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Moral Theology Questions:
Is It Lawful to Assist at Spiritual Séances?

Taken from The Casuist - A Collection of Cases in Moral and Pastoral Theology, Vol. III, New York: Joseph F. Wagner, 1910


Peter, a man of excellent character, though somewhat ingenuous, has been present several times at private spiritistic séances. He was led by curiosity alone. He took no active part in the experiments, nor did he sit in the “circle.” He was a passive spectator only. For this, however, he was severely taken to task by some friends, who maintained that even passive assistance at spiritistic manifestations is sinful, because it is a communing with evil spirits. Peter, however, maintains that the nature of these spirit manifestations is not known, and, therefore, cannot be condemned as unlawful or evil, and he does not see why he may not continue to assist at them.

Answer:

I. Briefly, the phenomena of spiritism may be summed up as follows: The earliest phenomenon that takes place when a number of persons gather together to hold a spiritistic séance is the movement of the table around which the persons are seated and on which they lightly place their hands. The table is moved in a jerky and undecided way at first, and, to all appearances, unconsciously by one of the sitters. But after a time the movement becomes regular and seems to indicate a force operating independently of the sitters. When this force is fully developed, three or four strong adults, deliberately exercising all their physical strength, cannot control it. Even a very heavy dining room table, on which many heavy objects have been placed, may rise up bodily in the air, and remain suspended for some seconds, and then descend to its normal positions, without disturbing anything on it. The same phenomenon takes place with desks, chairs, boxes or other furniture. When these physical manifestations have reached a certain degree of what is called “development,” the phenomenon passes into a farther stage, and instead of vibrations and tiltings of the table, clear percussive sounds, like tapping on wood with some solid object, such as a pencil, become perceptible. At first these tappings are very faint, but under favorable conditions become very distinct and amazingly emphatic and intelligent in character, a means in fact by which questions put by a sitter are answered and information conveyed, sometimes wholly unknown to anyone present.

A third phase of these physical manifestations is the lifting and shifting of heavy objects and pieces of furniture, without any contact or cooperation of the sitters. Grand pianos and heavy dining room sideboards are made to change places, chairs with persons seated on them are raised to the ceiling and lowered again, without even a wish or suggestion on the parts of the sitters, in fact very often to their very great alarm and discomfort.

Luminous appearances, or “spirit lights,” are another manifestation of spiritism. These “lights” are unlike any other kind of light known at present. Investigators like Sir William Crookes, have endeavored to reproduce them artificially, but have failed. These lights resemble glow worms or lightning bugs on a dark summer’s night. If the room is darkened it will seem to be full of these glow worms rapidly passing from point to point, now showing their light, now hiding it, occasionally settling on an object and remaining stationary, and then again moving on. Sometimes these “spirit lights” are followed by the appearance of a luminous hand or head or face or body. Sometimes a phantom form will carry a “spirit light” in its hand and pass it up and down its form, in order to make themselves distinctly visible to all present. According to investigators of spiritism, these “spirit lights” are unquestionably controlled by independent spirit intelligences.

The final stage of physical manifestations is the “materialization” of human forms and faces. These are visible to all the persons assisting at the experiment. For these materializations a “sensitive” of highly developed power is required. The “sensitive” goes into a deep trance or state of insensibility. The trance is not produced by the hypnotic action of anyone present, but takes place naturally after the circle is formed. This trance is generally preceded by some extremely unpleasant and repulsive manifestations, the “sensitive” apparently enduring a great deal of pain and discomfort, and laboring under some kind of physical oppression. After a time, however, these symptoms disappear and the “sensitive” passes into a state of profound insensibility. Now, in the darkened room, hands now belonging to anyone in the room, or the dim outline of faces or of human forms become visible and gradually seem to grow solid and clear. In some instances the entire form, enveloped in light drapery, is materialized, moves about the room, speaks to the sitters in an audible voice or whisper, and after a while “dematerializes,” and melts away before their eyes. The form seems to fall to pieces, as if a wax form were melting away, leaving only a white cloud of vapor behind, which lasts for a moment or two on the carpet or floor, through which it seems to pass. If the psychic conditions are favorable, these forms may have all the characteristics of human beings. The pulse or heart may be felt to be beating, and they seem to hear and to speak and to see, and they remain materialized for a considerable time.

