What springs to mind when someone mentions "witchcraft"? Three hags sitting about a cauldron chanting "Double, double, toil and trouble"? A pretty housewife turning someone into a toad at the twitch of her nose? Or perhaps you think of Wicca and figure that it is witchcraft hidden beneath a politically correct neologism.
Witchcraft has become a hot topic in recent years. From J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books to self-described witches agitating for political and social parity with mainstream religious traditions, Christians have had to re-examine witchcraft and formulate a modern apologetic approach to it.
In an age of science and skepticism, it may be difficult to understand why intelligent people would be drawn to witchcraft, which encompasses both a methodology of casting spells and invoking spirits and an ideology that encourages finding gods and goddesses both in nature and within the self. In her "conversion story," self-described Wiccan high priestess Phyllis Curott, an Ivy League-educated lawyer who was raised by agnostics, describes her journey from secular materialism to Wicca as a rejection of the idea that humans are made for mammon alone:
I discovered the answers . . . to questions buried at the center of my soul . . . How are we to find our lost souls? How can we rediscover the sacred from which we have been separated for thousands of years? How can we live free of fear and filled with divine love and compassion? . . . How can we restore and protect this Eden, which is our fragile planet? (Curott, Book of Shadows, xii)
These are indeed important questions that deserve answers, answers that can be found in their fullness in Christ and in his Church. In a homily then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger gave at the Mass just before his election to the papacy, he famously observed:
How many winds of doctrine have we known in recent decades, how many ideological currents, how many ways of thinking. The small boat of the thought of many Christians has often been tossed about by these waves—flung from one extreme to another: from Marxism to liberalism, even to libertinism; from collectivism to radical individualism; from atheism to a vague religious mysticism; from agnosticism to syncretism and so forth.
Witchcraft has been around for centuries, perhaps even millennia, but is emerging once more from the shadows as one answer to skepticism, to materialism, even to self-absorption. It is, so to speak, the wrong answer to the right questions; it is, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, "gravely contrary to the virtue of religion" (CCC 2117). Catholics should not discourage these questions but must be prepared to offer the only answer: Christ and his Church.
Witchcraft’s apologists like to claim that they are the misunderstood victims of centuries of religious prejudice. Unfortunately, all too many Christians make such claims credible when they misunderstand witchcraft and craft their rebuttals of it based upon those misconceptions. If someone you know is dabbling in witchcraft, here are five things you should know before starting a conversation with him.
Witches do not believe in Satan.
If there is one belief common to witches everywhere, it is that they do not believe in Satan and that they do not practice Satanism. Witchcraft’s apologists are quick to point this out.
Denise Zimmermann and her co-authors of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Wicca and Witchcraft emphasize, "Witches don’t believe in Satan! . . . The all-evil Satan is a Christian concept that plays no part in the Wiccan religion . . . Witches do not believe that negativity or evil is an organized force. . . . Neither do Wiccans believe there is a place (hell) where the damned or the evil languish and suffer" (13).
Christian apologists should acknowledge that witches do not consciously worship Satan and that they do not believe he exists. But this does not mean that Satan needs to be left entirely out of the conversation. A Christian apologist should point out that belief in someone does not determine that person’s actual reality.
One way to demonstrate this is to ask the witch if she believes in the pope. "No," she’s likely to answer. "The pope is a Christian figure." True, you concede. But there is a man in Rome who holds the office of the papacy, right? Your belief or disbelief in the papacy does not determine whether or not the papacy exists. Put that way, a person will have to acknowledge that something or someone can exist independently of belief in its reality. That’s when you can make the case that Satan exists and that he does not require belief to determine his reality or his action in someone’s life. In fact, disbelief in him can make it easier for him to accomplish his ends.
In the preface to The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis notes that "There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight."
While it is true that witches do not directly worship Satan or practice Satanism, their occult practices, such as divination, and their worship of false gods and of each other and themselves—which they explain as worshipping the "goddess within"—can open them to demonic activity. To make the case though, it is imperative to present it in a manner that won’t be dismissed out of hand.
Witchcraft and Wicca are not synonyms.
Wicca, originally spelled Wica, is the name given to a subset of witchcraft by its founder Gerald Gardner in the 1950s. Although some claim the word Wicca means "wise," in her book Drawing Down the Moon, Margot Adler states that it "derive[s] from a root wic, or weik, which has to do with religion and magic" (40). Adler also says that the word witch originates with wicce and wicca. Marian Singer explains the difference between Wicca and witchcraft this way: "Witchcraft implies a methodology . . . whereas the word Wiccan refers to a person who has adopted a specific religious philosophy" (The Everything Wicca and Witchcraft Book, 4).
