Matters Arising: Tarot Cards

Rev Fr Nicholas Mary CSSR

Fr Nicholas answers topical questions in the light of moral theology and canon law.

Is it a sin to use Tarot cards to foretell the future, or even merely to own them?

To use Tarot or any other playing cards to attempt to know the future — to engage in cartomancy, to use the technical term — is to transgress against the First Commandment. Specifically it is to commit the sin of divination, a type of superstition whereby we seek for ‘knowledge of future or hidden things by inadequate means. The means being inadequate they must, therefore, be supplemented by some power which is represented all through history as coming from gods or evil spirits. Hence the word divination has a sinister signification. As prophecy is the lawful knowledge of the future, divination, its superstitious counterpart, is the unlawful. As magic aims to do, divination aims to know.’1

'Divination is an act of religious nature,' explains Mgr Pietro Palazzini:

There is no divination if the religious element is wanting, as when one sets about the discovery of the future or the occult [i.e. that which is hidden] by a scientific deductive method, conjecture, psychological ability, or if there is any natural explanation of the method used. This explanation, however, must have a reasonable foundation, which will vary in accord with the cultural status and conditions of civilisation, not the frivolous and ridiculous basis of the followers of spiritism and of other so-called occult sciences.

Communication with occult powers may be explicit (express) or implicit. It is explicit when there is an evocation of these powers for help or a petition that certain signs be given to indicate their presence or response. In the first case, an attempt is made to obtain an evocation of the dead (necromancy) or other apparitions, or it is pretended that occult powers have taken possession of the invoker or of another person having special aptitudes, such as the medium.

Divination may be natural or artificial, depending on whether it proceeds from casual signs, or from signs requested and obtained by the invoker. The following are forms of natural divination: astrology, chiromancy [i.e. palmistry], etc., understood as a means of predicting the future. Forms of artificial divination are: lots, cards, Ouija board, etc. Communication with occult powers ... either express or tacit, is always an appeal to Satan's aid, the declared enemy of God and man. It is a grave offence against God to attribute to the devil a certain knowledge of the contingent future, which, as dependent on free will, is known only to God. In any case, through these arts, man exposes himself to most serious spiritual dangers; even in those cases in which the precise intervention of Satan is not sought, man exposes himself to the danger of very serious sins [and] to the danger of grave deception with regard to his eternal salvation and his faith by him who is the ‘father of lies from the beginning'. ...

It is not a grave sin, however, if the consultant and the consulted indulge in magic arts for a manifestly jocose purpose without attributing to such practices any religious meaning. The magician, fortune-teller, etc., who indulges in such arts for fraudulent reasons, is not guilty of the above mentioned serious sins, although he commits a grave sin of scandal and of injustice. Often, however, those who go to magicians and fortune-tellers are only guilty of venial sin, because they act out of simplicity or ignorance.2

Whilst it is lawful to use playing cards recreationally, we should not use them superstitiously. In the case of those which are specially designed for divination, we should certainly not even possess them under any pretext.3  In this regard, perhaps our readers will find it helpful to read the following personal testimony written by one of the faithful, a Catholic mother and grandmother in the United States, who wishes to remain anonymous, but who has given permission for it to be published here in order that others might profit from her experience with a deck of Tarot cards.

The cards that took over

I was a senior in high school when I obtained a Tarot deck. My boyfriend had bought it for the simple reason lots of people buy Tarot decks: it was full of beautiful artwork. But then, once he brought it home, he had no idea what to do with it. So I took it and kept it for my own.

Although I was a Catholic who believed in God, I thought Tarot readings were nothing but nonsense. It never occurred to me that anything unnatural could happen thanks to them. But I loved that deck of cards. I took it everywhere and had it in my hands all the time. It was like a pet. I slept with it under my pillow! Still, I was surprised when things got weird.

By this time, I was in college, away from home for the first time, with lots of other young people like me who were away from home for the first time. That’s when my Tarot deck could really shine. Everybody loved it! Everybody wished they owned it and begged me to tell their fortunes. The other students were in awe of the fact that I could cut the deck at random, and that it would show me whatever I wanted to see. It would show me my own cards, or the cards of another person, or even answer questions with a single card.

I don’t know why I didn’t stop to think about this. I just didn’t realise how strange it was. Then one evening, I let another person handle my Tarot deck, and when I got my ‘pet’ back, it wasn’t mine any more! When I cut it, I saw cards I had barely ever seen, and it wouldn’t behave for me. I had to play with my deck for hours to win it back over, to make it my pet again.

Shaken by this, I put the deck away, but everyone I knew was disappointed. So it wasn’t long before I reached for it again. And that very first day I returned to my deck, something started talking to me through it. Something not remotely human. I call it the ‘creature’ because that is the most insulting thing I can call it — and also the most true.

When I was a child, I had ghastly nightmares. I’ve never seen a horror movie as scary as my own dreams used to be. As I grew up, my dreams changed. They were still horrifying, but now one creature was the star of them. In my dreams, that creature was very handsome, very charismatic. It protected me from the others of its kind. That creature never changed what it really was, though. It was always the nastiest of bullies, brutal to everyone else but me. I had to plead for the other people’s lives if I didn’t want to watch them being killed. The creature liked to be begged. It liked to be asked nicely. And in return, it let me see what a tremendous favour it was doing me, letting me have my own way.

This was the thing that was talking through my deck to me now. It came into my dreams to tell me so. It was obsessed with me, as if I were its very own property, and it wouldn’t leave my deck alone. Day or night, dreams or waking, it haunted me and my friends. It would have snapped their necks in real life if it could have, just like it did in my dreams, because it wanted me all to itself. It hated everyone around me with virulent, bitter hatred. It filled my deck with scenes of chaos and death. I couldn’t do a reading any more without having to supplicate the creature. It liked to be supplicated. And when I did ask nicely, the readings were amazing! I could tell people things I never should have known!

