A Rationalized Animal

22 09 2008

From recent correspondence:

The transformation that occured in Catholicism after the Counter Reformation also makes the possibilty of [the beatification of Marsilio Ficino]  quite small. Christianity was altered in many ways that even most erudite Christians don’t realize, and not necessarily in the ways that most people now think. If you’ve read Ioan Couliano on this, it becomes especially evident. The Church was in a sense profoundly disenchanted, to the point that the liturgy was simplified at the Council of Trent, sacred art regulated, and any form of astrology or “white magic” outlawed outright. (Albertus Magnus was a great magus.) Perhaps the watershed moment in my opinion came with the condemnation of Pico della Mirandola’s 900 Theses. From then on, the Church began to increasingly see the world as “Other”, and human history in very linear, progressive terms. (The discovery of the Americas also contributed to this.) Christianity now is a much more rationalized animal. And that is why Ficino’s veneration of Plato and Hermes Trismegistus will always be a strike against him: he will always be “too pagan” for the current Church. Sadly, I think the world is moving further away from Ficino’s world, not closer, to its own detriment.


Addendum: The question could of course be asked, “How do YOU know?! Aren’t you as modern as the rest of us?” True enough. However, as in all social phenomena, phases of history are never that well-defined and clear cut. In many parts of Christendom, a pre-modern ethos continued to dominate in much of the culture, even up to very recently. I would also say that there is not very much of modern in many aspects of folk Catholicism. These elements also meld with modernity in completely different ways than more mainline European systems of belief and practice.

If one can say anything, it is that the movements of aggiornamento in the 1960’s were the culmination of a process that began at the Reformation and Trent to highlight some aspects of Christianity over others. It is not a process of negation of the principles that came before (the traditionalist critique of Vatican II being the end of the Counter Reformation) but rather the logical development of some of its principals: the triumph of “theology” over religion.

Above: a photo of a roadside shrine to the Argentine folk saint, Gauchito Gil



9 responses

29 09 2008
Between High Theory and Low Praxis « Reditus: A Chronicle of Aesthetic Christianity

[…] In response to some of Christina’s concerns : […]

24 09 2008

Thank you, I look forward to the answer.

One more clarification. When I speak of “superstition” I have the Catholic definition in mind – attributing to creatures powers that belong to God alone. I obviously don’t believe that sacramentals are superstitious, as many Protestants do. As long as the power to curse and bless is attributed to God, and as long as creatures – Saints, Bible, prayers, relics, holy water, blessed oil, etc. – are seen as instruments of Divine power rather than sources of power, there’s no superstition IMHO.

24 09 2008
Arturo Vasquez


These are all good questions, and I will answer them with a post next week. Please stay tuned….

24 09 2008

Hi, I’m a Catholic who has been lurking on this blog for a month or so, having found it through the Stregoneria Italiana site (where I also lurk).

For a few years now, I’ve been interested in “Christian occultism,” where Christians attempt to incorporate magic (high or low) or some related aspect of occultism/esotericism into their faith and practice. I must admit that some of it has a certain appeal for me, such as some of the practices associated with folk medicine in Catholic cultures. Yet, as much as this fascinates and appeals to me, I must confess I can’t see how a blend of magic and occultism is possible within the bounds of orthodox Christianity (though a part of me wishes I could).

Now, I’m not so much talking about folk religion in Catholic countries (devotions, festivals, etc.), which seems to be one of the main focuses of this blog. I’ve heard too many annoying put-downs of popular expressions of Catholicism put down by Protestants and unbelievers, and all those accusation of “superstition” and “paganism” are wearing really thin. Though some of the more extreme popular devotions (such as “Santisima Muerte”) cross the line, I rather like many of the devotions mentioned on this blog, such as the “angelitos.” So I’m certainly not in favor of abolishing saint devotions, festivals, etc; it’s a shame we don’t have more of that in the USA outside of certain ethnic conclaves (which seem as doomed to ultimate assimilation as were my Italian immigrant forebears – I’m third generation on my Mom’s side, second on my Dad’s).

