.com/ Jon W

    I don’t want to add to people’s paranoia about objects, since I think Mark’s quotation of St. Paul’s about nothing being unclean in itself was right on, and too many people react in fear to this kind of stuff.

    Nevertheless, no matter what you, personally, intend by a particular symbol, it still retains a meaning within society that you do not have complete control over. When people see you and that symbol, they will act accordingly, even in ways that are extremely subtle or even totally unconscious, and those interactions definitely have spiritual significance and real effects for good or evil.

  • http://www.irenist.com Irenist

    I think the question about Buddha statues is an interesting one. If one is bowing to them or offering incense and food to them, that’s illicit. But if one views Buddha (or Confucius or Lao Tzu or whomever) as merely an accomplished pagan philosopher one happens to admire, then I suppose keeping an artistic depiction around wouldn’t do any more harm than a Thomist keeping a bust of Aristotle in her study. In theory. (Of course, whether Eastern philosophies will prove as amenable to baptism as Aristotelianism very much remains to be seen.)

  • kenofken

    One thought on your despair at repurposing the Satanic sculpture: The images the Satanist cobbled together in their work was stolen/appropriated and rededicated by them. These are very old symbols whose history with Satanism is quite shallow and recent. Baphomet, the goat-headed critter poised to welcome kids like Santa, is an image synthesized by Eliphas Levi in the mid-19th Century.

    Levi, a one-time seminarian, is a major figure in the development of modern occultism, which evolved through Rosicrucianism, Freemasonry, Golden Dawn, Aleister Crowley, Wicca etc. Levi was most certainly not a Satanist of any kind. He was more of a Christian mystic/Gnostic type who drew heavily on Kabbalah themes and imagery. Baphomet, as he envisioned, was an amalgam of the many dualities of creation – male/female, human/divine, sacred/profane, human/animal, mercy/justice, spirit/matter and the various elements. Levi also had a lot to do with the development of Tarot into occultism.

    The Pentagram? That goes back thousands of years, and Satanism’s claim to it accounts for about 50 years. It had a fair run within Medieval Christianity, representing the five wounds of Christ, among other things, and is found on plenty of cathedrals. You’ll notice in the sculpture that the symbol is inverted. That takes us back to Levi, who was the first to suggest that an upside-down Pentagram represented Satan/evil because it represented the triumph of matter over spirit and you can trace out an angular goat’s head, which he saw as the lusty goat attacking heaven with its horns or something of that nature. The goat man imagery of Satan was itself appropriated from Pan, who was not anything like the Judeo-Christian idea of Satan, but represented the sorts of attributes early Christians perceived as evil.

    These symbols aren’t likely to be re-purposed as Christian symbols anyday soon, like the fish, but ceding them entirely to Satanism gives them too much credit.

  • PalaceGuard

    Basically, it kinda boils down to an old Zap comix cover I once saw. Mr. Natural driving a car. Woman passenger says, “I wish I knew what diddy-wha-diddy means.” To which Mr. Natural says, “If you don’t know by now, lady, don’t mess with it.”