Sunday, June 12, 2016

Reason for the Witch Hunts

A series of three articles in Catholic Digest by a seminary professor treats the topic of Witch Hunts in Europe. Those opposed to religion and atheists during the 19 century inflate the figures of those killed. Most historians would accept a number of around 60,000.

Christianity has always been interested in making sense of religion with our intellectual faculties. Catholicism had no trouble in accepting Greek philosophy while the reformers wanted to remain with the scriptures. Monotheism had only one God and consequently, was made  responsible for evil in the world: a reason theologians wanted to understand the issue surrounding witches.

Consequently, the devil was the instigator of evil.  Those  who were using sorcery, and incantations had sold themselves to the devil so it was thought, and  were called witches. 

Different from religion was  incantation. The practitioners were not interested in thinking about God but used brief magic words, amulets, to influence weather, health, wealth, romance. It is no surprise to have this kind of thinking wide spread when we remember that medicine, and sciences were in their infant stages. Incantations were not considered in themselves anything serious except for the kind that wanted to bring harm to another.

Sorcery was an elaboration of incantations, a development, but here again; it was the wish to bring harm to another that was the problem. Those who worked in  harmony with the devil, were considered  devil worshipers.  

The Church saw many of the incantations as superstitious and tried to Christianize them. Gradually, mementos of the dead martyrs and saints  were used to pray for health and blessings. Shrines and places of pilgrimage were selected, and Christians would flock there for  blessings. Here the Church made clear that it wasn't the incantations or the mementos but God who was giving the gifts of grace. Those who refused to accept this distinction separated themselves from the Church practice, and were the so-called witches.

During the Middles Ages, the Cathars and the Waldensian Church were the two sects that caused the Church anguish. The Cathari (believed the physical world was evil, which conflicted with the doctrines of the  Catholic Church. The physical world and the human body were the creation of the evil spirit).

Catholicism was more interested at this time  in eradicating the heresies than dealing with sorcery. Christians  continued using incantation;  non-believers would be using incantation along with medically  popular practices with some positive results. Catholic priests would also be using these incantations and healing procedures. Most were not interested in the reasons but only in results.

The Church was not opposed because they were superstitions, a waste of money, and energy, but  because they were successful. Why were they successful?

When Christians used the incantations with invocation of the Saints and  their relics and had a positive response they knew why, but when those who were not part of the Church, opposed, and using incantations and received positive results this was attributed to the devil.  

Theology professors at Paris University were examining  this phenomenon, and it was in the university where study of the worship of the devil began. University of Cologne was the university where Jacob Springer  wrote the well-known book Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of Witches) published  in 1486, which  taught how to know, find, and question those suspected of witchery.
There are those that believe that if this book was not published the problem would not have been as serious as it was. Islam was not caught up in the witch hunt because they were not interested in the reasons for what was happening in society.

The professor mentions that with light, there is also darkness and one of the darkest medieval periods   was also the beginning of science. The irony is that the universities were the reason for the spread of the witch hunts but also the beginning of interest in science and its progress within a Christian setting.