Debate Magazine

Catholic Magic

By Cris

According to early evolutionary anthropologists, magical thinking is supposed to be the province of “primitive” or traditional societies. As some of these societies progressively made their way toward modernity and became “civilized,” magical thinking was supposed to have disappeared. If it did not entirely disappear, then it was supposed to have given way to right proper religion. This is the progressive myth, found in both religious and secular forms, that prevails among civilized folk. The faithful among those folk tell themselves that religion has nothing to do with magic. The positivists among those folk tell themselves that science has replaced, or is inexorably displacing, residuals of magical thinking.

Both groups are telling fanciful tales. Religious thinking and magical thinking are, in many instances, one and the same. And magico-religious beliefs are showing few signs of disappearing anytime soon. Among the world’s 7 billion or so magico-religious believers, 1.2 billion are Catholic Christians. Catholics like their magic, as this Spiegel story on the beatification and pending sainthood of Pope John Paul II attests. The Vatican’s “Congregation for the Causes of Saints” is in charge of a vast reliquary associated with John Paul:

Monsignor Oder answers the question before it is even asked: “Yes, they are originals.” He points to a round reliquary, which contains a piece of material with gray spots on it. “They are from the day of the assassination attempt,” May 13, 1981. It’s the most valuable item in his collection.

Oder’s office is also responsible for the management of relics, which are divided into three classifications. The most valued are parts of John Paul’s body, which include mostly hair or blood. Second are “contact relics,” or clothing and accessories the deceased pope once wore. Finally, items that came into contact with a contact relic also make the list.

There are currently about 400 “first-class relics” in circulation, and about 40,000 second-class relics, which consist almost exclusively of nine square-millimeter snippets of one of the pope’s chasubles.

The number of third-class relics is potentially infinite, following the homeopathic principle whereby substances are effective, even in the greatest possible dilution. However, as Oder is quick to point out, such relics are not to be used as a talisman. A relic, he says, is no good-luck charm, but rather an object of meditation and a window into the faith.

When he wrote The Golden Bough and famously described the associationist psychological principles entailed by magical thinking, James George Frazer drew all his examples from “primitive” cultures and “superstitious” peasants. Although he could have drawn copious amounts of magical thinking material from the contemporary Catholic Church, he did not. This was prudent, given that he had Catholic friends and colleagues whom he did not wish to offend.

While some might think that carefully curating and ritually using 400 “first-class” (body parts) and 40,000 “second-class” (contact-items) John Paul relics is a bit morbid or weird, Catholics may beg to differ. There is a certain logic to all this, as Frazer so brilliantly explains in the Bough:

If we analyze the principles of thought on which magic is based, they will probably be found to resolve themselves into two: first, that like produces like, or that an effect resembles its cause; and, second, that things which have once been in contact with each other continue to act on each other at a distance after the physical contact has been severed. The former principle may be called the Law of Similarity, the latter the Law of Contact or Contagion.

From the first of these principles, namely the Law of Similarity, the magician infers that he can produce any effect he desires merely by imitating it: from the second he infers that whatever he does to a material object will affect equally the person with whom the object was once in contact, whether it formed part of his body or not.

Charms based on the Law of Similarity may be called Homoeopathic or Imitative Magic. Charms based on the Law of Contact or Contagion may be called Contagious Magic.

If my analysis of the magician’s logic is correct, its two great principles turn out to be merely two different misapplications of the association of ideas. Homoeopathic magic is founded on the association of ideas by similarity: contagious magic is founded on the association of ideas by contiguity. Homoeopathic magic commits the mistake of assuming that things which resemble each other are the same: contagious magic commits the mistake of assuming that things which have once been in contact with each other are always in contact.

But in practice the two branches are often combined; or, to be more exact, while homoeopathic or imitative magic may be practised by itself, contagious magic will generally be found to involve an application of the homoeopathic or imitative principle. Thus generally stated the two things may be a little difficult to grasp, but they will readily become intelligible when they are illustrated by particular examples.

Both trains of thought are in fact extremely simple and elementary. It could hardly be otherwise, since they are familiar in the concrete, though certainly not in the abstract, to the crude intelligence not only of the savage, but of ignorant and dull-witted people everywhere.

Both branches of magic, the homoeopathic and the contagious, may conveniently be comprehended under the general name of Sympathetic Magic, since both assume that things act on each other at a distance through a secret sympathy, the impulse being transmitted from one to the other by means of what we may conceive as a kind of invisible ether, not unlike that which is postulated by modern science for a precisely similar purpose, namely, to explain how things can physically affect each other through a space which appears to be empty.

It may be convenient to tabulate as follows the branches of magic according to the laws of thought which underlie them:


If we were to translate all this into metaphorical terms of modern physics, we might call it spooky action at a distance. But it’s not physics. It’s primitive or papal magic.


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