You Can Trust Me, I’m a Psychic
By Mark P. Shea
You can’t turn on the TV these days without being acosted by an infomercial for the latest scam: psychic hotlines. New ones spring up practically every day, and this fast growing fad is grabbing a lot more than foolish people’s cash – souls are at stake. Have you ever wondered why these 900# scams are so effective in duping so many? Here’s a look at the silliness and, how Catholics can respond to those who swear by their psychics.
You see this stuff everywhere. During the commercials on the science programs that assure us we’ve progressed past medieval superstition. On the back pages of magazines that assure us we’re integrated adults with healthy sex lives and high-paying jobs. In the newspapers that remind us how American secular culture is free of the ignorant mysticism of the Dark Ages. In the pages of a zillion “women’s mags,” sandwiched between excerpts from “Andre Talks Hair!” and “How to Have Abs of Steel.”
Horoscopes. Astrologers. Dionne Warwick hawking her Psychic Pals. Billy Dee Williams coaxing you into dialing that 900 number that will change your life and your phone bill forever. Crystal gazing, tarot reading, clairvoyance and all the rest of it. What is a Catholic to make of it all? And what is a Catholic who wishes to share his Faith to say to his neighbor who faithfully reads his horoscope every morning in the Times?
Some laugh at the very idea of saying anything. The whole enterprise is shot through with such quackery and hokum that many people can’t believe anyone takes it seriously. For example, when Envoy did a search to find a few astrology Web sites, we found (among the thousands of hits) three separate sites advertising the uncanny powers of Mystic Meg, Sylvia Browne and Jeanne Dixon. What struck us as most uncanny of all was that their advertising blurbs were, to a large extent, exact, word-for-word duplicates of one another, right down to the displays of grammatical ineptitude (“Yes, I have one of the greatest psychic pools filled with my hand picked psychics and they all experience the same capabilities as mine.”)
Brrr! Scary! What besides psychic synchronicity could possibly explain this strange coincidence? Could it have to do with their remarkably similar phone numbers? You be the judge!
Still other ads wavered between spookiness and a kind of unconscious compulsion to confess their quackery, as, for example, tarot readings offered by the appropriately-named “House of Cards.” Others simply brass it out with wondrously meaningless claims, as, for instance, an astrologer down the street from me who advertises herself as “Seattle’s Best Astrologer.” In lucid moments, one wonders just how to measure this claim versus, say, Seattle’s Second Best Astrologer. But, as should be obvious, most of these people are not really counting on a clientele with a robust sense of skepticism.
Nonetheless, millions of people do not harbor such skepticism. Which is why the tube, the newspapers and the magazines do not promote this stuff for their health. They promote it because it is big, booming, lucrative business that rakes in big, booming, lucrative bucks. Here, for instance, is the July 1997 issue of New Woman, an ultra-typical checkstand mag featuring an ultra-typical “Horoscope Special” section sponsored by the Coty perfume company. The first page has a big splashy ad for “Ghost Myst” (“You can’t see it, but you know it’s there”), along with the slogan, “Always believe in spirits — especially yours.” Then, leaf after leaf of fabulously expensive color glossy pages telling several hundred thousand credulous readers how to organize their finances based on the stars and planets (“We all have issues when it comes to money — and the cosmos have more to do with it than you might think.” “Your Sun sign influences the way you feel about money.”)
Here is a spectacularly crass alloy of Corporate Big Money, American self-worship and materialism, and superstitious truckling to the powers that would have made Simon the Magician proud (Acts 8:9-10). And it is sponsored not by some two-bit juke joint crystal gazer, but by a major American corporation in a major American magazine utterly indistinguishable from a hundred others. That means, among other things, that this stuff, far from being far out, is mainstream, normal and regarded as harmless. But is it harmless?
Is it harmless?
To raise this question these days is largely to invite catcalls. Especially when we raise it as Catholics. Our postmodern neighbor retorts, “What’s the difference between your religion with its prophets and miracles and this stuff about horoscopes and magic? If it works for some people, what’s the harm?”
Conversely, some of our Evangelical Protestant friends will take a position opposite from this, yet just as hostile to the Catholic Church. “Horoscopes and seances are forbidden by Scripture,” they will say, “and that’s why Catholic prayer to the saints is evil, too. It’s all satanic.”
