I am the Lord thy God; thou shalt not have strange gods before me.


You turned to God from idols, to serve the living and true God.-- THESS. 1. 9.

St. Paul's converts at Thessalonica were chiefly of pagan origin, and had consequently been worshippers of idols. After having founded the Church there the Apostle was obliged to flee to other parts on account of the persecutions of the Jews. When he was at Corinth Timothy, whom he had dispatched to investigate the conditions of the converts at Thessalonica, returned, giving a good report of the Thessalonians, whereupon St. Paul addressed this letter to them. The Apostle's purpose in writing this first Epistle was to encourage the new converts, to keep them steadfast in the faith and free from their former idolatrous practices. Whereas before they had been the servants of dumb idols, the mere creations of men, he now exhorts them to serve the living and true God.

In the time of St. Paul nearly the whole non-Jewish world was given over to idolatry and superstition of all kinds. Today in most civilized countries the worship of idols in themselves is almost extinct, and yet there still prevails in the world everywhere a great amount of superstition which is opposed to the true worship of God. This, as being against the first Commandment is a grave sin, and it is needful for us to consider it.

1. Superstition as to the object of worship, 1. Idolatry is the giving to any creature, whether statue, animal, or person, the worship of latria, i.e., the homage which is due to God alone. This is never the case in the veneration of the Blessed Virgin, the saints, images, and relics by Catholics, because while we respect and revere these as favored creatures of God, or on account of what they represent, yet we always recognize that they are only creatures and not therefore capable of receiving anything more than an inferior degree of cult. 2. The first Commandment forbids the making of images in two ways: (a) if they are intended to be adored as idols; (b) if they are intended to be representations of the Deity as though God could be seen with bodily eyes or reproduced by material objects. It is not forbidden, however, to represent the Persons of the Trinity in certain bodily forms under which they appeared in divers times in the Old and New Testaments, because these images do not mean that God has a body, but merely express in visible ways some of God's attributes or actions. 3. Again, it is not forbidden by the first Commandment to give to sacred images a certain relative honor on account of what they represent and call to our minds. On the contrary, if we kiss and salute the flag of our country, if we bare our heads in veneration before the pictures and statutes of the great servants of our country and guard the remains of our departed heroes with reverence and awe, if we decorate the graves of our relatives and friends, and tenderly preserve with every mark of respect and affection the pictures and keepsakes of those near and dear to us, what veneration should we not have for the relics and representations of the Blessed Virgin and the saints, the high servants and chosen friends of God! Scripture and tradition show us how natural and right is this sentiment of the human heart to reverence the things that pertain to the servants of God (4 Kings xiii. 21; Matt. ix. 21; Acts v. 15, xix. 12). Sacrilege and simony, which are profanations of holy things, persons and places, are serious sins against the first Commandment. 4. Besides idolatry, there are other forms of superstition by which the first Commandment can be violated, namely, by direct or indirect dealings with the devil, in order to obtain favors from him. To practice Spiritism, to consult mediums or fortune-tellers, to put faith in charms and omens, to regard all dreams as forebodings of the future, are examples of this form of superstition. In all these ways an effect is expected not from God, nor from natural powers, but tacitly from the demon. Thus the honor due to God is given to the enemy of God.

1. Superstition as to the manner of worship, 1. While Christians adore the true God, they may become guilty of superstition through the manner in which they worship God. 2. This can happen, (a) by giving God a false and forbidden worship, for example, by observing Jewish ceremonies, Protestant rites, and the like; (b) by vain and useless practices, such as the "chain prayer"; (c) by attributing to prayers and devotions of the Church a greater value than they possess, for example, by thinking that wearing the scapular will save one's soul in spite of a bad life.

EXHORTATION. 1. Rejoice in the possession of the knowledge of the true God. 2. Let us worship God according to the teachings of His Church and hence in the manner that is worthy of Him. 3. Let us be most vigilant in avoiding any and all of the superstitious practices mentioned above, and also that practical idolatry which consists in the worship of money, pleasure, and many kinds of vice, so common in the present age.