By now, I was well on my way to becoming a phenomenon on campus. Students came to hang around me just to watch the weird stuff that went on. Sometimes, the atmosphere around me was really frightening, almost suffocating, sucking all the light out of the room. ‘He’s here, isn’t he?’ the students would whisper respectfully. And it was there, brooding in a corner, loathing them with the blackest of hatred. The more sensitive ones could point right at it.

That creature didn’t like any of my friends. It especially didn’t like my male friends! I’d be playing with my deck, and the phone would ring, and instantly, the cards were anger and mockery. I would know by which cards they were who the caller was before I even got to the phone. Soon, that creature began to torment those male friends. It would go into their dreams and give them nightmares, just as it used to do to me. Then it would come into my dreams and brag about what it had done.

It was around this time that the creature told me what name to call it: a name as overblown and egotistical as anyone could dream up. A name fit for a god. Yes, it wanted to be thought of as a god!

But it wasn’t a god, any more than I was. I knew the name was a cheap lie, and far more credit than that thing deserved. But using that name now was the only way I could get a reading any more, and people were counting on my readings now. They even used them to make decisions about their future. Besides, I had been groomed my whole life for this, just as carefully as any paedophile grooms his victims. That creature gave me things to win me over, like secret knowledge and power over others. And let’s face it, I liked the attention. It was just like being a paedophile’s victim: you get abused, but then you get ice cream. And at least somebody thinks you’re special. But I always knew the truth. I knew what my abuser was. It was never a god to me. It could only give me what it could take for itself: excitement, pleasure, pain, terror, ecstasy. It could never give me what it itself would never have: joy, simple happiness, satisfaction. All it had to offer was exactly what drove it: a kind of clever, questing, constant hunger for crazy new experiences. But never peace. My life by this time never held peace.

No matter how impressive that creature tried to be, it was pretty pathetic, all in all. It didn’t have an Olympus to fly back to. Its home life was pretty depressing. I could see that for myself just by the way it chose to live. It was living through the body, mind, and nerve endings of a college freshman — just about the silliest thing to walk on God’s green earth. Who in his right mind hangs out in a college dorm if he has anywhere in the universe better to go?

I saw that creature’s cruelty and hatred for what it was, too. The best thing it could say to me, the highest compliment it could ever pay, was that although it loathed us disgusting human beings, it actually could just about stand me. It let me know that it didn’t mind being around me — as long as I behaved myself, at least. That creature had no mercy for any sort of human weakness — just a kind of pitiless amusement. Kindness it didn’t have either. Any kindness or consideration on my part for others drove it into a frenzy of annoyance, and then it would punish me. It knew many ways to take revenge.

It was the worst kind of abuser there is; the kind who insists that he’s controlling you because he’s actually freeing you; that he’s hurting you because he’s taking the time to raise you to another level. That it ought to be an honour to be hurt, intimidated, harassed, and entirely dominated because he’s taken the trouble to look your way. But it wasn’t an honour. Life with an abuser never is.

So, that’s what happened to me thanks to Tarot cards: I wound up controlled by a pathetic and dangerous creep. I was infested by an otherworldly parasite that wanted to live through my nerve endings because its own life was too sad for words. But thanks entirely and only to God, after a few months of wildness and damage, I was able to pass that parasite, that tapeworm of the soul. I went to confession, I ordered that creature out of my dreams and I burned my Tarot cards.

Since then, I haven’t touched a deck. I wouldn’t dare! I’m not afraid of the creature any more. But I’m afraid that God might leave me to go my own way. I burned my pet deck a few cards at a time to make sure every card was completely gone. And I burned them face-down so I wouldn’t be influenced by their meanings while they went.

Only two cards flipped over during the burning. One was that creature’s card — and if you want to know what card it was, just think about the card you would pick for yourself if you were a selfish narcissist who was really impressed by your own foolishness. The other was the card of the man I was deeply in love with — and who, up until that weekend, had been deeply in love with me. When I came back to campus after that weekend, that man now completely despised me. I never found out what his reasons were because he never again could bring himself to hold a conversation with me. But I knew why. I had expected nothing else.

Parasites don’t go willingly. They flop around and do as much harm as they can on the way out. So after that, there were some really bad weeks. But it all slowed down at last, thanks only to God’s grace. I would warn anyone against getting a Tarot reading done, even if it’s just for fun. Those creatures are smart enough to know how to influence us if we are dumb enough to ask questions about the future.

Now I confide the future to God’s Providence, just as I give my past to His mercy. †

  • 1Fr Edward Graham, article ‘Divination’ in The Catholic Encyclopedia (Robert Appleton Co., New York, 1909).
  • 2Francesco, Cardinal Roberti (ed.), Dictionary of Moral Theology (Burns & Oates, London, 1962) p425.
  • 3Probably the commonest set of cards used for divination is the so-called Rider–Waite Tarot deck, which some people imprudently admire or possess for its artistic value. The artist who painted the images on the cards was Pamela Colman Smith (1878–1951), an American who was commissioned to do so in 1909 after having become a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn through the influence of the poet W B Yeats. Interestingly, she became a Catholic in 1911, being received at the Jesuit church in Farm Street in London, and turned her back on the Occult. She spent the rest of her life in a remote part of Cornwall where she ran a holiday home for visiting priests, and acted as sacristan at her local church. After her conversion she illustrated the Litany of Our Lady and the Way of the Cross. — Cf. Stuart R. Kaplan, The Artwork and Times of Pamela Colman Smith, (US Games Systems, Stamford, CT, 2009).

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