And finally, of course, uneducated Catholics can sometimes get fuddled by apologists for the occult who tell them horoscopes and consultation with the dead are “in the Bible,” so it must be okay. How do we navigate such turbulent waters and retain a healthy Catholic Faith?
A good place to start.
A good place to start is the Catechism of the Catholic Church (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.
“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. 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.”
Let’s unpack this. If you ask most modern Catholics which of the Ten Commandments astrology or divination violates, they’ll likely tell you, “Thou shalt not steal.” That’s because, being more modern than Catholic, most tend to think of sins against the wallet before thinking of sins against God. They figure the thing is quackery, so the main sin is in bubbling somebody out of their cash. Interestingly, though, the Catechism teaches us to regard divination, horoscopes and the rest as sins against the First, not the Seventh, Commandment.
The First Commandment says, “You shall have no other gods before me.” The reason the Church regards divination, consulting horoscopes, astrology, palm reading, summoning the dead and all the rest of it as sinful is because they are all attempts to treat creatures like the Creator. They are all attempts to wring from (and give to) creatures (whether crystals, tea leaves, stars, dead people or spirits) that which is proper only to God. And they are all, without exception, motivated by a desire for power and control.
Love, Life, Relationships, Career, Money, the Future.
Which brings us to the main paradox of the “psychic subculture”: namely, that it desires and claims access to phenomenal cosmic powers, yet has astoundingly petty aims (and I here quote from a typical ad):
Your personal psychic will answer questions about:
*Love * Life * Relationships * Career * Money *The Future
One would think that Souls in Tune with the Infinite would have loftier goals than finding out from New Woman what “Your Money Style” is (“Thanks to Jupiter, your popularity goes through the roof. Spring for a great cocktail dress, a caterer and a cellular phone.”) But, in fact, the basic reason for consulting a psychic (confirmed by looking at the average psychic’s “marketing strategy”) is a deep desire for knowledge and control as the highest conceivable goods in life. Like Faustus, the basic motivation here is to acquire chicks, checks and chocolate. It is emphatically not to humble oneself before God, nor to enter into a relationship of mutual self-giving, nor even to raise one’s sights to a moderate philosophical reflection on any meaning in life beyond “Always believe in spirits — especially yours.”
This by itself is enough to distinguish the guiding principle of the occult from anything remotely resembling Catholic faith. For in contrast to the teaching of Christ, the obvious goal here is not union with God, but “becoming as gods, knowing the difference between good and evil” (Gen. 3:5). In short, the goal is indeed power — “power over time, history, and, in the last analysis, other human beings, as well as a wish to conciliate hidden powers.”
This last clause ought not to go unnoticed. For the irony is that when we seek security by placing our faith in power and self rather than in the love of the Blessed Trinity, we necessarily find ourselves, sooner or later, in a universe of fear — fear of greater powers who believe in themselves more strongly still. This is the source of a zillion schemes for appeasing spirits, dealing with hexes and the whole complex jungle of superstition which is rife, not only in pre-Christian paganism, but in post-Christian supermarket checkstand culture, as well. Which is why, in the midst of her promises to deliver you into a future of peace and plenty, Jeanne Dixon’s Web page features a promise to remove spells. It’s a god eat god world.
But this is the 20th Century!
“But,” says the skeptic, “this is the 20th Century! Surely you don’t take powers, principalities, and all the rest of this supernaturalism seriously?”
As a Catholic, I most certainly do take the supernatural seriously. The mere fact that an enormous amount of the occult is what we would call human quackery does not mean it is not supernatural. For a Catholic, the mere fact the thing involves humans at all makes it supernatural, since humans are spiritual creatures. The charlatan who exploits the credulity of rich widows is complicit in the work of the Father of Lies, even if it involves only smoke and mirrors. The fact that such quackery is not accompanied by levitation and pea soup vomit does not make it the less dangerous if it tempts a soul to place pride, power, vanity and self-absorption at the top of its To Do list.
