The Answer to the BURNING QUESTION
By Paul Dion, STL
Here 's the Burning Question: Is Superstition a Sin?
Let's clear the air and start with the Catechism definition of superstition:
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.
Let's start by stating the obvious. There are a lot of things in life that we do "mindlessly." We excuse ourselves from sin simply because we have lost control of our moral determination. To be a true disciple of Jesus, worthy of eternal salvation without a detour to purgatory, requires that we do everything in life as a response to God's Grace ever present in our lives. In everything that we do, we must strive for perfection as God expects to do. Not too many of us ever get there. Part of the reason is that we very often choose the good rather than the best, as God would have us do.
The truth about superstitious acts is that they most often do not reach the level of idolatry (replacing the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) when people do them. They are culturally ingrained acts that are believed to bring about a result that is in no other way related to them than the act posited by the human person. People do not usually "knock on wood" to bring about a cure of their cancer. They knock on wood to get a jack to go along with their ace at the blackjack table. People turn to God for cancer and to the leprechauns for a blackjack. Is knocking on wood bad if you are Catholic? For sure it is not good, but it is not seriously sinful. It most often would fall into the category of being an imperfection
Notice the first part of the definition. It makes of superstitiion a "deviation" of religious feeling. The very first sentence does not brng us all the way into the serious moral domain of sin. The second sentence, part of the first half of the definition gets very serious about sin. It mentions the effect that superstition can have on the worship that we owe to the True God. If we make superstitious acts the center of our prayer life, then we have fallen into idolatry, a sin against the first commandment. This part of the sin of superstition is perhaps not too common among those of you who occupy the pews at Sunday Mass. After all, most of us who knock on wood do not do it to adore the wood we knock on, but do it out of cultrural habit to call down some "luck" in the form of cooler weather, or some other unimportant reality.
The second major part of the definition, the third complete sentence is very important and hits very close to home for all of us. It tells us that it is sinfully superstitious for us to believe in the power of making our prayer requests come true purely by virtue of our external acts of prayer excluding the interior attitude of divine worship that we should have. It is also sinful to believe more in the external matter of the sacraments than in the spiritual power that comes to them from God.
Here are a couple of examples:
1. It is sinful to expect that the external act of attending Mass for 9 straight first Fridays of the month, in and of itself, will be the cause of the benefit received by such an act.
2. It is sinful to believe that the external act of getting married in Church, in and of itself, will be the cause of a long and happy marriage.
3. It is sinful to believe that cooking food in holy water will preserve, in and of itself, the health of the family.
4. It is sinful to hang a horseshoe on the wall of the house to bring good luck to the family to the exclusion of a crucifix which will put us into the prayerful presence of God.
5. It is also sinful to forward Internet prayers to friends with the promise that if they forward them with certain conditions they will be blessed.
The true sin takes place when worship is affected. It is not my intention here to define worship, that would take me quite far down the path. Let me just say that when we worship, we know what we are doing, why we are doing it and to whom we are directing it.
Some practices and behaviors that we allow ourselves are a lot less than worship and could never pass as such under any circumstances. I must confess that I have thrown my 3 coins in the fountain of Trevi...many times. I was studying Theology in Rome, so you get the picture. I knew that neither the 3 coins in and of themselves, nor Neptune in the background nor the act of throwing the coins in the fountain were ever going to be even the remotest cause of my return to Rome. I have returned to Rome, several times, and only because I worked hard and saved the money to get there. The coins are a traditional cultural practice that never take the place of the God that I worship...but I suppose that I could have, should have refrained from the behavior.
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