By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Dec 16, 2009)
Our televisions and computer screens are filled with fascination with the occult these days. Demon warriors battle with cyborg SWAT teams in the latest computer games, while sexy teen vampires draw millions to the movie theaters. At the college where I teach theology, an English professor recently announced that he was going to add the book Dracula to his English literature course; student enrollment in his classes almost doubled overnight!
All this fascination with supernatural evil and the occult naturally has some faithful Catholics very concerned. For example, one of our readers, named Christina, recently wrote:
We know that God is all-merciful. He loves all of us, His children. But what about occultists (especially Satanists) who blatantly proclaim hatred of God and worship Satan Himself?
Well, Christina, to answer this good question we should first make clear what is wrong with dabbling in the occult in the first place. Then we can tackle your question correctly: Does God pour out His mercy even on the devotees of Satan himself?
The Church — particularly through the Catechism of the Catholic Church, entries 2115-2117 — strongly warns us against involvement in the occult. In entry 2116, for example, the Catechism tells us:
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.
Here the Catechism echoes Scripture itself, in which our heavenly Father has expressly forbidden any attempt to try to access or summon and converse with supernatural "spirit guides" or the spirits of the dead. Deuteronomy, chapter 18, makes this crystal clear:
There shall not be found among you any one who ... practices divination, a soothsayer, or an augur, or a sorcerer, or a charmer, or a medium, or a wizard, or a necromancer. For whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord.
The book of Acts tells the story of how St. Paul met a slave girl who had engaged in "fortune-telling." She followed St. Paul around, crying quite correctly, "These men are servants of the most high God who proclaim to you the way of salvation." She did this for many days, and St. Paul grew annoyed. He eventually "turned and said to the spirit, 'I charge you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.'" And the evil spirit left her that very hour (see 16:16-19).
So much for supernatural spirit-guides. Even ones who occasionally tell the truth are not to be trusted, according to the apostles; they are to be driven away.
Still, neither the Catechism nor the Bible gives us a full explanation as to why dabbling in the occult and trying to access supernatural powers to foretell the future, contact the souls of the departed, and so on, is always the wrong path to take. To be sure, in many cases, as the Catechism points out, it manifests a lack of trust in God, a desire for power over things like time and providence that God has not left in human hands. Sometimes it masks even a desire for supernatural power over the lives of others! On the other hand, some people dabble in the occult out of mere childish curiosity and ignorance of God's warnings about these practices — or perhaps out of grief at the loss of a loved one or an honest search for wisdom that goes beyond the materialistic view of life that dominates modern culture, or even a desire to access supernatural healing powers in witchcraft to help people with their problems. Thus, some practitioners of the occult may be in what the Church calls a state of "invincible ignorance" about what they are really getting into. As a result, their moral culpability for breaking God's commandments in this regard may be lessened.
Nevertheless, at the very least, what they are doing is rash and imprudent. Engaging in occult practices is dangerous; it is like children playing with matches. Not every single child who plays with matches will come to grief, but it is all too easy to get burned — in this case, supernaturally burned!
Séances, Ouija boards, Tarot cards, witchcraft, mediumistic activity, "channeling" (that is, trying to contact spirit-guides or the spirits of departed loved ones) — these are all "doorways to danger." We need to remember and warn our loved ones that the supernatural world is not only populated by holy angels and the souls of the faithful departed in purgatory or in heaven, it is also populated by fallen angels and demonic forces.
These evil beings are quite capable, for example, of mimicking the voices of departed loved ones through a "channeler" and of imparting secret information. They can deceive the living and lead us into falsehoods about God and morality. They can also provide false guidance about the future. It is not true that the occult never "works," or is only practiced by fraudulent hucksters. Some do, indeed, contact supernatural beings. I fear, however, these "beings" are more cunning, powerful, and evil than occultists can possibly imagine.
I am not scare-mongering. The fact is that mediumistic activity, Ouija boards, séances, and channeling have been strongly implicated in many authentic cases of demonic possession and exorcism (please see the classic work on this subject by Msgr. Leon Cristiani, Evidence of Satan in the Modern World, as well as the book by the famous Christian psychotherapist M. Scott Peck, The People of the Lie: The Psychology of Evil).
Moreover, it is a sad fact that many of the leaders of what may have been history's most evil regime, the Nazi Third Reich, were steeped in occult practices of all kinds, and this should be another warning to us that when those occult "doorways to danger" are foolishly opened up, it is spirits who are not obedient to God who step through. Of that we can be sure. Saint Paul warns us that Satan and the demons are very cunning and they even sometimes disguise themselves as "angels of light." In his first letter to Timothy, for example, he predicts that "in later times some will depart from the faith by giving heed to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, through the pretensions of liars whose consciences are seared" (4:1-2). The plethora of occult practitioners today, sadly, may be the beginning of the fulfillment of this dire prophecy.
However, Christina, you did not ask me about those who practice the occult in general, some of whom may be well intentioned, though they are foolishly courting supernatural powers that they do not understand and cannot possibly control. Rather, you asked about the most extreme kind of occultist: the Satanists, or as you so aptly put it, "those who proclaim hatred of God and worship Satan himself." Obviously, there is little chance that these people are in a state of "invincible ignorance" as to what they are doing, or that their intentions can be understood as anything other than twisted and evil. They have directly and explicitly rejected Jesus Christ and willingly serve his murderer, the "father of lies" himself. Does God's mercy extend even to them?
I think we must believe: Yes, Divine Mercy reaches out even to them, and, in a sense especially to them! They are often among the worst of sinners (and sometimes among the worst of the psychologically ill). Some are even possessed by evil spirits. All are in the most urgent need of spiritual rescue. Jesus loved us all so much that He gave His very life on the cross for each one of us — which means, for each one of them, too. Does His merciful and compassionate Heart not long to bring them safely home to heaven?
Our Lord said to St. Faustina:
My secretary, write that I am more generous toward sinners than I am to the just. It was for their sake that I came down from heaven; it was for their sake that My Blood was spilled. Let them not fear to approach Me; they are most in need of My mercy. (Diary of St. Faustina, 1275)
I believe it was Bl. Mother Teresa of Calcutta who once said (I am paraphrasing her words here — if someone can find the exact quote I would be grateful!): God loves us all completely and equally. But if you are a parent, and you see your beloved children coming up the path, and one of them is bruised and bleeding, which one do you run to first? The one who is "most in need of ... mercy!" That is what Jesus meant by being more generous to the very worst sinners than to the just. He is completely generous to all, but some are in urgent and desperate need of help. His compassionate Heart goes out first of all — and most of all — to them.
So should ours. We can offer our prayers (and especially the Chaplet of The Divine Mercy) for anyone we know whose obstinacy in evil has led them to become devotees of Satan or whose foolishness has led them to dabble in the occult. Remember that even if our Lord reaches out to these souls with His merciful love, it will do them little good unless they are willing to open their hearts in trust to receive that gift. Jesus once said to St. Faustina that when some souls "bring all My graces to naught, I begin to be angry with them, leaving them alone and giving them what they want" (Diary, 1728). And again, in entry 1588, He says:
I do not want to punish aching mankind but I desire to heal it, pressing it to My Merciful Heart. I use punishment when they themselves force Me to do so; My hand is reluctant to take hold of the sword of justice.
Thus, while there is still time, while the hearts of these Satanists are not yet hardened beyond all recall, let us entreat our Savior for the grace that even now can bring them to repentance and healing, if only they will open their hearts to Him, the One who still desires with all His Heart to save them.
Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy. His latest book is Divine Mercy: A Guide from Genesis to Benedict XVI (Marian Press). Got a question? E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.