What is occultism, and why is it becoming such a popular topic today? Is it the same as black magic? Is it astrology? Is it all of the above, or a mixture of these elements and others, perhaps darker and more dangerous?
The word “occult” comes from Latin, and the root meaning is to conceal or to cover over (occultare). The idea behind occultism is that there is secret knowledge that gives the owner of that knowledge magical power over elements which are otherwise beyond man’s control. Usually, this secret knowledge is obtained through some sort of communication with demonic powers or the souls of the dead.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church is clear on the matter: “All practices of magic or sorcery, by which one attempts to tame occult powers, so as to place them at one’s service and have a supernatural power over others — even if this were for the sake of restoring their health — are gravely contrary to the virtue of religion. These practices are even more to be condemned when accompanied by the intention of harming someone, or when they have recourse to the intervention of demons” (No. 2117, emphasis added). Notice that this section condemns what we would call both white magic and black magic. Magic and sorcery are sins against the First Commandment.
What about astrology? Is it the same thing? Astrology is an occult science that determines the influence of the stars and planets upon the fate of man. The sky at the time of a person’s birth is said to predict different aspects of an individual’s life, like friends and enemies, spouse and children, inheritance and longevity, etc. In ancient times, astrology and divination were considered very important sciences. For the modern Christian, what harm are they? Again, here is what the Catechism has to say: “All forms of divination are to be rejected: recourse to Satan or demons, conjuring up the dead or other practices falsely supposed to ‘unveil’ the future. Consulting horoscopes, astrology, palm reading, interpretation of omens and lots, the phenomena of clairvoyance, and recourse to mediums all conceal a desire for power over time, history, and, in the last analysis, other human beings, as well as a wish to conciliate hidden powers. They contradict the honor, respect, and loving fear that we owe to God alone” (No. 2116, emphasis in original). Once again, we find here sins against the First Commandment.
The rise in interest in things occult, whether astrology, magic, or Ouija boards (Yes, I said Ouija boards. If you have one in your house, get rid of it!) is symptomatic of the loss of faith in God. When people stop believing in God, whether at a highly intellectual level or on a practical level, their innate spiritual desires do not disappear. Instead, those desires become distorted. People have a natural desire to be in touch with the supernatural, as odd as that sounds. If we shut out the one, true God, then that natural desire for God will simply turn its gaze on something else. This can be pleasures of various sorts, like honor, or power, or sense. Sometimes, simple curiosity can lead a person to inquire about the occult. Other times, people are led there precisely by a desire to control or a desire for power.
The problem, of course, is that of our own nature we cannot manipulate spiritual powers to affect anything, yet that is what practitioners of the occult think they are doing. In reality, they are the ones being manipulated, and the powers manipulating them are invariably demonic. It makes sense that those who practice occultism are deceived. This is what Jesus says about Satan: “He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (Jn 8:44, RSV).
Besides the loss of faith in God in our time, there is an equally disturbing misunderstanding about the nature of evil and the devil. Some don’t believe that Satan exists, nor other demons. The truth is Satan exists. He and the other demons are in reality fallen angels, spiritual beings that refused to accept God’s reign. All the demons, Satan included, were created naturally good, and became evil by their own choosing. They are at work in the world all the time, working out of their hatred for God and for us. Read “The Screwtape Letters” by C.S. Lewis to get a sense of what this looks like.
The curiosity of some gets piqued when the subject of demons comes up. This is also attributable to a misunderstanding of the nature of the demonic. It is nothing to be curious about. Demons use humanity’s curiosity to their own advantage, tempting men, women, and young people to try one little palm-reading or one visit to a tarot card reader. “What harm could a Ouija board do?” This thought comes from we don’t know where. Then, we open ourselves to the influence of the evil spirit.
There is good reason that the Church warns against meddling in the occult. To do so disposes a person to the influence of Satan and other demonic powers, and Satan hates God and humankind. He seeks only to destroy us.
Sister Anna Marie McGuan is with the Religious Sisters of Mercy in Alma, Michigan.