QUESTION 96: OF SUPERSTITION IN OBSERVANCES
We must now consider superstition in observances, under which head there
are four points of inquiry:
(1) Of observances for acquiring knowledge, which are prescribed by the
(2) Of observances for causing alterations in certain bodies;
(3) Of observances practiced in fortune-telling;
(4) Of wearing sacred words at the neck.
Article 1: Whether it be unlawful to practice the observances of the magic art?
Objection 1: It would seem that it is not unlawful to practice the observances
of the magic art. A thing is said to be unlawful in two ways. First, by
reason of the genus of the deed, as murder and theft: secondly, through
being directed to an evil end, as when a person gives an alms for the
sake of vainglory. Now the observances of the magic art are not evil as
to the genus of the deed, for they consist in certain fasts and prayers
to God; moreover, they are directed to a good end, namely, the
acquisition of science. Therefore it is not unlawful to practice these
Objection 2: Further, it is written (Dan. 1:17) that "to the children" who
abstained, "God gave knowledge, and understanding in every book, and
wisdom." Now the observances of the magic art consist in certain fasts
and abstinences. Therefore it seems that this art achieves its results
through God: and consequently it is not unlawful to practice it.
Objection 3: Further, seemingly, as stated above (Article ), the reason why it is
wrong to inquire of the demons concerning the future is because they have
no knowledge of it, this knowledge being proper to God. Yet the demons
know scientific truths: because sciences are about things necessary and
invariable, and such things are subject to human knowledge, and much more
to the knowledge of demons, who are of keener intellect, as Augustine
says [*Gen. ad lit. ii, 17; De Divin. Daemon. 3,4]. Therefore it seems to
be no sin to practice the magic art, even though it achieve its result
through the demons.
On the contrary, It is written (Dt. 18:10,11): "Neither let there be
found among you . . . anyone . . . that seeketh the truth from the dead":
which search relies on the demons' help. Now through the observances of
the magic art, knowledge of the truth is sought "by means of certain
signs agreed upon by compact with the demons" [*Augustine, De Doctr.
Christ. ii, 20; see above Question , Article ]. Therefore it is unlawful to
practice the notary art.
I answer that, The magic art is both unlawful and futile. It is
unlawful, because the means it employs for acquiring knowledge have not
in themselves the power to cause science, consisting as they do in gazing
certain shapes, and muttering certain strange words, and so forth.
Wherefore this art does not make use of these things as causes, but as
signs; not however as signs instituted by God, as are the sacramental
signs. It follows, therefore, that they are empty signs, and consequently
a kind of "agreement or covenant made with the demons for the purpose of
consultation and of compact by tokens" [*Augustine, De Doctr. Christ. ii,
20; see above Question , Article ]. Wherefore the magic art is to be absolutely
repudiated and avoided by Christian, even as other arts of vain and
noxious superstition, as Augustine declares (De Doctr. Christ. ii, 23).
This art is also useless for the acquisition of science. For since it is
not intended by means of this art to acquire science in a manner
connatural to man, namely, by discovery and instruction, the consequence
is that this effect is expected either from God or from the demons. Now
it is certain that some have received wisdom and science infused into
them by God, as related of Solomon (3 Kgs. 3 and 2 Paralip 1). Moreover,
our Lord said to His disciples (Lk. 21:15): "I will give you a mouth and
wisdom, which all your adversaries shall not be able to resist and
gainsay." However, this gift is not granted to all, or in connection with
any particular observance, but according to the will of the Holy Ghost,
as stated in 1 Cor. 12:8, "To one indeed by the Spirit is given the word
of wisdom, to another the word of knowledge, according to the same
Spirit," and afterwards it is said (1 Cor. 12:11): "All these things one
and the same Spirit worketh, dividing to everyone according as He will."
On the other hand it does not belong to the demons to enlighten the
intellect, as stated in the FP, Question , Article . Now the acquisition of
knowledge and wisdom is effected by the enlightening of the intellect,
wherefore never did anyone acquire knowledge by means of the demons.
Hence Augustine says (De Civ. Dei x, 9): "Porphyry confesses that the
intellectual soul is in no way cleansed by theurgic inventions," i.e. the
operations "of the demons, so as to be fitted to see its God, and discern
what is true," such as are all scientific conclusions. The demons may,
however, be able by speaking to men to express in words certain teachings
of the sciences, but this is not what is sought by means of magic.
