UPDATE: Charles Coulombe responds to the requests of a priest who, unlike many of his critics, addressed him on this subject with charity.
I gather, from the latest episode of Off the Menu, that Charles Coulombe is once again being attacked as an occultist. I’m not clear what prompted the hue and cry this time—unfortunately, Off the Menu tends to assume, erroneously, that everyone is plugged into the Twitterverse—but it is not the first time that Coulombe has been so accused. Part of the basis for the accusation is that Coulombe knows how to read tarot cards and has publicly done so on a number of occasions. He addressed this in this latest podcast, as he has on previous episodes. Another part that was not addressed is Coulombe’s alleged association with certain esoteric/occult groups.
Full disclosure: I am a big fan of Charles Coulombe and Off the Menu. I like to listen to Off the Menu during my long commutes to work and to Sunday Mass. I enjoy it because the content is solidly Catholic; Coulombe’s knowledge of history is encyclopedic; he is blunt and plain-spoken; and, above all, while he doesn’t candy-coat the crisis in Church and state, his overall attitude is one of joy and hope. Instead of raging about the things that are wrong, to the exclusion of all else, he focuses a lot on the things he loves; and he finds much to love about the Church, the United States, the places he has traveled and the people who make them all work. He is a monarchist, which causes many to dismiss him as a crank, despite the fact that his arguments in favor of monarchy are well-reasoned and backed by historical events, including recent U.S. history, and despite the fact that he readily acknowledges the extreme improbability of his hopes for a monarchy coming true in these United States. It is true that Coulombe grew up in Hollywood and comes from a show-business background — both his parents were actors, and he himself was once a stand-up comedian — so there is a chance I could be completely wrong in thinking him a devout Catholic. On the other hand, the possibility that a person is not in the least who I think he is is a chance I have to take in dealing with anybody. I have listened to many hours of Coulombe’s talks, both on Off the Menu and elsewhere, and I have read several of his books, and have found no evidence that he is out to undermine the Church or even covertly promote the occult. Even a really good actor has his limits and must at some point let the mask slip. His critics will argue that the tarot card thing is the slipping of his mask; on the other hand, their snarky comments about him that focus on his appearance and his dress and his social contacts indicate the most superficial knowledge of his substance as expressed in the things he has actually said and how he says them.
Coulombe has reiterated what he has said before about being an occultist and using tarot cards: he denies the former, and says that the latter has been for purposes of evangelizing those who are interested in such things. In light of the many talks of his that I have heard, and the many words he has written that I have read, I see no reason not to take Coulombe at his word on this. So the question becomes one of whether his prudential judgment on these points has been sound,and whether his attackers are really in a position to condemn him.
Frankly, the question of how far is too far in the pursuit of fulfilling our Lord’s Great Commission that is binding on all Catholics is one that I have long wrestled with myself. Specifically, how far do I go, not merely in risking my physical well-being, but also my spiritual well-being? What if, going too far, I sin? Is it possible to worry too much about keeping my skirts clean and pressed and starched? At what point does prudence become cowardice? On the one hand, if you hang out with certain types of people, you could be dragged down; on the other hand, to bring them into the Church, it is necessary to go to where you will find them, and to associate with them. If these are the people that, by dint of my background and circumstances, I may be well-suited to evangelize, would I be right to decline the risk? In a real way, spreading the Gospel is a battle to the death, especially if the people in question are also determined to bring me around to their way of thinking. When the rubber meets the road, it’s them or me, and I have to walk onto the field of battle open-eyed, knowing that.
I also have to come prepared. I have to do this first by frequenting the Sacraments as often as possible, and having a solid prayer life. Second, I have to know what motivates the people in question, what they are looking for, what their expectations are, and how to respond to their questions and objections. If I’m really serious, that is going to involve making a study of the things that interest them. Therein lies a big danger. Coulombe says that he has studied tarot cards in order to be able to use them to reach a certain class of people and interest them in the Catholic faith. Was that a wise idea? I don’t know. Certainly the Dominicans under St. Raymond of Penaforte took their chances studying the Talmud in order to convert the Jews; Bl. Raymond Llull took his chances studying Islamic philosophy in order to convert the Muslims; Bl. Bishop Clemens von Galen took his chances studying Nazi literature in order to combat their ideology. I myself would not mess with tarot cards; but then, my background and upbringing are such as lead me to a different prudential judgment than Coulombe came to. I grew up in the Los Angeles area, like Coulombe did, but I was not well-acquainted with the show business set or how they function. I do not have the same type of personality that Coulombe has. Above all, I do not have the same kind of background as a Catholic as he has. Coulombe grew up in a solidly Catholic home, with solidly Catholic extended family, and a solidly Catholic ancestry stretching back generations and rooted in what was once a solidly Catholic society. This, coupled with the frequent use of the Sacraments, probably gives Coulombe a lot of security of a sort that is frankly foreign to me, and probably to a lot of other traditional Catholics in an age when we have hirelings in place of shepherds.
If we are honest with ourselves, one of the ways in which this lack of security manifests itself is in our hair-trigger readiness to condemn other Catholics. Forgetting the scriptural admonition to put not our trust in princes, in the children of men in whom there is no salvation, we have been disappointed again and again by priests and bishops and Catholic authors and commentators who turn out to be no better than they should be, to the point where now we expect to be disappointed. In fact, it is almost as if we are disappointed any time we are not disappointed. When some Catholic public figure does something we don’t like, we pounce on him, shouting “AHA! I always KNEW this guy was a crook!” We are almost gleeful at revelations that one of our co-religionists is less than perfect. Then, whenever anyone defends that person, or even merely refrains from joining the chorus against him, we pounce on that person too for “siding with the enemy.” Is this really how Catholics ought to behave? If Coulombe is really a public violator of the First Commandment, wouldn’t the proper Catholic response be to mourn over his fall and try to win back our brother, rather than gloat over how much better we are than he?
Has Charles Coulombe gone too far in reaching out to the tarot-card-esoterica-gnostic-occult set? I don’t know: given his stated intentions, which I see no reason to either disregard or disbelieve, the prudence of his methods is between him and God. But surely Coulombe deserves credit for caring enough about the tarot-card-esoterica-gnostic-occult set to think they deserve to hear the Gospel, and to try to bring it to them in such a manner as to make them more open to receiving it. He has judged himself up to the task, given his personality, his circumstances and his background, and he has not shrunk from trying to accomplish it. That I personally would not do what he has done does not mean that he is wrong; it only means that I am probably meant to try to bring the Gospel to a different set of people with different needs that I am better equipped to meet. I hope I will not shrink from trying to accomplish it.