Catechism of the Council of Trent, Part III



The negative part of this Commandment is comprised in these words: "thou shalt not have strange gods before me." This our divine Legislator subjoins, not because it is not implied in the affirmative part of the precept, which says equivalently: "thou shalt worship me, the only God," for if He is God, He is the only God; but on account of the blindness of many, who of old professed to worship the true God and yet adored a multitude of gods. Of these there were many even among the Israelites, whom Elias reproached with having "halted between two sides,"(1) and also among the Samaritans, who worshipped the God of Israel and the gods of the nations.(2)


After this the pastor will observe that this is the first and principal Commandment, not only in order, but also in its nature, dignity, and excellence. God is entitled to infinitely greater love and authority with regard to His creatures than the masters or monarchs of the earth. He created us. He governs us. He nurtured us even in the womb, brought us into the world, and still supplies us by His provident care with all the necessaries of life and maintenance.


Against this Commandment all those sin who have not faith, hope, and charity. Such sinners are very numerous, for they include all who fall into heresy, who reject what the Church of God teaches, who give credit to dreams, fortune-telling, and such superstitious illusions; those who despairing of salvation trust not in the goodness of God; and also those who place their happiness solely in the wealth of this world, in health and strength. But these are matters which the pastor will find developed more at length in treatises on the virtues and vices.(3)



In this concluding clause of the first Commandment, two things occur which demand exposition. The first is, that whilst, on account of the enormous guilt incurred by the violation of the first Commandment, and the propensity of man towards its violation, the punishment is properly indicated in this place; it is also attached to all the other Commandments. Every law enforces its observance by rewards and punishments; and hence the frequent and numerous promises of God, which are recorded in Scripture. To omit those that we meet almost on every page of the Old Testament, we read in the Gospel: "If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments";(4) and again: "He that doth the will of my Father who is in heaven, he shall enter into the kingdom of heaven";(5) and also: "Every tree that doth not yield good fruit shall be cut down and cast into the fire";(6) "Whosoever is angry with his brother shall be guilty of the judgment";(7) "If you will not forgive men, neither will your Father forgive you your offences."(8)


The other observation is that this divine sanction is to be proposed in a very different manner to the spiritual and to the carnal Christian. To the spiritual who is animated by the Spirit of God,(9) and who yields to Him a willing and cheerful obedience, it is, in some sort, glad tidings and a strong proof of the divine goodness; in it he recognizes the parental care of a most loving God, who, now by rewards, now by punishments, almost compels His creatures to adore and worship Him. The spiritual man acknowledges the infinite goodness of God in vouchsafing to issue His commands to him and to make use of his service to the glory of the divine name; and not only does he acknowledge the divine goodness, he also cherishes a strong hope that, when God commands what He pleases, He will also give strength to fulfill what He commands.

But to the carnal man, who is not yet freed from a servile spirit and who abstains from sin more through fear of punishment than love of virtue, this sanction of the divine Law which closes each of the Commandments, is burdensome and severe. The pastor, therefore, as often as he has occasion to explain any of the Commandments will keep this in view; and should encourage his hearers by pious exhortation and so lead them, by the hand, as it were, in the way of the Law.


The pastor should also explain the threat contained in this Commandment that God will not suffer sinners to run their iniquitous career with impunity, but will chastise them with the fondness of a parent, or punish them with the rigor of a judge. This was elsewhere explained by Moses when he said: "Thou shalt know that the Lord thy God is a strong and faithful God, keeping his covenant and mercy to them that love him, and to them that keep his commandments, unto a thousand generations; and repaying forthwith them that hate him."(10) "You will not," says Josue, "be able to serve the Lord; for he is a holy God, and mighty and jealous, and will not forgive your wickedness and sins. If you leave the Lord and serve strange gods, he will turn and will afflict you, and will destroy you."(11)

The faithful are also to be taught, that the punishments here threatened await the third and fourth generation of the impious and wicked; not that the children are always chastised for the sins of their ancestors, but that while these and their children may go unpunished, their posterity shall not all escape the wrath and vengeance of the Almighty. Of this we have an illustration in the life of king Josias. God had spared him for his singular piety, and allowed him to be gathered to the tomb of his fathers in peace, that his eyes might not behold the evils of the times that were to befall Juda and Jerusalem, on account of the wickedness of his grandfather Manasses; yet, after his death the divine vengeance so overtook his posterity, that even the children of Josias were not spared.(12)


