It’s that time of year when the Triduum of Halloween-All Saints-All Souls is upon us. Usually around this time people ask me these questions, or something like them: is it sinful to venerate our ancestors? What about spirits like the Lwa and Orishas?
While the Cliff Notes answer is “yes it can be done,” there’s more that we need to be aware of. So I ask you indulge me while we journey together.
In the case of our ancestors and other dead people, we have to think in terms of the Church Triumphant and the Church Suffering, discussed in Chapter 6 of The Magic of Catholicism.
According to Catholic teaching:
1. Saints are dead people.
2. When you pray to a Saint, you’re praying to a dead person.
Now let’s add a little more to the mix. Catholicism also says:
3. A Saint is any dead person who made it to heaven.
4. The Church admits that she’s not capable of knowing the identity of every person who became a Saint. She is only able to pronounce on those her officials have been able to examine.
For those who didn’t become Saints, they most likely ended up in Purgatory and are part of the Church Suffering. To this, Catholicism teaches:
5. The souls in Purgatory cannot pray for themselves, but
6. The souls in Purgatory can intercede for us. (not official teaching, but strongly documented)
So in conclusion, the answer is YES. You can venerate your ancestors and your honored dead in the same vein as you would venerate a Saint. The rule is that you offer them dulia (“reverence”) and not latria (“worship,” reserved for God alone).
This clears up confusion on the question of ancestors, honored dead, and dead humans in general. Now let’s talk about discarnate spirits such as Orishas, Lwa, and other entities encountered in world religions and magical literature.
As we move on from prayer and veneration for one’s ancestors and the spirits of the honored dead, we quickly find ourselves in different territory; while I’m commonly asked specifically about the Lwa and Orishas, what I write here can apply to discarnate entities from all traditions: from faeries up to and including pagan deities.
(This is briefly addressed in Chapter 3 of Ritual Magic for Conservative Christians.)
A side note: I don’t want to use the word “pray” here so much as “directly address” or “talk to” these entities, because that more accurately describes a lot of magicians’ work with them.
Let’s not mince words: the Church’s “official” rules are that this is sinful and a huge no-no; technically it’s considered a violation of the First Commandment (ironically, Protestants say this about the Catholic invocation of the Saints!). In fact one could point to both Canon 1172 of the 1983 CJC and the 1984 instruction Inde ab Aliquot Annos which categorically forbids the laity from performing exorcisms and, by extension, any direct address to such entities. The issue with such an objection is that these documents specifically mention liceity (whether one is allowed by Church authority), not validity (whether one can actually do it regardless of who allows him). This distinction is an important one in Catholic theology.
(Liceity and validity is discussed in detail in Chapter 2 of The Magic of Catholicism.)
From a practical perspective this is protecting the faithful from themselves, as the average person in the pews isn’t likely able to handle calling on and interacting with such entities. What would happen is that such entities (or other spirits pretending to be such entities) could take advantage of the practitioner instead.
So we can see where this makes sense in protecting the people from these entities as well as from themselves. Yet on a level of theology, the “official” position can be seen as one of hypocrisy. Why? Because Angels are discarnate entities, and the Church encourages us to talk to them.
Here’s the thing: a discarnate entity is a discarnate entity is a discarnate entity. Angels and Demons are technically of the same species; one group simply plays for another team and has a different agenda. The same can be said for the various other species of spirits, who all play on their own teams and have their own agendas.
So this is my opinion, and I offer it only as a probable opinion, not a certain one: Catholic theology, in a probabilist sense, can be interpreted to allow direct address to spirits other than Angels and Saints, under similar conditions as addressing our dead ancestors.
In the first place, the entity cannot be offered latria (“worship,” reserved for God alone), which means we are not to offer them sacrifice or supplication.
Any dulia (“reverence”) offered must be with the understanding that these entities can be friends and even companions, but we are not to do anything they ask that’s outside the limits of Catholic moral teaching (if they should ask it to begin with!).
That’s pretty much the long and short of it, and these principles can be applied when dealing with any entity from any place or any pantheon. So long as we keep our perspective, recognize these entities as creations of the One Creator, and bear in mind they’re as likely to have an agenda as any individual human, the road to dealing with them becomes a little clearer.
THE BIG CAVEAT: Just because a thing is theologically permissible, does not mean it’s a good idea. While this post lays a theological foundation for such work — up to and including the ability to command certain entities via formulae of binding and exorcism — I am by no means recommending and certainly not encouraging you to go out and seek out “Spirit Friends.”
There’s a lot of training that goes into dealing with the various entities and pantheons, especially when talking Voudon or Santeria. If you lack the initiations and/or the training, don’t make a fool out of yourself. Best to leave well enough alone.