Conspiracies and Catholicism: Magic

First things first: We are not allowed to do magic.

You can’t be a Catholic witch, sorcerer, magician or magus.

Great, that was quick! See you next Mon . . . oops. Wait.

We’re obviously not forbidden from pulling coins out of kids’ ears or rabbits out of hats—that’s just silly, even if we call slight-of-hand “magic” I’d suspect anybody reading this realizes that is not what is meant by “magic” when we’re talking about what the Church forbids.

What does the Catechism say?

CCC 2117:  All practices of magic or sorcery, by which one attempts to tame occult powers, so as to place them at one’s service and have a supernatural power over others – even if this were for the sake of restoring their health – are gravely contrary to the virtue of religion. These practices are even more to be condemned when accompanied by the intention of harming someone, or when they have recourse to the intervention of demons. Wearing charms is also reprehensible. Spiritism often implies divination or magical practices; the Church for her part warns the faithful against it. Recourse to so-called traditional cures does not justify either the invocation of evil powers or the exploitation of another’s credulity.

Important and just prior, but I wanted to define “magic” first, is CCC 2115-2116:

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. Improvidence, however, can constitute a lack of responsibility.

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.48 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.

So, I’m going to slightly broaden ‘magic’ to include divination as being a sub-section of “attempt to tame occult powers to one’s service.” Someone could probably argue that’s actually over-broad, but I’m aiming more on the safe side and really don’t expect resistance in that direction anyway. I will now use the horrible kludge word of Objective-Wrong-Magic, to mean “attempt to tame occult powers to one’s service,” or the magic that Catholics definitely can’t do.

What is occult?

Unhelpfully, New Advent’s encyclopedia defines it as having to do with magic, or the supernatural. Alright, so what’s the supernatural? This is actually a bit more helpful: it is that which is outside of the natural order; things having to do with God, gods, demons, spirits, goblins, etc.

Objective-Wrong-Magic must be outside of nature.

That means that stage magic, being slight-of-hand, is a totally different thing. Likewise any games that are not actually an attempt to use the supernatural, like video game mechanics, those horribly annoying “fortune telling” games from school where you do a silly chant and make embarrassing predictions, or the classic “he loves me, he loves me not” flower petal picking. (If someone is using those with an actual intent to bind the supernatural to their service, then that intent is sinful, on the “committed adultery with her in your heart” principle.) Contrast that with an Ouija board, where the whole idea is that you are “calling to the spirits.” I generally find it to be a bad idea to issue general invitations to something you really don’t want to show up. Although I suppose in theory, someone could see it as a really silly game that taps into your subconscious and how constantly thinking about not moving effects motor actions. There were some studies that found if you focus really, really hard on not doing something simple and immediate like “touch but do not push on a table,” you tend to do it anyway.

Inborn abilities often found in stories, like talking to snakes (“Parseltongue” of the Harry Potter books), telekineses (Jean Grey in the X-men series) and visions of the future or ability to see and communicate with ghosts (Odd Thomas of Dean Koontz series by the same name) would also not be of the Objective-Wrong-Magic, since they are something a person is simply born with, not an attempt to call on any outside force. Amusingly enough, while I haven’t gone back through the Harry Potter books in years, the only shown attempt by the Hogwart’s teachers to call on occult powers I can think of is notorious for being an absolute failure. Divinations Class does not work. Even Snape’s “potions” class is just chemistry for people born with a strange skill, which makes sense for a book that is a repainted English boarding school. Begs for a paper on “the lack of functioning magic in Harry Potter.” Side note, just because something isn’t magic doesn’t mean it’s okay. Curse or gun, if you kill someone it’s a big deal; binding someone with a honed natural ability is not more or less okay, because it’s martial arts gestures and strength rather than those for a rare mind-based ability. And wiping someone’s mind with drugs or a hand-wave (“these are not the droids you are looking for”) is evil for entirely different reasons far beyond “magic.”

Do I really have to explain why products where “magic” is used to mean “you will be amazed how easy this is!” aren’t Objective-Wrong-Magic? How about stuff like “Black Magic Fireworks!” where it’s supposed to indicate “this is impressive and scary” or something similar? Oh, good, hate to waste the pixels needlessly.

So what is out of bounds?

Well, the anime series “Slayers!” has a ton of by-the-book Objective-Wrong-Magic. The video is of the main character calling on a very major outside-the-natural-order power, AKA demon, to make things explode. Several of the plotlines involve studying to gain enough knowledge to have power over the supernatural forces. Arguably, the Mercedes Lackey romance series, The 500 Kingdoms, has managed to make the magic of their fairy godmothers Objective-Wrong-Magic because they manipulate a supernatural force called the “Tradition,” which is basically Narrative Casualty.

Stepping out of stories, there’s the obvious things like trying to call up ghosts. If you come around a corner and there’s a pale, see-through guy standing there, I can’t see any problem in talking to him like any other person. However, trying to get spirits to show up and answer questions? Oh my goodness, didn’t you read the article I did on demons? And the really obvious problem that you are definitely trying to bypass the natural order (dead people aren’t generally going to answer questions) to get what you want (questions answered, to talk to your mom one more time, a thrill, whatever).

