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Why Don’t Catholics Practice Snake-Handling?

Russell Lee / Public Domain

Brantly Millegan - published on 02/17/14

A snake-handling pastor in Kentucky recently died of a snake bite. Snake-handlers cite the Bible to support the practice, so why aren't Catholics bringing snakes to Mass?

A snake-handling pastor who appeared on the National Geographic television reality show "Snake Salvation" has died after being bitten by a snake during a weekend church service in Kentucky.

Jamie Coots was handling a rattlesnake at his Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name Church in Middlesboro when he was bitten on the hand Saturday night, another preacher, Cody Winn, told WBIR-TV. After the bite, Coots dropped the snakes, but then picked them back up and continued on. Within minutes, Winn said Coots headed to the bathroom.

"He had one of the rattlers in his hand, he came over and he was standing beside me. It was plain view, it just turned its head and bit him in the back of the hand … within a second," Winn said.

When an ambulance arrived at the church at 8:30 p.m. Saturday, they were told Coots had gone home, the Middlesboro Police Department said in a statement. Contacted at his house, Coots refused medical treatment, believing that to accept it would show a lack of faith in God's power to heal him. Emergency workers left about 9:10 p.m. that night. When they returned about an hour later, Coots was dead from a venomous snake bite, police added.

This is a very sad story. But why are they handling snakes to begin with? Snake-handlers typically cite Mark 16.18 in support of the practice: "They will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.”

What are Catholics to make of this? We believe the Bible is the Word of God, too, so why aren't we bringing snakes to Mass? A couple thoughts:

First, Mark 16.18 does not say that Christians should catch poisonous snakes, bring them into churches, and hold them as a sign of their faith in God. It simply says "they will pick up snakes with their hands." The practice of snake-handling adds a great deal to the text that is simply not there.

Second, it's not immediately clear to me what Mark 16.18 is referring to, but I can think of a few good questions to ask before practicing snake-handling: Is "snakes" to be taken literally, or is it a figure of speech for demons? Is it referring to God's possible protection of Christians when they are attacked by an animals (not seeking them out), like when God protected Paul in Acts 28.3-6?

Third, as far as I can tell, the practice of snake-handling started in the United States in the early 20th century. In other words, it's a complete innovation in the Christian tradition. There's no evidence the Apostles practiced snake-handling, there's no evidence that the early Church practiced snake-handling, and there's no evidence that anyone interpreted Mark 16.18 to mean Christian should practice snake-handling at any point in Christian history until recently.

Fourth, related to the man's death was the added belief that he should not seek out medical treatment, since he believed doing so would show a lack of faith in God. The Bible never says this and in fact Christians, Catholics in particular, have been some of the biggest supporters of the medical profession for centuries.

Lastly, given all of the above, the strange, dangerous practice of snake-handling is a great example of how people's interpretation of Scripture can go way off the rails when they lack the protections of Tradition and the Magsterium.

So no, please do not practice snake-handling.

Brantly Milleganis an Assistant Editor for Aleteia. He is also Co-Founder and Co-Editor of Second Nature, Co-Director of the International Institute for the Study of Technology and Christianity, and is working on a M.A. in Theology at the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity. He lives with his wife and children in South St. Paul, MN. His personal website is brantlymillegan.com.

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