However, having said that, a Catholic will hasten to add that not all occult phenomena are necessarily caused by a mere human agency. Sometimes the liar is not human, but genuinely demonic and capable of producing effects beyond what is naturally explicable. For example, the possessions recorded in the New Testament and the strange visitations of demonic power which afflicted St. John Vianney. The fact is, the world bristles with reliable accounts of malign supernatural powers; accounts which come from sages, saints and quite ordinary people who are quite as bright and honest as you or me, and who insist that such things do happen and have even happened to them.
Sniffing, “But this is the 20th Century!” in the face of this evidence and of the teaching of the Church is exactly like sniffing, “But this is Tuesday the 12th!” The fact is, the calendar has nothing to do with whether God created immortal spirits called “angels.” It has nothing to do with the fact that some of them abused their free will, rejected God and His creation (including us) and thereby became what we call devils. And it has nothing whatever to do with the fact that, to this day, Satan remains what Jesus called him: “a murderer from the beginning . . . a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44).
Thus, the rationalist skeptic, so far from being in advance of the age, is several eons and ages behind the times, and is clueless as to the nature and extent of just what powers may be at work when a human being dabbles in the occult. This is why the Church, fearing much more for our souls than our wallets, condemns all necromancy, all astrology, all attempts to seek revelation from spirits or crystals or powers — even ones which are undertaken for an ostensibly “good” reason (like calling on familiar spirits to heal a sick loved one).
For all of this is, according to the Catechism, still tantamount to idolatry and is still, at root, an attempt to wring from (and give to) a creature (even if it is a superhuman creature like a fallen angel) what is proper only to the Creator. The occultist claims to “summon spirits from the vasty deep” and the rationalist tartly replies, “Yes, but will they come when you call?” The Church says the extraordinarily dangerous thing is they very well might do just that, particularly to the heart and will that are deliberately disposed to serve them.
They come to dominate, deceive and destroy.
However, they come not to serve, but to dominate, deceive and destroy. The serious pursuit of occultic power by puny humans surrounded by superhuman fallen spirits is analogous to the mouse’s serious pursuit of the cat. Fallen angels hate God. They also hate what is in God’s image, namely you. They even hate themselves. Their native language, says our Lord, is the lie (John 8:44). To seek them for any reason is to lay oneself open to grave spiritual danger, including the possibility of irrevocably severing ourselves from our relationship with God.
“But,” says the occult devotee, “not all psychic phenomena are sought out. Sometimes people simply find they have prophetic dreams or insights or some other strange thing. Abraham Lincoln, for instance, had a dream in which he foresaw his own assassination. Are you calling such phenomena automatically demonic?”
No, not “automatically.” That would be rash. The world is a strange place, governed by a God who is Mystery. If He chooses from time to time to reveal things to someone prophetically, He is free to do so (though since He is Truth, He will never reveal anything that contradicts or adds to the revelation He has given us in Christ). He can, if He likes, reveal Himself through various odd phenomena such as dreams or mystical knowledge of future events. He is, after all, God. But precisely because He is God, we are obliged to hear and heed His word to us that divination, spiritism, horoscopes and consulting the dead are “abominable practices” (Deut. 18:10-12).
It is one thing, therefore, if a person is made the recipient of a supernatural insight or gift (as, for instance, St. Bernadette was when the Blessed Virgin appeared to her at Lourdes). It is quite another if a person defies God’s express will by seeking supernatural knowledge and power in ways the Lord has expressly forbidden as a violation of the First Commandment. And of course, the mere fact that someone has an unsought dream or supernatural insight about the future still does not mean that person is necessarily being visited by God. As Sts. Peter and Paul say, “Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour,” and he “disguises himself as an angel of light.” (1 Peter 5:8; 2 Cor. 11:14). That is also why Paul admonishes, “Test everything, hold fast what is good” (1 Thess. 5:21). And the Catholic Church follows suit by testing every claim of private revelation presented to Her, scrutinizing each claim in light of what God has clearly revealed in Scripture and Tradition.
“That’s your interpretation of Scripture,” says the occult devotee. “But there are other Scriptures that support, for instance, astrology. Judges 5:20 tells us, ‘From heaven fought the stars, from their courses they fought against Sisera.’ Likewise, Matthew 2 tells us the Magi (that is, astrologers) knew of the coming Messiah because they had ‘seen his star in the East.’ So astrology is perfectly biblical.”