But wait, you may say, Catholics call on dead people all the time. We ask the saints to pray for this, that or the other thing. Well, asking those who are standing at the Throne to harass Himself for you is no more outside of the natural order than asking God (praying) yourself. There’s a catch, there—you’re asking. There’s actually a form of Objective-Wrong-Magic that involves trying to order the saints and angels around, to control and force rather than to ask a favor. It’s sometimes called “theurgia.” You don’t avoid the wrongness of trying to tame supernatural forces to your service just because you dress it up with “Saint Anthony” instead of “Oh spirit of the north wind.” Yes, God is supernatural; so don’t try to tame Him. (As a rather popular Christian author once wrote about a God figure—He is not a tame lion.)

Obviously, intention matters a lot; the whimsical prayer of “Tony, Tony, come around, there’s something lost that must be found!” is not an order to the saint, at least not any time I’ve heard it or used it. It’s a prayer and an attempt to defuse the anger that builds up when you’re flustered at not finding something with a silly chant.

It’s a very human thing to want to be in control of everything– and when we try to do that in an area we really don’t have authority, we’re doing wrong. A little bit like how folks will try to apply their judgment of what is prudent, thinking a Ouija board is ever a good idea even with zero intent to tap into supernatural powers, with what is actually taught, that we’re not to attempt to get what we want by bypassing the natural order.

Mandatory statement, if you are tempted to sin by something, don’t do it. Yet,  also don’t get nasty with folks who aren’t tempted to sin by it, and the other way around. (Paraphrase the gospels? Why, yes, imitation is sincere flattery!)

My grandmother use to read tea leaves until she got scared by some too-accurate “predictions;” she removed even fairy stories from her home, and did not approve of my reading fantasy, but she never mistook her judgment for the word of God.

© 2014. Foxfier. All rights reserved.

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11 thoughts on “Conspiracies and Catholicism: Magic”

  1. Some fantasies try to make “magic” OK by implying that creating/using a spell to do something is no different than a blacksmith using knowledge/skill to create a sword or other item.

    IE no “intelligent” beings are compelled/convinced to make the spell work.

    I like that “type” of magic yet I remember Lewis’ Screwtape talking about the demons wanting the “Materialistic Magician”. One who “worships” Forces while denying “Spirits Exists”.

  2. This?

    I wonder you should ask me whether it is essential to keep the patient in ignorance about your own
    existence. That question, at least for the present phase of the struggle, has been answered for us by the High
    Command. Our policy, for the moment, is to conceal ourselves. Of course, this has not always been so. We
    are really faced with a cruel dilemma. When human beings disbelieve in our existence we lose all the
    pleasing results of direct terrorism and we make no magicians. On the other hand, when they believe in us
    we cannot make them materialists and sceptics – at least not yet.
    I have great hopes that we shall learn in due course how to emotionalise and mythologise their
    science to such an extent that what is, in effect, a belief in us, (though not under that name), will creep in
    while the human mind remains closed to belief in the Enemy. The ‘Life Force’, the worship of sex, and
    some aspects of Psychoanalysis may here prove useful. If once we can produce our perfect work – the
    Materialist Magician, the man, not using, but veritably worshipping what he vaguely calls ‘Forces’ while
    denying the existence of ‘spirits’ – then the end of the war will be in sight. In the meantime we must obey
    our orders.
    I do not think you will have much difficulty in keeping your patient in the dark. The fact that ‘devils’
    are predominantly comic figures in the modern imagination will help you. If any faint suspicion of your
    existence begins to arise in his mind, suggest to him a picture of something in red tights, and persuade him
    that since he cannot believe in that (it is an old textbook method of confusing them) he therefore cannot
    believe in you.

  3. Interestingly, the Latin version of the Catechism doesn’t say “tame occult powers.” It says “dominari”, which means “dominate” or “rule over.” It also doesn’t say “place them at one’s service;” it says “in proprium servitium subiiciendas” – subject or subdue them to one’s own service.

    OTOH, in the Vulgate, Adam and Eve are instructed to “subjicite” (subdue or subject) the Earth, and “dominamini” (rule over) the fishes of the sea, the flying creatures of the air, and all living creatures that move upon the earth.

    So the neat implied point is that magic is basically rejecting our proper Adamic spheres of human jurisdiction, in favor of trying to mess around with stuff that God didn’t grant us the power and the right to do.

    (If it were really a matter of saying “Sit, Fido!” to tameable creatures and natural forces, it would possibly be something within our jurisdiction as descendants of Adam and Eve and stewards of the earth.)

  4. Also, except for French (“sorcellerie”), the translations of the Catechism all use the local equivalent of “magic or witchcraft” as the translation of “magiae vel veneficii”. (And rightly so.)

    Sometimes the English translations of Vatican texts are really bland and boring.

  5. Now that you mention Slayers, I actually did not pay attention to the words to the Dragon Slave and another spells the first time I watched it; but, they are definitely examples of objectively bad magic. Still, it’s a fun show to watch and I don’t see myself imitating the main character. I find myself more worried by David Drake’s ascertain that he borrowed real incantations for his Lord of the Isles fantasy series.

    Great article on the Catholic understanding of magic!

    1. And David Drake says that he never says those spells out loud. [Wink]

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