Catholic Magic

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 [ritual garments or vestments].

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.

Despite the disclaimer, the Catholic Church sanctions the use of relics and vouchsafes their miraculous powers. As the Spiegel story indicates, John Paul’s blood has been distributed to various churches and shrines, where potential miracles are recorded so he can be canonized as a saint and magician.

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 quantities 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 deploying 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 analyse 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 biological terms, we might call it germ theory. In physics terms, we might call it spooky action at a distance. But it’s not biology or physics. It’s primitive or papal magic.


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9 thoughts on “Catholic Magic

  1. Sabio Lantz

    I wager that we ALL think magically — some more just aware of it than others. Some exploiting it more than others. But all magic nonetheless.
    Twas interesting about focusing on earlier religions and not those around you.
    On my blog, I pick on the superstitious, magical thinking of hyper-rational atheists — those who think themselves self-righteously safe from superstition.

  2. Cris Post author

    You probably wager correctly. It’s interesting to note that magical thinking, or the idea that invisible forces are at work and causing things, also lends itself to scientific thinking. It’s also no accident that the earliest forms of science grew out of magical arts such as alchemy and astrology.

  3. Chris Tolworthy

    Agreed. I am a fan of the Skeptics Guide to the Universe, and it’s fascinating to see the difference between the more mature thinkers and the wannabes. The difference is how much they rely on morality by association, rather than evidence.

    At one end of the scale (e.g. the host, Steven Novella, and the best guests, like James Randi), are extremely careful to be only judge on evidence. For example, they will never condemn religion per se, or even appeals to the supernatural, they will only condemn actual evidence of lying or actual harm. Also they treat all people with the same respect: nobody is automatically right or wrong.

    At the other end of the scale we have “all religious people are stupid” brigade who have their own saints: Bill Nye, Carl Sagan, etc. All wonderful people, but why invoke their names if only the logic of a particular case matters? The lower end skeptics will go to great lengths to be in the presence of their heroes, as if prestige will rub off on them, even though all the actual data is available without meeting them.

    On a related note of “my side is rational, your side is stupid”, I was fascinated by a recent slashdot article: somebody asked why most slashdotters attack young earth creationism, but do not attack health food claims with the same vigour. Why is one set of lies evil and the other, which may cause actual death (and is supported by far more people) is given a free ride? The answers were illuminating: many slashdotters use health food, so how dare you suggest it is ever based in pseudo-science! But those nutty creationists? Beyond the pale.

  4. trueandreasonable

    Interesting read both the blog and the comments.

    I tend to draw a distinction between miracles and magic, one God takes part in, the other is done without God’s help. But I always understood that to unbelievers they likely see no value in this distinction. At least to those who who think (for whatever reason) nothing supernatural can ever happen this all likely seems the same.

    But any way I wonder about relics and “fans” in general. For example it is not for religious reasons that I would want to see some of my favorite singers sing in person. Something about seeing them in the flesh. I also like to own chess boards and books that were signed by World Chess Champions. Are autographs a form of this “contagious magic” thinking?

  5. Chris Tolworthy

    yes, I think being a fan is a type of magic thinking, but magic may have a rational basis. Being closer to someone does have advantages: you are more likely to see details others miss, and there may even be invisible benefits – I was just listening to a podcast on bacteria and parasitic worms, and how they sometimes benefit us. I think we have evolved to know that being close really matters, even when we don’t understand why, Of course, if we don’t take it rationally we are more likely to go too far.

  6. Cris Post author

    A few years ago, I did a post on high-priced objects previously owned by famous people. It explains why people pay such prices: it’s magical thinking of the “contagion” variety. As for a concert, the principle of nearness or contiguity would certainly come into play, thus triggering contagious ideas. But having said that, things just sound and look better live (so long as it is not the old Mick Jagger or an over the hill rocker).

  7. trueandreasonable

    Thanks for the responses and the link to the other blog, they were interesting.

    The rocker I was thinking of seeing is over the hill. That’s why I haven’t seen him. But for some reason I would still like to see him. I don’t want him to sneeze on me though. :)

  8. Larry Stout

    Always food for thought at! I think of myself fundamentally as a rationalist, albeit one harboring an infinitude of ignorance, and having beliefs instead of “knowledge” or certainties. At some point in my personal intellectual evolution, inclined to causation and determinism, my quirky mind, along the lines of the famous fluttering Amazonian butterfly wings, wondered what difference it would make (in future) if I stepped ahead to a certain spot, there, or, instead…to THAT spot, there. Were different futures involved with the choice? Or does knock-on causation involve dead ends? This became habitual (ritual?), and elaborated to include the touching of instantaneously perceived “lucky spots” with my fingers. Introspection has led me to believe that such goofy selection operates exactly (in the same part of the brain?) as, for example, visualizing alternative configurations of a cut-line in a stained glass design (something I have pursued for many years), and choosing the one that appears most felicitous. It also “feels” very similar to, shall I say, fingering a word-cloud in composing something like the present comment, and semi-instantaneously selecting a perceived best choice. Optimizing art, negotiating a typed sentence, touching lucky spots — which spot leads on to a lottery jackpot, I ask. When I win the lottery, I might have to believe in magic.

    Shrines in some form are to be found in most households, I think. (And, of course, most households, worldwide, are not Catholic.) My little shrine on the fireplace mantel centers on a stand-up framed photograph of my late mother dressed in a sari (a once-and-only photo-op thing); propped against it, a snapshot of Mom from a summer stroll we took together around a botanical garden; Mom’s miniature alabaster bust of Nefertiti, a souvenir from the Khan al-Khalili bazaar in Cairo (where Mom once came to visit when I lived and worked in Egypt); propped on the base of the bust, a fragment of ornate tile I picked up from the maze of Fez (Mom never went there, but she remains my favorite traveling companion); and next on the left, a bronze replica of a pre-Hittite Hatti fineal in the form of a stag, replicating finds from Alacahöyük in Turkey (Mom never went there either, but still she has primacy in recollections of happy, rewarding travels). And adjacent are pictures of my childen, still living, by the grace of…reality. These are, of course, relics, holy to me. In my habitual morning touchings of these relics, I experience a sort of quasi-magical psychologial sustenance in connectedness, though I don’t conceive it as supernatural.

    Christian relics have been an industry for a very long time. Saint Helena, mother of Constantine the Great and patron saint of new discoveries, is credited with rediscovery of the “True Cross”. The Crusades were in no small part fishing expeditions for holy relics — real, imagined, and faked — which had very high street value back in believing Europe. If the aggregate weight of all ostensible splinters of the True Cross from reliquaries around the world were known, it just might be magically ponderous.

    Choose your path carefully, and may all your spots be fortunate ones.

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