Matters arising: Vain Observance

Rev. Nicholas Mary, C.Ss.R.

Fr. Nicholas Mary answers topical questions in the light of moral theology and canon law.

A recent e-mail sent to me by an acquaintance stated:



'Dear..., this novena to the Little Flower was sent to me and I am passing it on to you in the hopes that you will not break this chain. The fourth day after you receive this, some special favour will come to you. Forward this e-mail to three friends before the fourth day, and say three Hail Marys for nine days. If you do not forward this e-mail, you will regret what happens to you on the fourth day.'



What are my obligations in this regard as a faithful Catholic?

The e-mail in question furnishes yet another example of a chain letter which, though framed in pious Catholic terms, remains nothing other than an exercise in superstition, deception and emotional manipulation.

Fr. John Hardon, S.J. defines the chain prayer as:

A superstitious practice that consists in the saying of certain prayers successively by many individuals who hope for the favours received, not so much from God's goodness as from the magic effect of this unbroken series of prayers. In its most common form, a written or printed prayer is sent to the person who is to form one link in the chain and is asked to say this prayer and to continue the chain by persuading others to take up the praying where he or she leaves off. These in turn are to pass the prayer on to still others. The efficacy of the practice, therefore, is mainly in the chain and not in the prayer. All forms of chain prayer are superstition, and correspondingly sinful.1. Article I’in Fr John Hardon, S.J. (ed.), Modern Catholic Dictionary, Bardstown, KY, 2000 (Eternal Life).

The obligations of a faithful Catholic in this regard are simple: to tear up the letter or delete the e-mail. Fr. Edwin F. Healy, S.J. comments that:

It is evident how irrational it is to place the efficacy of my prayer in the bare fact of continuousness accomplished, for the most part, by others. Whence does such prayer derive the special power which is attributed to it? God surely has not promised to answer petitions because they are made under such conditions. Prayer will be fruitful only when it is said with the proper dispositions; that is, when it is said by one in the state of grace with humility, confidence, perseverance, and attention.

On the other hand, it is not wrong for Catholics to wear medals, crucifixes, and the like, for these are not worn for any supposed magical powers attributed to them, but in order to foster devotion or to gain indulgences. Nor is it wrong to recite a set number of prayers (e. g. in the case of the rosary, a novena, etc.), provided that we do not base our hope of obtaining the help sought in the supposed magic power of the number. However, a trace of superstition may creep into these pious practices, and this should be carefully guarded against.Fr E.F. Healy, S.J., Moral Guidance, Chicago, 1942 (Loyola U.P.), pp. 96, 98.

Vain observance

The sin involved is known as vain observance. Fr. F.J. Connell, C.SS.R. situates vain observance within the broader sin of superstition (itself a sin against the virtue of religion and, therefore, the cardinal virtue of justice):

Superstition literally signifies a sin of excess. With respect to religion it means the sin whereby a person gives cult to the true God, but in a manner that is excessive, or gives to another the cult that is due only to God. A person could sin mortally in giving cult even to the true God—for example, if the excess lay in the fact that the cult was based on a serious falsehood. Thus, [a Christian] who would worship God with the ceremonies of the Old Law, which imply that the Redeemer has not yet come, would sin mortally. On the other hand, one would sin venially by giving God cult which is excessive only in its manner—for example, if a priest would add genuflections and bows in the sacred rites over and above those prescribed by the Church. Superstition of the other type—cult due to God alone but given to another—can be either idolatry, divination, or vain observance. Idolatry is the worship of an image of a false god, and it is a most grave sin. Under this would come also worship of the sun or an animal, etc.. Divination is the undue quest for knowledge of secret things by the aid of the devil [e.g. fortune-telling, the ouija board, spiritism, etc.].


"The sin of vain observance consists in the attempt to obtain through the use of some creature an effect which is above its nature—e.g. a rabbit's foot or a lucky coin to secure protection from harm. This too is an implicit seeking of help from the devil, in as far as any special power which the creature may possess cannot come from God or a good spirit, and hence must have its source in the devil. But, as in the case of divination, often those who perform acts of vain observance give no heed to any diabolical intervention and are in good faith—hence, can be excused from mortal sin. Hence, it is better to treat such customs as knocking on wood or avoiding thirteen at table as foolish rather than sinful. If it is doubtful whether or not a certain object is able to produce the desired effects naturally, it is permissible to use it, especially if the user protests that he has no intention of calling on the devil. Thus the use of the divining rod for finding water or metal is allowed. Even sacred objects, such as medals or pictures, would be used wrongly if a person believed that these things in themselves possess special power, or if he regarded them as an infallible means of obtaining some temporal effect. Catholics should be on their guard against using sacred things as if they were charms or 'lucky pieces'.Fr F.J. Connell, C.SS.R., Outlines of Moral Theology, Milwaukee, 1953 (Bruce), pp. 150-2.

