Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Superstitions, Catholicism, and a Really Bad Experience With the Ark

I was raised in a nice mainline Protestant family. My parents had nothing against the Catholic Church, Catholicism, or Catholics. Very determined nuns keeping my mother alive as a premature infant probably had something to do with that.

The area I lived in, though, was very anti-Catholic. I wasn't taught about the "Whore of Babylon" at home: but I couldn't help running into the malignantly virtuous tirades against the Church. Which got me curious - and indirectly led to my conversion to Catholicism. That's another topic.

Those Catholics are Superstitious, Right?


I can see how people get the idea that Catholicism is a cesspool of superstition. Catholic churches don't, generally, follow the 'sensory-deprivation chamber' motif of many Protestant sanctuaries. We often have pictures and statues - which non-Catholics may assume are idols. They're not. I've written about that before. (February 22, 2010, for starters)

Then there are practices like kissing the cross during Lent; saying the Rosary just about any time; and wearing a crucifix, like I do.

I've heard that people committing crimes in some cultures wear a string of rosary beads, crucifix included, while committing crimes: as a good luck charm. I've no reason to doubt it.

A Word About Using 'Magic Charms:' Don't

There's another story that goes the rounds from time to time. The idea is that you can boost the value of your property by burying a statue of a particular saint on it. It's supposed to work like a charm. (I'll get to the Catholic position on charms later. Short version: don't. (Catechism, 2117))

Someone who thinks that just burying a statue of a saint - or of Elvis, for that matter - on their property will cause their property value to go up is being superstitious. Unless, I suppose, the statue is made of gold, and the buyer knows about it. In which case they're engaging in a sort of under-the-counter kickback. Or, rather, under-the-dirt.

Someone, somewhere, has probably said that:
  • They were Catholic
  • They used to wear rosary beads as a good luck charm
  • Now they've
    • 'Seen the light'
    • Cut up their rosary
    • Smashed their statues of saints
    • Burned their pictures of Jesus
That last point is a little dubious, I think. The 'saved' folks I've run into don't seem to have had as much trouble with two-dimensional art as they did with three-dimensional representations.

Never mind.

Being Superstitious is on the Catholic No-No List

The Catholic Church teaches that superstitions are a bad idea. So why am I wearing a crucifix?

It's not to keep me from stubbing my toe. I'll get into the 'why' later.

Two People, Two Pennies, One's Superstitious, the Other's Not

First of all, I don't speak for the Church. I'm some guy with a blog. If you've got a question: find a Catholic priest who knows about Catholic teachings, and ask him. Or get the Catechism of the Catholic Church and read it. And then talk to the priest.

I don't necessarily suggest doing this, but one time I talked to a Bishop in the Diocese of Fargo, North Dakota, to get a straight answer. My wife was a bit embarrassed, I think: but I got my answer.

Where was I? Being superstitious, doing superstitious things. Right.

This post, in another blog, got me started thinking about superstitions today:
"Catholics and Superstition"
Aggie Catholics (July 13, 2010)

"Q - I would be interested to see what you think about the Aggie tradition of leaving pennies at the statue of Lawrence Sullivan Ross, as a 'good luck' for doing well on tests. To me, this is a clear no-no as a Catholic; I never did it, although I think many who have don't mean much by it. I do consider it to be offering sacrifice to a mute altar in hopes that some supernatural benefit might come during one's exam. If you aren't hoping for there to be an effect, why throw away money, after all?..."
The question seems fairly simple: Is it okay to leave pennies at the statue of Lawrence Sullivan Ross?

The blog's authors gave what I've found is a fairly common answer among informed Catholics: 'It depends.'

No wonder folks think we're "vague!" (July 18, 2009)

The reply includes this quote from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which says what superstition is.
"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.41"
(Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2111)
I've put coins in a fountain - once, a very long time ago. The bottom of the fountain was harvested regularly, as I recall, for some fundraiser or other.

I really don't think I was being superstitious: because my intent was to be able to say that I'd tossed coins in a fountain, I could afford it, and the money would go for something useful. Not because I thought the action would bring me good luck, grant me a wish, or cure my baldness. (I wasn't quite as bald then - but I'm getting off-topic.)

If I'd 'really believed' that the fountain fairy would grant me three wishes, or something of that sort - that would have been a superstitious act.

The way I see it, it's a matter of intent.

