St. Michael and Spiritualism: a Hidden History?

Originally published at Catholic Stand on November 28, 2015.

During the research for my book Pope Leo XIII and the Prayer to St. Michael, I came across some intriguing research on the movement known as “Spiritualism” or “Spiritism.” Regretfully, this was an area that I was not able to incorporate much in the book. I would like to sketch briefly the “hidden” history between the Spiritualism movement and the prayer to St. Michael the Archangel.

Spiritualism and the Catholic Church

For a more in-depth look at the history of Spiritualism and its relation to the Catholic Church, Fr. Herbert Thurston, S.J. has perhaps one of the best books on the subject entitled The Church and Spiritualism (see also here). For our purposes, Spiritualism was a movement that began roughly in the mid-1800s. It attempted communication with spirits and was, in part, a response to Liberalism, Rationalism and Materialism which were then devastating Europe and the cause of religion in particular.

Arguably, one of the reasons why not a few people with religious sensibilities dabbled with Spiritualism was because they felt compelled to demonstrate empirical evidence of spiritual forces. They were, however, playing with hidden forces, today known as the “spirit world” or, in proper Catholic theology, the “preternatural.” From these experiments came various phenomena with which Spiritualism became known: séances, rapping or unexplained noises/voices, levitating tables and the like. These things and others became all the rage in Victorian England for example, and even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was an enthusiast.

The effort to provide empirical evidence of the preternatural was very, very dangerous and for a number of reasons. One of which is that the intention backfired as such efforts actually demonstrate a lack of faith. J. Godfrey Raupert, one of the Church’s most excellent apologists against Spiritualism, provided a fitting quote in his book The Supreme Problem (100-111). He wrote:

The root of [sic] spiritism…is the diseased moral condition of the age. Unsatisfied by the emptiness of materialism, and too powerfully dominated by intellectual pride to submit to the law of Christ, men seek another world capable of demonstrative proof….From the point of view of the believing Catholic, these strivings after higher knowledge have in them something which is at once piteous and abject. That men should trust such important issues to the workings of an imagination disordered and frequently diseased; that they should build a system upon phenomena which elude rational examination; that they should stake their hopes for time and eternity upon manifestations which have so much in common with the juggleries of the magician, while at the same time they shut their eyes to the proofs of supernatural life and supernatural power which living Christianity offers them, is a melancholy example of that fatuous superstition which is so often the punishment of unbelief.

In short, Spiritualism is divination or curiosity-seeking as opposed to seeking God as He revealed Himself. This fact demonstrated a fundamental atheism, which, it must be noted, is what united seemingly disparate movements (Spiritualism, Rationalism, Liberalism and Materialism). For our purposes here, atheism can be defined as disbelief in or turning away from the self-disclosure/revelation of God to man.

Based upon precedents set by the Protestant Revolution through the French Revolution, mankind was making as his god the empirical sciences. Spiritualism was a complimentary lie that pretended to offer empirical evidence for things unseen but which was, in truth, an offense to the Almighty. While Spiritualism largely quieted down around the time of World War I, interest remained in one form or another. Its ghost has come down to us today by such mediums such as TV programs on ghosts and “ghost hunting” for entertainment purposes.[i]

Spiritualism and Today

Hauntings, possessions, demonic activity and the like are quite real and are not something with which we ought to trifle, much less take as entertainment. This is one of the reasons why I am forced to be critical of self-styled “ghost hunters” programs. Other than obvious charades, attempts are made to obtain empirical evidence of the existence of spirits, and, simultaneously, to help people experiencing any phenomena. Consider that the “ghost hunters” are opening themselves up to serious—and oppressing—realities. Moreover, what purpose is being served, to help others or to serve one’s own unbelief?

There is a veil that separates mankind from eternity and man has ever tried to tear back that veil. In this life, we are called to faith. Thus I ask whether or not the attempt to find empirical evidence for the preternatural is truly about helping other people or really trying to shore-up one’s own unbelief/doubt.[ii] Could it also be a case of killing two birds with one stone? I do not know, but what is sure is that we are called to faith and this is the path that God has set for us. We ought not to transgress it. St. John of the Cross taught that when man transgresses the boundaries set by God, the Almighty is displeased (cf. questions 196-197, Refractions of Light).

Regardless of how one looks at contemporary events, there is behind them that fundamental atheism spoken about earlier. Insofar as it pertained to the 19th century, atheism was growing in power and was championed by sects such as the Freemasons and other such groups. Against these groups and the larger societal trends, Pope Leo XIII himself wrote on numerous occasions.

Pope Leo XIII & the Attacks Upon the Church

In chapter 6 of Pope Leo XIII and the Prayer to St. Michael, I demonstrated an important connection between Pope Leo’s vision and the Freemasons. This connection (and others outside of the scope of this article) causes me to speculate upon whether or not there is a link between Leo’s vision and Spiritualism.

Chapter 6 discusses the book Mary Crushes the Serpent, edited by a German priest named Fr. Theodore Geiger. The book is the journal of an unnamed exorcist from the latter half of the 19th century into the early 20th. The exorcist wrote of many experiences, even conversations that he had with demons. According to Fr. Geiger, the manuscript went to Rome where it was reviewed and sent back with a note. Geiger said the note indicated that “the entire work harmonized with the considerations which at that time moved the Holy Father, Pope Leo XIII, to compose the prayer to be said after Mass in order to counteract the attacks of Satan.”

For our purposes, I discovered that those attacks involved a connection between Spiritualism, Materialism, Rationalism and Liberalism, and the battle of the Church with these movements. While the information is, at this time, scant as to what Leo saw, the evidence suggests that it involved the above-mentioned sects and their machinations. The particulars I leave for people to read in my book. I will only say here that based upon that evidence and how I have fleshed it out in this present article, there appears to be a “hidden history” behind the prayer to St. Michael. I hope to discuss it more in the second edition of my book.

One thing is for sure: the prayer to St. Michael was written at a particularly difficult time for the Church, and those difficulties are, arguably, still quite relevant today. May we pray this prayer ever more fervently and the Pastors of the Church promote it.

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[i] Please note that I am not here referring to good and faithful people who study demonology and assist the clergy who themselves are helping people oppressed by demons.

[ii] In days past, and in the Catholic Church, those who handled issues involving the preternatural were usually ordained clergy. One presumes that ordained clergy already possess a strong faith and the theological training necessary for these affairs. This presumption is no longer viable owing to many shifts and changes both within and without the Catholic Church. In addition, the lay faithful are more involved in such cases nowadays and they do not always possess the requisite training. One gentleman in particular that I have seen on television actually cusses at demons. I am grateful to Fr. Mike Driscoll who wrote an excellent book Demons, Deliverance and Discernment wherein he points people to the authentic Catholic tradition in these affairs.