You know the song and dance. A non-Catholic accuses you of worshiping the Blessed Virgin Mary (and maybe even the saints, too), and you fumble through an explanation of how we don’t worship anyone but God, but we revere the saints and Mary. The non-Catholic, however, is not convinced. Instead, he argues that the Catholic Church invented the distinctions of worship as a compromise with paganism. The Catholic Church essentially made it easier for pagans to become Christian by cleverly disguising polytheism as a Christian reverence for holy individuals and the Mother of Jesus.
This is how it typically goes. I’ve seen it all too often myself. Few Catholics are equipped to handle such an assault on Church Teaching. After all, non-Catholics (be they Protestant, Muslim, atheist, etc.) are generally better informed about theology than the majority of Catholics. Have no fear. American Catholic Solidarity is here to help!
The belief that Catholicism invented the distinctions in different types of worship is just plain false. The accusation that such was done in order to increase our number of converts from paganism is ignorant. The Catholic Church had a rather large number of its adherents suffering martyrdom at the hands of pagan officials, rather than abandon their faith. So the Catholic Church had no need to compromise with any other faith to obtain more converts. The blood of the martyrs provided enough seed.
Far from developing the distinctions in the types of worship, the Catholic Church merely adopted the distinctions that were already in place. Part of the problem is that people rarely understand word usage in ancient languages. In fact, believing the Catholic Church invented the distinctions in worship shows a misunderstanding of modern languages.
Most people seem to think we apply the word worship solely to our activity in praising God. When it comes to mere mortals, the word honor would be more appropriate. This idea is false. Have you ever heard of the term “hero worship”? Now, you wouldn’t seriously suggest anyone applying that term to a human is worshiping that human in the same way they worship God, would you? It is no different with the ancient languages or Catholicism.
Basically, there are three types of worship. The first we call adoration in English. This is the worship given to God alone. No one else is deserving of adoration.
The second type of worship is called hyperdulia. Hyperdulia can be translated as “reverence”, “extreme reverence”, or “extreme honor”. In any case, hyperdulia is the worship given to the Blessed Virgin Mary alone. She is the pinnacle of God’s creation. No human equals the Virgin Mary. Sure, Jesus is Her superior, but He is also God. No one who is only human can even come close to the Virgin Mary. Thus, She is given the second place of honor next to the Blessed Trinity. It is a distant second, but second nonetheless.
The final type of worship is called dulia. Dulia may be translated as “reverence” or “honor”. This is the type of worship given to all holy men and women who are not God, or who are not the Virgin Mary. These holy men and women are given a special honor because they have entered into heaven, and are therefore closer to God than we who are still among the Church Militant.
So let me be clear. If, by the word worship, you mean adoration, then Catholics worship God alone. No one else is ever to be adored. If, however, you take worship to mean something like honor or reverence, then we give these to Mary and the saints. Why would this be so wrong? If war heroes deserve our honor and respect, how much more do those in heaven warrant our honor and respect?
Catholics are neither Mariolaters, nor are we hagiolaters. We are simply Christians who realize the holiness of some of our predecessors in the Faith. We also realize the benefits that can be had by honoring such people.
After all, when we honor a painting, no one suggests that by doing so we are somehow slighting the artist who made the painting. By honoring the painting, we honor the artist who made it. By honoring Mary, the angels, and the saints we honor He Who created them. Far from detracting from the worship due to the Trinity, the worship we give Mary, the angels, and saints (which is less than the adoration given the Trinity) compliments He Who created them. Catholics are not so stupid as to believe the painting made itself; or possesses any greatness apart from its maker. Neither do we believe Mary, the angels, nor the saints created themselves; or possess any greatness apart from their Creator.
Peace in Christ,
David J. Pollard
American Catholic Solidarity