The words of this Commandment may perhaps seem to be at variance with the statement of the prophet: "The soul that sins shall die";(18) but the authority of St. Gregory, supported by the testimony of all the ancient Fathers, satisfactorily reconciles this apparent contradiction. "Whoever," he says, "follows the bad example of a wicked father is also bound by his sins; but he, who does not follow the example of a wicked father, shall not at all suffer for the sins of the father. Hence it follows that a wicked son, who dreads not to add his own malice to the vices of his father, by which he knows the divine wrath to have been excited pays the penalty not only of his own sins, but also of those of his wicked father. It is just that he who dreads not to walk in the footsteps of a wicked father, in presence of a rigorous judge, should be compelled in the present life to expiate the crimes of his wicked parent."(13)

That the goodness and mercy of God far exceed His justice is another observation, which the pastor will not fail to make to the faithful. He is angry to the third and fourth generation; but He bestows His mercy on thousands.


The words "of them that hate me" display the grievousness of sin. What more wicked? what more detestable than to hate God, the supreme goodness and sovereign truth? This, however, is the crime of all sinners, for as he who observes the Commandments of God, loves God, so he who despises His Law and violates His Commandments, is justly said to hate God.

The concluding words: "And them that love me," point out the manner and motive of observing the Law of God. Those who observe the divine Law should be influenced in its observance by the same love and charity which they bear to God; a principle which should be brought to mind in the instructions on all the other Commandments.

Sermons: Superstition in Practices of Faith


Superstition is a word that has been much tampered with, because it can be made to mean so many things. Its meaning depends largely upon the viewpoint of the speaker or writer. To the unbeliever, for example, all Christians in their beliefs and religious customs are superstitious. To the Christian who is not a Catholic, the man who believes in the Real Presence of Christ, who bends the knee before the Blessed Sacrament, who prays before the images of the saints, who wears the scapular, who honors the crucifix, is superstitious. All may agree upon the technical definition of the word, but, outside the Catholic Church there are many varieties in the interpretation of that definition, because there are many varieties of belief.

As a matter of fact, too, the word is used even among Catholics both in a broader and narrower sense. In the former acceptance of the word it signifies all false worship, whether the error be found to lie in the object to which honor is given or in the incorrect manner of worshipping the true God. The heathen, amid the wilds of the uncivilized portions of the earth or in the unchanged civilizations of the past, bowing before his idols of wood and stone or honoring with divine worship the celestial orb of light is, in a true and real sense, guilty of superstition. Likewise, the believer in the true God, who worshipping God, nevertheless refuses to worship in the manner prescribed by God Himself as indicated in His own Word or in the voice of His Church, is rightly considered guilty of superstition.

With the consideration of the sin in this sense we are not at present concerned, nor are we concerned with those objections against the Catholic faith which are made by men who wrongly call superstitions those beliefs and practices which we know to be sanctioned by God and the teachings of the Church and reason itself. Nor is it our intention to concern ourselves with those remnants of paganism, those natural superstitions which are found the world over in many popular and local customs. They are none the less to be condemned; none the less to be eradicated from our lives. Oftentimes the very one who is all too ready to detect superstition in the devotion of a soul to its patron saint, will give a perhaps unconscious and perhaps unprofessed assent to the very commonest of superstitious ideas. To consider Friday an unlucky day, or as a day unfit for the starting of a journey; to refuse to be one of thirteen to sit at a table; to consider it unlucky to break a mirror; to place a horseshoe over the door for good luck; to find in charms, such as a four-leaved clover, assurances of good fortune, these are but a few of the multitude of superstitions in which the popular fancy indulges and which are unworthy of an intelligent being.


Rather we are to consider those superstitions which may at times accompany practices of faith. Such superstitions are the degeneration of true belief; they are the excrescences of faith itself. They argue not the absence of faith, but rather its presence, and also its abuse. It is not useless that we should be warned against them, for it is ever incumbent upon us to keep our religion pure and undefiled. As it is necessary to remove the growths that cling to the hull of a vessel, that the vessel itself may not suffer injury nor its usefulness and speed be affected, so it is required that we keep the ship of faith free from those abuses that would degrade and defile it.