Reply to Objection 1: It is a good thing to acquire knowledge, but it is not good
to acquire it by undue means, and it is to this end that the magic art
Reply to Objection 2: The abstinence of these children was not in accordance with
a vain observance of the notary art, but according to the authority of
the divine law, for they refused to be defiled by the meat of Gentiles.
Hence as a reward for their obedience they received knowledge from God,
according to Ps. 118:100, "I have had understanding above the ancients,
because I have sought Thy commandments."
Reply to Objection 3: To seek knowledge of the future from the demons is a sin
not only because they are ignorant of the future, but also on account of
the fellowship entered into with them, which also applies to the case in
Article 2: Whether observances directed to the alteration of bodies, as for the purpose of acquiring health or the like, are unlawful?
Objection 1: It would seem that observances directed to the alteration of
bodies, as for the purpose of acquiring health, or the like, are lawful.
It is lawful to make use of the natural forces of bodies in order to
produce their proper effects. Now in the physical order things have
certain occult forces, the reason of which man is unable to assign; for
instance that the magnet attracts iron, and many like instances, all of
which Augustine enumerates (De Civ. Dei xxi, 5,7). Therefore it would
seem lawful to employ such like forces for the alteration of bodies.
Objection 2: Further, artificial bodies are subject to the heavenly bodies,
just as natural bodies are. Now natural bodies acquire certain occult
forces resulting from their species through the influence of the heavenly
bodies. Therefore artificial bodies, e.g. images, also acquire from the
heavenly bodies a certain occult force for the production of certain
effects. Therefore it is not unlawful to make use of them and of such
Objection 3: Further, the demons too are able to alter bodies in many ways, as
Augustine states (De Trin. iii, 8,9). But their power is from God.
Therefore it is lawful to make use of their power for the purpose of
producing these alterations.
On the contrary, Augustine says (De Doctr. Christ. ii, 20) that "to
superstition belong the experiments of magic arts, amulets and nostrums
condemned by the medical faculty, consisting either of incantations or of
certain cyphers which they call characters, or of any kind of thing worn
or fastened on."
I answer that, In things done for the purpose of producing some bodily
effect we must consider whether they seem able to produce that effect
naturally: for if so it will not be unlawful to do so, since it is lawful
to employ natural causes in order to produce their proper effects. But,
if they seem unable to produce those effects naturally, it follows that
they are employed for the purpose of producing those effects, not as
causes but only as signs, so that they come under the head of "compact by
tokens entered into with the demons" [*Augustine, De Doctr. Christ.; see
above Question , Article ]. Wherefore Augustine says (De Civ. Dei xxi, 6): "The
demons are allured by means of creatures, which were made, not by them,
but by God. They are enticed by various objects differing according to
the various things in which they delight, not as animals by meat, but as
spirits by signs, such as are to each one's liking, by means of various
kinds of stones, herbs, trees, animals, songs and rites."
Reply to Objection 1: There is nothing superstitious or unlawful in employing
natural things simply for the purpose of causing certain effects such as
they are thought to have the natural power of producing. But if in
addition there be employed certain characters, words, or any other vain
observances which clearly have no efficacy by nature, it will be
superstitious and unlawful.
Reply to Objection 2: The natural forces of natural bodies result from their
substantial forms which they acquire through the influence of heavenly
bodies; wherefore through this same influence they acquire certain active
forces. On the other hand the forms of artificial bodies result from the
conception of the craftsman; and since they are nothing else but
composition, order and shape, as stated in Phys. i, 5, they cannot have a
natural active force. Consequently, no force accrues to them from the
influence of heavenly bodies, in so far as they are artificial, but only
in respect of their natural matter. Hence it is false, what Porphyry
held, according to Augustine (De Civ. Dei x, 11), that "by herbs, stones,
animals, certain particular sounds, words, shapes and devices, or again
by certain movements of the stars observed in the course of the heavens
it is possible for men to fashion on earth forces capable of carrying
into effect the various dispositions of the stars," as though the results
of the magic arts were to be ascribed to the power of the heavenly
bodies. In fact as Augustine adds (De Civ. Dei x, 11), "all these things
are to be ascribed to the demons, who delude the souls that are subject
Wherefore those images called astronomical also derive their efficacy
from the actions of the demons: a sign of this is that it is requisite to
inscribe certain characters on them which do not conduce to any effect
naturally, since shape is not a principle of natural action. Yet
astronomical images differ from necromantic images in this, that the
latter include certain explicit invocations and trickery, wherefore they
come under the head of explicit agreements made with the demons: whereas
in the other images there are tacit agreements by means of tokens in
certain shapes or characters.