In reply, the Catholic might answer that a better way to put it is that astrology is imperfectly biblical. That is, both the examples cited are specimens of incomplete revelation, and are certainly not licenses for disobeying God.
The basic very biblical and very Catholic truth that astrology imperfectly reflects is this: Everything is connected. However, what neither astrologers, nor the author of Judges, nor the Magi understand very clearly is how everything is connected. Modern astrologers understand the least of the three. They assume there is a direct connection between us and the stars and planets. The author of Judges knows a bit more than this. He has the added revelation of the existence of the God of Israel, and so he says (poetically), “the stars fought against Sisera” or, in plain English, “God arranged everything to help Israel.” But the author of Judges does not clearly understand to what end God was helping Israel, he just knows He was.
Likewise, the Magi are also murky, but they know a smidge more. They do not clearly understand how all this Israelite religion fits in with their Babylonian lore of the stars, but they are convinced (just like modern astrologers) that everything is connected; they know (just like the author of Judges) that God is somehow doing the connecting and they are aware (just like Catholics) that it’s somehow entangled with the long-foretold “King of the Jews.” But the crucial fact which eludes them all is the nature of this connection between everything.
It is precisely here that we, as Catholics, do have perfectly biblical revelation the modern astrologer does not. For we know the end to which God was leading Israel when He arranged everything to fight against Sisera. He was leading to Jesus Christ, Who is the fulfillment of the hope of Israel. Likewise, when He graciously spoke to the Magi in terms of their own culture, He led them, not into more astrology, but to the Incarnate Word of God, and thus to the fullness of His revelation. His grace built on their Babylonian nature and helped them to understand the perfectly biblical revelation that everything is connected in Christ, and only in Christ. God can and did use the innocent astrological attempts of the Magi to help them understand the connections at work in Creation.
But once the revelation is given that everything is connected only in Christ, any further attempt to seek from the creation what is proper to the Creator is to try to make an end run around the Creator and thereby sin against the First Commandment. It is also, by the way, silly. For in Christ “the whole fullness of divinity dwells bodily . . . in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:9, 3). To continue looking to stars or tea leaves for supernatural revelation in the face of this overwhelming gift is analogous to a man dying of thirst turning his back on Niagara Falls and trying to catch rain in a thimble.
The Babe at Bethlehem said to the Magi, in essence, “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you . . . The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all men everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:23, 30).
“Speaking of repentance,” says our Evangelical friend, “when are you Catholics going to repent of your doubletalk? After all, you pray to the dead. What’s the difference between that and a seance like Saul attended in 1 Samuel 28?”
The difference is Jesus Christ.
Catholic teaching, as we have seen, forbids as strongly as Deuteronomy 18:10 all attempts to “consult with the dead.” It forbids it, as we have seen, because any attempt to make an end run around Jesus Christ and acquire knowledge and control apart from the life of the Blessed Trinity constitutes idolatry. Saul was not guilty of some vague sin of creepiness when he summoned the spirit of Samuel by the Witch of Endor. He was guilty of attempting to wring power over events from a creature so he could outwit the Creator. The lesson Saul learned was the lesson of the Psalmist: “Whither shall I go from thy Spirit? . . . If I make my bed in Sheol [the grave], thou art there” (Psalm 139:7-8). It is a lesson the Church wants every one of Her members to know and heed: idolatry is a grave sin.
“But Saul summoned up a demon and was punished by death [1 Chron. 10:13-14]. Isn’t Catholic prayer to the dead also likened to summoning demons?”
Actually the text gives us no reason at all for thinking Saul summoned a demon. The sacred writer is quite emphatic that the spirit who appeared was the prophet Samuel himself. In fact, the spirit of Samuel even utters a true prophecy: Saul is to die tomorrow. How to explain this? One reasonable explanation is simply this: Samuel, who was among the prophets who awaited the Messiah, was, like all the dead in Christ, not dead, any more than Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were dead. For as our Lord says, “He is not God of the dead, but of the living” (Matt. 22:32). This being so, it is quite possible that God allowed Samuel to appear to Saul, just as He allowed Moses and Elijah to appear on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matt. 17:3). As we have seen, God is free to do what He likes, but Saul is not thereby exonerated of his attempt to make an end run around God. He must discover that our connectedness to the dead is not direct and that the dead, like the living, have no power and no hope that is not ultimately centered in Christ. Saul must learn not to sin against the First Commandment. In short, the story corroborates precisely what the Church teaches.
