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Mariolatry, Or Mariophobia?

Our Lady of Guadalupe

1) Introduction

There are numerous Protestants who accuse the Catholic Church of promoting "Mariolatry". Are they right?

2) Some common ground between Catholics and many Protestants

As usual, we'll begin by trying to understand what we're talking about, while looking for some common ground between Catholics and many Protestants:

2.1) Only God is to be adored. The very first of the Ten Commandments says clearly that we must adore God, and only God [Ex 20:3-5]. The theological word "latria" means exactly this adoration. (This explains words like "idolatry", "mariolatry", etc.)

2.2) There are people, claiming to be Catholics, who adore the Virgin Mary. As my whole web site screams at the top of its lungs, claiming to be a Catholic is not sufficient to actually be one! I can find you people who claim to be Catholics, even though they believe in all kinds of stuff totally incompatible with the Catholic Faith! Except almost all of them are terrified to put it clearly in writing, with their name and contact information (especially if they are not at the bottom rung in the Church hierarchy). Why? See the last part of the following paragraph!

2.3) The Catholic Church officially condemns mariolatry. Of course, some Protestants will argue that, despite these official declarations, the Catholic Church still promotes mariolatry. Except that concerns the rest of this article. Here, I'm just stating a verifiable fact: if you adore the Virgin Mary, and the Church finds out, you'll get kicked out. For example, right here in the Quebec City area in 2007, a large group of self-proclaimed Catholics was formally excommunicated, precisely because they put the Virgin Mary at the same level as God.

2.4) Only the Catholic Church is the official spokesperson for the Catholic Church. This sounds obvious, except to many Protestants who ignore the Eighth Commandment [Ex 20:16]. The accused has a right to be heard, and the Defense Attorney for the Catholic Church isn't some strange Protestant web site! In other words, to attack the teachings of the Catholic Church about the Virgin Mary, you need to quote actual Church documents like:

- Catechism of the Catholic Church
- Chapter 8 of Lumen Gentium
- Marialis Cultus
- etc.

3) Some terminological comments

Any discussion about a complex problem requires agreement about the precise meaning of important terms. If that discussion is between people who don't have a natural tendency to agree (like Catholics and Protestants), properly-used words become even more important.

How should we use words? Good question! I wish I could answer briefly, but I'm not sure that is even possible. Sooner or later, if we want to use words well, we need to dig down into what a word is, and how the mind works. (I won't do it here, but some day you should read up on that topic.) At the very least, we must avoid a few terminological pitfalls:

3.1) Inventing a definition to convict someone of heresy. Example: I was arguing with a Protestant, who said: "Religion is defined as something invented by man; Catholicism is a religion; therefore Catholicism is invented by man. But we know the true Gospel comes from God, therefore Catholicism is a lie." Nothing illogical about that argument, except the problem with the starting definition.

Let's imagine another example: "Veneration is defined as something which is not against the First Commandment; Catholics venerate the Virgin Mary; Therefore veneration is not against the First Commandment". Cute, but that is just a fancy way of saying: "Assuming Catholics are right, lets nevertheless argue to see whether Catholics are right"!

3.2) Ignoring the modes of signification (univocal, equivocal and analogical). Quick refresher course. 1) Univocal: the word signifies a mode of being which is the same in all its inferiors. Example: "animal" applied to "mouse", "horse", "man", etc. 2) Equivocal: the opposite of univocal. Example: "top" as in the children's toy that spins, and "top" as opposed to bottom. 3) Analogical: the word signifies a mode of being which is simply different and in a way the same in all its inferiors ("Ratio simpliciter diversa, sed ratio secundum quid eadem vel una"). Example: "Man's mind is alive because it nourishes itself and grows by assimilating ideas, like a dog is alive because it nourishes itself and grows by assimilating dog food."

Why is it important to distinguish the various modes of signification? Let's take an example with the word "being" (which is analogical). A cow is a being, and God is a being. But that doesn't mean we consider God to be an animal, nor does it mean we adore cows, even though we use the same word to talk about both.

Allow me a second example, Biblical this time. Jesus tells us we have to love God (our Creator), but right after He tells us we have to love our neighbors (who are mere creatures!) [Mc 12:29]. It's the same word (the verb "to love"), but used once in one sense, and the second time in another sense. We have to love God absolutely, but love our neighbor relatively (because God loves him or her, not because our neighbor is God!). You can see that without the philosophical doctrine of analogy, the Bible becomes incomprehensible!

4) Can "dulia" exist?