We may say that superstition consists in ascribing to created things powers which they do not possess, either by nature or in virtue of the prayers of the Church. With this definition kept clearly and substantially before our minds, we can see how, unless they realize constantly the prerogatives of God and the supernatural character of religion, some of the faithful may fall into superstitious practices. It must be borne in mind, however, that while we admit the possibility of this sin among the faithful, we by no means admit it to be so general as many of the opponents of the Church would say. Many have not hesitated to charge whole peoples with it; but such a charge is unfounded and springs either from prejudice or ignorance. As a rule it is from a lack of knowledge that the charge is begotten. Mistaking the true character of the peoples in question, mistaking their familiarity with religious things for a contempt of religious things, mistaking their expressions of fervid devotion for sinful exaggerations, mistaking the outward act and demeanor for the expression of something which does not really exist within the soul, these objectors jump at conclusions which are anything but complimentary to the subjects they dissect. We speak not therefore of seeming superstition, but of that superstition which is real and therefore sinful, a thing which is as much condemned by God as is the sin of theft or of adultery.


There are some phases of Catholic practice and devotion in which, more than others, this perversion of faith which is called superstition is liable to appear. The first of these, at which we may glance, is the matter of the sacramentals. These are in themselves useful and proper; but that they may be both, they must be employed with a knowledge of their character and of the object for which they are sanctioned. Christ Himself instituted certain means of grace, means that infallibly impart grace of the Holy Spirit to the soul when they are sought with the necessary conditions fulfilled. These we call Sacraments. To attribute to any of the sacramentals a power such as the Sacraments possess would be superstition, for it is from the prayers of the Church and not directly from God that these means of devotion derive their value. The blessing used by the priest in setting apart certain things thus rendered sacred, is given in the name of the Church and does not take to itself any power that is divine. The Sign of the Cross, the crucifix, the rosary, the scapular, medals, the ashes at the beginning of Lent, the palms on Palm Sunday, all these have their legitimate purposes, good and holy. They serve to incite devotion; to increase, when lawfully employed, the love of God in the soul; to fulfill the special purposes for which they were instituted by the Church; but when some attribute to them a greater efficacy than they possess in the mind of the Church or could possess, they are guilty of giving to them a superstitious value. Let us cite a few abuses sometimes found among those who are indeed filled with faith, but who in certain practices go to a sinful excess. To wear, for example, a crucifix or a medal or the scapular in the belief that it is a kind of charm that will of itself protect the wearer from harm, from death by accident, or fire, or drowning and so on, is nothing short of superstition. It is seen that not the wearing of these but the wearing of them with the wrong intention is what makes the sin. They have their legitimate purposes, and when the wearer is in thorough accord with these they serve rather as helps than hindrances to the true spirit of devotion and religion. We cannot be too careful in such matters, for to allow such practices to degenerate into customs akin to the idolatries and superstitions of the pagans is to bring ridicule and contumely upon the true Religion from those who are but too ready to detect flaws and to attribute them to the Church itself. At the same time it would be the height of cowardice and folly to sacrifice one jot or tittle of the time-honored devotions or sacred customs or holy things that have been sanctioned by the Church and are in thorough accord with the natural and reasonable demands of the soul.


Another principle of Catholic faith which, through its abuse, sometimes has degenerated, in individual cases, and may at times degenerate into superstition, is that of the intercession of the saints. Our belief in this matter is as simply stated as it is thoroughly reasonable. We look upon the holy ones of God, who have fought the battle of life unto victory, who live with Christ in heaven, as souls who can pray for us, who can intercede with God for our welfare. If we do not hesitate to ask those upon earth, and especially those who lead good lives, to pray for us; if the prayer of the just man, even in the time of our earthly pilgrimage, availeth much, surely it is not a violation of any right of God nor a derogation from His powers to suppose that the saints may likewise pray for us. Superstition, however, arises from attributing to the saints a power that is the possession of God alone and from the expectation that they personally will grant favors and answers to petitions which it is within the power of Divinity alone to bestow. Many spurious prayers are circulated in which the language is such that it can be considered only as fostering superstition. When we are told, for example, that the recital of such a prayer, or its recital at fixed times, or a special number of times or days, will infallibly obtain from the saint to whom it is addressed the favor asked; when it is believed that the swallowing of papers containing the pictures of the Blessed Virgin or another of the saints will infallibly work a cure of disease; when we are informed that certain extravagant and impossible promises will be infallibly fulfilled through prayers to the saints, we are, beyond doubt, in the region of superstition, for such things are nothing but the giving to creatures that which is the prerogative of God alone. Lately, I remember meeting an instance of this kind which will serve as a warning. A prayer was circulated with preposterous conditions attached. The recipient was to recite the prayer a fixed number of times, but further, was to send it to nine other persons with the same instructions. These details were to be followed under penalty of dire punishment if not performed. This is nothing but the grossest superstition and should be, with all things like it, discountenanced and discouraged by every Catholic that loves his faith and his Church.


