My maternal grandfather was a very practical man, an entrepreneur with a self-made fortune, a local mayor, philo-Dixiecrat, devoted to his wife and three daughters.  His habitual reading was the Raleigh paper and the local small-town daily (which, by some miracle, still exists).  He died when I was very small, and so I never had the good fortune to know him well.  His house, however, and especially its attic, had enough in it for me to have a certain clear impression of him, his tastes, and his accomplishments.  Or so I felt for some years.  The serenely accumulated notion I had of him was shaken one day in my middle-school years when, on a visit to my grandmother, I pulled from his still-untouched library shelf a volume entitled Morals and Dogma.  To me, these terms, when paired, had a distinctly Catholic ring, and so I was eager to see if my grandfather had had some Romish tendencies after all, something about as likely as his being a registered Republican.  I opened the book at random, without examining the title page or table of contents.  This is what I read:

To science nothing is impossible . . . it disposes at will of all forms, and distributes beauty and deformity as it pleases: it changes in turn with the rod of Circe, men into brutes and animals into men: it even disposes of life and death . . . This is what magic had been . . . when positive Christianity publicly crushed this philosophy with its anathemas, and compelled it to become more occult and more mysterious than ever.  At the bottom of magic, nevertheless, was science . . . Magic is the exact and absolute science of Nature and its laws.

Amazed and given the creeps, I turned to the front of the book, which read: Morals and Dogma of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry, published in Charleston A.M. 5632.  My grandfather’s possession of such a book was explained by the words in the Preface: “It is specially intended to be read and studied by the Brethren of that obedience, in connection with the rituals of the degrees.  It is hoped and expected that each will furnish himself with a copy and make himself familiar with it.”  The passage I had first read was in the instruction for the 28th degree, and I had heard and even seen from some Masonic liturgical decorations in the attic that Granddaddy had reached the 32nd.  Had he actually studied this?  Had he taken it seriously?

My recent education in California had, happily, prepared me for incongruities.  My fifth-grade teacher was a Missouri-Synod Lutheran, John Bircher, and square-dance instructress, as well as a bridge pro and a smoker.  My sixth-grade teacher was a carrot-juice-drinking organizer for Shirley Chisolm (R.I.P.) and part-time secretary for a psychic; she was married to a physicist at a prestigious faculty, gave tarot-card readings, and had a very tall black male friend who used to pick her up from school wearing a dashiki and driving an MG.  I kid you not.  In eighth grade, by the way, I was reassured by an English and piano teacher who was an Anglican-turned-follower-of-Paramahansa Yogananda that I needn’t worry about conflicting claims of truth because, after all, “all is one.”  My Southern grandfather’s religious and social profile was (minus, of course, any Teutonic Midwestern earnestness) more like the fifth-grade teacher, but, after my discovery, I began to wonder if he hadn’t some connection to the wild, witchy world of the sixth-grade teacher.  I had a natural aversion to the quasiapostate indifferentism of the eighth-grade Hindu, and so her notions did not enter in to my evaluation of the Masonic magic I had discovered on my ancestor’s bookshelf.

I am sure that Masonic rituals were to my grandfather and grandmother as the title Pontifex Maximus was to SS. Constantine and Helena—a polite form, necessary by convention, for those who were otherwise serious about Christianity.  But the notion of magic with which Pike’s Morals and Dogma was filled (I had kept on reading in spite of the creepy feeling) continued to perplex me, since it was so explicitly related to a certain conception of science and progress.  The resolution of this aporia had to wait for the day when, as a priest, I had to speak to some students who were not much older than I was when I happened upon the cryptic manual on that sultry July afternoon.

A lay teacher of a senior-year ethics course at a nearby private high school called, asking if I would come and talk to his classes on the subject of witchcraft and demonology.  He regarded his students’ curiosity as unwholesome, and he thought the added authority of a clergyman would help to disabuse them of their interest and credulity.  I made it clear that I was no expert on such things but that I would be happy to prepare a helpful talk for his seniors after some research.  What I then discovered, I now relate.  I ended up giving a very different talk from the one I had vaguely conceived.

There are two papal bulls dealing with witchcraft in Cardinal Gasparri’s collection of sources of canon law, Fontes, published by the Vatican press in 1923.  The first, Summis desiderantes, promulgated by Innocent VIII in 1484, gave general faculties to the Dominican friars Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger to conduct inquisitions into the practice of witchcraft.  What were the occult practices to be rooted out?  The bull descends to particulars: “to have abusive relations with demons, extinguish the offspring of women, impede men from generating, women from conceiving, men from being able to render conjugal rights to wives, and wives to their husbands.”  The second bull, called Omnipotentis Dei and promulgated by Gregory XV in 1623, distinguished for the secular arm between crimes committed by means of witchcraft that were capital and crimes that demanded only perpetual incarceration.  Among the former, the principal was the murder inflicted by recourse to demons called abortion; among the latter were preternaturally induced “divorces and infertility.”

