Life & Soul

How to… Avoid idolatry

St Boniface destroys the Thunder Tree

Catholics have always been great destroyers of pagan idols. St Artemius, a Roman administrator, was executed for vandalising the temples of the gods. The English missionary St Willibrord, told by the Frisian locals not to touch some sacred cattle, slaughtered them for dinner. But then, Catholics are also adept at transforming pagan symbols into Christian ones. How to tell the difference?

The Church has offered some pointers, especially in recent years with the growth of New Age movements. The 1992 Catechism warns us against “All practices of magic or sorcery, by which one attempts to tame occult powers, so as to place them at one’s service and have a supernatural power over others – even if this were for the sake of restoring their health.” Closely related is superstition: paying the highest homage to what isn’t God.

In the end, it is for the Church to decide on each practice. When the authorities have been silent, it can be worth considering whether the practice makes sense and coheres with Catholic practice, or whether it is confusing and ambiguous. As the Vatican’s document on New Age observes, “Anything which promotes conceptual confusion or secrecy needs to be very carefully scrutinised.”