Several days ago, Pope Françis spoke to a group of pilgrims about the Gospel story of Peter’s faith and Jesus walking on water. The account was recorded in the Catholic magazine America. The fact the Françis made the stretch from describing “faith” to bemoaning tarot card readers only shows how little the pope has tried to learn or investigate about the profession. And it’s not the first time that he has belittled the tarot reading profession. (Actually, during this particular homily, Françis takes issue with astrologers and “fortunetellers,” but the association was made because of his earlier direct statements in refutation of the art of tarot card reading.)
Between unethical psychics making a bad name for tarot readers…and Pope Françis denouncing our efficacy and value as a mode of compassion, consolation, and guidance, sometimes it feels like a lot of work defending the art of tarot from each of these two bipolar directions. Using blanket statements to decry an entire group of people is not the way of the Christ. In Biblical times, the Samaritans were a reviled sect group, but Jesus’s famous parable tells us of the virtue of at least one individual Samaritan who selflessly gave assistance to a traveler in need. The moral: don’t be so quick to judge.
I also have to wonder why Francis doesn’t so flippantly dismiss other forms of secular consolation and healing…like psychotherapy…or animal therapy. I suppose they’re not taboo enough to pick on and mock. Psychotherapists have a long academic history and scientific-community establishment that champions their practice. And as for pets—the popularity of cat and dog videos on YouTube is a testament to the strange fact that animals are a topic somehow beyond reproach. But tarot readers?…I guess we can always serve as the punching bags of ignorance.
The truth about tarot—which we tarot readers will likely forever be required to reiterate—is that the tarot is just a tool—just like the Bible and the Gospels. And, just like the Bible or the Gospels, it’s a tool that can be used for good or for corruption. At it’s best, the tarot shines and expounds on the same Wisdom. I’ve even been known to use the tarot’s images to express exegesis of the Gospels and their virtue lessons…
The tarot is an historical document. It has been called a Pauper’s Bible, because its imagery is filled with the Cardinal Virtues espoused during early Church history that were required for leading a good life—the same virtues that can be found in the Bible, particularly the books of Wisdom and the Psalms. The Virtues were most often personified because imagery was terribly important and served as an important pedagogical tool. Symbology infused most all artwork in Medieval times—even inspiring the imagery of the tarot in the early fifteenth century. It’s hardly possible to investigate the Medieval and Renaissance period without being confronted by the fact of this symbol-infused culture.
Take for instance this blog post on Medievalists.net that I came across while researching something completely unrelated. The article is about pilgrimages during the Middle Ages:
“You could spot a pilgrim by their distinctive robes, hats, and staves, or by the pilgrims’ badges they wore as symbols of the journey (like scallop shells from Santiago de Compostela)….For medieval people, relics could be pieces of a Christian story, such as the bones of a martyr or saint, or pieces of Jesus’ life, such as the tears or breast milk of Mary, or pieces of the True Cross. Of course, a relic that has gained a huge amount of popularity in modern consciousness, from Arthurian legend to Indiana Jones, is the ever-elusive Sangreal: the Holy Grail. Naturally, not all of these relics were true relics, but pretending they were could gain a swindler quite a lot of money.”
Or this paper describing hidden symbols of fertility in Michaelangelo’s Medici Chapel:
“A new analysis suggests that Michelangelo may have concealed symbols associated with female anatomy within his famous work in the Medici Chapel.”
…Or this article detailing how various animals represent symbolic representations:
“European artists have assigned meaning to animals both real and imagined since classical antiquity. In the 12th century, medieval scholars formalized certain readings by publishing the Bestiary—an illustrated guide that offered both natural history and moral associations for a wide range of creatures.”
It seems rather hypocritical, doesn’t it, that the Catholic Church, whose Mass and traditions and architectural structures are so overflowing with symbolism, would take such a heavy-handed stance against something like the tarot, which historically was meant to imbue Catholic social teaching to the masses that used the cards while game-playing. Breakaway religious factions—Protestants—during the Reformation refuted all of that symbolism and purged it from their spiritual traditions completely; it was a major digression from the Mother Church (and is perhaps partly why much of the meaning of the tarot became “occult” or hidden from us…).
Much has been made of the presentation to Pope John Paul II of a two-volume set of books by a Catholic convert expressing spiritual inspiration derived from the tarot. A famous picture even confirms that the pontiff had the volumes in his possession on his personal desk. The work—Meditations on the Tarot—is a heady book, and has variously been claimed as a New Age apologia, and a bridge to understanding a Christian mystical interpretation of the tarot… I’m not going to offer any commentary on that particular book here outside of reiterating that at least one previous pope had the inquisitiveness to investigate that writing, or the gracefulness to accept it as a gift from someone.
Françis has repeatedly indicated an openness to the margins and the marginalized. Yet tarot readers have become a defacto marginalized group (among other minorities) in the Catholic perspective in part because of Françis’s evangelizing. Mixed messages are what we can do without. To bully a group of people whose best intentions are to bring comfort and succor to those who seek us out seems trite and ignorant, especially when these are some of the same goals of the Church. Frankly, we get it where we can find it, Pape, which is unfortunately less and less with your institution.
And unless he feels mocked for some absurd reason, it seems odd to choose as an object of one’s ridicule something that contains a picture of yourself… I find it hard to believe that Françis is ignorant of the cultural significance of that portrait within the leaves of the card images he so denounces.