Thursday, September 18, 2008

on the communion of the saints

A very common argument used to object to the Catholic view of the communion of the saints is that the idea of praying to someone who is in heaven but not God is not as good as praying to God Himself.

Many like to construct analogies and say something to this effect:

Suppose you wanted to discuss the President (or CEO, CFO, etc.) of the company. Maybe if you were slightly connected, you would talk to some lower level executives. If you were a lower level executive, the next person you might contact is the Vice-President. But to have a direct line of contact to the President, you would have to be the Vice-President or some other second highest level of command to have such full access.

This hierarchy is compared to the Catholic Church's hierarchy on earth with laypeople, priests, all bishops, with special emphasis on the Bishop of Rome, aka the holy father, the Pope. After death and away from earth, the hierarchy doesn't end, either. For you have suffering believers who are being purged of the inclination to sin in purgatory for whom we are recommended to pray, and the you have saints in heaven, to whom we are recommended to pray. Among the saints in heaven, the Virgin Mary is afforded the highest level of veneration and through devotions such as the Rosary, she is definitely one that Catholics would say is worth contacting.

The person who frames this sort of analogy is quick to make this qualification to the analogy. They would say:

Suppose that you were the son or daughter of this President. Now all objections that could be made by the hierarchy of leadership would fall apart, as daddy's little boy or girl would have the father's full attention. There is no need to schedule an appointment with the VP first, you are instantly accepted by the father.

And thus, the argument concludes by objecting to the Catholic's view of the saints being in communion as including invoking the saints.

But wait a minute! Wait an hour! Please do not pass go with this contortion of reality!

First of all, let's follow the analogy out. OK, maybe Mary is the VP and St. Peter is the Executive Director of Corporate Activities, and so on and so forth.

Even granting that, is that to deny that these believers are NOT children of God??? What a sad way to look at those who are in heaven!

And this brings us on to the second gaping hole in this analogy-its very structure is inaccurate, for the Church is the family of God. Sure, it's a kingdom of priests (1 Peter) and it does have ordained leaders (Matthew 16, Hebrews 12), but God forbid that said leadership get in the way of the bond of love that is the most excellent way of all (1 Corinthians 13)! To start the analogy by describing the family of God as some kind of business is perhaps fitting given the way some Christians make a profit, but it is not what Our Lord ordained, and therefore should not have been the analogy to begin with.

Thirdly, this criticism of the Catholic view is faulty in that it neglects to consider the fundamental relation that is proposed to exist between Christians when they call upon the saint. Look up any prayer to a saint, and you will see this is false.

Take, for example, the Hail Mary. I quote it here:

Hail Mary, full of grace,
the Lord is with thee,
Blessed art thou among women
and blessed is the Fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners,
Now and at the hour of our death.

Here we see many things-particularly that the main request of Mary is that she PRAY for us. We as Catholics do not ask Mary to give us this day our daily bread. Secondly, all veneration of Mary is connected to the Lord-she is beautiful because the Lord is with her. God, on the other hand, is to be worshipped and adored, for His name is Hallowed. He is goodness itself. Everyone else is good to the extent that they are in union with Him. But as I said, the real thing that is requested in a prayer to a saint is prayer to the Lord. And this is where another old memory of my Protestant days comes back to haunt me. My calculus teacher stated something so simple that I could only respond by mockery and neglect. He simply asked me, "Jonathan, do you ever ask your friends to pray for you? Does that show that you are not close to God, or that you neglect your own requests made before God? Then neither should praying to a saint."
I couldn't answer him then, and I now find myself on his side.

Fourthly, the whole story that it's better to pray to Our Lord than to pray to a saint offers a false dichotomy. It's a false dichotomy that would fall by the wayside with a moment's reflection-just consider that Catholics pray the Lord's Prayer (or Our Father) and you will understand that the love that we have for our brethren in heaven does not undermine our love for Our Father in heaven. Rather, it is the source of our love for each other, and to the degree that we venerate a saint or a living person, it is to the extent that these people shine forth that image which we all bear-the imago Dei. No, we do not have to choose between praying to saints and praying to Our Lord, any more than we have to choose between loving God and loving our neighbor.

Lastly, I would like to propose a counter analogy, with much fear and trepidation. If it does anything, may it help you to love your brethren on earth more.