Because witchcraft is often defined as a methodology and Wicca as an ideology, a person who considers himself a witch but not a Wiccan may participate in many of the same practices as a Wiccan, such as casting spells, divining the future, perhaps even banding together with others to form a coven. This can make it easy for an outsider to presume that both the witch and the Wiccan share the same beliefs. But, if someone tells you he is not a Wiccan, it is only courteous to accept that. The Christian case against witchcraft does not depend on a witch identifying himself as a Wiccan. (There are also Wiccans who reject the label "witch," but this is often a distinction without a difference. Even so, use the preferred term to avoid alienating the person with whom you are speaking.)
Several strands of Wicca attract followings, including: Gardnerian, Alexandrian, and Georgian, which are named for their founders; Seax, which patterns itself on Saxon folklore; Black Forest, which is an eclectic hodgepodge of Wiccan traditions; and the feminist branch known as Dianic Wicca after the Roman goddess Diana. Knowing the distinctions among these traditions may not be important for the Christian apologist, but he should keep in mind that there are distinctions and that he should not make statements that start out with "Wiccans believe . . ." Rather, allow the other person to explain what he believes and then build a Christian apologetic tailored to that person’s needs.
Witches question authority.
When dealing with self-identified witches, remember that no two witches will agree with each other on just about anything. Witches are non-dogmatic to the extreme, with one witch apologist suggesting "[s]ending dogma to the doghouse" and claiming that "[r]eligious dogma and authority relieve a person of the responsibility of deciding on his or her own actions" (Diane Smith, Wicca & Witchcraft for Dummies, 32).
Generally speaking, witches prefer to give authority to their own personal experiences. Phyllis Curott, author of a book titled Witch Crafting, puts it this way: "Witches, whether we are women or men, experience the Goddess within us and in the world all around us. I love what Starhawk [witch and popular speaker and writer] said about this: ‘People often ask me if I believe in the Goddess. I reply, Do you believe in rocks?’" (121, emphasis in original). In other words, witches know "the Goddess" exists because they can experience her by at least one of their five senses. Faith in such a material deity calls to mind the demon Screwtape’s longing for hell’s "perfect work—the Materialist Magician" (Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, 31).
Throwing a bucket of cold water on a witch’s "personal experiences" will not be easy, particularly since one of the frightening.aspects of witchcraft is that some witches do have, and blithely report, extraordinary preternatural experiences. Incidents that could and should scare away many dabblers from playing with forces beyond their control are recounted by witchcraft’s apologists as affirmative of their path. Curott tells of a man who once dreamed of "being prey" of a monstrous creature; ultimately, in the dream, he was captured by the creature. Rather than taking this as a sign he should reconsider the path down which he was heading, he awoke "deeply transformed" by the dream’s ending because he believed "tremendous love" was felt for him by the creature. He eventually became a Wiccan priest (Witch Crafting, 154–155).
How can a Christian argue against a belief like that?
Ultimately, it may be that a Damascus-road moment might be necessary to sway someone that deeply entrenched in traffic with preternatural creatures. To those who are not as enmeshed, a Christian can point out that sometimes apologists for the occult have warned their readers not to be taken in by their experiences with spirits.
In a section of his book titled "Practicing Safe Spirituality," author Carl McColman gives a checklist of "some common-sense precautions" occultists should be aware of "while meditating, doing ritual, reflecting on your dreams, or doing any other spiritual work that may involve contact with spirits." The first item on the list is "Don’t automatically believe everything you hear. Just because a spirit says something doesn’t make it so" (The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Paganism, 129).
Witchcraft is an inversion of Catholicism.
Observers of witchcraft have claimed that it is remarkably similar to Catholicism. Catholic journalist and medievalist Sandra Miesel called it "Catholicism without Christ" ("The Witches Next Door," Crisis, June 2002). Writer and editor Charlotte Allen noted that "Practicing Wicca is a way to have Christianity without, well, the burdens of Christianity" ("The Scholars and the Goddess," The Atlantic, January 2001).
It’s easy to see why the assertion is made. Allen notes that as witchcraft cycles through its "liturgical year," many of its adherents honor a goddess who births a god believed to live, die, and rise again. Fraternization with apparently friendly preternatural spirits is encouraged and eagerly sought. The rituals of witchcraft call to mind Catholic liturgies, particularly the libation and blessing ritual alternately known as "Cakes and Wine" and "Cakes and Ale." Like Catholics collecting rosaries, scapulars, statues, and prayer books, witches have their own "potions, notions, and tools" as Curott calls them —some of which include jewelry, statues and dolls, and spell books and journals.
But to say that witchcraft has uncanny similarities to Catholicism is to understate the matter. Witchcraft is an inversion of Catholicism: Catholicism emptied of Christ and stood on its head. This is most readily seen in witchcraft’s approach to authority.
In his book Rome Sweet Home, Scott Hahn compares authority in the Church to a hierarchical pyramid with the pope at the top, with all of the members, including the pope, reaching upward toward God (46–47). With its antipathy to authority and its reach inward to the self and downward to preternatural spirits, witchcraft could also be illustrated with a triangle—every adherent poised at the top as his own authority and pointed down in the sort of "Lower Command" structure envisioned by Lewis’s Screwtape.