Reply to Objection 3: It belongs to the domain of the divine majesty, to Whom the
demons are subject, that God should employ them to whatever purpose He
will. But man has not been entrusted with power over the demons, to
employ them to whatsoever purpose he will; on the contrary, it is
appointed that he should wage war against the demons. Hence in no way is
it lawful for man to make use of the demons' help by compacts either
tacit or express.
Article 3: Whether observances directed to the purpose of fortune-telling are unlawful?
Objection 1: It would seem that observances directed to the purpose of
fortune-telling are not unlawful. Sickness is one of the misfortunes that
occur to man. Now sickness in man is preceded by certain symptoms, which
the physician observes. Therefore it seems not unlawful to observe such
Objection 2: Further, it is unreasonable to deny that which nearly everybody
experiences. Now nearly everyone experiences that certain times, or
places, hearing of certain words meetings of men or animals, uncanny or
ungainly actions, are presages of good or evil to come. Therefore it
seems not unlawful to observe these things.
Objection 3: Further, human actions and occurrences are disposed by divine
providence in a certain order: and this order seems to require that
precedent events should be signs of subsequent occurrences: wherefore,
according to the Apostle (1 Cor. 10:6), the things that happened to the
fathers of old are signs of those that take place in our time. Now it is
not unlawful to observe the order that proceeds from divine providence.
Therefore it is seemingly not unlawful to observe these presages.
On the contrary, Augustine says (De Doctr. Christ. ii, 20) that "a
thousand vain observances are comprised under the head of compacts
entered into with the demons: for instance, the twitching of a limb; a
stone, a dog, or a boy coming between friends walking together; kicking
the door-post when anyone passes in front of one's house; to go back to
bed if you happen to sneeze while putting on your shoes; to return home
if you trip when going forth; when the rats have gnawed a hole in your
clothes, to fear superstitiously a future evil rather than to regret the
I answer that, Men attend to all these observances, not as causes but as
signs of future events, good or evil. Nor do they observe them as signs
given by God, since these signs are brought forward, not on divine
authority, but rather by human vanity with the cooperation of the malice
of the demons, who strive to entangle men's minds with such like trifles.
Accordingly it is evident that all these observances are superstitious
and unlawful: they are apparently remains of idolatry, which authorized
the observance of auguries, of lucky and unlucky days which is allied to
divination by the stars, in respect of which one day differentiated from
another: except that these observances are devoid of reason and art,
wherefore they are yet more vain and superstitious.
Reply to Objection 1: The causes of sickness are seated in us, and they produce
certain signs of sickness to come, which physicians lawfully observe.
Wherefore it is not unlawful to consider a presage of future events as
proceeding from its cause; as when a slave fears a flogging when he sees
his master's anger. Possibly the same might be said if one were to fear
for child lest it take harm from the evil eye, of which we have spoken in
the FP, Question , Article , ad 2. But this does not apply to this kind of
Reply to Objection 2: That men have at first experienced a certain degree of
truth in these observances is due to chance. But afterwards when a man
begins to entangle his mind with observances of this kind, many things
occur in connection with them through the trickery of the demons, "so
that men, through being entangled in these observances, become yet more
curious, and more and more embroiled in the manifold snares of a
pernicious error," as Augustine says (De Doctr. Christ. ii, 23).
Reply to Objection 3: Among the Jewish people of whom Christ was to be born, not
only words but also deeds were prophetic, as Augustine states (Contra
Faust. iv, 2; xxii, 24). Wherefore it is lawful to apply those deeds to
our instruction, as signs given by God. Not all things, however, that
occur through divine providence are ordered so as to be signs of the
future. Hence the argument does not prove.
Article 4: Whether it is unlawful to wear divine words at the neck?
