Monday, March 12, 2007

May the Force Be with You

Eve emailed me the following question:
I just read a post on another blog about scapulars and their "powers". I have always had trouble as a Catholic myself, acknowledging the apparent superstitious nature of things such as this. How can I possibly justify them to Protestant inquirers? I realize the power inludes prayer, but just wearing a scapular and then you will not go to hell? That just sounds like the very thing the Church tells us to stay away from. Could you explain to me where the line is drawn between superstition and wearing "saving" scapulars or burying statues in the front yard to sell the house?
First, it is necessary to define what "superstition" is. The Catechism says the following:
2110 The first commandment forbids honoring gods other than the one Lord who has revealed himself to his people. It proscribes superstition and irreligion. Superstition in some sense represents a perverse excess of religion; irreligion is the vice contrary by defect to the virtue of religion.

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 (cf.
Mt 23:16-22).

2138 Superstition is a departure from the worship that we give to the true God. It is manifested in idolatry, as well as in various forms of divination and magic.
We see from this that superstition is more than granting a magical quality to an otherwise normmal object. It is also present whenever you "attribute the efficacy of prayers or of sacramental signs to their mere external performance, apart from the interior dispositions that they demand." This is important as we discuss what makes a scapular efficacious.

Now, the scapular would be magical or superstitious if we believed that the mere ownership of the scapular or it's mere presence on one's person was enough to ensure that person a place in heaven. But, the scapular is not a good luck charm and it is not enough to simply have it around your neck when judgment comes. It is what is implied by the wearing of the scapular that makes all the difference.

The promise of Mary to St. Simon Stock that "Whosoever dies wearing this scapular shall not suffer eternal fire" extends only to those who wear the scapular as a sign of their devotion to the Blessed Mother and to living a good, Christian life of prayer and holiness. When you put on the scapular, you set yourself apart as someone who wishes to live as Mary lived, and as someone who humbly places himself under her patronage. When we pray the "Hail Mary" we say at the end: "Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen." That becomes the petition of every person who faithfully wears the scapular. He wears it with faith that Mary will pray for his soul at the time of Judgment. And if he has lead a good life, he will not suffer eternal fire.

The scapular also works as a reminder to live with the devotion that it's presence is supposed to symbolize. We feel it throughout the day, when the front or the back drops down too far, when the squares gently scratch us or pat against our bodies as we run. We show our love to Mary by kissing the scapular, and we implore her intercession every time we clutch it in fear or sorrow.

So, as long as we attribute the efficacy of the scapular to the interior disposition that it demands, then we simply cannot be accused of magic or superstition. The same thing goes for burying a statue of St. Joseph in your yard. My impression is that most people seem to do this out of superstition and without the requisite disposition. But, I think there is a good and Christian way to do it.

When St. Teresa of Avila had her nuns bury St. Joseph medals this was out of devotion to St. Joseph. She knew that St. Joseph was a man who knew what it was like to have housing troubles ("Any room in the inn?"), to provide a home for his family, and to have to move his family from one place to the next. So, in buring these medals (today, we commonly bury statues) we place ourselves under his patronage. The efficacy comes not in the burying of a figurine, but in the devotion to St. Joseph that the practice symbolizes. Prayer is always powerful, and anything that compels us to pray or to grow in love of the saints is well and good.

I hope that helps. For more on the scapular, go here. For more on burying statues of St. Joseph, go here or here.

Pax Christi,


  1. Thanks! I appreciate the response, it was very very helpful indeed.

  2. very great post

    and timely as well. thanks!

  3. Great post and helpful to me as well!

  4. Likewise, a helpful post.

    For your non-Catholic readers, perhaps it would be helpful to write up a piece (or direct us to a resource) clarifying how devotion to Mary (or the other saints) does not compete with devotion to Jesus, but rather flows from it.

    Thomas Howard writes of Franciscan University that it is a place "where the word 'Catholic' takes on all the vitality and ardor and articulateness for which I longed, and where Marian piety, far from detracting from the Christocentric nature of the Faith, is the very handmaiden of true Christocentrism" (Lead Kindly Light, p57).

    I wish he had filled this out! Could you explain what you think Howard means (or suggest some resource that speaks to this)?



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