In the state of confusion in the Church today, some people have taken up new age or Protestant fundamentalist ideas without being aware of their real origin or falsity.
A major example of this is the current fad for "Healing the family tree". There is a book with that title by an Anglican psychiatrist Kenneth McAll. Much of the book is quite acceptable to Catholics but the summary on the back cover also states that Dr McAll "tells how through his medical and religious experiences he has discovered a remarkable new method of healing. He believes that many supposedly 'incurable' patients are the victims of ancestral control. He therefore seeks to liberate them from this control. By drawing up a Family Tree, he can identify the ancestor who is causing his patient harm. He then cuts the bond between the ancestor and patient".
There is myriad literature on the subject, much of it contradictory. Picking the reliable book is a bit like picking a book on astrology or some other nonsensical esoteric topic: which one will you believe? There are so many, and they are irreconcilable with each other!
There are variations galore on the ancestral spirit theme. I have heard some say that if you have a cot death in the family, it means that there was a witch in your ancestry. If you have bowel cancer, it means there was a Freemason, and so on. Some claim to have linked every possible malady to every possible class of ancestral sinner who is the cause of its passing down the line!
Others teach that you or your family are victims of the demon of anger, or the demon of lust, or of gambling, or of drug abuse, or of mental breakdown; in other words, there are special demons who pursue families down the generations to cause particular vices.
The Apostles too at one time had the common Jewish notion that every affliction could be traced to a specific sin. So it was they asked Our Lord, "Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" Jesus' answer is very enlightening and very important: "It was not that this man sinned or his parents, but that the works of God might be made manifest in him" (Jn 9:3).
Our Lord at another time discounted the idea that certain misfortunes come upon certain people because of their sins, while others are spared because they are less guilty. Referring to a group butchered under Pilate, and to eighteen others killed by a falling tower in Siloam, Jesus said, "Do you think they were worse offenders than all the others in Galilee and in Jerusalem? I tell you, No" (Lk 13:2,4).
Where did the Jews get this notion? Partly from the provisional Revelation given them by God. In the book of Exodus, God says, "I am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me" (20:5; 34:7). But is this meant to apply for all time unto the end of the world, like the Ten Commandments? No; many things in the Jewish Revelation were for the Jews only, such as circumcision, animal sacrifices, and other ritual and judicial laws. St John Chrysostom says explicitly that the declaration of punishment unto later generations "is not to be universally applied, but was made with regard to those going out of Egypt" (Homily 56 on St John).
Even within the Old Testament itself, God changed this arrangement. See all of chapter 18 in Ezekiel. God says, "What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, 'The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge'? As I live, says the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel." Further on, God says, "Yet you [Jews] say, 'Why should not the son suffer for the iniquity of the father?' When the son has done what is lawful and right, he shall surely live. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself" (18:19-20). Jeremiah 31:29-30 says the same.
If someone in your family has an illness, there is no need to search your family tree for sinners, as the Apostles were trying to do!
Instructive in this regard is the reply of Our Lord to St Teresa of Avila. In her Life, chapter 19, she describes how she was meditating on Psalm 119, "Righteous are You, O Lord, and upright are Your judgements." Then she began to wonder, "how You could with justice allow so many faithful servants to remain without those gifts and mercies that You conferred on me. You answered me, O Lord: Do not pry into this but serve Me."
We cannot understand or justify the ways of God. To seek a personal explanation for each major thing will lead to obsession and distrust of God. Such things are not among the fruits of the Holy Spirit.
Some of this pseudo-charismatic business is really an attempt to unravel and explain the inexplicable. Why was this man born blind? Why was this girl born handicapped? Why did that good woman die so young of cancer? Why does this family have mental illness? Normally, the answer has to be, "I don't know" or, in a good sense, "God knows." All these and other mystifying things are the result of the inscrutable designs of Divine Providence.
Padre Pio was asked once why he did not heal a close relative, a young man, of an ongoing illness. He replied, "If he were cured, he would come to love this life too much and his soul would be lost." It is not given to ordinary mortals to know the secret designs of Providence, but a simple story like this one gives us a glimpse into God's ways and into how He draws good from evil, even if we do not see it in this life. The illness of St Pio's relative was his opportunity to share in the Cross and so save his soul.
In the Catholic schema of things, we need to remember that sin is the greatest of all evils. God has not promised to heal us or release us from all ills in this life, but He has promised absolutely to forgive our sins if we repent.
The belief in ancestral or generational curses, etc, is a perversion of the Catholic doctrine of Original Sin, which suffices to explain the evils and imperfections in this world. The remedy is baptismal regeneration and the life of Grace, not special exorcisms and healing rites, etc.
If people make a good confession of the past, make reparation for their sins, keep the Commandments, receive the Sacraments regularly, and avoid the occult and superstitions, and so on, then they can be certain that any afflictions are not by reason of some occult cause.
Some Catholics claiming to expel the influence of troublesome ancestors are really just misled by New Age influences, which play upon desperate people's sensitivities and susceptibilities. It is typical of the new agers to teach others to look elsewhere than themselves for the source of their problems. This is a big problem in today's world, namely refusing to take responsibility for our own choices and decisions. So some seek to blame their parents, or ancestors, or evil spirits, or a curse that was placed upon them.
It is also extremely imprudent to tell people afflicted with fears that their problems are caused by demons or ancestors binding them. Such explanations are only calculated to make them worse. What they do need is formation in the virtues of fortitude and trust in God.
We all know that in certain families there is a bigger tendency to alcoholism or gambling or reckless daring or other vices or whatever. But we also know that within a single family there are some siblings who are like chalk and cheese. Our basic temperament may be a given, but our character, which is what we do with it, is up to us. If we co-operate with the grace of God, we can overcome temptation, unhealthy proclivities and bad example. We can acquire new virtues. From sinful parents, God can and does produce saints! Only mindless determinism tries to lock people into a box for the rest of their lives.
Beliefs without foundation
A few years ago, a nun wrote to Bishop Brennan of Wagga Wagga to ask if she could come and do a seminar on "healing your family tree". He replied, as he told me himself, that he did not believe in any such doctrine, and that it was contrary to Scripture and the Fathers.
There is a book by an Italian theologian, Father Renzo Lavatori, on the demonology of the Fathers of the Church. In that thorough book, and in other learned tomes on the teachings of the Fathers, you will not find a single Father of the Church who taught anything about evil spirits following your ancestral line, or healing your family tree by identifying the ancestor who is holding you bound.
I would go further and say that no Father, no Doctor of the Church, no Saint, no Pope, no Council ever taught or even implied any such thing. It is a pure fiction without foundation in Sacred Scripture or Sacred Tradition. There is not a word on the subject in the 688 pages of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It is a mythical notion imported from sects outside the Church.
Next month I will look at right and wrong approaches to curses, exorcisms, and baptism of the dead.
Fr Peter Joseph, the vice-rector and a lecturer in dogma at Vianney College, the diocesan seminary of Wagga Wagga, is serving as Chancellor for the Maronite Diocese of Australia from February 2003 for the next three years.