“Why doesn’t the Catholic Church let you pray to Uriel?”
It’s a big question, and you can find it all over the internet. And every time someone asks it, some well-intentioned priest, seminarian, or layperson always says “Because in 745 people were worshipping angels, so Pope Zachary called the Council of Rome and outlawed all angel-names not explicitly mentioned in Scripture: Gabriel, Raphael, and Michael.”
In fact Pope John Paul II upheld this ban in 2002, and I myself referred to this exact same Council in The Magic of Catholicism. In fact clergy and laity alike tend to consider this the final answer to the question.
But guess what? Whenever somebody gives this answer, they never quote exactly what the Council actually said.
Okay THAVMA readers, if you’ve read this blog for any amount of time, then you’ve already figured out exactly what I’m about to do. Let’s dig in!
The Council of Rome
As everybody says, the Council of Rome was convened on October 25, 745, and the names of the Angels were mentioned. Note that I said mentioned, because the reality is they were not discussed and the Council made no decree about the angels’ names directly.
The actual records of the Council can be found in the correspondence of St. Boniface, where the Council’s record is found in the 29th chapter (you’ll have to CTRL-F and search to find it in this link).
Go ahead and read what the Council itself actually says. It’s that important, and I’ll wait for you.
Okay, now that you’ve read the Council, you’ll notice that it had nothing to do with decreeing what angel names were allowed, or even the danger of angel worship. In fact the whole thing is mentioned in passing as though it were an already-established tradition:
As we know from the teaching of the Apostolic See and divine authority, there are only three angels, Michael, Gabriel and Raphael.
UPDATE (02/25/18): I just found the original Latin text for this statement, on page 194 of Serarius’ Commentary on Tobit, Esther, and Maccabees. The Latin reads as follows: Nos autem, ut a vestro sancto apostolatu edocemur, et divina tradit authoritas, NON PLUS QUAM TRIUM Angelorum nomina agnoscimus, id est, Michael, Gabriel, Raphael.
The spelling and capitalization are retained as in the original, and it translates: Now we are taught by your holy apostolate, and divine authority passes down, that we recognize NO MORE THAN THREE names of the Angels, that is, Michael, Gabriel, Raphael.
This is more in line with the Church’s consistent teaching than the previous translation, because Catholicism accepts countless Angels, but only recognizes the names of three of them as authentic.
This is the only direct comment the Council makes on the number or names of angels, and even then it’s merely a reference to an already-existing tradition in the Church of Rome, neither a decree nor event he main subject the Council was talking about.
The main subject of the Council concerned two men accused of heresy: Aldebert and Clement. Clement was an Irish bishop accused of fathering two children during his episcopate, of claiming it’s permitted for a man to marry his brother’s widow as per Old Testament custom, and subscribing to a sort of Universalism: “that Christ descended into hell to deliver all those, believers and unbelievers, servants of Christ as well as worshippers of idols, who were confined there.”
In modern times, Clement would come just short of being an average run-of-the-mill liberal bishop: universalism, inclusivity, and at least some measure of sexual freedom. What we don’t know about Clement is whether he was married and those children were from his wife, or any of the content of his preaching as coming from his own words. In any case the Council records treat Clement as a minor footnote while regarding Aldebert as the greater threat.
As to Aldebert, he was a Gaul who took up preaching and gained a lot of followers, claiming Jesus wrote a letter and dropped it to him out of the air, claiming he received relics of extraordinary holiness from “an angel in the guise of a man,” that had “wrought signs and wonders,” and that he’d conned his way into being consecrated as a “Wandering Bishop,” (a phenomenon that still exists today), considered himself equal to the apostles, consecrated chapels to himself, distributed his own hair and fingernails for relics, and drew a great number of people claiming “The merits of St. Aldebert will help us.”
In my opinion, this guy was somewhere between “smooth operator” and “complete whack-a-doodle.” It’s also in Aldebert’s case where the Council’s reference to the Angels comes in.
The Council’s sole reference to the Angels comes during the reading of a prayer composed by Aldebert for his personal use. The prayer contains a line invoking eight angels by name: “I pray and entreat and besecch you, angel Uriel, Raguel, Tubuel, Michael, Adinus, Tubuas, Sabaoc, Sirniel. .. .”
