Do You Know Who Catholics Really Worship?
You shall have no other gods before me. This command from the Lord in the Book of Exodus is a command held in common not only by all Christians but by all Abrahamic religions. From this command springs forth the prohibition that we need to reserve worship for God alone. To offer to anything, or anybody, else the same worship that we offer God would be to place that thing, or person, on the same level as God. This would be sinful.
However, this command is something that many Protestants have accused Catholics of breaking with the way Catholics treat and speak about the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Saints. Having patron saints for people, occupations, situations that we pray to can confuse those outside the Catholic Church because they see us as breaking this command. But, Catholics have been engaging in these practices long before the Protestant churches were ever founded and began to criticize the practice of praying to saints and Mary.
There are many apologists who explain why praying to the saints and to Mary does not violate this command; but did you know that there are technical differences between the type of honor or veneration we offer to God, the saints, and to Mary? Looking at the theological terms used to describe how we engage with Mary and the saints and God we can begin to speak more precisely about our relationship with them. That is what I want to do here: not necessarily offer an in-depth apologetic explanation about why we do the practices, but instead offer some new terminology that we can adopt to speak more precisely about these practices.
The worship that we owe, and hopefully offer, to God alone is called Latria. This Latin term is often translated into English as “adoration.” This is a fairly poor translation, but it seems to be the best we have to deal with. There is adoration that is due to God alone. To God alone we make the sacrifice of the Mass, to God alone we bow in adoration. Jesus Christ alone is our Savior and the high priest who offered himself as the pure sacrifice that was immolated on the cross. The RE-presentation of this event, not the “representation,” is what happens at every Mass and thus the Eucharist is also given this Latria. The 1965 Encyclical Mysterium Fidei written by Pope Pius VI asserts this belief when he writes: “The Catholic Church has always displayed and still displays this latria that ought to be paid to the Sacrament of the Eucharist, both during Mass and outside of it.”
So, latria is due and offered to God alone. However, to the Saints we offer what is called dulia. This is often translated into English as veneration. St. Jerome and St. Augustine wrote about the distinction between the dulia offered to the saints and the latria offered to God. St. Thomas Aquinas fleshes this distinction out even more by saying that Latria is offered to God by virtue of his Lordship whereas dulia is what is offered to a human lord. St. Thomas Aquinas compares the dulia we offer to saints to be the honor that servants show to their masters.
Finally, the way we interact with Mary, the Blessed Virgin Mother of God: She whom was saved from sin at the moment of her conception, She who has been crowned as Queen of Heaven and Earth, is given a special term that distinguishes the way we engage with her vs. the saints that still draws a distinction between her and God. We certainly don’t offer Mary Latria because she is not God. Essentially we offer her the dulia of the saints but at a hyper level. Thus, the way we venerate Mary has been called hyperdulia throughout the ages.
The problem when we discuss these terms in English speaking countries is that some people translate all three of these terms- Latria, Dulia, and Hyperdulia- into English as worship. If we want to begin to discuss with others, or begin to understand it ourselves, we need to begin to use the more precise terms that allow us to distinguish properly between God, the saints, and Mary. So, offer that dulia to your patron saint, offer the hyperdulia to Mary, and reserve the Latria for God alone, especially in the Eucharist; and if you are questioned about it make sure to use these three terms to make sure that the distinction is made because both you and the Protestant challenging you are right about somethings: we are to offer to God alone adoration, but the veneration of saints is different; although it may look similar.