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Superstition And The Medieval And Early Modern Catholic Church

Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) provided a meticulous and influential definition of superstition in the Summa Theologica. Aquinas followed Plutarch in claiming that superstition was a vice of excess of religion, as impiety was a vice of deficiency of religion. Varieties of superstition included erroneous worship of the true God (Aquinas gives the example of someone in the Christian era who worships according to the old Law, i.e., a Jew) or unsanctioned by the church. Another variety of superstition was idolatry, worship directed to inappropriate objects—that is, anything other than God. Divination and other magical practices, which Aquinas claimed involved an implicit or explicit agreement with demons, were also superstitious in violating the religious precept that man should learn from and trust in God. Even practices outwardly pious, such as wearing the relic of a saint, were superstitious if they relied on practices having nothing to do with piety, such as the particular shape of the reliquary.

The Catholic campaign against superstition in the Middle Ages and early modern periods were not merely theoretical. Church reformers preached and campaigned against what they identified as superstitious religious practices, the wearing of charms and talismans and other non-Church sanctioned activities. Catholic authorities defined superstitious practices as those that did not rely either on nature or on divine power for their effectiveness. Superstition was not only a threat to the laity. Parish priests were often seen as tolerating superstition or even practicing it themselves, and many of the leading campaigners against it were friars operating outside the diocesan hierarchy of the church.

Early modern Spain produced a particularly rich literature on superstition from the pens of Catholic priests, ranging from the vernacular works of the sixteenth-century friars Pedro Ciruelo (1470–1548) and Martin de Castanega to the Scholastic Latin writings of the eminent Jesuit theology professor Francisco Suarez (1548–1617). Ciruelo's influential Treatise Reproving All Superstitions, aimed at ordinary Spaniards whose souls were threatened by superstition, identified it almost completely with magic. All superstition, Ciruelo claimed, was based either on the desire for illicit knowledge or material gain. Superstitions aimed at gaining knowledge were necromancy and divination; those aimed at gain were enchantment and witchcraft. Like much of the early modern Catholic literature, Ciruelo's work focused on questions of causation, claiming that events could be caused either by direct divine intervention, as in the case of miracles, the actions of good or evil angels, or natural causes. Ascribing outcomes to other causes was superstitious. The general tendency of the Spanish literature on superstition from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century was to circumscribe the area of direct divine action and ascribe more and more events to natural causes.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Stomium to SwiftsSuperstition - Superstition And The Medieval And Early Modern Catholic Church, Superstition And Its Foes In The Islamic World