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Dear visitor: Summer is here, and you may be thinking about a well-deserved vacation, family get-togethers, BBQs with neighborhood friends. More than likely, making a donation to Catholic Answers is not on your radar right now. But this is exactly the time we most need your help. The “summer slowdown” in donations is upon us, but the work of spreading the gospel and explaining and defending the Faith never takes a break. Your gift today will change lives and save souls for Christ this summer! The reward is eternal. Thank you and God bless.


Treatment of the sin of superstition

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Superstition [from supersisto, “to stand in terror of the deity” (Cicero, “De Nat. deorum”, I, xlii, 117); or from superstes, “surviving”: “Qui totos dies precabantur et immolabant, ut sibi sui liberi superstites essent, superstitiosi sunt appellati”, i.e. “Those who for whole days prayed and offered sacrifice that their children might survive them, were called superstitious” (Cicero, ibid., II, xxviii, 72). Cicero also drew the distinction: “Superstitio est in qua timor manic deorum, religio quae deorum cultu pio continetur”, i.e. “Superstition is the baseless fear of the gods, religion the pious worship.” According to Isidore of Seville (Etymolog., 1. 8, c. iii, sent.), the word comes from superstatuo or superinstituo: “Superstitio est superfiva observantia in cultu super statuta seu instituta superiorum”, i.e. “observances added on to prescribed or established worship”] is defined by St. Thomas (II-II, Q. xcii, a. 1) as “a vice opposed to religion by way of excess; not because in the worship of God it does more than true religion, but because it offers Divine worship to beings other than God or offers worship to God in an improper manner”. Superstition sins by excess of religion, and this differs from the vice of irreligion, which sins by defect. The theological virtue of religion stands midway between the two. (II-II, Q. xcii, a. 1.)

DIVISION.—There are four species of superstitions: (I) improper worship of the true God (indebitus veri Dei cultus); (2) idolatry; (3) divination; (4) vain observances, which include magic and occult arts. This division is based upon the various ways in which religion may be vitiated by excess. Worship becomes indebitus cultus when incongruous, meaningless, improper elements are added to the proper and approved performance; it becomes idolatrous when it is offered to creatures set up as divinities or endowed with divine attributes. Divination (q.v.) consists in the attempt to extract from creatures, by means of religious rites, a knowledge of future events or of things known to God alone. Under the head of vain observances come all those beliefs and practices which, at least by implication, attribute supernatural or preternatural powers for good or for evil to causes evidently incapable of producing the expected effects. The number and variety of superstitions appear from the following list of those most in vogue at different periods of history: astrology, the reading of the future and of man’s destiny from the stars; aeromancy, divinations by means of the air and winds; amulets, things worn as a remedy or preservative against evils or mischief, such as diseases or witchcraft; chiromancy, or palmistry, divination by the lines of the hand; capnomancy, by the ascent or motion of smoke; catroptomancy, by mirrors; alomancy, by salt; cartomancy, by playing cards; anthropomancy, by inspection of human viscera; belomancy, by the shuffling of arrows (Ezechiel, xxi, 21); geomancy, by points, lines, or figures traced on the ground; hydromancy, by water; idolatry, the worship of idols; Sabianism, the worship of the sun, moon, and stars; Zoolatry, Anthropolatry, and Fetishism, the worship of animals, man, and things without sense; Devil-worship; the worship of abstract notions personified, e.g. Victory, Peace, Fame, Concord, which had temples and a priesthood for the performance of their cult; necromancy, the evocation of the dead, as old as history and perpetuated in contemporary Spiritism; oneiromancy, the interpretation of dreams; philtres, potions, or charms intended to excite love; omens or prognostics of future events; witchcraft and magic in all their ramifications; lucky and unlucky days, numbers, persons, things, actions; the evil eye, spells, incantations, ordeals, etc.

ORIGIN.—The source of superstition is, in the first place, subjective. Ignorance of natural causes leads to the belief that certain striking phenomena express the will or the anger of some invisible overruling power, and the objects in which such phenomena appear are forthwith deified, as, e.g. in Nature-worship. Conversely, many superstitious practices are due to an exaggerated notion or a false interpretation of natural events, so that effects are sought which are beyond the efficiency of physical causes. Curiosity also with regard to things that are hidden or are still in the future plays a considerable part, e.g. in the various kinds of divination. But the Chief source of superstition is pointed out in Scripture: “All men are vain, in whom there is not the knowledge of God: and who by these good things that are seen, could not understand him that is, neither by attending to the works have acknowledged who was the workman: but have imagined either the fire, or the wind, or the swift air, or the circle of the stars, or the great water, or the sun and moon, to be the gods that rule the world” (Wisdom, xiii, 1-2). It is to this ignorance of the true God, coupled with an inordinate veneration for human excellence and the love of artistic representations appealing to the senses, that St. Thomas ascribes the origin of idolatry. While these are diapositive causes, the consummative cause, he adds, was the influence of demons who offered themselves as objects of worship to erring men, giving answers through idols and doing things which to men seemed marvellous (II-II, Q. xciv, a. 4).

