Magic Is Good, Until It’s Not

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“Now thaumaturgy and natural magic are in themselves good and lawful, as any art is of itself good. But it may happen to become unlawful: first, when it is done for an evil purpose; second, when it gives rise to scandal being thought to be done with the help of demons; third, when it involves any spiritual or bodily danger to the conjurer or the spectators.”

— Fr. Francesco Maria Guazzo, Compendium Maleficarum, 1608. Book I, Chapter 2.

I can’t help but find a changing attitude about magic in the years after the Council of Trent. Now don’t get me wrong, because magic was never fully authorized even in the best of times (though an educated magician typically had an easier time than uneducated folk magicians and witches), but there’s still a change of mentality.

Trent itself is a wonderful Council, and did more to define and protect the Faith than the eighteen Ecumenical Councils that came before it and the one Council that came after it combined (while I think Vatican II has some good pastoral ideas, my Trad background won’t allow me to regard it as a legitimate Ecumenical Council; it fits the definition of a latrocinium starting with the way the Modernist wing of French, German, and Dutch bishops hijacked the Council during the first session).

However, Trent also created the Church as we know her with a strongly centralized hierarchy and standard curriculum for training clergy (this curriculum became known as “The Manuals” and were used for training seminarians all the way up until the late 20th century; the Manuals are still used in Traditional Catholic seminaries).

All in all, this means I have a strong belief that Trent’s definitions, decrees, and reforms were a net good for the Church, and this Council was the true Reformation. No qualifications on that statement, full stop.

However, there’s one side we don’t consider: how this affected the education of clergy. I think what we find writers saying about magic is an example of that.

For example, roughly 300 years before the Council, Aquinas tells us that magic performed by natural means is legitimate (Summa Th II, II, 96, 2), and we find this echoed 100 years before the Council in Kramer and Sprenger’s distinction of a “Lawful Enchanter” (Malleus II, 2, 6). At the same time lay authors such as Pico della Mirandola were discussing the distinction between magic and witchcraft (Oratio, 231) and telling us magic helps us prove the divinity of Christ (Conclusions 9:38). And we would be remiss not to mention the abbot Albertus Magnus (teacher of Aquinas) and the other abbot Johann Trithemius (teacher of Paracelsus and Agrippa).

Roughly three decades after the Council, in 1599 we find the Jesuit priest Nicholas Serarius intelligently discussing the Trithemius, Agrippa, and the Angels of the planets along with the spirits under them in his Commentary on Tobit, Judith, and Esther (he’s not endorsing it but the point is that he’s discussing it intelligently!). Nine years later in 1608 we find Guazzo’s quote that begins this blog post, telling us thaumaturgy and natural magic are “good and lawful” because all art is inherently good. The Middle Ages and the Renaissance literally have no shortage of authors and clergy praising magic and making the “lawful/unlawful” distinction.

So what happened?

1. Trent’s Ten Rules

The more I work on my current research into the Isidoro-Alighieran System, the more I come to think two things happened. The first would be the Ten Rules Concerning Prohibited Books drawn up as per the XXV Session of the Council. Rule IX is of particular notice to us, as it condemns all books relating to magic and divination:

All books and writings dealing with geomancy, hydromancy, aeromancy, pyromancy, oneiromancy, chiromancy, necromancy, or with sortilege, mixing of poisons, augury, auspices, sorcery, magic arts, are absolutely repudiated. The bishops shall diligently see to it that books, treatises, catalogues determining destiny by astrology, which in the matter of future events, consequences, or fortuitous occurrences, or of actions that depend on the human will, attempt to affirm something as certain to take place, are not read or possessed. Permitted, on the other hand, are the opinions and natural observations which have been written in the interest of navigation, agriculture or the medical art.

Now I’ll make a note here that the proper use of astrology was included amongst the “opinions and natural observations,” because the scientific worldview of the time saw the Planets as having an effect on us and our affairs. The condemnation is specifically against “determining destiny” by astrology, and the “attempt to affirm something as certain to take place.” I want you to understand clearly that it’s the assertion of something as a certain future (i.e that free will cannot cannot alter the course) that’s being condemned here.

I suspect — cannot affirm but suspect — Rule IX disinclined future generations of clergy from actually engaging the subjects they were condemning but to cast it under a broad brush. I believe this is why, by the early twentieth century, the Manuals only give a short paragraph or two to magic as a “Violation of the First Commandment,” “Superstition,” or “Idolatry” (see Slater’s Manual of Moral Theology, 1925 and Davis’ Moral and Pastoral Theology, 1952), only begrudgingly admitting exceptions for magic that happened via natural processes such as divining rods for water or dowsing with a pendulum.

Likewise I believe this disinclination also helps account for treating all magic as goetic, for example the 1911 Catholic Encyclopedia‘s claim that:

Catholic theology defines magic as the art of performing actions beyond the power of man with the aid of powers other than the Divine, and condemns it and any attempt at it as a grievous sin against the virtue of religion, because all magical performances, if undertaken seriously, are based on the expectation of interference by demons or lost souls.

