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This article was first published in Réalta, the journal of the Irish astrological Association, Vol 1 no.1, February 1994.

The Old Astrology and the New Catechism

by Fr. Laurence L. Cassidy, S.J.

Although as of this writing the English text of the new Church Catechism has not yet appeared, there are translations available in other languages and these have caused concern among many who are involved in the study and renewal of astrology. It was for this reason that I was invited to speak at the Irish Astrological Association in Dublin in May 1993, and what follows is a digest of what I said to that group at that time.

Let me begin at the wrong end of the stick and present the conclusion. After that I will explain how one arrives at this particular judgment. In short, I think that every Christian astrologer should accept the text of the Catechism as a salutary help both to Faith and to Reason. It has nothing to say about the kind of work that you and I perform.

Sins against the Faith
First, then let me present the text in my best available translation from the Spanish version. The operative paragraph is #2116 and it appears under the general heading of sins against the Faith, specifically those of divination and magic, and runs as follows:

All forms of divination should be rejected; the recourse to Satan or to demons, the evocation of the dead, and other practices which equivalently pretend to "reveal" (sic) the future (cf. Dt. l8, 10; Jr. 29, 8). Consultation of horoscopes, astrology, cheiromancy, the interpretation of omens and fates, visual phenomena, the recourse to mediums, all these entail a will to power over time, history, and finally, mankind, and, at the same time they manifest a desire to secure the protection of occult powers. This constitutes a contradiction with the honor and respect, mixed with loving fear, that we owe to God alone.

Now that we have the text, let us perform the work of a theologian/philosopher, and interpret - find the meaning - of these words in their text as in their context. In order to perform this necessary task, it will prove helpful to remind you of a few simple, basic truths that are always employed in understanding any document, whether from Church authority, or from any other source. I list these in no particular order but they are all significant for our enterprise:

Basic Truths
l. Words of any language have a dual role. In the first place they are simply letters; that is to say, they are written symbols that instruct the reader how to pronounce the sound verbally. As such they have no further significance. It is as if one had no notion of the meaning of Irish but had simply learned how to pronounce the words from the written signs. The second role of language is where the philosophically interesting part appears: that is, where they become meaningful signs, pointing to the ideas which they signify. Now, ideas are not visible entities, they can only be grasped by the spiritual operation of intelligence operating free from animal passion or other distractions of the senses. This is why St.Paul speaks of the "new covenant, not of the letter but of the spirit, for the letter kills but the spirit gives life". (2 Corinthians, 3,6.)

2. It is clearly possible for humans to employ the same set of letters for a variety of different, even contradictory meanings, and this makes the work of interpretation very tricky at times. Not only is this the case in such standard examples of homonyms, such as port (harbour or drink) and fly (noun or verb), but it is a common difficulty in our most ordinary discourse. Consider the varying meanings of such words as democracy, science, law, and so forth. Popular today in philosophical circles is that branch known as hermeneutics whose task is to interpret exactly what an author means by the words he uses in his composition, and, as you might expect, even that word has many diverse interpretations.

3. It is a common although lamentable human error to rush in where angels fear to tread, and to take one meaning of a word as if it were the only way in which humans could legitimately employ it. This constitutes the fallacy of literalism against which St.Paul warns us. One thus assumes that some form of common sense usage is the only one possible, and has no patience for the more intelligent who wish to make distinctions. You can find an example of this confusion in Chapter 6 of St.John's gospel where Our Lord asserts that we must eat His flesh and drink His blood.

4. This fundamentalist attitude is a complex psychological phenomenon in which spiritual intelligence is trapped by a host of feelings, memory images, background assumptions and such, which confuses even one's own idea of exactly in what sense he is using the word so that his own meaning remains inevitably obscure. This is why it is almost impossible to dialogue with such persons because their lack of self-discipline renders it impossible for them to say exactly what they themselves mean. Their conviction arises not from reason, but from their pre-rational inclinations.