II. The purpose of all these manifestations and phenomena is to prove to the persons assisting at them that there are extraneous and independent spirit intelligences present, and that under certain conditions, they can and do hold communion with the living. Thus they will in many instances do things wholly contrary to all expectation or suggestion. They will propose experiments which never entered the minds of the investigators and which would seem to them difficult if not impossible of execution. They will display a sharpness and intelligence and ingenuity which amaze and bewilder the student, and force him to the conclusion that only supernatural spirit forces or intelligences can account for the phenomena. Efforts have been made to explain these manifestations on the subliminal mind theory. The psychologists assert that there is going on beneath the threshold of our ordinary waking consciousness a secondary, and far more mysterious process of mind-action, which is in many respects entirely distinct and independent of the normal and conscious working of the mind. In fact, man, they say, is possessed of two minds, each having its own particular sphere of operations. By means of this secondary or subliminal mind, the psychologists have endeavored to explain all the so-called spiritistic phenomena. Up to the present, the endeavor has failed. Many spiritistic phenomena may be satisfactorily accounted for by the subliminal mind theory, but there are many also which, according to the masters of the science, cannot possibly be explained except on the theory of spiritism. Unless it be admitted that there are separate and independent spirit intelligences at work in these manifestations and materializations, they remain wholly unaccounted for on any theory up to the present known to science. Full allowance being made for fraud and deception and for the workings and vagaries of the subliminal mind, it can scarcely be denied with any show of reason, upon a thoughtful consideration of the evidence, that many of these spiritistic phenomena are the direct work of separate and independent spirit intelligence. The evidence is simply overwhelming. The universal evidence of these materialized beings themselves is that they are the spirits of departed men and women, some of whom have learned the art of manipulating the delicate matter abstracted from the organism of the sensitive (astral substance) and of shaping it into bodies resembling those of their past earth life, and that they do this for the purpose of giving evidence that they have survived the shock of death and are able to communicate with the living. But are they really the spirits of the dead? Thus far no investigator has ever been able to establish the identity of any communicating spirit. When put to the test all attempts at identification utterly break down. In their efforts to identify themselves with certain dead persons, the intelligences have been detected in all kinds of lying and deception and skilful subterfuge. After years of effort with what seemed the same intelligence to establish the earth-identity that it claimed for itself, some communication is made, or some fact alleged, which shows conclusively that the intelligence has been fraudulently impersonating some dead person. Inconsistencies, incoherencies and contradictions in a communicator’s account of himself; oblivion and error about things which it seems inconceivable that the real person should have forgotten or be mistaken about, and an intellectual standpoint inferior to his in life, are some of the reasons why the investigator will doubt the identity which the intelligence claims for itself. The real ultimate aim of the intelligence seems to be the control of the sensitive. The entire complicated machinery of mediumship is set in operation with this one end in view. Once full control of the sensitive is obtained, the masquerading intelligence seeks to accomplish the moral and physical ruin of its victims.

“The ingenuity displayed in attaining this end, the tricks and subtleties resorted to in order to escape detection and to continue ‘in possession,’ were in one or two instances of a kind passing all human comprehension and imagination, and the wonder is that anything like an escape from such toils is ever effected at all. In some instances this is only accomplished after the physical constitution of the victim has been completely ruined, in others the termination of the experiment is reached in the asylum, or in some institution for the cure of nervous disease” (Raupert, Modern Spiritism).

“Ten thousand unfortunate people are at present (1877) confined in lunatic asylums on account of having dabbled in spiritism. Not a week passes that we do not hear that some of these unfortunates destroy themselves by suicide or are removed to a lunatic asylum. The mediums often manifest signs of an abnormal condition of their mental faculties, and among certain of them are found unequivocal indications of a true demonic possession. The evil spreads rapidly, and it produces frightful results” (Dr. Forbes Winslow, Spiritual Madness).

When one considers the moral and intellectual confusion and chaos that flow from these spirit communications, one is driven to the conclusion that the intelligences are not the spirits of the dead, but evil and malign spirits, masquerading as the spirits of the dead, to accomplish the moral and physical and psychical ruin of their victims.

The “creed” of spiritism, as gathered from its most authoritative literature and from the disclosures of the spirit intelligences, is anti-Christian. However diverse their teaching may be on secondary matters, there is absolute agreement on the following points:

1) Christianity is not a special and unique revelation. It is one of many forms of high spirit manifestation, designed to enforce on man the binding obligation of the moral law, inherent in his nature.

2) Christ is not divine in the sense of the Catholic Church. He is a purely human being Who possessed wonderful psychic powers.

3) The teaching of the Church regarding the Passion and Death of Christ is all wrong, due to human error and weakness.

4) There is no priesthood especially set aside and ordained by Christ to continue His work.

5) The Church with her sacraments was never instituted to perpetuate the work of saving men’s souls. She is purely human in her origin, her growth and her work.

6) The notion of retribution after death for sin committed in the flesh is folly. Man is daily and hourly preparing his own heaven and hell. There is no heaven or hell as taught by the Church. Man is in very truth his own savior.

With this “creed” of spiritism before him, a Catholic can have no difficulty in determining the nature of the intelligences at work in these spirit manifestations. “But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach a gospel to you besides that which we have preached to you, let him be anathema” (Gal. 1:8). These are evil spirits, bent on evil. Since the days of our blessed Lord their works and pomps have been known and resisted by the Church. They are lying spirits. They impel their victims to the most loathsome immoral abominations. They teach false and immoral doctrines. They abhor the presence of holy things. They deny Jesus Christ. “Every spirit that dissolveth Jesus is not of God. And this is anti-Christ of whom you have heard that he cometh, and he is now already in the world” (1 John 4).

III. As regards the case of Peter, we would say that since he was ignorant of the nature and purpose of these spirit manifestations and materializations, his assistance at the séance was not sinful. He was led merely by curiosity. But for the future he is bound under pain of mortal sin to abstain from all participation, even passive, in spiritism. Even if it were granted that the nature of the forces at work in spiritism is not sufficiently established to pass a final judgment on them, still sufficient is known to make it clear to every Catholic that these spirit intelligences are demonic in nature, and that all commerce with them is immoral and sinful and strictly prohibited by the law of God and of the Catholic Church.

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