In my introductory Tarot 101 post, I briefly discuss the issue of whether or not Tarot cards are evil or dangerous, and mention that my own church teaches against the use of the cards to “unveil the future.” I think this subject deserves a little more attention. In fact, part of the motivation for developing this website in the first place was a desire to mitigate the notion that the Tarot are “cards of the devil” (hence, the title of the site “Cards of Light“).
I want to reiterate, right at the start here, that I have studied and considered this issue in some depth, and do not believe that the way I use the cards (or recommend their use) is in conflict with Catholic teaching, or is inconsistent with the life of a faithful Roman Catholic or other Christian. In this article, I intend to focus specifically on the formal, authoritative teaching on the matter from the Catholic Church, but I believe that the same principles would apply when addressing the concerns of other Christian Communions, or for that matter, many other religious traditions. I welcome your thoughts and discussion in comments below the article.
Official Catholic Teaching
First, let’s look at the relevant section from the Catechism of the Catholic Church (Paragraph 2116).
“All forms of divination are to be rejected: recourse to Satan or demons, conjuring up the dead or other practices falsely supposed to “unveil” the future. Consulting horoscopes, astrology, palm reading, interpretation of omens and lots, the phenomena of clairvoyance, and recourse to mediums all conceal a desire for power over time, history, and, in the last analysis, other human beings, as well as a wish to conciliate hidden powers. They contradict the honor, respect, and loving fear that we owe to God alone.”
This comes from the part of the Catechism which focuses on the First Commandment, “You Shall Have No Other Gods Before Me.”
In addition to the Church’s formal pronouncements, there is a long informal tradition which condemns (or at least discourages) such practices as well. Most recently, Pope Francis addressed this issue himself, during his remarks in a general audience on August 1st, 2018. He spoke about passing a park while walking through Buenos Aires, and spotting pairs of Tarot readers and querents sitting across tables from each other. “Instead of praying to God who is the Providence of the future, they went there to have their fortunes told, to see the future. This is one form of the idolatry of our times. I ask you: how many of you have gone to have your cards read to see the future? How many of you, for example, have gone to have your hands read to see the future instead of praying to the Lord? This is the difference: the Lord is alive. The others are idols, forms of idolatry that are unnecessary.”
The crux of the matter is (as another section of the Catechism puts it) “Idolatry consists in divinizing what is not God.” So if one is placing their faith and trust in cards, astrological charts, interpretation of omens and such in place of their faith and trust in God, that practice would clearly be counter to the teaching of the Catholic Church.
“The Devil’s in the Details”
Pardon the flippant heading there, but I couldn’t resist.
If you study these above proclamations casually, they may seem like a straightforward condemnation of the Tarot. In fact though, one can use the Tarot in ways that do not involve “divination” (making a god of the cards) or other idolatrous activities. I’d like to describe how I use the Tarot, and you can decide for yourself whether you think my method is suspect according to the teachings outlined above.
How I Use the Tarot
I have found the Tarot to be a powerful guide for personal growth and development, an aid to spiritual and psychological healing, a boon to creativity and an excellent tool for problem solving. The way the cards accomplish all of this is simple. They provide access to information that can otherwise be difficult to come by, because it is information which is mostly hidden away from our conscious minds.
By the time we are adults, something like 95% or our mental processes are not conscious. During our formative years we learn how to go about the tasks involved in day-to-day life. We’re able to repeat most of our necessary activities “automatically” without giving much thought to them at all. Think about something as complex as driving an automobile. You have to be able to apply just the right amount of pressure with your foot to either the accelerator or brake pedal to adjust the speed of the vehicle. You have to be able to turn the steering wheel just enough to make a right-angle turn at 15 MPH or a gentle curve at 70. You have to be able to constantly monitor conditions in the path ahead, maintain a safe distance from other moving vehicles and stationary objects alike, and respond instantly to sudden changes (such as an animal or vehicle darting out in front of you). You have to do all of these things, and more, at the same time – and you do it all without even thinking about it.
It’s a good thing that we have the capacity to do so much without consciously thinking about it, because otherwise it would take such tremendous amounts of energy to get through breakfast that we would stand little chance of getting through the rest of the day.
On the other hand, though, there are all sorts of these automatic routines being run by our unconscious mind that aren’t necessarily useful to (or may even be at cross purposes to) our survival, growth and happiness. We’re running these routines without consciously deciding to do so, and we are often not even conscious of a routine’s existence. Some of them may be routines that we chose deliberately at some point based on experience, but some have been placed in our minds by someone else, without our conscious awareness, let alone consent or acceptance, usually when we are very young.
Of course, there is another type of information that can be tucked away in our unconscious minds besides just these “automatic pilot” routines, namely everything we have ever sensed, dreamed, felt, thought or otherwise experienced. What an incredible storehouse of useful information that can be, if only we can bring it up to the level of consciousness.