The Council does not give any part of the prayer past that point, and tells us Pope Zachary stops to ask the bishops, “What is your comment upon this, dear brethren?”
The bishops’ reply is where we find the only reference to Angels:
“What else can we do except consign these writings, which have been read out to us, to the flames and to strike their authors with anathema? The names of the eight angels whom Aldebert invokes in his prayer are, with the exception of Michael, not angels but demons whom he has called to his aid. As we know from the teaching of the Apostolic See and divine authority, there are only three angels, Michael, Gabriel and Raphael. He has introduced demons under the guise of angels.”
That’s it. That’s all the Council has to say about the names of Angels. Full stop.
If anything that leads us not to an answer, but to a larger question.
Question: Where Did This Really Come From?
The first question that comes to my mind is that if the Council of Rome didn’t directly outlaw extrabiblical angel-names, then who did?
Every shred of research I’ve done on the question leads not to the Church making this a law, but to Charlemagne.
Namely, we’re looking to the Admonitio Generalis published by Charlemagne in 789. This document is the blueprint for the Carolingian reform, and while I’ve yet to find the complete text, the document is quoted fairly widely.
The part of the Admonitio that concerns our purposes is chapter 16, which is quoted as saying:
In that same council (Laodicea) it was ordered that angels should not be given unknown names, and that such should not be affixed to them, but that only they should be named by the names which we have by authority. These are Michael, Gabriel, Raphael.
This quote comes from The Seven Ecumenical Councils by Phillip Shcaff, and is part of his commentary on Canon XXXV of the Council of Laodicea, a local council that took place at about 363-365. Schaff refers to the Admonitio as the “Capitular of Charlemagne,” and tells us is refers specifically to this canon, and that “Perchance the authors of the Capitular had in mind the Roman Council under Pope Zachary, a.d. 745, against Aldebert, who was found to invoke by name eight angels in his prayers.”
So, what does this canon from the Council of Laodicea actually say?
At present I’m finding two different texts, one from Schaff and one from A History of the Councils of the Christian Church by Karl Joseph von Hefele. As I’ve not yet found the original Greek text to tell which is more accurate, I’m going to present both readings.
Schaff’s version: “Christians must not forsake the Church of God, and go away and invoke angels and gather assemblies, which things are forbidden. If, therefore, any one shall be found engaged in this covert idolatry, let him be anathema; for he has forsaken our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and has gone over to idolatry.”
Hefele’s version: “Christians shall not forsake the Church of God and turn to the worship of angels, thus introducing a cultus of the angels. This is forbidden. Whoever, therefore, shows an inclination to this hidden idolatry, let him be anathema, because he has forsaken our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and gone over to idolatry.”
I’ve linked to each author’s works, so you can read for yourself what each has to say by way of commentary. Both commentaries are similar, both referring to the Admonitio (the Capitulary of 789), and both bring up the work ὀνομάζειν (“to name”) in the original Greek text. Schaff says “this was understood as meaning to give [the angels] names instead of to call upon them by name,” while Hefele says “this canon expresses the idea of the worship of angels” by using this word.
Hefele’s commentary also gives us some background information, starting with St. Paul’s admonition against being seduced by Angel-worship in Colossians 2:18 (as an aside this verse certainly describes the entire “fluff bunny” crowd!). He also tells us that in Theodoret of Cyprus’ commentary on this verse, he complains about angel worship even as late as the fifth century.
What Does This All Mean?
So in essence, the Council of Rome is a dead end insofar as the practice of forbidding angel-names is concerned. Rather it seems a regulation imposed by the secular government rather than an anathema from the Church.
But still, we’d miss out on something if we drew conclusions from what we have thus far. In fact I think there’s something we’re missing altogether. Remember the one mention of the three angels in the Council of Rome:
As we know from the teaching of the Apostolic See and divine authority, there are only three angels, Michael, Gabriel and Raphael.
The part to look at is the clause “As we know from the teaching of the Apostolic See and divine authority.” This implies that the Council was not making a new decision, but already speaking of a custom that’s been well-established. The problem is that I’ve not been able to document when this tradition originated, though my best guess would be that that it started out as a local custom within the diocese of Rome.