These causes explain the origin and spread of superstition in the pagan world. They were to a large extent eliminated by the preaching of Christianity; but so deep-rooted was the tendency to which they gave rise that many of the ancient practices survived, especially among peoples just emerging from barbarism. It was only by degrees, through the legislation of the Church and the advance of scientific knowledge, that the earlier forms of superstition were eradicated. But the tendency itself has not wholly disappeared. Side by side with the Rationalistic philosophy and the rigorous scientific methods which are characteristic of modern thought, there are still to be found various sorts of superstition. So far as this includes the worship of things other than God, it is not only an essential part, but the foundation also of the Positivistic system (Comte), which sets up humanity as the object of religious worship (see Positivism). Nor can Pantheism (q.v.), which identifies God and the world, lead consistently to any but superstitious practices, however it may in theory disclaim such a purpose. The human mind, by a natural impulse, tends to worship something, and if it is convinced that Agnosticism is true and that God is unknowable, it will, sooner or later, devise other objects of worship. It is also significant that just when many scientists supposed that belief in a future life had been finally proved an illusion, Spiritism (q.v.), with its doctrines and practices, should have gained such a strong hold not only on the ignorant, but also, and in a much more serious sense, on leading representatives of science itself. This may indeed be interpreted as a reaction against Materialism; but it is none the less, at bottom, an evidence of man’s restless desire to penetrate, by any and every means, the mystery that lies beyond death. While it is easy to condemn Spiritism as superstitious and vain, the condemnation does not do away with the fact that Spiritism has become widespread in this age of enlightenment. Now as in the past the rejection of Divine truth in the name of reason often opens the way to beliefs and practices which are at once unworthy of reason and dangerous to morality.

SINFULNESS OF SUPERSTITION IN GENERAL.—Superstition of any description is a transgression of the First Commandment: “I am the Lord thy God,—thou shalt not have strange gods before me. Thou shalt not make to thyself a graven thing, nor the likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or in the earth beneath … thou shalt not adore them nor serve them” (Exod., xx, 2-5). It is also against the positive law of the Church, which visits the worst kinds of superstition with severe punishments, and against the natural law inasmuch as it runs counter to the dictates of reason in the matter of man’s relations to God. Such objective sinfulness is inherent in all superstitious practices from idolatry down to the vainest of vain observances, of course in very different degrees of gravity. With regard to the subjective guilt attaching to them it must be borne in mind that no sin is mortal unless committed with full knowledge of its grievous wickedness and with full deliberation and consent. Of these essential factors the first is often wanting entirely, and the second is only imperfectly present. The numerous cases in which the event seemed to justify the superstitious practice, and the universality of such incongruous beliefs and performances, though they may not always induce inculpable ignorance, may possibly obscure the knowledge and weaken the will to a point incompatible with mortal sin. As a matter of fact, many superstitions of our own day have been acts of genuine piety at other times, and may be so still in the hearts of simple folk.

SPECIAL SUPERSTITIONS.—The principal species of superstition, viz., idolatry, divination, occult arts, have received adequate treatment in other articles. Something remains to be said on (I) cultus indebitus, or the pious vagaries which people intermingle with Catholic religion; (2) vain observances in daily life.

(I) Improper worship (cultus indebitus) consists in introducing false or superfluous elements into the practice of true religion. Such false elements, be their origin culpable deceit or inculpable credulity, vitiate the virtue of religion by substituting error for truth in the service of God. A layman performing priestly functions, a pardoner selling spurious indulgences, a fanatic devotee inventing false miracles and answers to prayers in order to introduce or spread his own favorite devotion, wholesale believers in super-natural apparitions, visions, revelations, which serve no good purpose—all these are guilty of superstition, at least material. As regards formal guilt, this is often reduced to the vanishing point by the prevailing credulity and common practice of the period. The worship of imaginary saints or relics, devotion based upon false revelations, apparitions, supposed miracles, or false notions generally, is usually excusable in the worshipper on the ground of ignorance and good faith; but there is no excuse for those who use similar means to exploit popular credulity for their own pecuniary profit. The originators of such falsehoods are liars, deceivers, and not rarely thieves; but a milder judgment should be pronounced on those who, after discovering the imposture, tolerate the improper cultus. For it is no easy matter, even for the highest authorities, to eradicate beliefs or to check the growth of devotions which have taken a strong hold on the popular mind: the long struggle of the Inquisition with the Spiritual Franciscans, who, on the assumption that the rule of St. Francis was a direct revelation from heaven, attributed to the practice of poverty an exaggerated importance, and cheerfully went to the stake rather than relinquish their ways, is but one example among scores that could be cited. There is always the fear of uprooting the wheat with the tares, and the hope of seeing the improper worship die a natural death; for devotions also have their changing seasons. The pope and the bishops are the proper authorities to act in these matters, for to them belongs the regulation of worship, both public and private, and it is the duty of every Catholic to abide by their decision.

