The other day, someone asked Parishworld.net this question:
"What is the Church's position on Email Chain Letters?"
Cicero drew this distinction between superstition and religion: "Superstitio est in qua timor inanis deorum, religio quæ deorum cultu pio continetur", i.e.
"Superstition is the baseless fear of the gods, religion the pious worship."
I want to start with that distinction in response to the question. Cicero is not known for his religious beliefs, so I find it important that someone as secular as he, writing 2,000 years ago had such a careful insight about this topic. In bringing this to your attention, I have answered the question. The Church's position is that these things are items that fuel superstitious beliefs of people. In the following paragraphs I will clarify why superstition is sinful.
There are four kinds of superstition:
1. Improper worship of the true God
4. Vain practices which include magic, occult arts and daily popular practices to influence life
The chief source of superstition is pointed out in Scripture thusly: "All men are vain, in whom there is not the knowledge of God: and who by these good things that are seen, could not understand him that is, neither by attending to the works have acknowledged who was the workman: but have imagined either the fire, or the wind, or the swift air, or the circle of the stars, or the great water, or the sun and moon, to be the gods that rule the world" (Wisdom 13:1-2).
Superstition is therefore a sin against the first commandment, "You shall have no Gods except me." (Exodus, Chapter 20, verse 3)
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says it this way:
"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 a person 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." (Paragraph number 2111)
Chain letters, either through United States Postal Service or Email fall into the category of vain practices which humans perform in order to influence their personal lives and those of others. They are vain because the true supporter of our lives is the one, true God, Creator, Savior and Sanctifier who fills us with Faith, Love and Hope every instant of our existence. To turn our backs on these gifts of Faith, Love and Hope and not use them to adore and worship and return the love that is given by the Giver, is sinful.
To put more faith in the turn of a card than in God, is sinful.
To put more faith in the forwarding of a letter than in God is sinful.
To put more faith in the path of a black cat than in God is sinful.
Do you want me to go on ? Not really. I know you get the point.
Oh, Boy!!! If that stuff is all sinful, how does anyone get to heaven? Come on, now. Everyone believes that Friday the 13 is bad luck. Nobody walks under a ladder. Everybody knocks on wood, etc.
Sinful? No way.
Lighten up, folks. I didn't say how sinful, did I? And I did say that it is sinful if we put more faith in the behavior than in God it is sinful, right? Some of our vain practices are so much a part of us and our culture that they practically become second nature. Well, now that you know and now that your conscience has been tickled, you have to start changing your second nature from "knocking on wood" to saying, "OK God, be God". Also, please remember that whatever is objectively sinful is not always subjectively sinful.
I want to remind you of the three elements required for an act to be subjectively sinful. a) full knowledge of the evil of the act; b) full deliberation; and c) full consent.
I am also saying that in the case of the email chain, we have a chance to think about what we are doing. We are tempted to do it just to be sure. Now, that's only us. What about those to whom we forward the email? They will be tempted too. Now we don't have the right to tempt them, do we?
Imagine, we pray every day, "Our Father .... lead us not into temptation and deliver us from evil..." and there we go leading someone into a temptation to believe more in spreading an email than in trusting in God. OOOoooopppppsssss!
Wow! That first commandment is tougher than we think. We ought to think to be tougher on ourselves than we usually are.
So I have answered the question. I have given you some scripture and some catechism and you now know the Church's position about this stuff. If you are still curious about numbers 1, 2 and 3 from above, keep going. I put them at the end in case you ran out of time and got bored with my long winded answer.
1. I'll bet some of you are saying to yourselves, "How could you improperly worship the true God?"Let me tell you, it happens all the time. You perhaps do it yourself without knowing it. Some of our religious practices are so deeply engrained in us that we don't realize what we are doing. This simply means that we don't know the worship value of our actions, but we do them anyway, just because. Let me give you some concrete examples:
Putting more faith in the "secrets" that have come out of certain apparitions than in the true expression of worship through well defined liturgy, is superstition.
Having more faith in keeping a jug of holy water in the house than in pious family worship of God in the spirit of the Church is superstition. To live in fear that if the jug goes dry a sin would be committed and bad would befall the family is superstition.
To force a young adult to go through the motions of preparing and receiving a sacrament because something bad could happen to that person if the sacrament were not received is superstition.
Going to Mass on the day that Father So-and-So is scheduled to say the Mass because it is more certain that good things will happen if he is the one presiding at Mass is having more faith in father So-and-So than in the Sacred Sacrifice of Jesus Christ in the Mass and is superstition.
I have witnessed that and I still know of some who believe that way. In fact I know people who think that Latin Masses are holier than English Masses and that those who go to them will be blessed more. That, my friends is superstition.
2. I really don't have to tell you about idolatry. We all know that it is wrong. We all know that it is worshipping and adoring golden statues, totem poles and the likes of that. We don't do that, so we are safe there. Really now? What about the ashes of your cremated dog that you still have on the mantle piece, for good luck and the peace of mind that it gives you to have Ol' Buster's spirit around? That is superstition. It is putting more faith in a thing than in the true God. I went overboard and used your dog's ashes for the example, but I suggest that you think twice about your father's ashes about which you have the same feelings. So you see, we do have to guard ourselves against idolatry too.
3. Divination is something that we are all tempted to try every now and then. We have all had our fling with the Tarot Cards, the Ouija Board, the Palm Reader and the Crystal Ball. Every time we do that we forget the wonderfully comforting words of Jesus, "Notice how the flowers grow. They do not toil or spin. But I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of them. If God so clothes the grass in the field that grows today and is thrown into the oven tomorrow, will He not much more provide for you, O you of little faith?" (Luke 12:27-28).
I encourage you to read Matthew Chapter 6, verses 25 to 34 as well as Luke Chapter 12, verses 22 to 32.
So now you know what the Church's position about chain letters is. One of these days I am going to die, just like everyone else. Before that happens, I am going to send everyone an email with my picture on it and you will have to forward it to five other people. It will be an invitation to my funeral. The penalty for not doing that will be one year in purgatory and not one single person will cry at your funeral.
If you delete it and come to my funeral with dry eyes and a big sunshiny smile, you will be forgiven and everyone at your funeral will cry and you will go straight to heaven because they will have washed your soul clean with the tears that I forbade you all from shedding at my funeral.
God bless you all. Do not forward this!