More Notes on Magical Catholicism

14 05 2009


Not long ago, a white, middle-class, Adventist pastor from the United States was visiting an Adventist congregation in South Africa…The church was surprised by his visit, but welcomed him with open arms. When word of his presence reached the pastor in charge of the congregation, the pastor made an announcement that, he assumed, would be received as an honor: “My friends, I have wonderful news for you. Pastor Smith has come to visit us all the way rom the United States. I will ask him to conduct tonight’s exorcism.” Picture the consternation that this announcement caused for the visiting pastor! How many seminaries here in the United States – or in the entire Western world for that matter – prepare its graduates to deal with issues concerning healing and spiritual warfare? However, in the Global South, if you do not have a healing ministry that occupies a prominent place in your congregation, people will leave your church and go to others where they will find a healing ministry.

-Philip Jenkins, found on this site

I found the above link on the site, Gregorian Rite Catholic, the page of a very pro-Papal Catholic traditionalist. At first reading, I delighted in the thought of a white, suburban Protestant pastor having to do an exorcism in an African country. Like the traditionalist blogger, however, I do find that Fr. Jenkin’s opinions border on patronizing romanticism when he sees in Third World charismaticism the image of the church of the Acts of the Apostles. It is indicative of my own observation that First World Christians seem to put too much hope in the Third World than is really warranted. It also seems quite cruel that it is often the same people who defend the dismantling of enchanted Christianity in the First World who praise it in the Third. They see Third World Christianity, with all of its color and vibrancy, as an authentic tradition, while the authentic traditions at home were nothing but fodder to feed their iconoclastic bonfire of the vanities last century.

The other side of the coin, however, is the attitude of the “Gregorian Rite Catholic” herself. Typical of a “traditionalist” Catholic, her attitude is very by the book. Indeed, she dismisses the African approach to Christianity, the quest for “signs and wonders”, as “syncretism”. I should accentuate here, against Protestant readers who would be too boastful, that many converts to Protestantism in Latin America, Africa, and Asia, join those religions in the quest for miracles, and the most popular strain there seems to be any permutation of Pentecostalism. Sola fide and sola gratia often have little to do with the growth of Evangelical religion in the Third World. They want miracles, and they want them often. But getting back to the blogger’s syncretism point, I had to point out to her in a comment that such “magical Catholicism” was ever present throughout the Catholic world in the same centuries as the Latin Mass, Papal tiaras, and long, regal, episcopal copes. Indeed, many Popes, even after its condemnation, locked themselves in the Vatican and continued to cast horoscopes (not that I condone that sort of thing).

While African charismaticism may be a late comer, there are “traditional” alternatives that are just as exotic, strange, and “questionable”. Indeed, if ecclesiastical approbation was needed for every single miracle, many of the plaques and ex-votos on saints’ altars would be absent. Italian benedicaria, Latin American curanderismo, Dutch powwowing, Cajun and Creole traiteurs, and other such “miracle” based systems have long been the other side of Catholicism through the centuries. They are as traditional as Introibo ad altare Dei.

The following paragraph seems key to her critique:

Every Catholic who has had a relative who died from a disease and who prayed continuously for their recovery should write to this priest and give him the straight story. You can have all the faith in the world and your dear ones will still die. There is, in fact, little rhyme or reason, to us anyway, as to who is healed and who is not. Of course, we place a good deal of trust in modern medicine; it has liberated us from diseases that previously decimated populations. And modern medicine is a gift from God, by the way, not something in contradistinction to God.

One principle of “Catholic white magic” is that it is God who cures. Any real curandero, traiteur, or Appalachian faith healer will tell you that it is God who heals, not them. The real issue is modern man’s aversion to using qualitative methods to heal, rather than just quantitative means. What is so wrong about praying over a person with a handkercheif to take away his fright? Why would it be more correct to give a person mind-altering pill to do the same? If your baby is crying too much, and you don’t know why, why isn’t it the evil eye? Any real faith healer as well would tell you to go to the doctor first to see if they can help, and only then they will try something if modern medical alternatives have been exhausted. Perhaps these methods, this “syncretism”, is a higher form of supplication; one that has to do with Iamblichus’ principles of theurgy to invoke God’s power in a far more effective way.

The real problem with our blogger’s attitude is that she, like other “traditionalists”, is just as contaminated with rationalism as the people she often critiques. Anything that is not in the traditionalist 1962 hand missal must be some form of syncretism. Any expectations of miraculous healings, in spite of Our Lord’s assurances, are automatically objects of suspicion. There is a danger here of upholding the modern philosophical dichotomy between the world of faith and the “real world”. As in Pascal’s barren cosmos, we are abandoned here with nothing but our Kierkegaardian leap of Faith. God only works in very limited, structured interventions of the seven sacraments and the official Magisterium, and all else is basically witchcraft. Such Counter-Reformation theories may be more “correct” from the official perspective, but they are far from traditional. In most times and places, Catholics have sought the Spirit, that Divine Intruder, in many strange and enchanted places.



5 responses

15 05 2009

The mechanism by which miracles occur isn’t well understood.

14 05 2009

This might come in handy, showing the same situation from an Orthodox perspective.

14 05 2009
The Shepherd

white magic/wonderworking is not an exact science, oftentimes you can just count yourself lucky that you didn’t erupt in boils. Allopathic medicine is oftentimes simply more practical ,i’m not sure I would rely primarily on a curandero as my primary care provider. It should also be noted that the places where this kind of Christianity thrives also tend to be places that suck to live in.

However, there is still a great deal of interest in alternative medicine even here in the developed U.S.A. If mainstream medicine was so great that demand wouldn’t be there.

14 05 2009

By the way, the cure worked.

14 05 2009

God may be ultimately responsible for the cure, but He may not always be the proximate cause. God provided us with the tools of reasoning and sense perception. He also provided us with miracles. Though God may not be doing the reasoning or the wonderworking.

Also, reasoning provides more systematic results than wonderworking.

I knew a retired Church of God minister who was committed to his church’s promotion of faith healing, but accepted the ministrations of a country folk healer to cure a minor inconvenience. The minister was a mountain guy, and maybe that explains it.

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