Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Brief Replies to a Sincere Inquirer: Praying to Saints and the Bad Popes

By Dave Armstrong (5-27-08)

As this is a private letter, my correspondent's exact words will be paraphrased, not cited. Her "words" will be in

* * * * *

What exactly is worship, according to Catholics? I know that you say you worship only God, but how is this defined? How do you distinguish between worshiping God and honoring saints? I've read a little about latria and dulia and hyperdulia, but to me it is almost like talking out of both sides of your mouth and doing something a Christian should know is wrong.

Worship is adoration: praise and thanksgiving to God our Creator and Lord and savior. No creature is like Him. No creature can be worshiped because that would be idolatry (putting a creature in the place of God). Catholics venerate the saints, which means giving them honor and praising the work that God has done through them, as vessels. Saints reflect the glory of God like the moon reflects the light of the sun. Praising a masterpiece of painting is not praise of oil and canvas, but of the painter who created it. Veneration of saints has a biblical basis.

How is it proper to pray both to God and to a saint? How do you define prayer?

If by "praying to a saint" you mean "asking the saint to grant a request by his/her own power," then that is not what Catholics mean. What we mean by it is "asking a saint to intercede with God for a request. God answers in His power". The principle is simple, and biblical. "The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects" (James 5:16; RSV). Saints are still alive in heaven. They care about those of us on earth. They observe us. By the power of God and being out of time, they can hear our prayer requests, or requests for their intercession. All of this has biblical support (see my papers above). Prayer is not worship. I'm not worshiping God if I ask him to heal my wife. I'm not worshiping a saint if I ask him to ask God to heal my wife. It's simply the care and concern that the Body of Christ has for other members. Death doesn't cause that to come to an end, because God transcends the power of death and physical separation.

How do you differentiate between veneration of Mary and worship?

Because we are honoring her for being obedient to God and following His will. We are praising the artist (God) for the masterpiece (Mary). Everything Mary is, is because of God's grace. She was obedient to God, though, and we are venerating her for that, too, because it is a wonderful testimony and example for us to follow. It wasn't possible for Jesus to sin, but it was possible for Mary to sin. She chose not to (by God's grace, but she still chose). And so we honor her for that. That's not idolatry; it is acknowledgment of holiness and the work of God in His creatures.

Can we worship God and do the same to a saint and act as if it is okay just because we give them different descriptive terms?

No. I've explained the essential difference between the two things.


We Protestants pray to God only.

But you ask others to pray for you, and that is what Catholics are doing with the saints, and Mary above all, because she was the mother of our Lord and Savior Jesus. Protestants understand James 5:16, because they will ask perceived righteous persons to pray for them (like, say, Billy Graham). Again: we don't think that the saints are the source of the answered prayer. They are aids for us to get to God and to have more of an expectation for an answered prayer, because we have enlisted a holy person to help us in our request (James 5:16).

How can you believe in a succession of popes since so many have been terrible sinners?

It's not based on sinlessness (that's called impeccability) but on office. We believe that God protects the Church from teaching error, by His power (not the power of sinful men). How is this possible? It's entirely possible because God is God and can accomplish whatever He wants. Secondly, it has already happened in greater measure in the inspired Scripture, which was written by sinful men like Moses, David, Paul, and Peter (murderers, adulterers, and people who would deny knowing Jesus). Yet it is inspired and infallible. Likewise, God uses sinful men as bishops and popes and protects the faithful from receiving false teaching.

Titus 1:7-9 For a bishop, as God's steward, must be blameless; he must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of goodness, master of himself, upright, holy, and self-controlled; he must hold firm to the sure word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to confute those who contradict it.
If the pope is the head of all the bishops, wouldn't he also have to (above all) be of this high level of character?

Most of them have been, especially in the last 150-200 years. This is the ideal, but you and I know full well that people don't always live up to biblical standards (we need only look at ourselves, for starters). We see the tension between the ideal and the real, in, for example, 1 John 1:6-10:

1 John 1:6-7 If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not live according to the truth; but if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.

(ideal: no sin)

1 John 1:8-10 If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.

(all have sin, that needs to be confessed and cleansed; to deny one's sin is to be a liar)
Thus, there have been some bad popes. This is not unexpected, based on Scripture (see the Galatian and Corinthian churches).

Of what purpose is a bad pope who is still a true pope? You simply accept that and say that God has His reasons?

Yes, because He used King David and made an everlasting covenant with Him and made Jesus His descendant, even though David was an adulterer and murderer. Jesus called Judas to be His disciple, and Judas was called both a disciple and "elect." The Bible shows how a successor was chosen when Judas killed himself. Jesus made Peter the leader of the Church, knowing that he would deny him three times. 

I'm not trying to be contentious; I really want to understand these things. I feel somewhat led to the Catholic Church. I have heard that I must accept all Catholic teachings to do so.

That's right, because it is a teaching passed down from the apostles. One doesn't pick and choose and decide what they will accept, but rather, decide in faith that God has one true Church that He has protected all these centuries. God can do it. He has enough power to do that!

I have hope that I can better understand these things if they are explained to me. I don't feel like I am a Protestant any longer. I think they have many of their own problems and have not figured everything out themselves.

I hope my answers have been helpful to you. God bless you as you consider where God might be leading you. Pray, pray, pray! The Holy Spirit leads us into all truth, as the Bible says.

Yours in Christ,


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