What does the Church teach about fortunetellers, psychic counselors, and witches?

As Catholics, we remember that the first commandment states, “I am the Lord thy God.  Thou shalt not have any gods before me.”  When asked what was the greatest commandment, our Lord Jesus Christ, repeating the precept found in Deuteronomy, said, “You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart, with your whole soul, and with all of your strength” (Matthew 22:37).  While God can choose to reveal the future to His prophets or saints, we as individuals must always have trust in His divine providence.  St. Paul reminds us, “We know that God makes all things work together for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His decree” (Romans 8:28).  While we may have that passing curiosity of what will happen in the future, we anchor our lives in the Lord, trusting in His love and care.

To try to discover the future through palm reading, tarot cards, or some other form of fortunetelling, or to try to control the future through black magic, witchcraft, or sorcery violates the first commandment.  Sacred Scripture has many condemnations of these activities:  In the Old Testament we find, “You shall not let a sorceress live” (Exodus 22:17), “Whoever sacrifices to any god, except to the Lord alone, shall be doomed” (Exodus 22:19), “A man or a woman who acts as a medium or fortuneteller shall be put to death by stoning:  they have no one but themselves to blame for their death” (Leviticus 20:27), and “Let there not be found among you anyone who immolates his son or daughter in the fire, nor a fortuneteller, soothsayer, charmer, diviner, or caster of spells, nor one who consults ghosts and spirits or seeks oracles from the dead.  Anyone who does such things is an abomination to the Lord…” (Deuteronomy 18:10-12).

The New Testament also addresses this issue:  St. Paul condemned sorcery (Galatians 5:19).  In Acts of the Apostles, St. Paul rebuked Elymas, the magician, calling him “son of Satan and enemy of all that is right” (Acts 13:8ff), and St. Peter rebuked Simon Magus, a magician, who wanted to buy the powers of the Holy Spirit to make himself more powerful (Acts 8:9ff).  In the Book of Revelation, Jesus declared, “As for the cowards and traitors to the faith, the depraved and murderers, the fornicators and sorcerers, the idol-worshipers and deceivers of every sort– their lot is the fiery pool of burning sulphur– the second death” (Revelation 21:8).

Particular concern must be given to witchcraft, which involves both unraveling the future as well as trying to control the future.  Granted, the television show Sabrina or the older one Bewitched may have light-heartedly built a story around witches and witchcraft.  Nevertheless, witchcraft involves producing certain effects which are beyond one’s natural powers through the assistance of powers (the occult) other than those of God.  Commonly, witchcraft involves a pact with the devil or at least some imploring of evil spirits for assistance.  The annals of witchcraft include rites to awaken the dead, arouse passion in a person, and bring disaster or even death upon an enemy.  Satanism in particular, gives homage to the Prince of Darkness, and even celebrates a “Black Mass,” which parodies our Mass but commits sacrilegious and blasphemous actions.  Even if one talks of “white magic” or “white witchcraft,” the practitioner is invoking powers not of God in ways outside those of prescribed religion.

Adhering to the revelation of Sacred Scripture, the Church has over the centuries formally condemned witches and witchcraft, and has judged fortunetelling, tarot card reading, and the like as sinful.  The Didache (The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, c. 80) warned, “You shall not practice magic.”  The Council of Ancyra (314) imposed a five-year penance on anyone who consulted a magician.  Early Irish canons penalized with excommunication anyone for engaging in sorcery until forgiveness had been sought and penance performed.  Pope Gregory XV (1621) declared that persons who had made a pact with the devil or practiced black magic which caused the death of another should be arrested and condemned to death by the secular court.

However, one must remember that the Church also strived to prevent witch-hysteria or crazed witch-hunts, like those in colonial Salem:  For example, Pope Nicholas I (866) prohibited the use of torture in obtaining confessions, although it was permitted by civil law and common judicial practice.  Pope Gregory VII (1080) forbade accused witches to be put to death for supposedly causing storms or crop failures.  Pope Alexander IV (1258) restricted the Inquisition to investigating only those cases of witchcraft which were clearly linked with charges of heresy.  Nevertheless, despite the official precautions, torture was sometimes used and innocent people sometimes were put to death.  As it is so easy to look back in hindsight, one can see that some cases were more of delusion and of the psychological nature.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church in discussing the first commandment repeats the condemnation of divination:  “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” (#2116).  Any practice which utilizes occult powers– whether to inflict harm or to manifest some good– are condemned as contrary to true religion.  These practices are generally considered mortal sins.  Any invocation of the devil would clearly be considered mortal sin.

However, practices like horoscopes or palm reading may be considered venial sins if they are performed through ignorance or stupidity, for fun or pleasure, and without firm conviction.  Nevertheless, even the simplest practices can seduce us to a banality of evil– the story of the exorcism of the little boy which served as the basis for the book The Exorcist began with his use of an ouija board.

We believe, as St. John wrote, “God is love” (I John 4:16).  God so loved the world that He gave His only Son that whoever believes in Him may not die but may have eternal life” (John 3:16).  Jesus is the light of the world, shining through the darkness (John 1:4-5).  He is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6).  To invoke Satan or any other power, to enter the darkness (the occult) for any assistance, or to attempt to usurp powers which belong to God alone is a defiance of the authority of Almighty God.  To commit such acts is to turn away from God and place our own souls in jeopardy.