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.