4.1) One of the bones of contention between Catholics and many Protestants is the traditional Catholic distinction between "dulia" (veneration due to all saints, except the Virgin Mary), "hyperdulia" (veneration due to the Virgin Mary) and "latria" (adoration due exclusively to God). Many Protestants claim this distinction is "artificial", or "theoretical", or some other way of saying "a pseudo-distinction, without foundation in reality".

Obviously, if "dulia" and "hyperdulia" cannot exist, then any kind of veneration of the Virgin Mary would be "latria", and since only God is to be adored, we would be able to conclude that the Catholic Church promotes "mariolatry".

Can "dulia" (and "hyperdulia") exist? In order for that to even be possible, several things are necessary. First, God needs to exist (something we assume in this article). Second, things that are not God also need to exist. (Another way of saying this is that for a pantheist, it's impossible to do anything to a creature. For example, for a pantheist, kicking a dog is the same as kicking God! And obviously, you cannot have "dulia" for a saint, if saints don't exist!) Third, God has to want to work through "second causes". This third point requires more explanations.

What would the world look like if God didn't want to work through second causes? When you kicked a dog, it wouldn't be you, it would be God kicking the dog. When you decided to kiss your wife goodbye in the morning before leaving for work, it would be God who would decide to kiss your wife, not you. This philosophical theory is known as Occasionalism. Apparently, History of Philosophy shows this theory leads to pantheism.

4.2) The correct philosophical theory seems to be divine premotion. From what I understand, all operations of creatures come from God by premotion, but premotion fully preserves the proper activities of each being, and in man, his freedom. This is because motion is the action of an efficient cause which produces a change. But "cause" is an analogous concept, which can be understood in two very different ways: physically (change in its particular aspect), or metaphysically (change in its universal aspect of being).

As Peter Kreeft says, God likes to "exalt His subordinates", God likes to go through second causes, so the goodness and perfection of being a cause can be disseminated in other beings. Because of this, things like "love", "honor" and "obedience" can be given not only to God, but also to creatures. To God, they are given absolutely. To creatures, relatively, insofar as creatures participate in whatever makes God worthy of love, honor, obedience, etc.

But if we honor our father and mother [Ex 20:12], and honor God [Is 42:8], does that mean we think God is a creature, or that our parents are divine? (Another example is given above, when Jesus orders us to "love" God (the Creator) and "love" men (some creatures) in the same passage.) No. Remember what I said about analogy here above. There is a fundamental difference between the absolute, and the relative. This explains why "dulia" and "hyperdulia" can exist, not just "latria".

For God has absolute and paramount lordship over the creature wholly and singly, which is entirely subject to His power: whereas man partakes of a certain likeness to the divine lordship, forasmuch as he exercises a particular power over some man or creature. Wherefore dulia, which pays due service to a human lord, is a distinct virtue from latria, which pays due service to the lordship of God.
[ST, IIa-IIae, q. 103, a. 3, in corpus]

5) What about praying to saints?

As shown above, "dulia" is possible, at least in theory. But just because something is possible doesn't mean it's recommended by God! (Otherwise I could eat all the sour cream and onion chips I wanted!) What does God want us to do with saints? Should we talk to them? Honor them? Ask them for something?

To answer this question, there are some easy assumptions, and one big problem. Easy assumptions are that saints exist (some men have lived well and are now in Heaven, with God), and that saints can hear us (since God is Almighty, He can certainly hear us, and transmit our message to anyone He wants), etc. The one big problem is: "How do we know what God wants?", which can also be re-stated: "Who has the God-given authority to correctly interpret the Bible?" It is impossible to set this big problem aside, and pretend we can answer the question about praying to the saints. Catholics claim that God would never be stupid enough to plop a book on mankind's lap and abandon its correct interpretation to the winds of personal whims. Catholics claim God supplies not only a book, but also a divinely-instituted Magisterium to interpret it correctly. As for Protestants, well, it depends which of the thousands of mutually-incompatible Protestants denominations you talk to. (Sounds like they were scattered by the winds of personal whims!)

In this article, I will set aside the big problem of "who has the God-given authority to correctly interpret the Bible". (Do remember it cannot be set aside forever.) I'll just try to explain, as best I can, what the Magisterium claims God wants.

