Saints Preserve Us

Do Catholics Worship the Saints?


The mistaken notion that Catholics worship saints remains one of the most common complaints of our Protestant brothers and sisters. Indeed, most Protestant Christians visiting European Catholic churches might recoil at the first sight of a statue of St. Anthony bedecked with thank-you notes and placards of gratitude. I once saw such a statue with several hundred notes placed at its base by faithful who had received the saint’s help.

There are some.aspects of Catholicism that seem difficult to explain to Protestant friends. Let us take, for example, the curious tradition of burying a statue of St. Joseph upside down in the front yard to solicit his intercession in selling a house. Most Catholic supply stores include a section with such items as the "St. Joseph the Worker Home Sales Kit" or the book by Stephen J. Binz called St. Joseph, My Real Estate Agent. The kit includes a small statue of St. Joseph, a prayer card, and instructions on how to ask for St. Joseph’s help in selling your home; the book is a more exhaustive account of St. Joseph’s special powers as the divine "real estate agent."

While practices like this can border on superstition, praying to St. Joseph to hasten the sale of a house is quite legitimate in the realm of Catholic belief.

A sermon given by Rev. George Croly, a nineteenth-century Protestant, is a classic example of the Protestant objections to praying to saints. In a more impassioned than logical diatribe against the Church as a whole, Croly addresses the topic of "saint worship." He accuses Catholics of (1) praying to the dead, who are for them gods, (2) employing the use of images of saints in church architecture and liturgy as a form of false god worship, and (3) departing from the Christian practices of the early Church and from Scripture in its beliefs about the saints. Croly’s objections are still marshaled by Protestants today, although each of them is a misinterpretation of what Scripture and the Catholic Church really teach.

First, we must clarify who the saints are. The "communion of saints" is the spiritual unity that brings together three groups of faithful: those on earth, those in purgatory, and those in heaven. All three groups exist in sodality as the one mystical body under the headship of Christ (1 Cor. 1:2; 12:12–31; Eph. 4:4–13). Shortly after his election, Pope Benedict XVI said:

Indeed, the communion of saints consists not only of the great men and women who went before us and whose names we know. All of us belong to the communion of saints, we who have been baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, we who draw life from the gift of Christ’s body and blood, through which he transforms us and makes us like himself. (Inaugural Mass homily, April 24, 2005)

While all who believe and are baptized are counted among the communion of saints, alive and deceased, it is the saints who now dwell in the presence of God who concern us here. So, why do Protestants object when other Christians pray to and venerate the saints? This, we shall see, has much to do with the interpretation of terms and Holy Scripture.

Evolution of Language

Indeed, one of the difficulties encountered today in Catholic/Protestant dialogue is a problem of definition of terms: It is often the case that Catholics and Protestants use a similar term but mean different things by it. For example, before England became a Protestant country and made its universities also Protestant, the word pray meant "to ask" or "to entreat." As early as 900 the Latin word precari, from which the English word prayer derives, was used to mean "an earnest request." The French word prier carries the same meaning—"to beseech."

Two brief examples will illustrate this point. In Shakespeare’s King Henry IV, Part I (2.1) we find Gadshill saying, "I pray thee lend me thy lantern, to see my gelding in the stable." Or in Much Ado about Nothing (5.2), Benedick says to Margaret, "Pray thee, sweet Mistress Margaret, deserve well at my hands by helping me to the speech of Beatrice." Clearly, Gadshill is not rendering worship in order to get his lantern, nor is Benedick worshiping Margaret to procure her aid.

But beginning in Shakespeare’s time and accelerating through the rise of the Puritans, the English language shifted significantly to reflect the theological and ideological bent of new Protestant England. As the English monarchy systematically stamped out Catholicism, the new religious authorities disparaged "papist" practices such as praying to saints. The word prayer began to connote worship—the type of worship reserved for God alone. This is not the Catholic understanding, so "A Husband’s Prayer to St. Joseph," "A Student’s Prayer to St. Aquinas," and the "Prayer to St. Anthony for Lost Things" are not forms of worship to a god but simple requests for intercessory prayer. Protestant Christians ask their friends on earth to pray for them, but Catholic, Armenian, Copt, and Orthodox Christians also ask their friends in heaven, the saints, to pray to God on their behalf.

