Saturday, January 15, 2011

On the veneration of saints (Part I)

One of the motivations for my last post came while I was reading the news yesterday that on May 1 Pope Benedict XVI will beatify his predecessor, Ven. John Paul II. Mainstream-media comboxes aren’t good reading, unless you’re fascinated by the reflections of the uninformed on the misinformation they get. Ordinarily, I skip past the “peanut gallery”.[1] But one comment caught my eye; as I remember, it went something like this: “One of the Ten Commandments is against idolatry. Praying to saints strikes me as idolatry. I have never been able to understand the Catholic Church and its thing about saints.”

Indeed, our audacious Protestant friend doesn’t understand the Catholic Church if he thinks praying to a saint is idolatry. In fact, he doesn’t understand idolatry or prayer, either.

Literally speaking, idolatry is the worship of images and statutes of a god; by extension, the more technical meaning is the worship of false gods (i.e., any god other than God Himself). Catholics do not hold saints to be gods; we do not consider them to be on the same level as God. Not even the Blessed Virgin Mother, whom we revere above all the angels and saints, is on that level. Prayer by itself does not constitute worship; the equation of prayer with worship is one of the more subtle corruptions wrought by the Protestant Reformation.

The late “Father Mateo” said it best:
It is not necessary for men and women here at prayer explicitly to know these technical terms [latria, hyperdulia and dulia]. It is necessary only to know that God is God and all others are not God. We Catholics know this; we are in no doubt about it; we know the difference—not because we are particularly bright, but because we are no longer strangers and sojourners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and the prophets, with Jesus Christ himself as the cornerstone (Eph 2:19-20).

If someone says, “I do not consider Mary, the saints, and the angels to be gods or goddesses, nor do I treat them as such,” then he doesn’t. You ought to believe him. To insist, in the face of his denial, that he does regard these creatures as gods is not only the sin of rash judgment (Lk 6:37; Rom 14:4; 1 Cor 4:3-4) and a grave failure of Christian charity, but it is [also] a deficiency in common sense. It is bad use of Scripture, bad theology, bad Church history, and bad manners.[2]
It isn’t necessary to know the technical terms … but let’s go over them anyway. The major distinction is between dulia (ancient Greek δουλεία), the respect and veneration due to holy creatures, and latria (λατρεία), the worship due God alone; hyperdulia is derived from dulia—think of it as “dulia squared”—and refers to the special level of respect and veneration due the Mother of God (Theotokos).

One of the differences a person coming from a Protestant tradition (no, that’s not an oxymoron) is the different enumeration of the Ten Commandments in Catholic Scriptural exegesis. The Protestant Second Commandment, “You shall not make for yourself a graven image …” (Ex 20:4-6; Dt 5:8-10), is treated as a gloss of the First Commandment; that is, as a further explanation and extension of what it means to not have other gods before God; the Second Commandment then becomes, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain” (Ex 20:7; Dt 5:11). In Exodus 20:17, the neighbor’s house is listed before his wife in the commandment not to covet; in Deuteronomy 5:21, however, the wife is listed first. Catholics make a distinction between wives and property by following Deuteronomy and treating the injunction not to covet the neighbor’s wife as the Ninth Commandment.

(Why the difference? I think it comes from the traditional Christian insistence that there are ten Commandments; Orthodox Judaism finds over six hundred separate mitzvoth in Torah—the Pentateuch, or first five books—to which the observant Jew[3] is beholden, with none being greater than any other. While we are no longer bound to the Law of Moses for our salvation, the first several injunctions make an excellent framework for constructing a code of ethical Christian behavior; see Part 3, Section 2 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Nevertheless, the attempt to divide the relevant parts of these two books into ten commandments is somewhat artificial, not dictated by anything integral to the passages. While I believe Exodus 20:4-6 is a gloss, I also believe the distinction between wives and property is a later development that came along with the Jews’ transformation from polygamy to monogamy. Thus, we should probably have a “Nonalogue”—nine commandments—rather than a Decalogue … but that’s just me.  End of digression.)

