Monday, September 3, 2012

The problem of Catholic Saints

I was listening to Catholic radio yesterday, when the caller asked if praying to the saints was idolatry. The priest went through the typical litany of "we don't worship the saints we pray to them for intercession on our behalf." This has got to be one of the worst answers, because it doesn't address the real complaint of the protestant.
Praying, not worshiping the saints is well and good until you think about what is actually happening. Let's say there is a saint named Saint Bevensneck, who is the patron saint of soccer games. If you want your team to win, or everyone to be safe, you ask Saint Bevensneck to intercede on your behalf. Now, the problem is obvious, assuming that he can actually hear your prayers, which there is no basis for, what happens during the world cup series? 3 Billion people praying continually means what, 23, 56, 99 Billion prayers in a day? How can one man possibly hear, let alone answer that many prayers? Where did the Catholics get the idea that people become God when they die, and have enough time and wisdom to hear and answer three billion people praying, and give the appropriate response to God? It's literally an administrative impossibility.
But here's the worst part: all of those people are not praying to God. St. Bevensneck has effectively convinced those people to pray to him, rather than to God. Rather than address their prayers to God they have put their hopes, dreams, and requests into the hands of a mere man. He has actually soaked up the glory due God and re-routed it towards his own incapable self. There is a word for what happens when someone gets the attention and glory that God deserves: idolatry.
The question Catholics must answer is then this: how is taking what is due God and giving it to a mere man not idolatry?


CEB said...


I found your blog through one of your comments on my friend Unjust Steward’s blog.

Your reasoning that praying to saints is idolatrous hinges on the assumption that “prayer” somehow implicates “worship”. It does not. The verb “to pray” simply means “to ask”. We ask ordinary people to do things for us all the time, whether it’s asking a stranger for directions, asking a lawyer to represent us in court, or asking our congregation to pray for a sick relative. This is what it means to pray: to ask someone to do something. When Catholics “pray” to saints we are asking them to ask God for a particular intention on our behalf – not to personally deliver the results we seek (they haven’t the power to do such a thing). We know from Revelation 5:8 that those in heaven are aware of our prayers and that the prayers of the saints are particularly pleasing to God. It is because the prayers of saints are especially pleasing to God that we ask saints to join us in praying to Him for our intentions. However, it is always God, not the saints, who ultimately decides whether or not to grant our requests.

An [imperfect] analogy would be going to court. The facts of your case are what they are no matter what you do, so you might well decide to go it alone, present your request to the judge and hope for the best. On the other hand, it wouldn’t be wrong to ask a lawyer who was well acquainted with the judge for help making your case, nor would there be any harm in asking well-respected members of the community to add their petitions on your behalf. In all of this, the judge is still the ultimate arbiter and everyone else is simply a petitioner. Likewise, we creatures of God are dependent on Him in all things and for all things, whether we be here on earth or up in heaven. Some of us may have more or less favor with God and may have more or less success with our prayers, but it is still He who ultimately decides whether or not to grant our petitions.

For the greater glory of God,
A Catholic

Phil said...

Hey CEB,
The thing arises from the treasury of merit, that "God loves person X more, because they are more righteous." Good works earn a bigger treasury, so it's a good idea to go to someone who has a nice fat account of good works to get their help.
I understand that.

But let me try it from this perspective: Let's say my daughter wanted me to get her a snack because she was hungry and she had recently disobeyed. She then goes next door and convinces the neighbors to go intercede for her. Then she gets her brother on board, and finally my parents, and everyone comes to me and asks me to make a sandwich for her.
How do you think I would feel about it? I would have a talking to her never to do it again, because there is no such thing in our family as a treasury of merit. There is love, she is my daughter. She should just come to me, not spend her time racking up people to help. That just takes time away from us together, which is wrong, because it's not how things are supposed to go.

CEB said...