The Tarot has an uncanny way of helping with all of this. It can make us aware of habitual routines in our lives of which we are not consciously aware, and it can draw thoughts, feelings and ideas to the surface that are buried pretty deeply in the unconscious mind. Some of this information can be of inestimable value when brought to consciousness.
How does that work?
There are lots of different notions concerning how the Tarot brings information to light. Most of the concerns expressed by religious leaders about the cards is that the information provided comes from some nefarious (even demonic) source. Some card readers themselves refer openly to communication with spirit guides or angels or other entities “beyond the veil.” My purpose in this article isn’t to criticize their convictions or to pick a fight about any of that. I’ll simply say that this is not how I believe that the cards work for me, and it’s not an approach that I recommend to anyone else.
In short, I don’t use the Tarot to call forth anything outside the mind of whoever is sitting at the table with the cards before them.
Here’s how I believe that the cards work.
Our minds have an unmatched capacity to create associations and see patterns. When we are presented with a random stimulus, we begin to search for meaning. This is another one of those routines that we run almost constantly without even realizing it. Our minds scan through everything we have ever experienced in an attempt to relate to the stimulus, and to make sense of it. So when we see an evocative image on a Tarot card, it can bring things to the surface that we might never otherwise call to the conscious mind.
Here’s an example. The Six of Pentacles depicts a person in the guise of a merchant (as Waite describes him) distributing alms to a pair of beggars. The scales in his left hand symbolize justice, perhaps, but also a delicate balance. There is a social dynamic between giver and receiver that might be easily upset. On the surface, the card represents benevolence, but I think that it also represents a basic injustice in the world.
Upon drawing this card once, I realized for the first time that I have a deep ambivalence concerning money. It’s a little more complicated than this, but fundamentally, I have an aversion to material wealth, and disdain toward a lot of people who possess it.
I remembered that my mother used to say “a clean room, baloney sandwiches and lots of love is all anyone needs.” She would also point out on occasion how unhappy wealthy people seemed.
Does this attitude serve me well? I suspect not, though I’m still sorting that out. The point here is that I was never even aware that I owned this attitude until I pulled the card. I couldn’t approach the question of how it might affect my life until it was brought into the realm of my conscious mind.
This is just one example, but it is fairly typical of how I have seen the Tarot work in my own life and in the lives of others.
Does this seem like idolatry to you? It does not, to me.
Different Strokes for Different Folks
Although this article has been written specifically to defend my own Tarot practices as consistent with Christian faith and values, I want to acknowledge the broad range of thought and practice when it comes to the Tarot. Many practitioners incorporate their own spiritual and religious traditions into their use of the cards. Among the finest people I’ve encountered who read Tarot are Buddhists and Pagans. There are any number of folks with undeclared or indistinct religious leanings, and lots of people who identify as Christian, but who also believe that the cards work by enabling them to communicate with otherworldly spirits or powers. In fact, if you ask ten different Tarot readers how the cards work, you’re likely to get a dozen different answers. 🙂
I want to emphasize that in defending my own thought and practice, I mean absolutely no disrespect to others, and no condemnation toward them, even if their practices seem to be inconsistent with Catholic teachings described above. It is not my aim to judge, nor to hold up my church’s proclamations as applicable to anyone else.
Also, I want to emphasize again that if you are hesitant or afraid of the Tarot cards, stay away from them. I firmly believe that there is nothing in them to fear (anymore so than any other tool that digs into the unconscious mind), but if you are afraid of them you will be unlikely to reap the benefits anyway.
It’s my sincere conviction that Christians can, in good faith, throw Tarot cards, and the cards can even be used to reignite and deepen one’s Christian faith. As with so much else, a well educated, informed and thoughtful conscience is required.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter.
UPDATE 2 March 2020: I was delighted to see this marvelous Tarot FAQ for Christians from Tiffany Lee Brown, who is a friend of mine from The Well. I especially love her “Bible Rule Exercise” which is useful in relationship to so many situations. 🙂
Jon S says
What I like least about tarot (the way you use it, anyway) has nothing to do with spiritual risk; instead, I dislike its non-systematic nature. In our prior conversations and this post, you’ve clearly explained your tarotic intent, methodology, and results. I have found enjoyment similar to yours in exploring the pictures and themes, using the meanings to filter my thoughts in search of insight. Indeed, the thematic elements like passion, connection, conflict, and material resources remain as relevant now as when the decks were created for parlor games.
All that said, using the cards to inspire self-reflection seems to leverage the same mechanism used by Rorschach tests. Psychologists have long used those ambiguous inkblots and their clients interpretation thereof as a means of assessment, and like tarot it’s fun to project meaning onto ambiguous symbols. Unfortunately, like the Myers-Briggs typology Rorschach tests have remarkably poor validity and reliability. It may be helpful for initiating a non-judgmental conversation about someone’s inner world, desires, relationships, etc. – again, tarotic themes.