Then I got hold of a copy of the manual for witch-hunters written by the two Dominicans named above, the Malleus Maleficarum or “hammer of witches.”  Every aspect of the lives and activity of witches was described and explained from Scripture, tradition, and experience.  Practically the whole work of witches, according to these 15th-century experts, concerned procreation—either impeding it or accomplishing it in unnatural ways.  Infanticide, abortion, contraception, insemination—these were the day-to-day business of the magic art.

Art is just the Latin for the Greek techne.  Magic is one of the arts, a kind of technology, but one that, according to Saint Thomas in his fourth Quodlibet, may be known but never used, since its means, and also usually its end, are evil.  The 17th-century manual of philosophy by the Sorbonne’s Antoine Goudin (which was still being published at Viterbo in 1856 with its robust defense of the Ptolemaic system!) puts it thus:

Art is able to bring about the works and movements of nature, not indeed by its own power and artificial forms, but by using natural forces.  This is proven by reason and experience.  By reason, for often a natural power is subject to art for its application, thus art can apply it and so produce its effects.  By experience also, for a physician heals thus by applying natural remedies through his art . . . thus also demons who know exactly all the properties of animals, herbs, rocks, metals, and minerals can produce various and amazing things through natural powers.

What the students heard was that, in years gone by, those things were commonly thought to be brought about by recourse to demons that now are obtained by medical technology by unaided human research, the only difference being that our art is more effective than the magic technology of benighted witches.  This is not what the teacher expected, a strange kind of “pro-life” lecture.  He did not seem too pleased.  I was never invited back.

Here in medical technology was, once again, precisely what was asserted in the Scottish-Rite catechism, a science that “disposes at will of all forms, and distributes beauty and deformity as it pleases . . . it even disposes of life and death.”  Further, “this is what magic had been . . . when positive Christianity publicly crushed this philosophy with its anathemas, and compelled it to become more occult and more mysterious than ever.  At the bottom of magic, nevertheless, was science.”

There is no need to go into the question of whether witches really could accomplish what they claimed, or whether witch-hunters were always reasonable and just.  What is undeniable is that the modern technology that outrages natural procreation has the same ends as the old arts of witchcraft, even if it employs different means.  In other words, with doctors like these, who needs witch doctors?  To complete the parallel, both witchcraft and the illicit use of scientific technologies share an implacable hostility to Christianity.  Christians still return the favor and seek to stamp these practices out.  We should not be so offended when our efforts are described as “witch-hunts.”  Perhaps that is what they really are.

There is another moral aspect to today’s medical magic.  The passage from Morals and Dogma made this claim about that magic which is really science: “it changes in turn with the rod of Circe, men into brutes and animals into men.”  Recourse to demons is against the First Commandment.  If modern technology removes this “necessity,” then to what species of sin can its procreative arts be reduced?  Here, Alphonsus Ligouri’s Theologia Moralis comes in handy as always.  In the fourth tractate of the third book, we read words guaranteed to disgust the pride of any demon:

Bestiality which is the gravest among all sins against chastity is that intercourse in which not even the identity of species is maintained . . . Well did Busenbaum assert that relations with a demon is reducible to the sin of bestiality[;] with him concur Tamburinus, Bonacina and the Salmanticenses with Cajetan.

To attempt to conceive life outside of relations between a man and a woman places the fact and instant of procreation outside the human species, even if it is a human being that is being conceived by magic or medical art.  It is science “turning men into brutes.”  The witches claimed to convey human seed great distances to be used to produce unnatural conceptions.  Now, this is a common, even relatively “low-tech” procedure.  On the “high-tech” end, Japanese researchers are developing an artificial womb that would ideally allow a full gestation.  “Pro-lifers” who offer their wombs to “adopt” embryos  should think twice about the formal moral equivalents to what they are doing.  Does the end justify the means?  The witches thought so.

How to get out from under this spell?  This is a hard question to answer.  In Ligouri’s manual, in the first tractate of the third book, he recommends two remedies to those who have been involved in witchcraft: first, recourse to legitimate medical art; second, the prayers of the Church.  The first remedy is not available in this case, since it is life itself, the very end of medical technology, that has been turned into a kind of human witchery.  But prayer there is, and it is powerful.

There is also a third remedy offered by the great moralist—namely, the “destruction of the signs whereby the demon does harm.”  Nowadays, these signs are signs of absence, the absence of children born of faithful marriage.  More children—that will break the curse as nothing else will.  Ora et procrea—not too far from Ora et labora, is it?  The witches, new and old, have united the friars and families in common cause, so “what God has joined together, let no man put asunder.”  Granddaddy would have been surprised to know he was closer to the monastic than to the Masonic brethren, but he is surely happy to be so now.  I hope my middle-school teachers have learned their lesson by now, too, although this monastic must concede that the earnest Midwestern dancing, card-playing Missouri-Synod smoker paleocon was more or less right from the start.  I can hear the strains yet: “And though this world with devils filled, / should threaten to undo us . . . ”