Divine power, again, is attributed to things created, and consequently there exists the sin of superstition when from other sources than God Himself a knowledge of the future is sought. The future belongs to God and to God alone. He may reveal it, and may reveal it in any manner He pleases. There can be no question, judging from historical incidents and facts in the lives of the saints and in the records of religion from the beginning, that God has sometimes made known things beyond the present. Nor would it be sinful for anyone to seek such a knowledge from God, if it be sought with spiritual motives and for the sake of the soul. When, however, it is sought in any other way, the seeker is guilty of superstition. One of the prevalent practices of this sort, existing among the educated as well as the uneducated classes, is the consultation of fortune-tellers, who, by this or that means, profess to be able to reveal the future of our lives. The mysterious probing into time yet unborn, to bring forth its products, seems to have a fascination for many minds and to lead them easily astray from the dictates of common sense. It is this craving for the knowledge of the future that leads people to consult not only the fortune-teller, but also the mediums of spiritism and other vagaries. It is just here, in the midst of the subtle workings of the human mind that is ever seeking the solution of the mysterious, that there is evident the need of an authoritative voice to say what are and what are not the proper methods to be employed in the search. It is because of the absence of such an authority outside the Church that we find that these forms of superstition are far more prevalent among non-Catholics than among Catholics. In the divinely instituted Church, appointed by Christ to be the palpable spiritual guide for man upon earth, we have a protecting power that secures us and guards us from errors that might otherwise attract. And it is this very thing that renders delinquencies of this character graver when committed by the Catholic than when indulged in by those who have no teacher upon whom they may depend. The spiritual knowledge given, the spiritual care bestowed, the numerous means for spiritual advancement sanctioned by the Catholic Church are all-sufficient for the life of the soul. To the one that appreciates all these at their full worth, and that uses them in the proper way, there is no need of the superstitious invention of the human mind.


In this consideration of the subject we have but touched upon some of the sins of this class against the virtue of faith; nor is more necessary. For, after all, there is but question of one of the very fundamental principles of religion. If that principle be duly understood, and there is nothing simpler, there need be no danger of the sin. The principle is that the power which belongs to God alone must not be attributed to a creature. The earth, all created nature of itself gives glory to God; and as such may be used by man to express his worship for his Maker. But nature and all things thus employed must be truly subservient to the idea of worship, the internal sense of worship, existent in the soul and heart of man. As the love of one human being for another which has its home within and may be properly expressed in outward action, degenerates into sin when expressed in an inordinate manner, so too our worship of the true God, while having its legitimate external manifestation, sinks into the basest superstition when it is externalized in unseemly and improper ways.

Knowing the true principles and aware of the dangers of degeneration in worship, it is for us, each and all, to keep within our own souls, and to secure from others, a great respect for our faith by preserving it altogether free from superstitious practices.

1. 3 Kings, xvii1. 21.
2. 4 Kings, xvi1. 33.
3. On these various sins see dist. 24. q. 2. in many chapters; Aug., 1. de Divinat. daemon, c. 5; cited in 26. q. 4. c. secundum; Origen, hom. 5 in Josue; cited in 26. q. 2. c. Sed et illud; Aug., 1. 2. de Doct. Christ., ec. 19, 20; cited in the same c. Illud, which is 4 c. of Carth., c. 89. See further 26, qq. 2, 3, 5.
4. Matt. xix. 17. 5. Matt. vii. 21.
6. Matt. iii. 10. and vii. 19. 7. Matt. v. 22. 8. Matt. vi. 15.
9. Rom. viii. 14.
10. Deut. vii. 9, 10.
11. Josue xxiv. 19, 20.
12. 2 Par. 36. iii. 6. 4 Kings xxii. 20.
13. Ezech. xviii. 4.
14. Lib. 15. moral, c. 31; see Aug., epist. 75; St. Thomas, Ia. IIae., q. 87, art. 8.

(Music: If you Love Me by Tomas Tallis (16th Century)
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