We live in superstitious times

As we live in age of apostasy and unbelief, so, as a consequence, do we live in an age of superstition. In words attributed to G.K. Chesterton, “the first effect of not believing in God is to believe in anything”. The real antidote to superstition is not unbelief, but rather the true religion, and that in a well-instructed and well-regulated form, with a good understanding of, and devotion to Divine Providence. Failing that, and faced with the multitude of threats to our wellbeing and happiness, men turn to the illusory protection of vain observances in order to feel safe, or at least less helpless. During the Great War, at a time when British society was far more institutionally Protestant than it is today, the constant danger of death pushed non-Catholic soldiers to the widespread superstitious use of amulets and talismans, just as their bereaved families at home turned to spiritism and divination in their helpless anxiety or grief. Here is an interesting contemporary account of the superstition rife amongst the troops except where countered by higher religiosity:

It is a boast of the age that we have freed ourselves from what is called the deadening influence of superstition. Nevertheless, since the outbreak of the war there has been an extraordinary revival of the secular belief in omens, witchcraft, incantations and all that they imply—the direct influence of supernatural powers, of some sort or other, on the fortunes of individuals in certain events. One amiable form of it is the enormously increased demand for those jewellers' trinkets called charms and amulets, consisting of figures or symbols in stone and metal which are popularly supposed to possess powers of bringing good fortune or averting evil, and which formerly lovers used to present to each other, and wear attached to bracelets and chains, to ensure mutual constancy, prosperity and happiness. Even the eighteenth-century veneration of a child's caul—the membrane occasionally found round the head of an infant at birth—as a sure preservative against drowning is again rife among those who go down to the sea in ships. The menace of the German submarine has revivified the ancient desire of seafaring folk to possess a
caul, which was laid dormant by the sense of security bred by years of freedom from piracy, and the article has gone up greatly in price in shops that sell sailors' requirements at the chief ports. Fortune-tellers, crystal-gazers, and other twentieth-century witches and dealers in incantations, who pretend to be able to look into the future and provide safeguards against misfortune, are being consulted by mothers, wives and sweethearts, anxiously seeking for some safe guidance for their nearest and dearest through the perils of the war.”


So far as the Army is concerned, the belief that certain things bring good luck or misfortune has always been widely held by the rank and file. Formerly there were two talismans which were regarded as especially efficacious in warding off evil, and particularly death and disablement in battle. These were, in the infantry, a button off the tunic of a man, and, in the cavalry, the tooth of a horse, in cases where the man and the horse had come scathless through a campaign. A good many years ago the old words ‘charm,’ ‘talisman,’ ‘amulet,’ dropped out of use in the Army. The French slang word ‘mascot,’ which originated with gamblers, and which is applied to any person, animal or thing which is supposed to be lucky, came into fashion, and some animal or bird—monkey, parrot, or goat, or even the domestic dog or cat—was appointed ‘the mascot of the regiment’.


But since the outbreak of the war the Army has returned to its old faith in the old talisman. A special charm designed for soldiers, called ‘Touchwood’, and described as ‘the wonderful Eastern charm’, has had an enormous sale. It was suggested by the custom, when hopes are expressed, of touching wood, so as to placate the fates and avert disappointment, a custom which is supposed to have arisen from the ancient Catholic veneration of the True Cross.


‘Touchwood’ is a tiny imp, mainly head, made of oak, surmounted by a khaki service cap, and with odd, sparkling eyes, as if always on the alert to see and avert danger. The legs, either in silver or gold, are crossed, and the arms, of the same metal, are lifted to touch the head. The designer, Mr. H. Brandon, states that he has sold 1,250,000 of this charm since the war broke out. Not long ago there was a curious scene in Regent's Park. This was the presentation of ‘Touchwood’ to each of the 1,200 officers and men of a battalion of the City of London Regiments (known as ‘The Cast-Irons’) by Mlle. Delysia, a French music-hall dancer, before they went off for the Front. Never has there been such a public exhibition—uncontrolled and unashamed—of the belief in charms.


Mr. Brandon has received numerous letters from soldiers on active service, ascribing their escape from perilous situations to the wearing of the charm. One letter, which has five signatures, says: ‘We have been out here for five months fighting in the trenches, and have not had a scratch. We put our great good fortune down to your lucky charm, which we treasure highly.’