The spiritual realities that govern the relationship between God and his people are preexisting; the concept of the treasury of merit arises as a way of explaining certain aspects of that relationship, not the other way around. The relationship is much fuller than any one analogy we could use to explain it. We must try to balance the finite usefulness of any given analogy (whether it be the treasury of merit, the Christian faithful as the body of Christ, Christ as the bridegroom, God as the Father, etc.) against the limitations the terms themselves present in addressing a spiritual reality so far above our comprehension (1 Corinthians 13:9-12).

A treasury is good imagery in some ways because Jesus “paid the price” to redeem us. Jesus also specifically teaches that God repays good deeds, and emphasizes the importance of laying up treasure in heaven rather than on earth (Matthew 6:1-20). On the other hand, the word “treasury” also has transactional connotations. Taken the wrong way, treasury imagery could lead to the misconception that Christians can attain salvation by means of savvy business practices alone (“Only 145,643 Our Fathers, 36,421 good deeds and 19,732 prayers to the right saints left until I earn heaven! Anything after that is just gravy in my treasury for someone else to use!”).

I’m sure we both agree that no amount of human achievement can attain salvation and that we are utterly dependent on God in all things and for all things. Our salvation was bought by Jesus on Calvary, and it is through his [meritorious] sacrifice that we are saved. But, even though we are saved by drawing upon the infinite merits of his sacrifice, Jesus still commands us to pick up our crosses and follow his example of loving God and neighbors even in the face of hardship. Why? Are not the merits of Jesus’s sacrifice sufficient for our salvation? Of course they are…but God also desires that we unite ourselves to Him so as to allow His grace to work on us and through us. Just as the sin of one man harms others, so the holiness of one man benefits others. This is where the saints come in, as participants in God’s plan for the salvation of souls rather than executors of it.

No matter how meritorious my life is, I would never be capable of redeeming myself in the face of infinite debt I owe to God (much less redeeming the entire human race). I must rely on Jesus’s merits for that. What I am capable of doing is following Jesus’s example and cooperating with God’s grace so He can (1) draw me closer to Himself, and, (2) work through me to draw others closer to Himself. Similarly, saints serve as conduits of God’s grace to their fellow men, not because of any intrinsic merit that they possess or attain, but because God has freely chosen to associate man with the work of His grace. They are not executors of redemption as Jesus was, but the merits that they obtain by cooperating with God’s grace (though not necessary for our redemption) please God and influence others to seek Him.

CEB said...


Recognizing once again that analogies are imperfect, applying the saints’ role in the treasury of merit to everyday life would look something like this: let’s say your daughter breaks your laptop. Even if she is very sorry, the laptop is still broken and restitution must be made in order for justice to be served. However, she is incapable of making proper restitution on her own: she has no money to replace it, and couldn’t get to a store to buy a replacement even if she did have the money. Her brother, seeing her distress and inability to make things right on her own, purchases a replacement laptop using money saved from his allowance, and presents it to you on her behalf as restitution. He has, in his own small way and without flouting your authority, interceded both to assist his sister and to serve justice. As a father, you are upset by your daughter’s initial offense, but gladdened by the sacrifice your son made on her behalf in reparation. You still love your helpless daughter in spite of her offense, and you love your son all the more for the love he has shown to both you and your daughter by his actions. Neither one of them will ever be capable of adequately repaying the infinite debt they owe you for giving them life, but (guided by your example and the grace you convey to them) they are capable of making some degree of reparation for the sins they commit against you, either directly or on each other’s behalf.

For the greater glory of God,

Phil said...

I think our minds are moving in two different tracks, being conditioned by different upbringings and outlooks.
The analogy is good I think, it does express the notion of treasury of merit about as well as one can express it (and I applaud you freely re-shaping the one I gave to you) but frankly I don't think you're going to be able to understand my point, or I will be unable to get it across.

If my daughter broke my laptop I don't want my sons money going to restitution, that would only hurt me more. I want her to come to me and say that she broke it, so that I could forgive her. That I think is the difference between a Protestant and a Catholic.