So that’s what I think is the first thing that brought magic into disrepute by ecclesiastical writers, coming to its logical conclusion with the blanket condemnation of astrology and all forms of magic in sections 2115-2117 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

2. Changing Scientific Worldview

While future generations of clergy may have been disinclined to engage magical literature and ended up effectively attacking strawmen, we can’t ignore the second development going on at the time: the Scientific Revolution.

Medieval and Renaissance magic was greatly dependent on the era’s scientific worldview, which in turn was more or less unchanged since the ancient Greeks: the universe was composed of four (or five) Elements, our world was influenced by the Seven Planets, the Geocentric Universe, disease caused by imbalances of the Four Humors, and so on. In fact this was the shared scientific view amongst Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike, and more or less survives in modern magical systems while ignored by the Church and the world at large.

I think that as the Scientific Revolution progressed and mankind came to accept the Atom, the Microorganism, and the Heliocentric Solar System, the Church came to regard older scientific paradigms as belonging to the realm of “superstition.” Since so much of western magic is dependent upon this worldview, it was just as easily relegated to “superstition” along with the previous forms of science. In fact the Modern Church may be said to kowtow a little too much to the modern scientific paradigm in the attempt to be accepted as “enlightened” and “reasonable.” This doesn’t really affect the Faith in most matters such as John Paul II’s acceptance of Evolution in 1996 (Pius XII had already opened that doorway in 1950),though it does affect the Faith in terms of the Church’s acceptance of modern scientific methods for Higher Criticism.

But why can such changes be accepted? Because the Church has never claimed to be a scientific authority and generally goes with the consensus of the scientific community though not with new or novel hypotheses. Even in the Galileo controversy, we can’t forget that his and Copernicus’ hypothesis was novel for the time and the period’s scientific consensus was soundly against him (oh, and he practiced astrology, too). The Church stopped actively resisting Heliocentrism around 1758 (by which time it was the majority scientific view), founded the Vatican Observatory in 1774, and formally accepted Heliocentrism in 1822.

3. Concluding Remarks

Obviously this isn’t an attempt to claim “This is certainly what happened!” But it’s rather an attempt to figure out what happened to change the Church’s mind on magic and magicians from a more lenient one in certain circumstances to a more-or-less universal condemnation of magic as though it were solely superstition and the invocation of cacodemons, like in this article and the comments that come afterward.

I’m going to leave with a quote from a friend, Stephen, who said this in relation to that article. I’m doing this without having first asked for permission and he reads my blog, but this is so relevant that I humbly ask that he’ll forgive me:

On the comments– I’ve studied and practiced energetic healing for some time now. Yes it works, no it isn’t a panacea, yes it can be dangerous, no it isn’t demonic.

A major issue, in my view, is that people are teaching magic– from spellcasting to energy work– without either teaching ethics or mentioning that it can be dangerous. The result is a lot of black magic and a lot of people encountering trouble they weren’t prepared for. That said, though, the church can be unbelievably hypocritical on this topic. People who begin an occult practice– say, regular work with a basic ritual like the LBRP– can wind up attracting attention from unpleasant spiritual entities. This is common enough, and there are ways to deal with it. Someone like “Father Patrick” looks at this and assumes that occultism itself is to blame, and that it must perforce be inherently demonic. It never occurs to him to notice that people who take up entirely orthodox practices like the prayers of the Auxilium Christianorum or the Total Consecration to Mary also deal with heightened levels of demonic activity, especially at first. It is in fact what happens, though. And the usual excuse for it is that Satan really dislikes these things and so tries to stop those who practice them.

A better explanation, in my view, because it encompasses the dangers of both orthodox and occult spirituality without special pleading on behalf of one or the other, is that taking up regular, serious spiritual practice is like going into the woods after spending your entire life locked indoors without so much as a window to see outside. You’re encountering a new world, much bigger and much better than what you’re used to. But within this new world there are beings, from pleasant butterflies and friendly dogs and cats to stinging bees and dangerous bears, that you’ve never dealt with before. And it can be hard to tell a lab from a grizzly bear, or even a bear from a bee, when you’ve never seen an animal before.


About Agostino

Originally from Queens, N.Y., and having grown up in Dayton, OH, Agostino Taumaturgo is a unique figure. He is the product of the unlikely combination of coming from a Traditional Roman Catholic background and a spirituality-friendly home. It was in this home that Agostino first learned the basics of meditation, prayer, and spiritual working. In time Agostino completed his theology studies and was ordained to the priesthood and was later consecrated a bishop. He has since left the Traditional movement and brings this knowledge to the “outside world” through his teaching and writing, discussing spiritual issues and practical matters through the lens of traditional Christian theology.
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2 Responses to Magic Is Good, Until It’s Not

  1. hocuspocus13 says:

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