6) Some arguments supporting prayer to saints

First, as said above, we must be careful about words. "Prayer" comes in two flavors:

6.1) Prayer is offered to a person in two ways: first, as to be fulfilled by him, secondly, as to be obtained through him. On the first way we offer prayer to God alone, since all our prayers ought to be directed to the acquisition of grace and glory, which God alone gives [...]. But in the second way we pray to the saints, whether angels or men, not that God may through them know our petitions, but that our prayers may be effective through their prayers and merits. Hence it is written [Ap 8:4]: that "the smoke of the incense," namely "the prayers of the saints ascended up before God." This is also clear from the very style employed by the Church in praying: since we beseech the Blessed Trinity "to have mercy on us," while we ask any of the saints "to pray for us."
[ST, IIa-IIae, q. 83, a. 4, in corpus]

Does God want us to pray to angelic and human persons, and not just to divine persons? The Bible seems to imply this in [Rm 15:30]:

6.2) Further, the saints who are in heaven are more acceptable to God than those who are on the way. Now we should make the saints, who are on the way, our intercessors with God, after the example of the Apostle, who said [Rm 15:30]: "I beseech you [...] brethren, through our Lord Jesus Christ, and by the charity of the Holy Ghost, that you help me in your prayers for me to God." Much more, therefore, should we ask the saints who are in heaven to help us by their prayers to God.
[ST, Suppl., q. 72, a. 2, sed contra]

Ludwig Ott presents a compact version of the complete argument (make sure you read all the Bible passages he refers to):

6.3) Holy Writ does not explicitly refer to the veneration and invocation of saints, but it asserts the principle out of which Church teaching and practice developed. Our right to venerate the saints can be deduced from the veneration offered to the angels as attested by Holy Writ. [Cf. Jos 5:14; Dn 8:17; Tb 12:16]. The ground for the veneration of the angels is their supernatural dignity, which is rooted in their immediate union with God [Mt 18:10]. Since the saints also are immediately joined to God [1Co 13:12; 1Jn 3:2], it follows that they too are worthy of veneration.

[2M 15:11-16] attests the faith of the Jewish people in the intercession of the saints: Judas the Maccabean sees in a "credible" vision how two deceased just men, the High Priest Onias and the Prophet Jeremias, intercede with God for the Jewish people and for the Holy City. Cf. [Jr 15:1]. According to [Tb 12:12; Ap 5:8; et Ap 8:3], the angels and the saints lay the prayers of the holy on earth at the feet of God, that is, they support them with their intercession as also might be expected from the permanency of charity [1Co 13:8]. The propriety of invoking them logically follows from the fact of their intercession.
[Ott, Ludwig. Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, Tan Books, 1992, p. 318-319, Book 4, chapter 6, 23, my emphasis]

(The rest of Ott's argument is very important, but I'll omit it here. It involves studying history, to see what early Christians did. Of course this confirms the teachings of the Church.)

7) Answers to some Protestant objections

Here are some typical Protestant objections to praying to saints and the Virgin Mary. They mostly revolve around guilt by association:

7.1) "Catholics pray to the Virgin Mary, and they also pray to God. Therefore Catholics adore a creature". See the various modes of signification here above, and the application to the word "prayer" here above.

7.2) "Catholics pray to God on their knees, and then they stay on their knees to talk to the Virgin Mary, therefore Catholics adore a creature". When a veterinarian kneels before a cow, that doesn't prove he adores the cow! Kneeling and other bodily positions are only part of the equation; you also have to take into account the intention. In the Bible, some prostrations before creatures are done with correct intentions (see Bible quotes here above), some with incorrect intentions [Ac 10:26].

7.3) "Catholics pray to God one minute, and the very next minute they pray to the Virgin Mary, therefore Catholics adore a creature". When you talk to your mother one minute, then the very next minute you hit your toe on a table leg and say nasty things to the table, does that mean you think your mother is a table?

There are many variations to these arguments. Indeed, guilt by association doesn't require facts, but just appearances, in order to "convict" someone.

8) Conclusion

There is something profoundly important about Protestants who reject the Virgin Mary, and who also reject the Church. That is not a coincidence.

If you want to interpret the Bible according to your personal whims, you will reject whatever God instituted to correctly interpret that Bible. And what did God institute to correctly interpret the Bible? Read that Bible again: Jesus doesn't dedicate His life to writing a book. He dedicates His life to founding one Church, and only one Church [Mt 16:18; Jn 17:21; Ep 4:5]. The Bible you're holding in your hands got to us because the Church faithfully received Revelation, to then retransmit it to us.

Yes, God could have avoided second causes. He could have just sent down a copy of the Bible to each and every one of us, instead of founding a Church to let Her transmit to us His Word. He also could have taken a short cut and appear directly on earth as an adult. Instead, he took a "long cut" and was born of a Virgin, who then gave Him to us.

If you reject the Church, you will necessarily also reject the Model and Mother of the Church. You can't have "mariophobia" without first having "churchophobia"!

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