No, I’m talking more about attempts to fuse hermetic or neo-hermetic magic or occultism with Catholicism. I’ve looked into this, and all I can see is Christianity consistently condemning the practice of magic down through the centuries… from the Didache right through the current Catechism of the Catholic Church. The Fathers of the Church all spoke as though magic were demonic through and through; I can find no mention of a “holy” or “Christian” magic in their writings (I can back that statement up with numerous quotes if you like; I don’t want to post them all here, though). St. Augustine argued that even theurgy relies on demons for its effectiveness (something like that – it’s in his “City of God”). Catholic moral teaching has long considered magic a form of “vain observance,” which violates the First Commandment. AFAICS, this has been a rather consistent teaching both pre- and post- Vatican II. Try as I might, I can’t seem to find a loophole here.

True, Medieval and Renaissance mages in Europe tended to have a Judeo-Christian worldview, as evinced by the many grimoires from those time periods still in existence. That’s not surprising given they lived in a society where Christianity was the official religion. Yet that doesn’t mean that magic is compatible with Christianity. If a devoutly religious man decides to rob a bank, and maybe says a prayer to St. Dismas before doing so, that doesn’t make robbery a validly Christian act – it’s still a sin condemned in moral theology.

Okay, I hope the last sentence doesn’t offend anyone. I don’t want to seem like I am condemning or “preaching to” anyone. I am still trying to sort all these things out in my own mind; like I said I am drawn to some folk Catholic (and other Christian) practices. I really would like to dialog with someone about this; I’m not coming from a “You’re all WRONG and are going to hell!!!!!!” POV. I’m not spoiling for an argument, either, though a friendly disagreement might be okay – I hate “flame wars” and angry unpleasantness. If this is not a good forum for discussion of the Church’s official position of magic and how one might be able to work around it, then I apologize. Just let me know if I’m out of line – maybe a personal email exchange would be better.

Maybe I should define my terms here for clarity. Magic is the attempt to cause preternatural phenomena according to the will and desires of the magician, by means of powers other than Divine. It differs from prayer, which seeks to effect such phenomena through Divine power, by asking God to act on a certain situation. Also, prayer must always be subject to God’s will; it is always “Thy will be done,” not “As I will so mote it be” (well, that last phrase is more associated with Wicca, but I think you get what I mean).

While Catholicism has always favored prayer, it has not favored magic. Insofar as some Christian folk practices (Braucherei, Benedicaria, Curandisimo, etc.) use prayer and sacramentals, they are okay. Though they may cross the line in other areas, such as fortunetelling.

What I really wonder is whether it would be possible to create a form of Christian folk religion/medicine that contains no superstition yet is fully incarnational/sacramental, incorporating saint devotions, Christian symbols, feasts, sacramentals, various blessings and rituals, praying the psalms, etc., while relying completely on Divine power for results. Not to supplant the indigenous folk religious practices of other cultures, mind you, but perhaps for ones personal use. Okay, for MY personal use :-). Like I said, I’m drawn to some popular devotional practices.

Anyway, enough of my ramblings

23 09 2008


Surely you are familiar with the book “Meditations on the Tarot.” I have gone from loving it, to hating it, to coming to appreciate it again. If you were to care to write something on that work or on Hermes Trismegistus, I would gladly read it.

Also, I know this is popular, but there is a recent work by Michael Ward (I think that is his name) which makes rather clear that Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia are based on Medieval cosmology, each book representing the “spirituality” of each of the 7 heavens in the Ptolemiac cosmology as interpreted by the Medievals. I would also be very curious as to your appreciation of that. See http://www.planetnarnia.com/

22 09 2008
Arturo Vasquez

Oh, don’t worry, it will. But not necessarily in ways that you might think at first. Jansenism was a flawed response to a real crisis, but its defeat may have caused more problems than it solved.

22 09 2008

Any religion which has the bruised, beaten, bloody, stabbed, crucified corpse of a God at its core is going to be inherently messy, no matter how rationalistic it may have become at certain times and in certain circles.

While the Counter Reformation was certainly a watershed moment in the history of the Western Church, I’m surprised that the role of Jansenism in all this hasn’t come up yet.

22 09 2008
random Orthodox chick

Well, life’s too messy for a pristine one!

22 09 2008
Arturo Vasquez

I’m only into messy religion. Other people (including important people) may not like it that way, but that’s just how I roll.

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