Thus we see that mankind has not outgrown old superstitions, as so many of us thought, but, on the contrary, is still ready to fly to them for comfort and protection in danger. The truth is that the human mind remains at bottom essentially the same amid all the changes made by time in the superficial crust of things. Man is still the heir of all the ages.”4. Michael MacDonagh, The Irish at the Somme, London, 1917 (Hodder & Stoughton), pp. 86-9. The author goes on to narrate the successful efforts expended by Catholics to spread the use of sacramentals such as the Badge of the Sacred Heart or the Miraculous Medal amongst non-Catholic soldiers in order to combat the use of objects of superstition. Even Orangemen from Ulster were to be found asking priests duly to bless their Miraculous Medals! (p.98).

So much for the ‘Cast-Irons’ and their Protestant rejection of superstition! In the front line, it is often said, no man is an atheist. That does not make him a Catholic of well-regulated faith either. As the author goes on to relate, in striking contrast to all this superstition was the attitude of the Irish Catholic soldiery, especially when prepared for battle by their chaplains through the use of the sacraments and sacramentals of the Church, and whose bravery was unquestioned.

The danger of relapse

As Catholics fall away from the true Faith, however, so they are in danger of relapsing, like everyone else, into superstition. Since Vatican II the overwhelming majority of Catholics have ceased to practise the Faith, and are increasingly tempted to look for security, protection and hope in the wrong places. Generations of younger Catholics have now grown up without adequate catechetical instruction, and are unaware of the dangers of vain observance. Catholics in missionary lands in Africa and Asia have drifted back into a kind of syncretism that pays lip service to their Faith while observing the superstitious rites of paganism at the same time.For an enlightening introduction to superstition in Nigeria, and the efforts to combat it by Bl. Cyprian Tansi († 1964), see Fr Peter Scott, SSPX, Superstition or Religion in: Defende Nos no. 78, April 2021, pp. 1-8.

Many nominal Catholics in Latin America see no sin in the superstitious use of the sacramentals of the Church within the context of occult religions like Santería, Candomblé or Voodoo.

Catholics everywhere are seldom prepared today for the spiritual combat by priests in the way that Irish soldiers were prepared for Battle on the Somme.

Catholics faithful to Tradition must take care to draw close to sources of sound formation in the Faith, and to reject even those forms of vain observance that can creep in under the guise of the pious use of sacramentals. Capuchin Fr Heribert Jone notes that:

One may practice superstition also with the aid of religious objects, e.g., using the paten as a mirror and expecting thereby to recover from an illness; so, too, if one copies prayer leaflets and distributes them in order [i.e. in virtue of the multiplication itself] to obtain certain effects; furthermore, if one ascribes an infallible efficacy to a certain prayer or picture, etc., as frequently happens in the case of chain-prayers.Fr H. Jone, O.F.M. (Cap.), Moral Theology, Westminster, MD, 1952 (Newman Press), p. 99.

And Dominican Frs. McHugh and Callan state likewise that:

Sacred things themselves may be used superstitiously, as happens when they are regarded as principal agents, or when, contrary to fact, they are deemed to act infallibly or independently of any human cooperation or disposition. [...] Superstition is sometimes found even in religious observances.


a) Thus, there is superstition in the observance itself when vain additions are made to an approved usage (e.g. the addition to a prayer against sickness of gestures, breathings, gibberish, etc., that have no significance of reverence for God).


b) There is superstition in the manner of the observance when one attributes the virtue of a sacred rite or object to some unimportant circumstance (e.g., the shape of the reliquary in which a relic is carried, the ‘propitious’ day on which a sacramental was received), or expects from a sacred thing an effect which it has no power to produce (e.g. infallible certainty of salvation from the performance of a certain devotion or the presence of a holy picture or blessed object).


It is not superstition, however, to attach significance to circumstances that have a sacred meaning (e.g., holy days, figures that have a religious symbolism), or to put a confidence in sacred things that is based on their character or approved usage (e.g. the hope and trust that blessings will be impetrated and salvation itself through fidelity to an authorised devotion).Fr J.A. McHugh, O.P, & Fr C.J. Callan, O.P. - Moral Theology, New York, 1958 (Wagner), Rev. ed., nos 2290, 2294.

All this echoes what all the authorities cited above have said: there can be an abuse of the rites and sacramentals of Holy Church which equates to vain observance. One would not expect to find a faithful Catholic wearing an amulet or talisman to ward off the evil eye or crossing a gypsy’s palm with silver to know what the future holds. On the other hand, it is unfortunately far from uncommon to find a kind of devotional practice which acts as if a statue or a prayer has some kind of power apart from God or divorced from His Holy Will. There is only a short distance from breaking off the head of a statue of the Infant of Prague to ensure good weather at your wedding to holding onto a mass-produced Touchwood for dear life in a trench on the Somme! Separated from the worship of the One, True God, sacred objects have no power, and, as the Penny Catechism reminds us, “can neither see, nor hear, nor help us.” †

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