Objection 1: It would seem that it is not unlawful to wear divine words at the
neck. Divine words are no less efficacious when written than when
uttered. But it is lawful to utter sacred words for the purpose of
producing certain effects; (for instance, in order to heal the sick),
such as the "Our Father" or the "Hail Mary," or in any way whatever to
call on the Lord's name, according to Mk. 16:17,18, "In My name they
shall cast out devils, they shall speak with new tongues, they shall
take up serpents." Therefore it seems to be lawful to wear sacred words
at one's neck, as a remedy for sickness or for any kind of distress.
Objection 2: Further, sacred words are no less efficacious on the human body
than on the bodies of serpents and other animals. Now certain
incantations are efficacious in checking serpents, or in healing certain
other animals: wherefore it is written (Ps. 57:5): "Their madness is
according to the likeness of a serpent, like the deaf asp that stoppeth
her ears, which will not hear the voice of the charmers, nor of the
wizard that charmeth wisely." Therefore it is lawful to wear sacred words
as a remedy for men.
Objection 3: Further, God's word is no less holy than the relics of the
saints; wherefore Augustine says (Lib. L. Hom. xxvi) that "God's word is
of no less account than the Body of Christ." Now it is lawful for one to
wear the relics of the saints at one's neck, or to carry them about one
in any way for the purpose of self-protection. Therefore it is equally
lawful to have recourse to the words of Holy Writ, whether uttered or
written, for one's protection.
Objection 4: On the other hand, Chrysostom says (Hom. xliii in Matth.) [*Cf.
the Opus Imperfectum in Matthaeum, among St. Chrysostom's works, and
falsely ascribed to him]: "Some wear round their necks a passage in
writing from the Gospel. Yet is not the Gospel read in church and heard
by all every day? How then, if it does a man no good to have the Gospels
in his ears, will he find salvation by wearing them round his neck?
Moreover, where is the power of the Gospel? In the shapes of the letters
or in the understanding of the sense? If in the shapes, you do well to
wear them round your neck; if in the understanding, you will then do
better to bear them in your heart than to wear them round your neck."
I answer that, In every incantation or wearing of written words, two
points seem to demand caution. The first is the thing said or written,
because if it is connected with invocation of the demons it is clearly
superstitious and unlawful. In like manner it seems that one should
beware lest it contain strange words, for fear that they conceal
something unlawful. Hence Chrysostom says [*Cf. the Opus Imperfectum in
Matthaeum, among St. Chrysostom's works, falsely ascribed to him] that
"many now after the example of the Pharisees who enlarged their fringes,
invent and write Hebrew names of angels, and fasten them to their
persons. Such things seem fearsome to those who do not understand them."
Again, one should take care lest it contain anything false, because in
that case also the effect could not be ascribed to God, Who does not bear
witness to a falsehood.
In the second place, one should beware lest besides the sacred words it
contain something vain, for instance certain written characters, except
the sign of the Cross; or if hope be placed in the manner of writing or
fastening, or in any like vanity, having no connection with reverence
for God, because this would be pronounced superstitious: otherwise,
however, it is lawful. Hence it is written in the Decretals (XXVI, qu. v,
cap. Non liceat Christianis): "In blending together medicinal herbs, it
is not lawful to make use of observances or incantations, other than the
divine symbol, or the Lord's Prayer, so as to give honor to none but God
the Creator of all."
Reply to Objection 1: It is indeed lawful to pronounce divine words, or to invoke
the divine name, if one do so with a mind to honor God alone, from Whom
the result is expected: but it is unlawful if it be done in connection
with any vain observance.
Reply to Objection 2: Even in the case of incantations of serpents or any animals
whatever, if the mind attend exclusively to the sacred words and to the
divine power, it will not be unlawful. Such like incantations, however,
often include unlawful observances, and rely on the demons for their
result, especially in the case of serpents, because the serpent was the
first instrument employed by the devil in order to deceive man. Hence a
gloss on the passage quoted says: "Note that Scripture does not commend
everything whence it draws its comparisons, as in the case of the unjust
judge who scarcely heard the widow's request."
Reply to Objection 3: The same applies to the wearing of relics, for if they be
worn out of confidence in God, and in the saints whose relics they are,
it will not be unlawful. But if account were taken in this matter of some
vain circumstance (for instance that the casket be three-cornered, or the
like, having no bearing on the reverence due to God and the saints), it
would be superstitious and unlawful.
Reply to Objection 4: Chrysostom is speaking the case in which more attention is
paid the written characters than to the understanding of the words.