Can a Catholic be a witch?

The recent TV ad for would-be Senator, Christine O’Donnell, begins with the words, “I am not a witch.” Since Ms. … Continued

The recent TV ad for would-be Senator, Christine O’Donnell, begins with the words, “I am not a witch.” Since Ms. O’Donnell categorizes herself as very Catholic, it would seem that she is wasting time to say the obvious. However, in Catholic history people called “witches” have become saints. It all depends on how “witch” is defined.

Clearly, if a person practices a Celtic or African religion as a SUBSITUTE for Catholicism, then being a witch and a Catholic are mutually exclusive. But the term “witch” has been misapplied in imprecise ways to women who collect herbs, mushrooms and the like to make soups, teas and salves with healing powers. Academics have identified the composition of these plants, flowers and seeds and verified that they often contain the same ingredients of today’s prescribed medications. They are Catholic versions of the Jewish mother’s chicken soup, and they work! Often these remedies are administered with prayers, touching and rubbing, so as to provide a type of “bedside manner.” Although sometime labeled pejoratively as “folk medicine,” these remedies apply medicines not very different from contemporary health care and the women curing the sick have the same confidence in their prescriptions as a doctor today. This confidence frequently translates into a female leadership able to take on entrenched authority.

There is nothing incompatible with Catholicism to practice these arts of healing, often lost to the modern world because of our undue reliance on store-bought pills. These cures and treatments are not substitutes for Catholicism, but SUPPLEMENTS to it. In Spanish, we call such women practicing folk medicine, “curanderas” to distinguish them from practitioners of spells and the like who are “brujas.” “Curandera” plays on the word for “cure,” in contrast to “bruja,” which is the common translation of “witch.”

In the history of Catholicism there have been periods when the curanderas were unfairly lumped together with the brujas. The classic case is at the end of the Medieval period (1486 ) when two Dominican priests decided to collect and record all the practices of healing, spells, behavior, dress, etc. that were associated with witchery. The collection, Malleus Malificorum, however, became instead a “how-to” handbook for people to imitate cures and curses, spells and incantations.

The constant factor in the Catholic persecution of women accused of being witches is the male clergy making accusations. When male monks explored the effects of extracted substances or experimented with plants and seeds, their work was generally considered to be nascent science. When female nuns did the same, suspicion was cast on them. Such is the case of Abbess Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179). She was known to walk in the woods outside the convent walls gathering specimens for what became medicines to cure the sick. Not unexpectedly, she was also fierce in defending her nuns and the needy. Hildegard’s male critics were unable to make any charge of witchcraft stick, but it was not for want of trying.

Another Catholic woman falsely accused her of being a witch was St. Joan of Arc (1412-1431), burned at the stake by the English for what were later seen to be trumped-up charges. Included with the evidence offered to prove she was a witch were that she wore men’s clothing, cut her hair short like a man, and rode with both legs straddled over a horse. Mounting a horse in this way was seen as sexual misconduct, as for instance, witches supposedly find delight in riding on a broomstick.

I would not want to deny the attraction of Wicca, practiced today as a religion, often with the same emphasis upon the curandera applications. But truly Catholic women have for ages availed themselves of the curandera role and have not been less Catholic for it. Often they have been closer to the people and more sensitive to basic sufferings than male clerics. With unfortunate frequency, the reaction has been to use “witch” to cover-up male envy of the popularity of such strong-willed women. When critics today use another name rather than “witch” to label such women as overly independent leaders, however, they still do it with the same intent of repression. They are as wrong now as in the days of Hildegard and Joan.

  • JB78

    (she’s still nuts though)

  • areyousaying

    …no, but they can hide pervert priests….

  • usapdx

    If only people knew history and ask questions they see how others try to control their life not only in the past but the present.

  • APaganplace

    Of course, when O’Donnell claimed she ‘dabbled in witchcraft,’ she meant to say, ‘I did something Gothy with some kid in high school, which was of course Satanism with blood, and my extremist Satanic Panic churches say that makes me an authority on ‘witchcraft’ and the fictional Satanic conspiracy we say Pagans are part of.’She said that at a time when those churches and groups were claiming the Devil owned the record industry and distributing ‘signs of the occult’ materials to schools and police etc. The largely-random and not-pointed lampooning of that comment tended to not mention that while she had no idea what she was talking about, she *was talking about something she religiously-believed to be the case,* (and if so apparently didn’t seem to think there was much alarming about having an altar with blood on it for a picnic setting. Also, watch the body language in the clip when she says *that,* …what she says there would seem to be invented. Of course, going on TV and saying bad things about ‘witches’ and Pagans to try and distance herself from that only reinforces the original agenda. And, no, ‘brujo’ isn’t Spanish for ‘witch,”Witch’ is the English word missionaries taught people for ‘brujo,’ …But as you point out, the Church actually didn’t make a lot of distinctions between herbalism, especially by women, any spiritual practice not condoned by them for whatever purpose, and ‘evil sorcery.’ Similar to what missionaries have done and do everywhere, really: lump it all together as ‘evil,’ and then, apparently, try to say, ‘Oh, we’ll, we’re retroactively cool with the healers, as long as it’s just roots and stuff.’ Just being an herbalist doesn’t make you a ‘Witch,’ in any event. Nor is herbalism the Wiccan religion, nor is the Wiccan religion or any traditional or traditional-derived practice confined to what Catholic priests define it as being ‘allowed to be.’ Anyway, O Donnell doesn’t know what she’s talking about, …what she thinks she knows is part of something that gets pretty scary amid those Dominionist ‘prayer warfare’ ‘Christian Nation’ circles, though.A certain linguistic poverty was created by the Church, regarding spiritual and healing and folk-medicinal and Pagan and tribal religious practices… partly to call everyone anywhere who does these things the characters in the Bible called ‘witches’/’poisoners.’ Remember, what the Churches did in the Americas, they practiced on Europe. The term ‘Witch’ as used by modern Pagans has its roots mostly in English folk tradition, where the term was fairly neutral, hence the common ‘Are you a good witch or a bad witch,’ etc. More defined by ‘People doing things they’d call you a witch for,’ than necessarily the good or bad of intentions. It gets complicated when bringing it to other cultures, actually. Never mind all the confusions here.O’Donnell represents one of those Evangelical ‘witch-hunt’ worldviews.