No culture has ever mistaken a statue, picture or totem of a god for the god it represents; the erroneous belief that heathen cultures did worship idols, I believe, came from a mixture of cultural chauvinism and faulty Scriptural translations or exegesis. Nor was the commandment intended to forbid religious pictures of any kind. We know, for example, that the Ark of the Covenant had two golden cherubim (Ex 25:18-19), that Moses made at God’s command (!) a bronze serpent on a pole (Num 21:8-9), and that the First Temple was decorated with carvings and bronze figures (1 Kgs 6:23-29, 7:25-45). Apologist Steven K. Ray loves to tell his Protestant audiences that the Corpus on the crucifix is “a graphic representation of John 3:16”. No, not even the statue of a saint is an idol, because an idol is an image of a false god, and saints are not “Catholic demigods.

As I said before, prayer isn’t worship. Strictly speaking, a prayer is a plea, a request for action on one’s behalf by the one praying. Etymologically, prayer is not confined to religion; even today, the body of a legal plea is often called the “prayer”. This use hangs on in the colloquialism “pray tell”. The difference between a prayer and an ordinary request is in the former’s recognition that the latter is in a superior position; to pray is almost to beg.

The point here is that prayer is a form of communication, of conversing with the immaterial, whether we speak of God, or gods, or spirits or saints. While the term implies a certain degree of formality, it can be formal or informal.[4] Worship, however, is a more formal, liturgical action; in Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, it’s tied directly to the sacrificial offering of the Eucharist, and indirectly to the physical rituals by which we make ourselves subjects of God’s Will. Less technically, worship is the acknowledgement of our dependence on God, as well as the praise and glory of His Name which is His rightful due. While worship includes prayers—a lot of them—the object of the action is different: in prayer, we ask of God; in worship, we give to God.

There are more substantive objections to the communion of saints, which I’ll discuss in Part II. Here we’re only dealing with a simplistic, ill-informed judgment. Had our vincibly ignorant Protestant heckler contented himself with the observation that he doesn’t understand Catholicism or the communion of saints, he wouldn’t have raised so many hackles. As it was, the thread quickly dissolved into a free-for-all. One response I remember for its simplicity, in wording and thought; the person screamed, “THE WORSHIP OF SAINTS IS IDOLATRY,” as if insistence in capital letters was the only rebuttal necessary. Another idiot attempted to connect the communion of saints to voodoo, which is as ridiculous as the claim that Constantine founded the Catholic Church.

Bad use of Scripture, bad theology, bad Church history, bad manners.

In sum:
·         Catholics don’t worship saints.
·         Statues of saints aren’t ipso facto idols.
·         Prayer isn’t worship, although it’s an important component.
·         The accusation of idolatry is both unjust and uncharitable … and linguistically sloppy to boot.

It is possible to disagree with the Catholic Church without making gratuitous, ill-informed charges such as this. One day, maybe, the Church’s public-square opponents will learn how to do so.

[1] I have absolutely no memory of ever watching The Howdy-Doody Show.
[2] Refuting the Attack on Mary (El Cajon, Calif.: Catholic Answers, 1993, 1999), pp. 78-79; emphasis in original. “Father Mateo” was the pen name of an unknown priest who taught New Testament Greek at a major university.
[3] Technically, every Jew—even the “secular Jew”—is bound to observe the Law of Moses. The atheist/agnostic neglect of observation is, to this shaygets, an abandonment not just of God but of one’s Jewish heritage, as well as a post-mortem victory for Hitler. In other words, it’s a crying shame.
[4] Indeed, when English used to make a distinction between formal and informal address, God was always entreated as “Thou”, “Thee”, “Thy” and “Thine”, which is the second person familiar. While the second person familiar was often directed towards servants and subordinates, it was also directed to close friends, family, lovers, little children and dogs.