The longer I am a Catholic (or maybe it is just advancing age) the more suspicious I am of superstition in religion.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think Catholics are any more superstitious than any other group of religious people –in fact I think they are probably less superstitious. Nevertheless superstition in religion runs deep amongst Catholics–as it does in other religious groups.

I have little experience of superstition in other religions, but I expect proportionately you will find a hefty chunk of superstition amongst, certainly the more primitive and ancient religions like Hinduism and Buddhism. Islam and Judaism? I don’t know. But I do know of the types of superstition we find in the strands of Christianity that I have experienced.

Firstly, evangelical fundamentalism. I experienced there various types of superstition: belief in the Rapture, belief in the Bible was a kind of Nostradamus-type future predicting tome, the belief in the Bible being a kind of secret code book to predict future events, prosperity gospel–“If you give the preacher more money God will give you more money.” Belief in bogus faith healers, amulets and lucky charms you would get for your “donations” to the preacher’s TV ministry.

I don’t think there was much superstition within mainstream liberal Anglicanism–but then they didn’t believe too much in the supernatural anyway–so not much room for superstition. However, upon further thought there was a kind of very subtle superstition, that if you just fit in with the Anglican myth God would smile on you. Fit in with the spirit of the age, nod to the English-Anglican establishment and you’ll be able to enjoy the magic fairyland of the English middle class utopia–where everyone lives in a perfect English village in the countryside, visits the local cathedral on a day out, enjoys a cream tea in the cathedral cloisters, attends the Christmas carol singalong…God is an Englishman and he will smile on you.

Then there are the various forms of Catholic superstition. “If I wear the green scapula or the brown scapula I will not go to hell.” “If I kiss the relic or earn the indulgence I’ll be okay.” “This liturgy is better than that one and will be more efficacious” or “This ancient language is more powerful…” or  the end times superstitions about the three days of darkness or the visions of some holy mystic, or whether or not the pope really did consecrate Russia to Our Lady just like SisterLucia mandated–if she really was Sister Lucia–and not a Vatican planted imposter!

Again, don’t misread me. I’m not against indulgences or scapulas or pilgrimages per se. Heck, I’m not even against televangelists or faith healers per se. I’m poking the abuse of these things and the too easy fall back of religious people into magical thinking. Our religion is miraculous but is not magical.

We believe in the supernatural, but the incarnation of Our Lord Jesus Christ teaches us that the supernatural is incarnate in the natural world. The sacraments of the church are the real, objective interaction of God in this world. The green scapular (or brown or black) will not save you, but a life of faith, love and devotion to the Lord Jesus and his blessed Mother, by the grace of God, will lead you home. If the scapular or the pilgrimage or the indulgence helps you on that journey all well and good, but to believe in a holy medal, a relic, a blessed candle or a scapular in and of itself, won’t really get you anywhere.

Happily, the Catholic Church has a theology about these things. There is a hierarchy of truth. God reveals himself to humanity through the incarnation of his Son who takes flesh of the Blessed Virgin. The gospel, the Scriptures and the Sacraments –predominantly the sacrament of his Body the Church–bear witness to that primary revelation and are the means of communicating God’s grace to humanity. Sacramentals point to the sacraments and are given to draw us closer to these primary channels of God’s grace.

This is not magical thinking. It is logical thinking. Magical thinking sidesteps logic and common sense and wants a stupendous shortcut. The way to the heaven is not broad, easy, quick and painless. There is no magic wand. There is, however, the staff of the Good Shepherd. There is no good fairy godmother, but there is a real godparent for the baptized and confirmed. There is no Good fairy, but there is an angel who is a guardian and guide.

The distinction between superstition and the life of faith is not always simple, but it is important, and the best way to avoid magical thinking is to focus one’s attention on the Lord Jesus Christ, his Blessed Mother, his passion, death, resurrection and ascension into heaven. These are facts of history. Attention to them is attention to reality, and reality is hard–and “hard” means both difficult and concretely real.