Worthy of Honor

There is a similar problem with the word worship. Over time, its meaning has shifted significantly. The word worship is a contraction of "worth-ship" (worth = "worthy" and ship = "state of"), or the state of being worthy. It derives from the Old English word worðscip and the West Saxon word weorðscipe, both of which mean "condition of being worthy, honored, or renowned." Simply stated, to worship meant to honor someone who is worthy of honor.

This sense of the term is preserved in the title "Your Worship," an honorific still in use primarily in Britain for certain dignitaries such as mayors, justices of the peace, and magistrates. Today, though, especially in the United States, worship is understood as that which belongs to God alone. For the honor that is due to the saints, we use the wordvenerate.

Here is where the Catholic Church’s tradition of using Latin as its official language is most helpful. Whereas English usage is often inexact in theological disquisition, Latin remains more precise. In response to the early iconoclasm heresy in the Eastern Church, St. John of Damascus’s eighth-century treatise Apologia against those Who Decry Holy Images distinguishes the type of worship Christians reserve for God alone, arguing:

I believe in one supersubstantial being, one divine Godhead in three entities, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, and I adore him alone with the worship of latria. (Part I)

The key term in this statement is the word latria. Generally, the most precise English translation of the word latria is "adoration," which is reserved for God alone. Catholics adore (latria), which is expressed in the sacrificial reverence appropriate to only the Triune God.

The Latin term for the honor properly rendered to the angels and saints in heaven is dulia, and the term for the honor properly rendered to Mary is hyperdulia. While the terms latriadulia, andhyperdulia were used in the writings of the early Christian Fathers such as Sts. Augustine and Jerome, the clearest discussion of their differences appears in St. Thomas Aquinas’s thirteenth-century Summa Theologiae. He writes:

Reverence is due to God on account of his excellence, which is communicated to certain creatures not in equal measure but according to a measure of proportion; and so the reverence that we pay to God, and that belongs to latria, differs from the reverence that we pay to certain excellent creatures; this belongs to dulia. (ST II-II.103.3)

Thus, according to Aquinas, reverence is rendered to creatures according to the "measure of proportion" of God’s excellence they have received, and only God receives our latria. On the other hand, dulia is given to "excellent creatures," such as the saints. Hyperdulia is a level of reverence reserved for the Blessed Mother of God (but this is properly the topic of another article). The point must be made: God alone receives adoration (latria), whereas the saints are given veneration (dulia).

Bending the Knee

Another charge against Catholics is that because they kneel before images of saints, they worship them. But, like many men, when I proposed to my wife and later made wedding vows, I did so on my knees. When I asked for her hand and married her I was not rendering to her the adoration due only to God. As a Catholic woman, she would have been scandalized if she thought I was. In fact, kneeling means different things to different cultures. In Eastern Christian rites, kneeling is largely reserved for Lent, as it is a sign of penance. In the Western Church, kneeling is encouraged as a form of worship and penance. Gestures, along with words, must be understood in context. Just as prayer does not mean only the worship due to God alone, so kneeling to propose does not suggest worship at any level.

Exegetical Acrobatics: A Response to Scriptural Criticisms

Efforts to point out the "error" of Catholic prayer to the saints are usually based upon biblical exegesis (explanation/criticism of a text) and are, as a rule, somewhat creative. The most commonly cited reason that Catholics should not appeal to saints in heaven is that they are "dead." Croly, in his acrid sermon against the Church, asserts that "to whatever being beyond the grave man offers worship, that being is, to the worshiper, a god." This claim makes little sense in light of Scripture. First, we must consider what our idea of death is, for Scripture reveals that those who dwell with God in heaven are not really "dead" in the sense that Croly implies. Jesus says:

And as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the passage about the bush, how God said to him, "I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob"? He is not God of the dead, but of the living; you are quite wrong. (Mark 12:26–27)

A careful exegesis makes it clear that there indeed are saints who dwell in God’s presence and render their prayers to him. St. John writes:

And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer; and he was given much incense to mingle with the prayers of all saints upon the golden altar before the throne; and the smoke of the incense rose with the prayers of the saints from the hand of the angel before God. (Rev. 8:3–4)

Two points emerge from these passages: First, the saints who dwell in God’s presence are not really "dead," and they are, as the angels, able to render their prayers to him.