Witchcraft is dangerous.
In my work as an apologist, I have read a number of introductory books to various non-Catholic and non-Christian religions. Never before my investigation into witchcraft had I seen introductory books on a religion that warn you about the dangers involved in practicing it. The dangers that witch apologists warn newcomers about are both corporal and spiritual.
In her book, Diane Smith includes a chapter titled "Ten Warning Signs of a Scam or Inappropriate Behavior" (Wicca & Witchcraft for Dummies, chapter 23). Her top-10 list includes "Inflicting Harm," "Charging Inappropriate Fees or Demanding Undue Money," "Engaging in Sexual Manipulation," "Using Illicit Drugs or Excessive Amounts of Alcohol in Spiritual Practice," and "Breeding Paranoia." Smith claims that such a need to be wary is common to religion: "[U]nscrupulous or unstable people sometimes perpetrate scams or other manipulations under the guise of religion, and this situation is as true for Wicca as for other religious groups" (317).
However true it may be that there can be "unscrupulous or unstable people" involved in traditional religions, most practitioners—Christian or otherwise—do not experience problems with these behaviors to such an extent that religious apologists see the need to issue caveats to proselytes. That Smith does so suggests that these problems are far more widespread in witchcraft than in traditional religion.
We noted one paganism apologist who warned his readers to "practice safe spirituality." McColman goes on to caution that the "advice" of spirits "must be in accordance with your own intuition for it to be truly useful." He goes on to say, "You remain responsible for your own decisions. Remember that spirit guides make mistakes like everybody else!" (Paganism, 128).
Catholics concerned about loved ones involved with witchcraft may not be attracted to witchcraft themselves, but there is danger for them in pursuing dabblers down the road to the occult in hopes of drawing them back. In preparing themselves to answer the claims of witchcraft, they may feel the need to read books like those mentioned in this article. If they are not fully educated and firm in their own faith, such Catholics may find their own faith under attack. Three suggestions are in order.
- Not all are called to be apologists. If you are not intellectually and spiritually prepared to answer the claims of witchcraft, leave such work to others. Search out knowledgeable Catholics with whom your loved one can speak.
- Prepare yourself. Common sense indicates that if you are about to rappel down a cliff, you do so with safety ropes firmly attached and in the presence of someone you trust who can help you if you are in danger. Don’t even think of rappelling down a spiritual cliff without seeking to fortify yourself intellectually and spiritually—particularly spiritually. Inform your confessor or spiritual director of your plans to study and answer the claims of witchcraft. Ask trusted Catholic friends to pray for your work. Regularly receive the sacraments of confession and the Eucharist. If you need to stop or take a break from this area of apologetics, by all means do so. And, most importantly:
- Pray. Whether or not you are called to personally minister to those involved in witchcraft, the most fundamental thing you can do to help witches and other dabblers in the occult is to pray.
Saints whose intercession you can seek include Bl. Bartholomew Longo, the repentant former satanic priest who returned to the Church and spent the rest of his life promoting the rosary; St. Benedict, who battled pagans and whose medal is often worn in protection against the devil; St. Michael the Archangel (Jude 1:9), invoked especially by the prayer for his intercession commonly attributed to Pope Leo XIII. And, of course, there’s St. Paul, who reminds us: "For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom. 8:38–39).
The Catechism on Witchcraft
- There are a great many kinds of sins. Scripture provides several lists of them. The Letter to the Galatians contrasts the works of the flesh with the fruit of the Spirit: "Now the works of the flesh are plain: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things shall not inherit the Kingdom of God." (CCC 1852)
- 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)
- 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. (CCC 2116)
- 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. (CCC 2117)
Prayer to St. Michael the Archangel
St. Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle. Be our defense against the wickedness and snares of the devil. May God rebuke him, we humbly pray, and do thou, O Prince of the heavenly hosts, by the power of God, thrust into hell Satan, and all the evil spirits, who prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls. Amen.
- Charlotte Allen, "The Scholars and the Goddess," The Atlantic, January 2001 (Available online: www.theatlantic.com)
- C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (HarperCollins)
- Sandra Miesel, "Who Burned the Witches?" Crisis, October 2001 (Available online: www.catholiceducation.org)
- Sandra Miesel, "The Witches Next Door," Crisis, June 2002
- Catherine Edwards Sanders, Wicca’s Charm: Understanding the Spiritual Hunger Behind the Rise of Modern Witchcraft and Pagan Spirituality (Shaw Books, 2005)
- Donna Steichen, Ungodly Rage: The Hidden Face of Catholic Feminism (Ignatius, 1991)
- Alois Wiesinger, O.C.S.O, Occult Phenomena in the Light of Theology (Roman Catholic Books)