5. St.lgnatius counsels the readers in the beginning of his Spiritual Exercises that we must always try, so far as it is possible, to interpret the words of another in the clear light of Christian charity, and this is, obviously, particularly true in the matter of Ecclesiastical documents. These inevitably have a text and context, and it is generally possible to reconcile apparent differences among them by the careful hermeneutic which theologians call the analogy of faith.

6. For Roman Catholics, at least since the Council of Trent, tradition as well as Scripture is a source of revelation, and it is interesting to note in this context that Cardinal Ratzinger himself asserted that the catechism did not intend to teach ''new doctrine". In other words, it purports to be a summary of those truths which are part of the Church's history over the two thousand years of her existence.

It should be rather easy now for us to interpret adequately the Catechism's statements about astrology against this lengthy, and rather technical background. The meaning of such words as divination, astrology, horoscopes, and so forth exists here within the context of the document, which itself only articulates an ordinary theological tradition. Clearly, any form of astrology which involves illicit commerce with demons, which embraces a sinful will to power, and which enhances the domain of human superstition, is something which every Christian rightly condemns. The great medieval theologians who sanctioned astrology, such as Albert the Great, Thomas Aquinas and Dun Scotus, were well aware of this question, and were careful to explain that the astrology they accepted was a rational discipline, totally free from the taint of divination. It should, therefore, be evident that, since the Catechism teaches ''no new doctrine'' there is no question here of condemning astrology in the sense in which it held such an honorable place in the Church for over five hundred years (see endnote).

Finally, it is only fair to note that the Catechism is not exactly tilting at windmills. There are forms of astrology which involve pre-rational superstitions, there are astrologers who do attempt commerce with ''occult powers'', and there are others for whom astrology provides a religious substitute for Christian revelation. Moreover, the contemporary public mind views our discipline precisely in this way. Thus, the Catechism offers those of us who wish to demonstrate a rational astrology, a logos of the astra, an excellent opportunity to educate the wider public that our work involves a spiritual science, a search for cosmic and meaningful theophany in the manner of our Christian ancestors in ages past.

I have relegated a brief summary of the history of Christian astrology to the status of an endnote so as not to confuse data with the elaboration of principle. The best, to my knowledge, available summary of this question is the multi-volume work of the late Lynn Thorndike, A History of Magic and Experimental Science (Columbia University Press 1923). This covers in a substantial overview the high regard that Popes, Bishops, theologians and the wider Christian public had for astrology from roughly the eleventh until the mid-seventeenth centuries. There were very few Christians in that period who doubted the general principles of astrology, although doubts became common with the acceptance of the ‘new science’ from around the year 1650. It is instructive to read question 115 of the Prima Pars of Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologia, which presents a standard summary of official Church attitudes toward astrology. In article 3 of that question, Aquinas answers affirmatively to the question: ''Whether celestial bodies are causes of those things which are performed by inferior bodies''. Of course, he further insists that physical forces cannot directly compel the human intellect and will, since these are essentially spiritual faculties. However, he adds the interesting observation in response to objection 3 in Article 4: ''Most men follow their passions which are motions of the sensitive appetite . . . and thus astrologers can, for the most part, make true predictions especially in general situations ('in communi')". It is worth noting also that Aquinas, in answer to the fourth objection to Article 3 explicitly rejects astrological divination ("ad repellendum scilicet divinationem quae fit per astra" ). There is, for all these Christian theologians, a clear distinction between astrology as a rational discipline, and its tainted sister to which the Catechism makes reference.

It is also interesting to note that the current Pontiff, John Paul II, on March 20th l 993 solemnly declared John Dun Scotus, ''Blessed''. Now, the process that led to this declaration was long, involved and included the declaration that his teaching contained nothing against Faith or Morals. In fact, Fr. Allan B. Wolter, O.F.M., notes in his article Reflections on the Life and Works of Scotus in the American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly, Winter l993, that there was a three hundred and eighty-six page volume replying to objections concerning Scotus' doctrine. Finally, a decree was issued, on May 4th, l972, "declaring that there was no further impediment on the basis of these earlier objections to Scotus' writings or doctrine". (art. cit., p32).

