Several Catholic Answers writers, including myself, have responded to Protestants who challenge the Catholic practice of asking the saints in heaven to intercede for us. Can the saints, they ask, even hear our prayers?
Needless to say, many of these brothers and sisters of ours remain unconvinced, though they may find it interesting that St. Thomas Aquinas also considers arguments against the saints being able to know our prayers. Protestants don’t use his exact arguments, but they could.
There are two that I found particularly interesting in the Supplement to Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae, question seventy-two, article one.
The second objection in the article says the saints don’t know our prayers because such knowledge would undermine their happiness. Here’s one way to put the argument:
P1: If the saints knew our prayers, then they would know our sufferings.
P2: If the saints knew our sufferings, then the saints would be sad.
P3: But the saints in heaven can’t be sad.
C1: Therefore, the saints can’t know our sufferings.
C2: Therefore, the saints can’t know our prayers.
The key premise is the second, to which Aquinas replies that we can’t say the saints in heaven are grieved by knowledge of our troubles in life because they are “so filled with heavenly joy, that sorrow finds no place in them.”
Although I think Aquinas is right here, it seems there needs to be a bit more explanation as to how knowledge of our sufferings wouldn’t undermine the happiness of the blessed. In the Summa, he obliges: “God allows evils to happen in order to bring a greater good” (ST III:1:3, ad 3).
Whether the saints know that good or not doesn’t matter. Simply knowledge that God will direct a permitted evil to a greater good gives the saints reason not to be sad. This is especially true given the saints’ vision of the divine essence, which provides them with an improved perspective on how God perfectly orders things to his glory.
Second, the saints in heaven view the troubles in our lives with an eternal perspective, a perspective that Paul articulates in his letters. For example, in Romans 8:18, Paul writes, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” Similarly, in 2 Corinthians 4:17, Paul writes, “For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.”
If Paul’s knowledge of such glory without the beatific vision could diminish sadness caused by his sufferings, then how much more would the saints’ knowledge of this glory with the beatific vision diminish sadness? Much more! In fact, being in the presence of the heavenly glory excludes sadness altogether.
So, just because the saints in heaven would have knowledge of the troubles in our lives if they knew our prayers, it doesn’t follow they would be sad. They know there are greater goods that God is bringing about through our troubles.
The third objection that Aquinas deals with is similar to an objection often heard today in challenging God’s existence: the problem of evil. It claims the saints can’t possibly know our prayers because if they did, they would respond to our requests for intercession, and we wouldn’t have suffering in our lives.
Behind this objection is the idea that a charitable person always assists his friend and/or neighbor when the latter is suffering. Since the saints in heaven have perfect love, and we’re their friends, it follows that if they knew our requests about what’s going on in our lives, they would help us in our sufferings.
But—the argument goes—they must not be helping us in our sufferings, because we suffer every day. Therefore, they must not know the requests that we make.
This objection is based on a false dichotomy. It supposes either the saints are praying for us, in which case we wouldn’t suffer, or they don’t know our prayers. But there’s a third option.
Perhaps the saints know our prayers and it’s just not God’s will that we be delivered from a particular trial, at least not yet. Like us, they don’t know all of God’s plan, and so even their petitions are subject to what the Lord wills (James 4:15). Alternately, if—in a particular case—they do know that God wills to allow a source of suffering, they certainly would not pray for it to be removed. Aquinas explains,
The souls of the saints have their will fully conformed to the Divine will even as regards the things willed; and consequently, although they retain the love of charity towards their neighbor, they do not succor him otherwise than they see to be in conformity with the disposition of divine justice (ST Suppl. 72:1, ad 3).
So, if we ask the saints to pray that we be delivered from a particular difficulty in our lives, and it doesn’t come to pass, it’s because it wasn’t God’s will. It’s not because the saints aren’t aware of our prayers.
Furthermore, if God doesn’t will to deliver us from a trial, the saints can still help us by praying we have the strength to persevere in faith and not lose hope in the midst of our suffering. Such prayers also would be fruits of perfect love.
Even if we don’t hear these arguments raised today, they’re interesting to consider. And if by chance a Protestant does happen to use one or both of them, a Catholic will be able to show why they don’t succeed.