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JPII’s Favorite Occultist?

Trent Horn

The topic of Hans Urs von Balthasar is no stranger to strong opinions. For some, he is an invaluable theologian who emphasizes the Church Fathers and Scripture. For others, he promotes opinions that at least border on heterodoxy. His most frequently criticized opinions are those in Dare We Hope that All Men Be Saved? which doesn’t outright defend universalism but offers the possibility of all people going to heaven as something for which one should at least hope.

However, there is another book that critics of von Balthasar often cite as evidence of his heterodoxy, or even his outright endorsement of grave sin.

It’s a technically anonymous 1967 book called Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism, for which he wrote an afterword. Critics say this shows von Balthasar subscribed to occult practices because Tarot cards are often used by occultists to determine the future (a practice called cartomancy). The Catechism says “All forms of divination are to be rejected” (2116).

There are fair criticisms of von Balthasar, but this connection to tarot cards isn’t one of them.

Tarot cards were not created by occultists. They’re like poker cards and were invented in 15th century Italy for recreation. They weren’t used for occult purposes until the 18th century. Just because people use them for occult purposes doesn’t mean they must always be used that way; after all, occultists use candles for clairvoyant purposes (i.e. candle reading) but that doesn’t mean candles are verboten.

Meditations on the Tarot was allegedly written by the Catholic author Valentine Tomberg in 1967. He uses the archetypal pictures on the Tarot cards like the fool, justice, the wheel of fortune, death, the sun, etc. to provide spiritual meditations. Von Balthasar says in his afterword of the book, “in the Meditations [the author] is not at all interested in the practice of “laying the cards” (cartomancy). For him it is only the symbols or their essential meaning which are important.”

Other critics scoff at the idea of “Christian Hermeticism,” some asking if St. Thomas Aquinas would ever endorse a book on the idea. However, many Christians throughout history have positively cited Hermeticism, so it’s important to know what it is and why it isn’t some kind of superstitious or polytheistic paganism.

It’s named after Hermes Trismegistus, an alleged pagan respected by some Church Fathers and medieval scholastics for his monotheism and knowledge about the mysteries of the natural world. In fact, St. Albert the Great, the teacher of St. Thomas Aquinas, cites Hermes over one hundred times in his own works. Von Balthasar says:

The Church Fathers understood the myths born from pagan thought and imagination in a quite general way as veiled presentiments of the Logos, who became fully revealed in Jesus Christ . . . many of the Church Fathers had already attributed a place of honour among the heathen prophets and wisemen to the mysterious Hermes Trismegistus. Hermetic books had already circulated in the early and high Middle Ages. Later, during the Renaissance, Hermes Trismegistus was celebrated as the great contemporary of Moses, and as the father of the wisdom of the Greeks.

Christians have long baptized what is good and true in pagan thought and practice. Many Fathers and Scholastics saw Hermeticism as falling within this licit project. But sometimes practice can turn into illicit syncretism, so we need to be frank about its limits. For example, in part of his afterword von Balthasar says:

Since this faith itself neither is nor aspires to be magical, the magic amounts to the content of faith: that all cosmic “mights and powers” are subject to the sole rulership of Christ. The New Testament depicts this subjugation of the cosmic powers to Christ as a process which although achieved in principle will continue until the end of the world. Thereby a dangerous possibility emerges: the temptation through curiosity or the desire for power to prematurely give oneself up to the cosmic powers instead of approaching them by way of the triumphant victory of Christ.

Earlier in the afterword von Balthasar defines cosmic powers, saying, “It is known how Christian philosophy was widely influenced during the Middle Ages, from Arabic sources and elsewhere, by the beliefs concerning cosmic powers or “intelligences” (conceived of partly as thoughts of God, partly as Angels).”

Even if “cosmic powers” are emanations of God or angelic hosts, I understand concern about the concept of “giving oneself up” to them. This kind of description could be misused to justify idolatry or occultism. However, von Balthasar’s quotation can be understood in a fully orthodox sense. He’s warning that it’s dangerous to approach angelic powers apart from Christ because not all of the angelic powers are currently in subjection to Christ, and one should not allow curiosity or a desire for power to lead to entanglement with demons.
It is fair to criticize ambiguous or problematic elements in von Balthasar’s writing. However, it would be a rash judgment, on these grounds, simply to label him an occultist who endorsed use of tarot cards to illicitly divine information from evil powers.

Unfortunately, von Balthasar died in 1988 just weeks before he was going to formally be made a cardinal, so we can’t ask him what he specifically meant about these “cosmic powers”. But we can reasonably believe Pope St. John Paul II was aware of von Balthasar’s work and would not have made him a cardinal if he were openly defending the occult.

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