However, Scotus also was a convinced proponent of astrology. The Opus Oxonienses and the Reportata Parisiensia are accepted as genuine by all scholars, and they both firmly support astrology. For example, ''In the fourth place, I say that they (the heavenly bodies) act on animate beings, altering mixed bodies to a quality conformable or incompatible with the soul animating such a body, and so they can act towards generation or corruption". (Thorndike, op. cit., Vol ll, p4. In the note at the bottom of the page, Thorndike gives his sources as: Scotus II sent., Dist. XIV, Quaestion II, found in the editio nova, Paris, 1891-1995, XII, 661-679, and XX111, 5802).

It is worth while to observe, yet again, that the Catechism's strictures against astrology as divination indeed contain no new doctrine, but were commonplaces among the medieval theologians who, at the same time, fully accepted astrology as a function of natural reason.

Fr. Cassidy also provided a long quotation from Lynn Thorndike's work mentioned above (Vol 11, pp 9-12). Its function was to further illustrate that the kind of theological reasoning which Fr. Cassidy used in the article is the common way of proceeding in the Church. The quotation refers to the treatise of "Agostino Trionfo or Augustinus Triumphus of Ancona to Pope Clement V against diviners and dreamers". Included below are the last four paragraphs of the quotation from Thorndike. [Ed.]

"The interesting feature of the work of Triumphus is its separate treatment of different forms of divination which begins with the twelfth chapter on nigromantic arts. Their methods of invoking, adjuring, and supplicating are suited to demons rather than good angels who are not so addressed and would not lend themselves to the deceit of making such procedure seem efficacious per se. It is not, because man cannot produce such effects by mere conceptions and words.

Similarly the notory art of seeking science by inspection of certain figures and forms of words or abstinence from food is not consistent with divine liberality, since God does not dispense his gifts by pacts or bargains. It is not one of the two common ways by which men learn, namely being taught or finding out for themselves by observation of nature. It is not even from the devil because he does not possess the power of causing science and illumination in us. Therefore true science is not acquired by that art.

Nor would Augustus admit the use in medical practice or to preserve health of divinations, experiments , figures, characters written on scrolls, incantations and the like. ''Figures, characters, and other experiments" can have efficacy only from the working of the devil. This use of the word "experiment" for some superstitious procedure is one more testimony to its long association with magic. True medicine in the opinion of Triumphus opposes hot diseases with cold remedies or vice versa, and applies active to passive, but artificial forms like characters and figures are not the origin of natural action or passion. But he says nothing of the possibility of occult virtue in natural objects. He goes on to censure severely those clergy who encourage simple men in superstitious and idolatrous practices by selling them figures and scrolls with divine or saintly names to wear about the neck.

In discussing the superstitious observance of days, Augustinus is careful to exempt the observing of times according to the natural courses of the stars. Not only is this no sin, but to his mind an astrologer would sin if he allowed a client to sail when the sun was in an unfavourable sign which he believed portended a perilous storm. Similarly, a physician would sin who ordered phlebotomy at a time when the moon was unfavourable thereto. Trionfo, indeed, is ready to put under the control of the stars all those events which do not proceed from our free will and he admits that only a few men exercise their liberty to resist the impressions of the celestial bodies. He is also ready to grant that the songs of birds and the movements of animals may reflect these celestial influences sufficiently to constitute some basis for auguries, and that even the casting of points in geomancy is so influenced. But he does not believe that this element of truth in these two arts is sufficient to justify their practice. Such uncertain methods of divination which have some appearance of truth are just those where the devil is apt to interfere and to attempt to mislead men ".

Father Lawrence Cassidy is a member of the Jesuit Community, and a long standing friend of the I.A.A. He is the Professor and Chairman of the Department of Philosophy at Saint Peter's College, New Jersey. He has written several articles on the compatibility of astrological thinking with Christian faith, and has an interest in the implications that contemporary philosophy and metaphysics have for astrology, and vice versa.

Copyright © Réalta 1994      All Rights Reserved