(OSV News) – A British university recently announced plans to begin enrolling students in a master's degree program in the study of magic next year.
The University of Exeter, a cathedral town in southwest England, said the master of arts in magic and occult science – which is described in a press release as "innovative" – has been created following a "recent surge in interest in magic."
The interest is not that recent, however. It's been more than 25 years since J.K. Rowling published her debut novel, "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone." To say it was a success story would be an understatement, "Harry Potter" quickly became big business and spawned a global franchise, movies, game shows, theme park rides and endless merchandise.
But, while at first glance, an interest in magic or even the occult might look like just harmless fun, Catholics should be aware of what the church teaches about such things and the very real dangers associated with what Pope Francis often refers to as "bad spirits."
This is all the more important since the interest shown by wider society in the occult shows no signs of waning, to just look at some of the latest releases from streaming service Netflix, especially for teens. All of this means that Catholics, particularly parents, need to be aware of what they are dealing with and the need to warn vulnerable people, especially the young.
So, what are Catholics to make of such a program?
Both the Old Testament and New Testament are clear in their denunciation of witchcraft as not being from God.
In his Letter to the Galatians, St. Paul includes sorcery in a list of the "works of the flesh" and "those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God" – a disapproval that is echoed in the Didache, a very early book of church discipline which dates from the first century.
The traditional Catholic approach has been to condemn magic as being from the devil, believing that it opens the way for demonic possession.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church is firm in asserting the church's teaching. In paragraph 2117, it notes: "All practices of magic or sorcery, by which one attempts to tame occult powers, so as to place them at one's service and have a supernatural power over others – even if this were for the sake of restoring their health – are gravely contrary to the virtue of religion."
"These practices are even more to be condemned when accompanied by the intention of harming someone, or when they have recourse to the intervention of demons," the catechism says.
It goes on to warn that "wearing charms is also reprehensible."
"Spiritism often implies divination or magical practices; the Church, for her part, warns the faithful against it," the catechism says.
"Recourse to so-called traditional cures does not justify either the invocation of evil powers or the exploitation of another's credulity," it says.
While Catholics have always believed in the supernatural power of God – who is all-powerful – to heal people and, indeed, suspend the laws of nature, it draws a sharp distinction between divine action and superstition.
Indeed, Pope Francis has surprised many people during his papacy with his stern warnings not to be complacent about evil.
Fr. Pat Collins is a Vincentian priest based in Dublin who specializes in exorcism, or deliverance ministry as he prefers to call it. He believes that as faith has waned in many Western countries, interest in the occult has increased.
"As faith has weakened, many Catholics have adopted new age and occult beliefs and practices," Fr. Collins told OSV News.
He is the author of "Freedom From Evil Spirits" and is dismissive of the idea that it is harmless fun. It "opens people up to the dark side," he warned.
"There is a crisis of truth and a crisis of meaning – people are getting into all kinds of things they wouldn't have got into before. As a result, people are more open to spiritual forces that can be negative," he said.
"I think there is a growing need for deliverance; undoubtedly, this needs to be acknowledged," he told OSV News.
He warned that despite the secular rush to condemn or make fun of concerns about magic and the occult, it's clear that Catholics need to be careful not to be indifferent or superficial about the real dangers inherent in practices that open one up to dark forces that are undoubtedly present and, in the words of the traditional prayer to St. Michael to ward off evil, "wander through the world seeking the ruin of souls."