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authoritatively in the name of Jesus Christ that a person or object be protected against the power of the Evil One and withdrawn from his dominion, it is called exorcism.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:


“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 piece of art like this:

…and repurpose it to honor God.  It’s 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.