Second, honoring the deceased is a tradition that Christians inherited from the Jews. Roy H. Schoeman, a Jewish convert to Catholicism, writes:

The burial site of the three patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob has been venerated continually by Jews since their deaths about four thousand years ago. As Catholics make pilgrimages to the tombs of "dead" saints (sometimes enclosed in churches) to pray, so do Jews, both in biblical times and still today. . . . Other tombs of Old Testament saints to which Jews go to pray include those of Joseph, Rachel, King David, and the prophets Haggai, Malachi, and Samuel, all of which have been venerated for millennia. ("Catholic Devotion to the Saints, in the light of Jewish Scripture and Tradition," available at www.salvationisfromthejews.com)

While Scripture indeed includes firm injunctions against necromancy (the conjuring of the dead), there are no restrictions against praying to angels or deceased saints. In fact, it is God’s desire that we include the saints in our prayers and honor them.

The Fathers Know Best

I shall finally respond here to the objection that Catholic practice regarding saints is a later accretion to authentic Christianity, a distortion of what the early Church believed. We should bear in mind that the Church does not wish to discard its ancient beliefs, nor does it desire to cling only to the practices of the early Christians. To reject the teachings of the Fathers would be to reject the orthodox foundations of the faith, and to maintain only the practices of the early Church would be to deny its organic growth. We might remember, for example, that the Nicene Creed was not formulated until the fourth century. While on the one hand we see St. John of Damascus warning that it is not "a thing of no matter to give up the ancient tradition of the Church held by our forefathers, whose conduct we should observe, and whose faith we should imitate," we also see Pope Pius XII in his beautiful encyclical Mediator Dei reprimanding those "who are bent on the restoration of all the ancient rites and ceremonies indiscriminately" (MD 61). Catholic belief holds that the foundation of the early Fathers is the seminary from which the Church grows, maturing through time. For Catholics, there is no rupture in Church teaching and tradition from the death of Christ to today, and this includes prayer to saints.

Beside the scriptural precedents for praying to the saints in heaven, several early Church Fathers wrote of the need to seek their intercession. The third-century bishop and martyr St. Cyprian of Carthage wrote:

Let us remember one another in concord and unanimity. Let us on both sides [of life and death] always pray for one another. Let us relieve burdens and afflictions by mutual love, that if one of us, by the swiftness of divine condescension, shall go hence first, our love may continue in the presence of the Lord and our prayers for our brethren and sisters not cease in the presence of the Father’s mercy. (Letters 56[60]:5)

And St. Clement of Alexandria, also from the third century, said:

In this way is he [the true Christian] always pure for prayer. He also prays in the society of angels, as being already of angelic rank, and he is never out of their holy keeping; and though he pray alone, he has the choir of the saints standing with him [in prayer]. (Miscellanies 7:12)

Besides Cyprian and Clement of Alexandria, other early Fathers noted the importance of praying to the saints—Augustine of Hippo, Origen, Methodius, Cyril of Jerusalem, Hilary of Poitiers, and so forth. It is simply unhistorical to claim that prayer to the saints is a later Catholic invention; historical evidence suggests that it was not until the Reformation that this practice was abandoned by Protestants.

Is it acceptable, then, to pray to St. Joseph for help selling your house? Absolutely. Do some Catholics stray into the realm of superstition in their devotion to the saints? Yes. How do we know the difference? The final question confronting any Christian—Catholic or otherwise—is whether the Triune God is the height and center of his prayer and worship. He should be. But let us also remember the saints in heaven who have been perfected by God’s radiance and whose love for us makes them powerful advocates of our causes here on earth. As the Second Vatican Council says:

Being more closely united to Christ, those who dwell in heaven fix the whole Church more firmly in holiness. . . . They do not cease to intercede with the Father for us, as they proffer the merits that they acquired on earth through the one mediator between God and men, Christ Jesus. . . . So by their fraternal concern is our weakness greatly helped. (Lumen Gentium 49)

Anyone who has received the aid of a saint smiles knowingly as he passes such a statue as the one of St. Anthony decorated with notes of gratitude. And, yes, St. Joseph may, in the end, be our best real estate agent. All you holy saints in heaven, ora pro nobis!


Anthony E. Clark is a frequent contributor to This Rock. He teaches history at Whitworth University.

This article appeared in Volume 17 Number 8.