The Answer is Definitely 'It Depends'

Here's the way that Aggie Catholics post ended:
"...For instance carrying a crystal in the pocket for 'luck' would be superstitious. Carrying a crystal in your pocket to remember your grandpa is a good practice.

"So, putting a penny at the statue of Sully for luck is bad. Doing it because you think it is a fun tradition at A&M is not.

"Still, we should be cautious about any action that could lead to superstitious practices and not take them too lightly. I hope this helps."
(Aggie Catholics)
Vague? In context, I don't think so. As with so much else I've run into from informed Catholics, what goes on inside a person's mind - particularly intent - is important. What we do is important, but so is what we're trying to do.

Which could be confusing for someone who expects 'religious' people to rant about what kind of musical instruments may and may not be played in church, and whether or not candles are Biblical.

I Wear a Crucifix: It's Not for 'Luck'

I wear very little jewelry: and what I wear is functional. My wedding ring identifies me as a married man, a bracelet says that I'm diabetic, I wear my late father's wedding ring to remind me of him, and I've got a chaplet around my neck to say 'I'm Catholic.'

That chaplet is a knotted cord with a crucifix attached: in this parish, used in Lenten prayers; and worn as an outward sign that we're Catholics.

Do I think that chaplet will save me? From anything from a stubbed toe to eternal separation from God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit?


It's a bit of metal and string, shaped in a particular way and blessed by the Pope. (That's yet another topic.) It serves as a reminder to me of my relationship with my Lord. Not as a good luck charm.

Definitely not. I remember what happened when folks decided, on their own, to use the Ark to help them win a battle. (1 Samuel 4:3-22) It didn't work: rather dramatically.

Sure, the Ark had been involved in a river crossing: but that time the people involved had been ordered to use the Ark in a particular way. (Joshua 4) When the Lord of Hosts gives an order, that's one thing. When you figure you'll use something connected with Him for your own purposes, that's something else.

Besides, I've read the Catechism, and what it says about wearing charms as a magical practice: don't. (Catechism, 2117) Then there are "charming" bits of jewelry, like charm bracelets. Same word, not necessarily the same thing. As I said before, no wonder some folks think we're vague. The Catholic Church isn't big on dropping arbitrary rules on people, based on accidents of culture and language. Which is yet again another topic.

One More Thing

I think that touchable, wearable things are important in spiritual matters: because I'm a human being. We're spiritual and material beings. (Catechism, 355) But that is still one more topic.

More-or-less-related posts:More:
A tip of the hat to newadvent, on Twitter, for the link to the Aggie Catholics post. And, to ZephyrK9, on Twitter, for starting the train of thought that led to writing this post.


Brigid said...

Awkward sentence (not to mention long): "I've also heard that a story goes the rounds from time to time, that a person can boost the value of their property by burying a statue of a particular saint on it."

Brian, aka Aluwir, aka Norski said...


Awkward? You're too kind!

Got it, fixed it, and tidied up a related passage while I was at it.


Felix T said...

Someone help me. My mother-in-law, a devout Catholic, is constantly saying I'm being sinful, when I say a bad words or become angry and argue. Well one days she's telling me it's "bad luck" when some one breaks a plate. Am I wrong in believing that "luck" has no place in the Catholic belief. I know she'll find a way to say that my argument is unfounded or not true. How do I approach her with this.

Brian Gill said...

Felix T,

*Sorry* about neglecting comments for so long - including yours.

About how to approach your mother about her apparent belief in 'luck,' I have no idea.

It does sound like she's kept some superstitious beliefs. I've updated the link to Catechism, 2111, ( http://old.usccb.org/catechism/text/pt3sect2chpt1.shtml#2111 ) - and you're quite right. Superstition is not on the Catholic 'approved' list.

As for "luck," as the word is used in American English - it can mean random chance, something unexpected, the sort of superstitious 'luck' that's involved with horseshoes and salt.

As for whether it's a good idea to confront your mother? I'd take that up with a priest. Preferably one who knows both you and your mother.

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What's That Doing in a Nice Catholic Blog?

From time to time, a service that I use will display links to - odd - services and retailers.

I block a few of the more obvious dubious advertisers.

For example: psychic anything, numerology, mediums, and related practices are on the no-no list for Catholics. It has to do with the Church's stand on divination. I try to block those ads.

Sometime regrettable advertisements get through, anyway.

Bottom line? What that service displays reflects the local culture's norms, - not Catholic teaching.