Last month, when I dealt with the notion of "healing your family tree," I said that today's confusion in the Church has led some people to take up New Age ideas unawares. Among these are some mixed-up notions about curses, exorcisms and baptising the dead.
Often, healing your tree is meant to liberate you or your family from some curse. But do curses work? Unlike the sacraments of the Church, curses or spells do not work ex opere operato (by virtue of the rite itself). God has not given the devil such unfailing power. His influence is limited, sporadic and determined by God.
The rituals and formulas prescribed by the devil and his agents have no intrinsic force, but are mere devices employed by the devil: to deceive and degrade the gullible; to increase his hold over his victims and extract their subservience; to ape the rituals of the Church; and to gain for himself the worship due to God alone.
So it is that curses and superstitions seem to work only on those who believe in them! In other words, they are purely psychological, or if demons are at work, they can work only where the recipient of the curse starts to worry about it. So, in either case, the answer is to despise any attempt to curse you, trust in God, practise your religion faithfully and be at peace.
The faithful practising Catholic need fear nothing from the witchcraft and sorcery practised by others. A man from Kenya told me how, where he lived, the witch-doctors lamented the impotence of their sorcery against Christians, because the priests told the catechumens that once they are baptised they will have put on Christ who has conquered all evil powers and they are protected as his family members. Pope Paul VI said, in one of his famous 1972 discourses on the devil: "Everything which defends us from sin protects us of itself from the invisible Enemy. Grace is the decisive defence."
What did Our Lord say to do if people curse you? "Bless those who curse you" (Lk 6:28). That is all. Charity in deed. He never advised seeing some expert to get it "lifted".
In a book on the conversions to Christianity in the first centuries AD, Gustave Bardy sets out three main reasons why the Greco-Roman world converted to Christ: desire for the truth; the Christian integrity of life; and liberation from fatalism and superstition. Missionaries today can tell you how primitive peoples experience conversion to the Christian religion as a wondrous deliverance from a whole oppressive world of superstitions, fatalism, curses and fears.
The true Catholic vision of our links with our ancestors is found in our doctrines of Purgatory and the Communion of Saints. To teach people that their ancestors are to blame for present spiritual ills, and need pacifying or whatever, is a reversion to pre-Christian paganism and fatalism.
To try those whom He loves, God may allow evil spirits to afflict them seriously, but these exceptions are extremely rare. St Paul was among them. He was harassed by an angel of Satan and three times prayed for deliverance, but was told, "My grace is sufficient for you" (2 Cor 12:9). Paul says himself that he had to suffer this, "to keep me from being too elated by the abundance of revelations" (v 7).
Like the desire to know the unknowable is the desire to escape the inescapable. If we have prayed with persistence, and done what we can, and still have something to endure, we must then abandon ourselves to the hidden designs of God. Continuation and growth in grace is a life-long struggle. There are no secret prayers or formulas to lift burdens off us as if they are a spell. And to attempt to do so through "white magic" is as illicit as using black magic.
It is a mistake to think that every illness and trial is contrary to the gracious will of God. Normally we never know in this life how much good our crosses are doing to ourselves and to others. Practices of self-denial and the generous acceptance of suffering offered to God do much for the Church, for in this way, as St Paul says, "in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of His Body, that is, the Church" (Col 1:24).
The Church is the dispenser of the treasures of the Redemption, and Christ in a mysterious and awesome fashion has made Himself dependent on us, so to speak. Pius XII sums it up so powerfully in Mystici Corporis: "This is truly a tremendous mystery and one which can never be sufficiently meditated: namely, that the salvation of many souls depends upon the prayers and voluntary mortifications offered for that intention by the members of the mystical Body of Jesus Christ". To escape all suffering is to flee salvation.
In downplaying curses, I am not denying the power of the Evil One. I have written before on his power to cause disturbances, false visions, and false miracles.
Apart from genuine exorcisms, which are always beneficial, what about benefits claimed through healing your family tree? In some cases, it might be the removal of demonic influence through renunciation of a sin (e.g., attending seances) - and then the peace and release obtained is mistakenly ascribed to the departure of some deceased ancestor.
In fact, the Church's classic rules for exorcism issued in 1614 specifically say that the exorcist "should not believe the demon if he pretends to be the soul of a deceased person" (Rule 14).
At other times, where something genuine seems to take place - the instantaneous removal of a malady, for example - this can be explained by the devil removing what he himself had caused, as a ploy to make people fall for the whole ancestral spirits business.
It is the same game when unauthorised people try to cast out demons. The devil then is free to play all sorts of tricks on them, even pretending to leave, since he is being commanded without authority. Read Acts 19:13-17 where Jewish exorcists were overpowered by the demon when they tried to use the name of Jesus without authority.
Canon 1172 lays down that only a priest lawfully deputed by his bishop may perform an exorcism. It is presumptuous, dangerous and disobedient for a layman to undertake such a ritual. Lacking authority from the Church to exorcise, he may expose himself to the power of the demon, whom he imitates by disobedience. The well-known lengthy prayer of Pope Leo XIII against Satan and the rebellious angels is not for use by the laity, said the Holy Office in 1985.
I am aware of lay Catholics claiming to have a charismatic gift to deliver people from evil spirits. However much they may be in good faith, their good faith will not protect them. If you know of anyone who might need an exorcist, inform your parish priest or bishop.
Another thing doing the rounds is a ritual for baptising aborted or miscarried babies (months or even years after the event), involving recital of a prayer and sprinkling Holy Water into the air. I have met people who have followed this ceremony in good faith. But I must say here that baptising miscarried babies is pure fantasy. Sacraments are for the living. No one can baptise the dead. That idea comes straight from the Mormons, who try to baptise all their dead ancestors, back as far as one can go.
No one knows for sure what St Paul is referring to when he mentions Corinthians "baptising on behalf of the dead" (1 Cor 15:29) - but the Church's teaching rules out any ceremony of baptism administered to those dead and buried. To attempt to do so is the illicit practice of simulating a sacrament.
I have even seen a pamphlet saying that women worrying about miscarriages are impeding the happiness of their babies. Nonsense! Babies who die in the womb are in the hands of God. They are certainly not being detained from happiness because of their mothers' worry. The author was probably unaware that he had implied in that pamphlet that such babies were suffering in Hell or Purgatory. Both are impossible here.
Naming guardian angels
Another New Age practice which has made its way into the Catholic Church is naming your guardian angel. I have heard some people speak of it as if it were a necessary thing to name your angel, and as if it were an age-old practice. It is in fact a New Age fad, never practised or taught by a single Pope or Saint or any notable writer in the whole history of the Church.
The Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy issued in 2002 by the Vatican's Congregation for Divine Worship says, "The practice of assigning names to the holy angels should be discouraged except in the cases of Gabriel, Raphael and Michael whose names are contained in Holy Scripture" (n. 217).
Behind it is a desire to tame and control the spirit world. It is disordered to name your angel: the higher names the lower, not the other way around. Parents name their children, not vice versa. We are entrusted to our guardian angels; they are not entrusted to us. I fear that some people, in their mind, have turned their angel into some human friend or pet.
In all these matters, there is no better advice than that of St Paul in 2 Thess 2:15: "Stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us". Neither subtract from nor add to the teaching of the Church. Many novelties are really the re-appearance of ancient gnostic errors parading as piety, for as St Paul also warns (2 Cor 11:14), "even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light".
Fr Peter Joseph is serving as Chancellor for the Maronite Diocese of Australia for the next three years.