I love self-awareness and routinely work to cultivate it, using a litany of techniques to do so (see some of my favorites here: http://thecrosschurchrr.org/wp-content/uploads/Celebration-Discipline.pdf). To the extent that you find tarot life-giving, I’m happy for you; I will support any non-violent practice that increases your sense of well-being. When I review my own life, however, I generally want tools that are more consistent and grounded.
Thanks for taking the time to read and respond, Jon. We should continue this conversation face to face. 🙂
Jon S says
I’m of course always down for that. The only problem with that is how many other things I want to discuss!
A lucid and well-written apologia.
“… if you ask ten different Tarot readers how the cards work, you’re likely to get a dozen different answers.” Joke aside, for my part, I’d qualify that by inserting how the cards work “for them”. I’m of the opinion that no one can say This Is How Tarot Works™ because it actually works differently for everybody, based on their experiences and their perception of reality (I’d go so far as to say “reality” is different for everybody, but that’s another topic). How Tarot works for me will not *be* the same as how it works for you, nor how it works for Gladys down the road. Therefore judgements or attempts to “correct” another person’s practice are senseless. It real is “You do you”.
Thanks so much for this comment, Judy. I couldn’t agree more.
And I’m delighted to find your website. I hope you won’t mind if I add it to the links here.
Oh! No, I don’t mind at all. Ta muchly. 🙂
Tarot with T says
What a great read, Noebie. Thank you for sharing the inner workings with us. It’s nice to see these things discussed openly, plainly, and personally.
I’ve linked to this from my own page on Christianity & Tarot, which is at http://www.tiffanyleebrown.com/tarot-religion if you’re interested.
Thanks for that so much! I appended it to the essay above as well. I love the “Bible Rule Exercise.”
The Dawn says
I am extremely new to this. And I find I learn best by action. I’m not afraid at all about using tarot cards. And have had interest in them for quite some time. This is just the first actual step towards intending to use them. I share much the same opinion as you do pertaining to the usage. I am lost on what type of cards I should choose. Is there a specific or certain type of mindset attached to different cards? Or do you go by your instinct? I hope you will be able to help. As I have no one of which I can ask. Aside from my confusion. Thank you for this, it has helped calm me in ways I didn’t know I needed. Till next, adieu.
It really is more a matter of the deck that appeals to you than anything else, I think. The basic Rider deck is a great one for beginners. I have some other tips at this link.
Good luck, and enjoy your journey with the cards!
Hi, I just wanted to thank you for this article. I came from the one by Tiffany Lee Brown and both your writing has been so reassuring to me. I’m on a spiritual journey of sorts, but raised Christian and there are some things from Christianity that resonate with me, and some things that don’t.
I think I also have a similar take. I thought it was interesting that you mentioned how religious leaders believe/fear that the insight tarot grants comes from demonic sources. Personally, I’ve always felt that you harness and create what ever energies that are around you. If you want what tarot gives you to come from demonic sources, then call on demons. But otherwise, I like to think they’re probably too busy to go around messing with people who don’t ask for it, haha.
I’ve already started doing readings, but prayer before (especially when reading for a friend) is how I personally feel it’s strengthening my connection with God. It’s also just fulfilling and spiritually empowering in a way that going to church never has been for me.
In any case, I just wanted to share my thoughts on some of what you said and thank you for your essay. It was a lovely read!
Thanks so much for the encouraging words. I’m glad that the essay was reassuring.
Tiffany is marvelous!
Bless you on your journey, and may you bring comfort and insight to others with your readings.
This is an insightful article for me to ponder.
I’ve always been drawn to Tarot ever since I was a child, but my dad always warned that using them would open a portal to evil entities. Even so my curiosity continues to persist up to this day. But I fear if I were to use them, I’d incur God’s wrath because it’s a sin to delve into divination, sorcery and soothesaying. (I will add that I did experiment with wicca for a bit in early adolescence but didn’t get too far with it before I turned back to God and was saved. Despite this I also do get the temptation every now and then to revert back to my old ways). Because of this fear of God’s wrath, I feel guilty every time I feel tempted to look into Tarot (and when I do fall into the tempation of watching reading videos) and ask for forgiveness every time. But when I do watch those types of videos, it gives me a sense of hope for better outcomes ahead and it has also helped me come to terms with what’s going on in the world around me that may cause me to think otherwise.
These conflicting feelings often leave me feeling confused and ashamed of something that feels so natural to me going against God’s will. I don’t know if you can help provide some insight?
Hi there. Bless you. Those sorts of conflicts aren’t pleasant – being intrigued by something, but feeling guilty and frightened at the same time. I hate to give advice on something like this, but I’ll share a couple thoughts that I hope might be helpful.
I believe that any darkness that people find in the cards isn’t coming from the cards, or from the devil, but from their own minds and hearts. Also, sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between God’s will and other people’s ideas and notions. All I can say is that for me, following my own heart and conscience has never let me down.
I’ll keep you in my prayers that you will find some peace of mind with all this.
And thank you, so much, for taking the time to read the article and comment. 🙂