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The Enduring Allure of Tarot

Each year as we approach Halloween, news stories about interest in the occult always increase in frequency. In the past few weeks, there have been a number of stories about an occult practice that gets less attention than some others but seems to be gaining popularity: the reading of Tarot cards.

In Boulder, Colorado, a newspaper article on local “things to do” led with the question, “Want to learn how to read Tarot cards?” In England, there was a feature on a woman who has carved out a new career reading Tarot cards and mentoring aspiring witches. An economic crisis in Italy, the cradle of Catholicism, has generated good business for Tarot readers and other fortune tellers.

Earlier this year, Catholic Answers published 20 Answers: Witchcraft & The Occult, a booklet I wrote that discusses witchcraft and occult activities from a Catholic perspective. In the introduction, I wrote:

When people live in uncertain times, they begin to worry that God does not hear their prayers, and so they seek other ways of gaining the knowledge they need to take control of their lives. Recourse to witchcraft and the occult is, primarily, a sign of despair of the goodness of God.

Sadly, this applies to Tarot as much as to any occult practice.

Tarot’s history

According to Catholic gaming enthusiast Thomas L. McDonald, Tarot has roots in Renaissance Europe as a trick-taking card game that influenced card games we know today. Although there has been a modern revival of Tarot as a card game in some parts of Europe, especially in France, Tarot is best known today as a tool for divination purposes. The history of Tarot cards as a divination tool also goes back to Renaissance Europe, as early as the sixteenth century, not long after the card games were introduced.

From the beginning of the use of Tarot decks as a divination tool, the Church has warned against it:

One of the earliest reference to Tarot triumphs, and probably the first reference to Tarot as the devil’s picture book, is given by a Dominican preacher in a fiery sermon against the evils of the devil’s instrument. References to the Tarot as a social plague continue throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but there [is] no indication that the cards were used for anything but games anywhere other than in Bologna [in Italy].

The dangers of divination

As I note in my booklet, Tarot cards are one item among many that practitioners of divination use to seek hidden knowledge. Other such materials include items that reflect light and images (mirrors, glass balls, pools of water) and items that can be cast into unique layouts determined by chance (runes, astrology charts, tea leaves, the palm of the hand). With all of these items, the practitioner tries to find and interpret patterns that appear to him to answer the questions he asks.

As it has done for centuries, the Church forbids recourse to these methods of attempting to ferret out hidden knowledge. The Catechism states:

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 (2116).

If we look closely at these news stories on the resurgence of interest in Tarot, we see that at the root of the interest in divination is fear of the future and worry about a lack of personal control. Caroline Hardinges, the British woman who went from working in media to reading Tarot cards and mentoring witches, got started on her new career path after “the breakdown of her marriage led to Caroline re-assessing her life and re-kindling her teenage interest in witchcraft.” An Italian consumer organization reported that “the main factor driving the increase in the number of Italians going to fortune-tellers, card readers and gurus is, without doubt, the economic crisis [in Italy].”

As the Catechism notes, the temptation of divination is to gain power—power over one’s personal circumstances and even over other human beings. But Christians are called to take up their cross in union with Christ (Matt. 16:24) and to serve others, not to wield power over them, as he did (Matt. 20:28).

A Catholic approach to Tarot

Catholics must reject the use of Tarot cards for divination purposes. When we’re worried about a lack of control over our lives, the answer is to do our best to place our trust in God and not try to wrest away power from him for our own use:

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 (CCC 2115).

Unlike the Ouija board, which was developed specifically as a means of contacting spirits and has no legitimate game-playing value, Tarot does have a long history of use for legitimate card play. Can Catholics use the Tarot cards to play games? That question requires a nuanced answer.

If Catholic gamers are well-formed in their faith and educated in the history of Tarot, there is no moral restriction against using a Tarot deck to privately play a legitimate card game. Just because Tarot decks can be used for divination is no reason to destroy all Tarot decks—any more than we’d destroy mirrors, tea leaves, or the palms of people’s hands just because some people misuse these for divination purposes.

On the other hand, insofar as Tarot is known in our own culture primarily as a divination tool and is not well-known as a card game, I believe Catholics should take care not to unnecessarily cause scandal for those who may be shocked to see Catholics playing card games with Tarot decks. Moral theologians sometimes warn against engaging in anything that might be “offensive to pious ears.” The idea is that even actions that are not inherently evil may not be suitable in the presence of those who do not understand.

In choosing whether or not to play Tarot card games, I think we need to remember St. Paul’s advice about balancing personal freedom and concern for the common good:

All things are lawful, but not all things are helpful. All things are lawful, but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor (1 Cor. 10:23–24).

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