Two Notions of Worship: Catholic vs. Fundamentalist | Karl Keating | From The Usual Suspects: Answering Anti-Catholic Fundamentalists
Here is a pop quiz I give in parish seminars: "You recall that the Israelites melted down their jewelry and made a golden calf. What was wrong with making a golden calf?" Before anyone has a chance to embarrass himself publicly, I give the answer: "Absolutely nothing."
When I ask that question and give that answer, most people are stunned. "But we know making the golden calf was a sin", they say. "The Israelites were condemned for it." Actually, my listeners know no such thing. There was nothing at all wrong with fashioning a statue from jewelry. What was wrong was that the Israelites then worshiped the nonexistent god the calf represented. They committed the sin of idolatry. There never has been a sin of statue-making.
"But God expressly forbids making statues", say many Fundamentalists. They cite Exodus 20:4: "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image", and a statue is certainly a "graven image"—that is, an image made by human hands. When this verse is thrown at them, most Catholics are stumped for a response. If they were more familiar with Exodus, they could skip to chapter 25 and read the account of the ornamenting of the Ark of the Covenant. The Lord commanded that the Ark, which held the tablets of the Law, be topped by statues of two cherubim. The statues were to be made of gold, and the wings of the cherubim were to be held over the Ark, as though protecting it.
So here we have the Lord, in chapter 20, saying, "Don't make statues", according to Fundamentalists, and in chapter 25 the Lord says, "Make statues." The key to this apparent contradiction is, the purpose behind the making of statues. In chapter 20 statues used in idol worship were condemned; in chapter 25 statues used for a proper religious purpose were praised. This brings us to statues in Catholic churches. Fundamentalists see us kneel before statues of Mary and the saints and conclude we are worshiping either the statues as such or at least the saints represented by the statues. The fact that a Catholic kneels before a statue to pray does not mean he is praying to the statue. A Fundamentalist may kneel with a Bible in his hand, but no one thinks he is praying to a book. Statues and other "graven images" are used to recall to the mind the person or thing depicted. Just as it is easier to remember one's family by looking at a photograph, so it is easier to remember the lives of the saints (and thus be edified by them) by looking at representations of the saints.
"But you pray to saints, even if you don't pray to their statues", say Fundamentalists. "That means you do worship them. At the least your prayers to saints violate 1 Timothy 2:5, which says, 'There is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.'"
Prayers to saints, asking them to intercede with God for us, do not violate 1 Timothy 2:5. If they did, then every Christian would stand guilty of violating that verse because every Christian prays for other people. After all, what is a mediator? Merely a go-between. When we pray for others, we act as go-betweens, passing their concerns to God. Fundamentalists regularly ask one another for prayers. They are right to do this because our Lord commanded that we pray for one another. No Fundamentalist will say to another, "No, I won't pray for you. Pray to God straight!" Instead, he'll say, "I'll gladly pray for you, and please pray for me." In so praying he becomes a mediator. This does not violate 1 Timothy 2:5, which is really telling us that our prayers for one another are effectual precisely because Christ is the one mediator. Without his mediation, our prayers would be worthless.
If it is proper to ask imperfect Christians on earth to pray for us, why should it be improper to ask perfected Christians in heaven to pray for us? Death does not separate us from Christ or the Church. In fact, death brings us closer to both. Keep in mind the metaphor of the vine and the branches. Christ is the vine, and we are the branches. This is a singular vine: when a branch dies, it does not break off and fall away. It blossoms. It is perfected. Through Christ we remain in communion with other Christians on earth—and with Christians in heaven (and in purgatory). On earth we can ask for our friends' prayers by calling them on the phone, writing a letter, using sign language. The only way we can communicate with the saints is through prayer. How can they hear us? We do not know the mechanics of it, but then we do not know the mechanics of how God hears prayers either. To say he hears prayers because he is omnipotent is no answer. That still does not tell us how he does it. To claim that saints cannot hear us opens us to the claim that God cannot hear us either, and no Fundamentalist believes that.
What seems to be the real problem for Fundamentalists? Why do they get so annoyed with Catholics praying to saints? Ultimately it is because they do not have the Mass. The Mass is the highest form of worship possible—sacrifice. The Protestant Reformers did away with the Mass, so all that Fundamentalists, distant heirs of the Reformers, have to fall back on, as the highest form of worship available to them, is straight prayer. Prayer to saints can be confused with prayer to God if prayer to God is the best one can do. The result: the worship of God may seem indistinguishable from conversation with saints.
Catholics do not have this problem. Yes, we pray to God, but we also, have the Mass, which is radically unlike mere prayer and which is directed to God alone. It is easier for Catholics to keep their "honoring" compartmentalized. Despite hoary stories to the contrary, there have been almost no Catholics who have confused honoring saints with adoring God. That may be why, when Catholics see Fundamentalists kneeling with the Bible in their hands, they never think the Fundamentalists are worshiping a book. The thought just never occurs to them.
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Karl Keating is the founder and president of Catholic Answers.
He had been working as an attorney for several years when, on leaving Mass one Sunday, he found anti-Catholic tracts on the windshields of the cars in the church parking lot. He wrote his own tract in reply and distributed copies of it at the Fundamentalist church responsible for the anti-Catholic tract. That was the start of what has become the countrys largest lay-run apologetics and evangelization organization.
Catholic Answers was incorporated in 1982, and in 1988 Karl left the practice of law and went into apostolic work full time. That year marked the publication of his Catholicism and Fundamentalism, the first book to deal extensively with challenges posed by "Bible Christians." Other books followed: What Catholics Really Believe, Nothing But the Truth, The Usual Suspects, and Controversies. Read more about them on his Ignatius Insight author page.
For nine years Karl served as the editor of This Rock. He has been a columnist for the National Catholic Register and the Canadian Catholic Review and has written for many other publications. He appears regularly on "Catholic Answers Live." His avocations include backpacking (his favorite locales are the High Sierra and the Grand Canyon) and flying.
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