Superstitious practices tell God what he can and cannot do (and it’s not just for trads)

Last week we celebrated the feast of St. Joseph, and I found myself thinking about all the little resin St. Josephs scattered across this country. The poor guys are just hanging around upside down with a faceful of dirt, saying hello to passing worms, waiting to be remembered and dug up.

They are part of “home selling kits” that consist of a crudely crafted St. Joseph statue and a card with a specific prayer. Burying the statue upside down, some Catholics believe, will help them buy or sell their house.

This practice is a superstition, and superstition is explicitly named as a sin by the Catholic Church. Yes, even if you do it gently and don’t scowl and shake a fist at the statue before you bury him, and even if you pray to God to get you a good deal on your home. You can pray to God through the intercession of St. Joseph for a speedy sale; just keep his statue on the mantel.

Superstitious practices are prohibited, in part, because they “attribute the efficacy of prayers or of sacramental signs to their mere external performance, apart from the interior dispositions that they demand,” according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

The church today is rife with superstitious thinking. I didn’t grow up with the St. Joseph statue tradition, but I certainly read stories about great sinners who wore a brown scapular because they believed it would save them from hell no matter what they did.

I was at a baptism last Sunday. I heard only bits and pieces of the rite of baptism, but I was still suddenly gripped by a tremendous thrill, realizing I was present to witness a real, powerful, ineradicable change taking place in the soul of the little one whose tiny bald head I could barely see. I wanted to get up and cheer, but instead, I thanked God for doing what he does.

Then some sullen shadow passed a wing over my thoughts, and I recalled how many times I’ve heard the complaint that the “novus ordo” baptism just doesn’t have the same oomph as the extraordinary form. The older form has more references to exorcising the devil and sometimes involves blessed salt, and it is therefore allegedly more powerful.

How could it be more powerful than what just happened, I wondered? This little baby just went from death to life, from dark to light, from drowning to rescue, from burial to resurrection. I believe this. This is our faith. What more could there possibly be?

I want to return to that question, but not before I say two things.

One is that superstition is something more than overtly pagan practices like putting your faith in a lucky rabbit’s foot or doing some quasi-religious ceremony like burying a statue. And it’s more than treating a scapular like a magic charm. Superstition can happen even in outwardly liturgically sound sacramental practices like baptism. Asserting that one rite of baptism is more powerful than another is claiming that we can lure or manipulate God into doing things he wouldn’t otherwise do…Read the rest of my latest for America Magazine.

Image: Detail of St. Joseph statue via Wikimedia commons

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7 thoughts on “Superstitious practices tell God what he can and cannot do (and it’s not just for trads)”

  1. This article puts into words a lot of things I’ve thought but didn’t know if any other Catholics also thought. I’m a convert and have no problems with any teachings, liturgies, councils, dogmas, etc… and I consider myself fairly open-minded and able to accept different devotions even if they don’t resonate with me personally (for example, as a former protestant, plenty of Marian devotions still feel foreign to me, but I can understand the rationale behind them and see that they are beautiful).
    But then I see folk practices and traditions like the St. Joseph “House Selling Kit” and it does give me a skeezy feeling. Even the way people talk about the Brown Scapular gives me pause, and I’ve never read an argument for the promises that made it feel any more okay. I haven’t been able to pinpoint exactly why, but I think this article articulates my feelings very well. It helps to know that it’s okay to feel that way – that other people feel it too.

  2. The devil loves to distort beautiful Church practices and traditions. When Catholics inadvertently use these practices in a way that crosses the line into superstition, it weakens the body, and also promotes misinterpretation among Protestants and non-Christians, who then see Catholics and these practices as inherently superstition when, in fact, it’s the faulty way their being used that is superstitious. Thank you for reminding us to be vigilant against this.

  3. I did read the whole article but somehow I missed that paragraph. Not sure if it was added later or I just missed it. Either way, I’m surprised (and somewhat skeptical) to hear there are Trads who believe the Latin baptism confers extra sacramental graces on its recipient in some sort of superstitious manner. All the Trads I’ve ever known (admittedly not many) have been huge Church historians, particularly knowledgeable in the history of the last 600 years or so. And the teaching for what comprises a true and valid baptism has been clear for at least that long. Preferring one rite over another does not equal superstition.

    1. I’ve gone down an Internet rabbit hole (an admittedly dangerous past time) of priests who are exorcists and have a YouTube presence. Most of the comments saying the old rite works better were in that context.

      So, to be fair, it’s from a sampling of internet trads, which are probably the craziest subset. I have met a couple trads in person who were that level of crazy as well too (one of whom gave my dad a pamphlet detailing how Jews are evil and plotting world domination), though most of them seem more balanced and sincere.

  4. “I’ve heard the complaint that the “novus ordo” baptism just doesn’t have the same oomph as the extraordinary form. The older form has more references to exorcising the devil and sometimes involves blessed salt, and it is therefore allegedly more powerful.”

    Are there Trads who believe their style of baptism is more effective on the baptizee? I’ve never seen that stated anywhere. Afterall, it’s Catholicism 101 that, when a priest isn’t available, any believer can baptize a baby (or anyone else desirous of baptism) who is in danger of imminent death. That’s a codified Church teaching that predates Vatican II by many centuries, and the Trads love that history stuff.

    I’ve never been to a Latin Mass baptism, at least not that I can recall. But I can well believe it has more oomph. Not for the infant being baptized, but for everyone watching. I see it as a good thing and absolutely not superstition to be reminded more frequently and forcefully that the Devil is real and present in our world, if indeed that’s what they do at a Trad baptism.

    1. Did you read the whole article? She says the same thing you do about how it affects people right there at the end.

      I have heard people say the TLM one is “better” because it has certain exorcism prayers the NO one doesn’t. So yeah…some people do actually say/think that.

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