Now, THAVMA readers, we have what I believe to be the root cause: an undocumented local custom that got a passing mention in a local Council, adopted by a monarch whose political ambition included making that local church’s customs the “one-size-fits-all” practice throughout his empire. Said monarch in turn connected that custom to another local church’s rules about worshiping and giving the angels made-up names (i.e. names that can’t be documented from other respected sources). As a result, this custom became so standard in the West that it was no longer questioned. When the time could’ve been ripe for that questioning during the Renaissance, the Church suddenly had more important issues to worry when the Protestant Revolt came around.
I’m even more convinced of this, because we find Western fathers including Uriel amongst the named angels prior to the eight century. For example Origen refers to Uriel as “an Angel of God” in 2:25 of his Commentary on the Gospel of John. St. Ambrose tells us “Gabriel dies not, nor Raphaël, nor Uriel” in Book III of his Exposition of the Christian Faith (III, 3, 20). St. Isidore of Seville treats to Uriel as the fourth Archangel in his Etymologies and tells us “We read, indeed, that as fire [Uriel] was sent from above, and fulfilled what was commanded” (VII, 5, 15).
On a similar vein, it’s claimed that Pope St. Gregory I listed the seven archangels thus: Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, Uriel, Simiel, Oriphiel, and Raguel. Unfortunately I’ve yet to find the primary source where he actually lists these names, but if it proves to be true, then it establishes a seven-angel local tradition in Rome roughly 150 years before Zachary’s Council.
However, I’m not holding out hope because that wouldn’t match his teaching on the Angels as given in Homily 34 on the Gospels (relevant part in English), where he talks about the Nine Orders in detail, but only discusses the three Archangels named in Scripture. I’ve met another dead end in a French source claiming Pope St. Pius V praised the Seven Archangels and likened them to the Seven Planets, but didn’t give a date or even a Latin title for the supposed “papal bull.” In spite of being Fake News, a translation of this quote’s been copypasted all over the internet by exoteric and occult websites alike; for what it’s worth, the earliest I’ve found this quote in English would be Blavatsky’s Planetary Symbolism, as a footnote on page 16.
UPDATE (02/25/18): After more research, I’m coming to think the “Gregory the Great Archangel List” is false, as I’m not finding a shred of it in his Homilies on the Gospels or Homilies on Ezechiel, his Moralia on Job, his Dialogues, or any reference in scholarly work I’ve found addressing his teaching about angels (such as pp. 366-372 in this .pdf file). The entry at OrthodoxWiki refers to the list as belonging Gregory the Theologian (St. Gregory Nazanzius); there’s no such reference in his discussion on Angels in the Second Theological Oration, and thus far I’ve yet to find such a list in his other works either. The research is still ongoing.
As of the present day, the use of names other than Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael is not approved, as per the Vatican’s 2001 Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy. Section 217 tells us on no uncertain terms:
The practice of assigning names to the Holy Angels should be discouraged, except in the cases of Gabriel, Raphael and Michael whose names are contained in Holy Scripture.
Where Does This Bring Us Today?
This was great information, wasn’t it? So now the question is what to do about it.
If you’re someone who insists on being completely obedient to the letter, you can’t do a damned thing. This is etched in stone and all possible workarounds disappeared for you in 2001. You’ve got four named angels to talk to, and that’s it: Michael, Raphael, Gabriel, and your Guardian Angel (though that last is a title and not a name).
If you’re somebody who doesn’t care about all those rules and stuff, then you’ve got every option. Uriel and Barachiel can be your best friends, man. And make-believe dudes like Aiwass, Koot-Hoomi, Xenu, and Moroni can be your wing men!
If you’re somebody who’s in between these two extremes, you’ve got an option. You don’t need to address any other angels by name, but either by title “Guardian Angel,” or by Choir “Seraph,” or by something they did in the past such as “Angel who delivered Peter from his chains.” We can see all three of these things in the Litany of the Holy Angels Taken from Sacred Scripture published in 1644, and it’s not hard to adapt this formula for our own private use.
As for me, I’m of two minds.
On the one hand I can understand the prohibition as a way to keep wannabe cult leaders from claiming “such-and-such a spirit revealed this message to me, now become my followers!” Whether Aldebert or Joseph Smith, we’ve seen this kind of thing time and again throughout history.
On the other hand, it’s just as easy for a would-be cult leader to claim “I received this message from Jesus or St. Michael and he told me you should become my followers!” The people who’ll follow these kinds of leaders will follow them anyway, and in modern society there’s nothing any religious hierarchy can do to stop it.
