The Church and Witchcraft

Pope Benedict’s recent warning to African Catholics to have nothing to do with witchcraft may unfortunately only worsen the situation. While the warning may seem a bit out of character with what is seen as the otherwise highly intellectual sophistication of the present pope, I suspect that his appeal was especially made, while visiting Angola, at the request of Africa’s bishops.  For quite some time they have been very much concerned over the continuation of such beliefs and practices, as well as with the widespread leakage of people who would otherwise remain Catholics to Christian sects that in their attempt to deal with the African tendency to resort to witch doctors, make a big show of expelling evil spirits, ridding people of spells, and engaging in “faith healing.”

Not that the pope and the African bishops do not have reason to be greatly concerned, but unfortunately his appeal was couched in language — taken from the New Testament passages that speak of Christ overcoming “the powers and principalities” and taking them “captive” (Rom 8:38, Eph 3:10; 6:12, Col 1:16; 2:15) that appear to strengthen the belief that such powers really exist or did really exist in the first place. Perhaps the use of such language seems to make sense for those just emerging from a culture where such ideas were widespread, but the danger is that the warnings themselves only re-enforce the superstition.

Of course, can not people also turn to the gospels and make the same accusation against Jesus himself?  Isn’t he pictured in the synoptic gospels—especially in Mark (except for the story of Christ’s betrayal by Judas, John’s gospel has very little if any of this) as constantly engaged in overcoming the forces of Satan?

To understand this mentality and the evangelists’ attempts to deal with it, I would suggest that we draw a parallel between belief in witchcraft and belief in astrology. There was a time when even supposedly educated people took astrology seriously. In fact, even one of the greatest early pioneers in astronomy, Johannes Kepler, found that he could only make enough money to support his family by writing books that indulged people in their ancient beliefs that the movement of the planets as viewed against the background of the constellations could seriously affect their personal destinies. Kepler simply did what he thought he had to do to earn a living. So should we be surprised if at least one of the composers of one of the gospels, that attributed to Matthew, turned to astrology (in his story of the Magi following a star to Bethlehem) to win a hearing? There is good reason suspect that at least some of the scriptural passages  the pope was alluding to -- at least those (Eph 3:10, Col 1:16) that locates at least some of these powers as being “in the heavens”) were meant to be a warning about astrology as much as it was against demonology.

But does this mean that just because we find demonology as well as astrology in the background of the gospels that we must take these ancient beliefs seriously? I suppose we must, when we see such superstitious beliefs seriously affecting human behavior. So I think we must also be seriously concerned when our tactics in combating such superstition and its unfortunate effects only unwittingly strengthen the beliefs that underlie them. In fact, if Christ really did come to destroy the powers of evil, should not Christianity, if it truly believes it is charged to continue the mission of Christ, speak out clearly against not just entanglement with such practices but even more, against the beliefs that underlie them? Otherwise, I fear we will be giving into the fatalistic mentality that says “If you can’t beat them, join them.”

R W Kropf  3/29/09                                     Witchcraft.doc  09-03-29.html