The same reflections apply to another kind of improper worship, the cultus superfluus which consists in expecting from certain prearranged circumstances a greater efficacy of the religious performance; e.g. to expect a greater benefit from Masses said before sun-rise with a certain number of candles disposed in a certain order, by a priest bearing a special saint’s name or being of the supposed stature of Christ. Triduums, novenas, First Friday Communions, nine consecutive First Friday Communions, Saturday fasting, though they seem to attach special importance to number and dates, are approved by the Church, because these dates and numbers are convenient for shaping and regulating certain excellent devotions, The Catholic devotions which are connected with holy places, holy shrines, holy wells, famous relics etc. are commonly treated as superstitious by non-Catholics who either reject all worship of saints and relics or assume pious frauds on the part of the priests who benefit by the worship. It must be admitted that these hallowed spots and things have occasioned many legends; that popular credulity was in some cases the principal cause of their celebrity; that here and there instances of fraud can be adduced; yet, for all that, the principles which guide the worshipper, and his good intentions, are not impaired by an undercurrent of error as to facts. If superstition there be, it is only material. Moreover, the Church is always careful to remove any fraud or error inconsistent with true devotion, although she is tolerant of “pious beliefs” which have helped to further Christian piety. Thus, alleged saints and relics are suppressed as soon as discovered, but belief in the private revelations to which the feast of Corpus Christi, the Rosary, the Sacred Heart and many other devotions owe their origin is neither commanded nor prohibited; here each man is his own judge.

(2) Turning now to vain observances in daily life, properly so called, we first meet with the superstitions observed in the administration of justice during many’ centuries of the Middle Ages, and known as ordeals or “judgments of God“. Among the early Germans a man accused of a crime had to prove his innocence, no proof of his guilt being incumbent on his accusers. The oath of a free man, strengthened by the oaths of friends, sufficed to establish his innocence, but when the oath was refused or the required number of “compurgators” failed, the defendant, if he was a free man, had to fight his accuser in single combat; bondmen and women had either to find a champion to fight for them or to undergo some other form of ordeal as fixed by law, arranged by the judge, or chosen by one of the parties. Besides the judicial combat the early German laws recognized as legitimate means to discriminate between guilt and innocence the casting or drawing of lots, trial by fire in several forms—holding one’s hand in fire for a determined length of time; passing between two piles of burning wood with no covering for the body except a shirt impregnated with wax; carrying with the naked hand a red-hot iron weighing from one to three pounds a distance of from nine to twelve paces; walking bare-foot over nine red-hot ploughshares disposed in a line nine steps long. At the root of these and many analogous practices (see Ordeals) lay the firm belief that God would work a miracle rather than allow the innocent to perish or the wicked to prevail. These “judgments of God” gave rise to new superstitions. Whether guilty or not, persons subjected to the trials would often put more confidence in charms, magic formulas, and ointments than in the intervention of Providence. The ordeals gradually gave way before the rationalistic temper of modern times; trials by torture, which survived the ordeals, seem to have been inspired by the same idea, that God will protect the innocent and give them superhuman endurance.

The power of the evil eye (fascinatio) has been believed in for a long time, and is still dreaded in many countries. The number thirteen continues to strike terror into the breasts of men who profess not to fear God. The apparent success which so often attends a superstition can mostly be accounted for by natural causes, although it would be rash to deny all supernatural intervention (e.g. in the phenomena of Spiritism). When the object is to ascertain, or to effect in a general way, one of two possible events, the law of probabilities gives an equal chance to success and failure, and success does more to support than failure would do to destroy superstition, for, on its side, there are arrayed the religious instinct, sympathy and apathy, confidence and distrust, encouragement and discouragement, self-suggestion and—perhaps strongest of all—the healing power of nature.


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