And then there’s a third hand, the fact that Eastern Catholics explicitly name seven Archangels – Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, Uriel, Selathiel, Jehudiel, and Barachiel – and are allowed to seek their intercession. This is the exact list known to the Eastern Orthodox Church, and I find it schizophrenic that “our side” can’t do something while “their side” can. While some will throw the “sui juris” excuse in my face, it’s an excuse I reject because narrowing the list to just three archangels just isn’t part of the Consensus Patrum. Theologically it’s also a matter of adiaphora, meaning one’s salvation isn’t at stake.
The fourth hand, of course, is that a law that cannot be enforced can’t pragmatically be called a law at all, and nobody is capable of enforcing what you do in your private devotions. That’s between you and God, and ultimately you’re the only two who have any real say. You can listen to the Church’s precepts or to your spiritual director’s input (and well you should!), but ultimately the final decision is up to you.
So for my personal practice, I have no problem calling upon the names of the Archangels as we have them from Biblical apocrypha, from Pseudo-Dionysius, or the alleged list attributed to Pope St. Gregory the Great. However, I also understand that a lot of people are leery of angel names outside what the Roman Directory approves. That’s why I provide options and alternatives, after such options have been tested to make sure they work. My second post on the LRP is one such example. My current and ongoing work on the “Isidorian System” is another.
All in all, I hope this post finds itself helpful even if you find my conclusions anathema. At the very least you now have the sources where the ban on Uriel and the other angel-names comes from, you’ve seen what the actual documents themselves have to say, and you’ve been able to trace the history of this prohibition as far as the extant documents will allow.
UPDATE (02/25/18): Uriel window from Our Lady of Mount Carmel Roman Catholic Church in Chicago, Illinois. According to their parish history, this window was placed around 1925. Many thanks to Frater Abdiel for showing me this link.
Directory on popular piety and the liturgy. Principles and guidelines (December 2001) paragraph 217
217. Popular devotion to the Holy Angels, which is legitimate and good, can, however, also give rise to possible deviations:
when, as sometimes can happen, the faithful are taken by the idea that the world is subject to demiurgical struggles, or an incessant battle between good and evil spirits, or Angels and daemons, in which man is left at the mercy of superior forces and over which he is helpless; such cosmologies bear little relation to the true Gospel vision of the struggle to overcome the Devil, which requires moral commitment, a fundamental option for the Gospel, humility and prayer;
when the daily events of life, which have nothing or little to do with our progressive maturing on the journey towards Christ are read schematically or simplistically, indeed childishly, so as to ascribe all setbacks to the Devil and all success to the Guardian Angels. The practice of assigning names to the Holy Angels should be discouraged, except in the cases of Gabriel, Raphael and Michael whose names are contained in Holy Scripture.…
I’ll be interested in what more you find out about Gregory the Great’s “Archangel List.”
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Thanks for sharing! After trying to research St. Gregory’s “Archangel list” a little more, I’m convinced it’s a dud. Every sermon or text I can find regarding St. Gregory the Great only finds him mentioning the names Michael, Gabriel, and Uriel, and then the Nine Orders. So I’m convinced the alleged list is fake.
At some point I want to try tracking down where this list really originated. Not a super priority at the moment, but will be posting to the blog once it’s found.
The Bodleian Library has two Books of Hours from France circa 1500, that include Uriel in a litany to the Four Archangels.
Excellent and well researched post! I just wanted to notify you that this exists if you are not already aware:
“Impetus for this dedication had been generated by the account of a vision of the Archangel Uriel experienced in the ruins of the Baths in 1541 by a Sicilian monk, Antonio del Duca, who had been lobbying for decades for papal authorization of a more formal veneration of the Angelic Princes. “
You missed the text in  the last paragraph where it states: ‘…The whole assembly decreed “As regards Aldebert, …who summoned demons to his aid under the guise of angels…”
I didn’t miss it at all, it’s included in the quote from the Council Fathers. I just didn’t address it because 1) it comes off as ignorance on the part of the Council Fathers to consider Uriel (and possibly Raguel) a demon, and 2) it was outside the scope of the blog post to explain our way through it.
There may be others with the same concern, so I may edit an update into the post discussing it, probably in the next day or two as time allows. Thanks for bringing it up!