“But,” persists our Evangelical friend, “How can you say the Church honors the First Commandment when you pray to the dead? Isn’t that idolatry?
Pray to the dead?
No. For prayer to a saint is not worship, any more than bowing to an audience or kneeling to propose marriage is. “Pray” is simply an old-fashioned word for “request,” as in “I pray thee, do thou get me another beer, and I shall reckon it an act of kindness withal.” Thus, in asking me to pray for you, you are “praying to” me in the sense the Catholic Church means it. To “pray to” the saints is not to adore them as gods. Rather, it is simply to address them as fellow members of the Body of Christ. This is very significant, for it is to do precisely what those who consult the dead do not do, which is to consciously place both oneself and the saint addressed in the communion of saints, which is united with the Blessed Trinity and, in the Trinity, with us. In other words, Catholic prayer to the dead fully acknowledges our connectedness entirely within Christ.
Thus, prayer to the saints is sharply distinct from “consulting the dead” precisely because it does not attempt to make an end run around God, nor to treat a creature as God, nor to acquire from the dead forbidden knowledge or power. Rather, the entire point is to enter fully into the reality that, in Christ and only in Christ, we are “members one of another” (Rom. 12:5).
The theology behind prayer to the saints, then, is straightforward and solidly biblical. It is centered in the Light of the World, of which the “angel of light” is a cheesy imitation.
First, Scripture clearly shows that the blessed dead, connected with us in Christ, are indeed aware of earthly doings (Heb. 12:1). Also check out the story of the Transfiguration in the gospels (Matt. 17:1-8).
Second, Scripture promises that those in Christ shall, in glory, “be like him,” conformed to His image in every way (1 John 3:2; Rom. 8:29). And so, even on this earth, we are given the glorious task of carrying out His work by praying for one another and exercising spiritual gifts for the building up of the Body (Rom. 12). The Church, believing the reality that we go from one degree of glory to another (2 Cor. 3:18), has always believed that this glorious participation in the saving work of Christ will be ours in even fuller measure when we enter into Heaven. And since we are “members one of another,” we can, in Christ and only in Christ, seek the prayers and help of fellow members of the Body, both here and in Heaven.
The bottom line is seances are not the same as prayer to the saints, for the same reason magic is not the same as miracles, and horoscopes are not the same as prophecy. Seances, magic, horoscopes and divination are parodies of a reality which God offers us, the reality of our connectedness in Christ.
The Devil’s tricks.
The basic insight behind occultism is, like many of the devil’s tricks, a biblical one (Luke 4:9-11). It is true that everything is connected. By exploiting the truth that everything is connected, the devil tells a grand lie: He tells us everything is connected apart from Christ. But as usual, the devil promises a Ferrari and delivers a Yugo.
Based on his lie, he tricks people into trying to gain revelation apart from God, into treating creatures as though they are God, and into trying to “become as gods, knowing the difference between good and evil.” In so doing he can then a) send crooks to rip us off and thereby harden us against faith in a supernatural God, b) send lying spirits to lead us into the supernatural but away from God or c) make it impossible to distinguish between what God has cursed and what God has blessed so that we throw the baby out with the bathwater. And the irony is, all the while that we were hankering to “become like gods,” the Lord had been longing for us to . . . become like God (Matt. 5:48).
For everything the occult claims to give us is a cheap imitation of what God actually wills us to have. Wisdom, knowledge, power, love, true riches, assurance about the future and even communion with the whole Body of Christ, both living and dead, are all our proper heritage in Christ (Eph. 1:18-19; 3:14-21). He even promises to make us “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4) and “conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom. 8:29), which is to be like God. That is why the whole strategy of the powers and principalities who hate God and us (Eph. 6) is concentrated on getting us to forget those two little words “in Christ.”
But if we do not forget them, if we remember our Lord’s command to obey Him and thereby abide in Him as He abides in you (John 15:4), then far from being snookered by the occult, we shall “make all men see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places. This was according to the eternal purpose which he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Eph. 3:9-11).