Superstition


St. Benedict Medal

Over the years that I have been examining the doctrine and practice of the Roman Catholic Church, I have labeled many articles and acts as superstitions. Perhaps it would be fair to point out that, officially at least, the Roman Church does not approve of superstition.

2110. The first commandment forbids honoring gods other than the one Lord who has revealed himself to his people. It proscribes superstition and irreligion. superstition in some sense represents a perverse excess of religion; irreligion is the vice contrary by defect to the virtue of religion. --Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), © 19941997 United States Catholic Conference, Inc.

Rome views superstition as an offense against the First Commandment.

SUPERSTITION The generic term for any act or practice which gives false or superfluous worship to God or undue honours to creatures, from idolatry to those common practices named under vain observances; superstition is a sin against the virtue of religion, grave unless the dishonour shown to God is slight. -- Donald Attwater, Ed., A Catholic Dictionary, The Macmillan Company (1942), p. 509; has Nihil Obstat & imprimatur

So. What are we talking about when we talk about superstition? The above definition covers a lot of ground. Idolatry was mentioned, and this is something that non-Catholics, including myself, have often charged against the RCC and Catholic faithful. Idolatry is rendering worship to anyone or anything that rightly only should be rendered to God.

What about vain observances? There’s a term I’ve not seen before. The definition is a beauty:

VAIN OBSERVANCE: The use of charms, etc., as a preservation from harm, belief in lucky or unlucky events, seasons, dreams, actions, numbers, etc., indulgence in witchcraft or magic, which are sins of superstition according to their object and to the degree of credence given to them. “Touching wood,” avoiding a ladder, fear of hawthorn in the house or new shoes on a table, of brushing dust through an outside door, or of burning mountain-ash, etc., when observed merely from habit or custom are harmless, but silly practices. To regard, e.g., simply the physical wearing of a medal of St. Benedict as a specific against sudden death, without reference to the will of God, the intercession of the saint, the blessing of the Church or one’s own prayers, would be a vain observance. -- Ibid.., p. 540

Now we’re getting somewhere. Specific examples are welcome and easy to deal with. I remember a childhood saying: “Step on a crack, break your mother’s back.” We would chant that as we walked along the sidewalk, being ever so careful not to step on any cracks. I doubt any of us – I certainly did not – believed that our mothers could be injured were we to inadvertently step on a crack. It was just a “silly practice,” to borrow a term from Attwater. I have broken a few mirrors in my lifetime, and heard a few warnings that I was going to be visited with seven years of bad luck. It is something of a cultural expectation to respond to such events with a cliché statement of some adverse fortune to come, but I suspect most folks don’t really believe anything will happen. More silly practices. So. Where’s the sin?

2111. Superstition is the deviation of religious feeling and of the practices this feeling imposes. It can even affect the worship we offer the true God, e.g., when one attributes an importance in some way magical to certain practices otherwise lawful or necessary. To attribute the efficacy of prayers or of sacramental signs to their mere external performance, apart from the interior dispositions that they demand, is to fall into superstition.[Cf. Mt 23:16-22 .] --CCC, Op. cit.

There we have it. “When one attributes an importance in some way magical to certain practice otherwise lawful or necessary.” That seems to cover the wrongful trust in the St. Benedict medal mentioned above. Or the expectation that the Brown Scapular, or any other scapular, will convey specific protections and blessings to an individual who simply wears it, without conforming to the other requirements necessary to obtain indulgences, blessings, protections, etc. This is the RCC view, of course. I doubt that many non-Catholic professing Christians attribute miraculous powers or blessings to such “sacramentals.”

Blessings and indulgences are promised to those Catholics who faithfully pray the Rosary and fulfill the other requirements to be worthy of such rewards. These requirements include, but are not limited to, contemplating the mysteries, participating in acts of Reconciliation and Communion within a specified time frame, etc. In other words, the mere mechanical mouthing of five decades of the Rosary, without following through with the other necessary acts, is a vain observance that will result in no blessings or indulgences for the person doing the praying – at least not according to RCC teaching. At best, it is a waste of time and, at worst, could result in a mortal sin being charged against the soul of the praying individual. Why is this?

A superstitious person trusts, not in God, but in things that are often very trivial and foolish; he hopes in them, and expects them to help him. This is, of course, an insult to our Father in Heaven, for He alone is our God, and there is none other who can help us; He has said: “Thou shalt not have strange gods before Me. -- C. F. Donovan, Our Faith and the Facts, Patrick L. Baine (1927), p. 325 has Nihil Obstat & Imprimatur)

I invite everyone who reads this to perform a quick check of billfold or purse. Did you find a lucky penny? Or a four-leaf clover? How about a wallet-sized card with an image of some saint to help in difficult times?

Someone, perhaps, wears a four-leaved clover, fancying that it will bring him good luck; another thinks it lucky to nail a horseshoe over his door; others carry about with them some wonderful prayer, on which is stated that if any one carries it about and repeats it daily, he is sure to be safe from misfortune by sea and by land. In order to more thoroughly deceive good people, such prayers refer to our Holy Father the Pope, who is said to have attached great indulgences to them. Whoever carries about such prayer sins by superstition, for God has never promised that no misfortune will befall us. It is well for us to pray, but we must leave it to God to help us when, where and how He sees best. -- Donovan, Op. cit., pp. 324-25

I do not doubt that most who are reading this will be quick to deny trusting in any charms, incantations or the like. While this may be true for you, can the same be said for your Catholic families and friends? Next time you go to Mass, look around the church parking lot. How many cars will you see with rosaries dangling from the rear-view mirror? How many little dashboard statues of Jesus or Mary will you be able to count? Will you see any St. Christopher medals? If you do, that will be particularly interesting, for the Bollandists de-canonized him back in the 1960’s (They said there is no evidence that he ever existed.).

Put your trust in in God, not created things. The rewards are eternal.

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