Chain letters are harmful when belief in power damages faith in God

Published: October 21, 2006

By Abbot Jerome Kodell, OSB

A form of superstition that seemed to wane in recent decades has received a new lease on life from the Internet: the chain letter. In the old days, these letters had to be forwarded with the effort and expense of copying, stationery and stamps, but today it takes only the click of a key to pass the letter on to any number of recipients. What is a chain letter? In the superstitious form, a chain letter typically requires the recipient to forward a text to a specified number of addressees with a promise of reward from God or an unnamed preternatural source for compliance or a threat of dire consequences for non-compliance. A typical form of this superstition was a “novena” circulating some years ago: “This novena began in 1952. It has not been broken. Within 24 hours, send this to four people and mention my name. In the next four days, say an Our Father and a Hail Mary and see what happens on the fourth day. Please do not break the novena. It is powerful.” No one knows whether the novena began in 1952 or if the writer made that up, and there is no definition of how it is “powerful.” But at least this letter did not threaten disaster. More dire forms are common today, such as one I received recently through the Internet: “This letter is miraculous and sacred. Don’t forget to forward this within 13 days to at least five people. You will receive a huge surprise! A man received this letter and immediately sent out copies: he won the lottery. Alberto Martinez received this letter, gave it to his secretary to distribute but she forgot: she lost her job and he lost his family.” There is no way of finding out if any of this is true, which is the key to the scam. The Catholic Church has always warned against superstition, which the Catechism of the Catholic Church calls “a perverse excess of religion,” and “a departure from the worship we give to the true God.” (2110, 2138) Superstition grants a particular action or ritual a magical power, without any regard to God or to interior conscience. In religion it may show up in repeating over and over again a ritual action which in itself is a good and profitable practice, such as the sign of the cross. I have to do it again and again “to be sure.” The fear of doing it wrong or not often enough puts the power in the action rather than in God. What harm is there in passing a chain letter on, whether it comes in ordinary mail or by the Internet? In a way isn’t it all just a game? There is nothing wrong with circulating such material among friends as a game. The danger comes when I forward a chain letter just to be safe, to protect myself from the harm threatened if I don’t do so. Then the scam has its hooks in me and is beginning to eat away at my faith. If I am confident that a loving God is taking care of me, I can simply delete the letter without a second thought. But if I can’t, it may mean that I fear there are other forces more powerful than God out there. And then little by little my faith is eaten away, and I wonder where my joy and peace have gone. Abbot Jerome Kodell, OSB, writes from Subiaco Abbey.