Imagine a family where there was a wealthy father who had many children. He gave gifts to all of his children, and would often gather his children together for feasts.

The father sat down at his table, food was passed, drinks were opened, and the candles were lit. Imagine that this meal passed with each child taking turns talking to the Father. His love was so great that he did not mind hearing all of their thoughts and requests. Everyone had a chance to speak to him, and everyone did.

After going to the head of the table, these children sat back down and continued to eat. They did not turn to their left or right to remark about the beauty of their siblings' dress, to ask them for advice, or share the latest joke.

They only longed for the next time to talk to their Father. And in their family, to share with anyone but their Father just did not happen. Call them prim, call them proper, the meal was held in silence, apart from those comments made to and from the head of the family.

At one meal, the oldest child Peter asked the youngest child Mary to ask the father to pass the potatoes. He then proceeded to tell his brother Anthony about his sadness over having lost his favorite shirt. He figured that Anthony would be sympathetic to his story, as he too used to lose items.

In the midst of this discussion amongst the brethren, the Father stood up. The plates clattered with falling silverware, and the burgeoning conversations among the children stopped as silence set in.

"This is not how we operate in our family! After all, I bought the clothes you are wearing, the food you are eating, and the drinks you are drinking! I have given you your very lives! For you to talk to each other about your lives is to assume that I did not give you them, or that your brothers and sisters could actually give you these things! For you to ask someone else to talk to me-that is disgusting! Do you not see that I am here?! Can you not talk to me? How dare you talk to your brothers and sisters!"

And with that, the Father grabbed Peter by the collar and told him to go home for his lack of gratefulness.

Would any of us hesitate to call this man a tyrant?


the mumpers said...

What do Catholics think Paul means in 1 Tim 1:5 when he says there is one mediator between God and men? When did this tradition of praying to someone other than God begin and how do Catholics support it Biblically?

contrarian 78 said...

This is an important question-in fact, I wrote this blog because of our e-mail discussions.
As I tried to unravel, the Catholic idea of seeking prayers from other Christians who are in the presence of God's glory (i.e., heaven) is not meant to undermine the unique mediation of Christ, as the second chapter of 1 Timothy explains.

Just as praying for others while we are on earth (which is the focus of 1 Tim 2:1-4) does not undermine the mediation of Christ, neither does such "mediation" from heaven. Those brethren who we call on to pray for us who are in heaven are still coming to God the Father due to the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus, who is our peace.

To discuss the Biblical support of our brethren in heaven praying for us, a good beginning point would have to be the Apocalypse of St. John. There we do not just read of saints begging God in his mercy to look at the Church militant and intercede (Rev 6:10), we also read about the throne of God being approached by the saints of the Lord and the angels. They present incense to their King, who is worthy of all praise. Unlike many passages of the Apocalypse that are veiled in symbolism, here John provides a key to understanding this incense when he states that this incense that the elders present before the throne is "the prayers of the saints." (Rev 5:8, 8:4)

These are glimpses of our unity as Christians which reflect upon the reality of our communion that extends beyond the grave.

Going beyond the Bible to discussing this as a tradition, one helpful thing to consider is that the early graves of Christians show prayers for those who have departed, as attested to by this article: .

I think that's a good starting point, but we could discuss more. Again, I hope to write you directly on the matter but for now am discussing the abstract objection of saying that praying to the saints (and for saints who have left this life) is not akin to some huge corporate bureaucracy.

Pax et bonum,

the mumpers said...

I know that God can hear my prayers because he is everywhere and knows everything. Given that saints can intercede for us, why should we suppose that they can hear our prayers?

contrarian 78 said...

I'll try to make a post on this exact issue, as it also troubled me once.

My short answer is that the nature of our union with God, the testimony that our prayers are heard by saints as mentioned in Revelation, and the logical impossibility of a continued imperfect knowledge in heaven while being a land of no tears, all point to the Catholic/Eastern Orthodox perspective.

I'll try to flesh it out ASAP.


MHL said...

I've always thought of Jesus as the fruit of Mary's womb, not her loins. :)

But, nice blog. Keep up the good work!

contrarian 78 said...

EGAD-sorry about that mistake which I've already corrected, MHL.