1. What biblical or theological justification is there to pray for the dead?
2. What biblical or theological justification is there for believing that the dead pray for us?
3. How is ‘praying to a saint’ different from idolatry?
4. Isn’t it idolatrous to place your faith in any for salvation other than Christ?
5. Isn’t the entire notion of the invocation of the saints idolatrous and blasphemous?
I ask because with the beatification of John Paul II there is much discussion in the media about saints and their mystical magical powers to affect peoples lives and I find it all, quite frankly, more than a little disturbing and just downright pagan. It’s almost as though the Roman Church has simply replaced the Greek pantheon with saints and that the old paganism of Rome is still alive and well in the Vatican and its outlying stations.
[NB- please don't take this to mean I have problems with Catholics. My problem is with this aspect of Catholic theology / Mariolatry].These are fair questions that deserve thoughtful answers. So. . . here goes.
Upfront though let me say: there is a lot here to address. Make no mistake about it, this is going to take some time, thoughtful interaction, and reflection. So I have put a couple other posts on hold (my series of posts on Luke-Acts and my series on Petrine primacy) to write up responses to these questions.
I’ve already written the majority of my responses, but I’ve decided against "dumping" it all out at once in a single post. I want to think through this slowly. I’m eager to get responses from Jim and anyone else and I want to be sure I carefully respond to such responses.
That said, today offers the first post. Next Monday will feature another and they will keep coming at a steady pace after that.
Before I give detailed answers to these questions, I think I have to make some comments at the outset.
First, let me explain that I know the Protestant objections to the Catholic view of the saints very, very well. Although I am a cradle Catholic, I spent the majority of my academic career as a student at non-Catholic institutions. I earned a B.A. in theology and philosophy at Azusa Pacific University, where I also minored in New Testament Greek. I then earned my Ph.D. in Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary where I wrote a dissertation on the Historical Jesus under Colin Brown.
(By the way, I would especially love to hear from any Protestants who have received theology degrees--particularly advances degrees--from Catholic universities. It would be interesting to hear your thoughts in the com-box during this series of posts.)
In both places I was blessed with the experience of studying under and with very bright men and women who sincerely love the Lord. These individuals taught me much about what it means to live the Christian life. I am forever grateful for their example and their mentoring.
Please let me underscore how much I treasure my relationships with my non-Catholic brothers and sisters in Christ. We share a love for Christ in common and, to my mind, that is more important than any theological differences between us. Life is a spiritual battle and I appreciate all the help I can get in the trenches.
The experience however of studying at non-Catholic Christian institutions as a Catholic taught me something else. I learned that very intelligent and very sincere Protestant academics often have a profoundly misinformed view of Catholic theology. Straw man arguments and misrepresentations are perpetuated—often innocently, that is, out of ignorance and not malice—but consistently.
Of course, Catholics also misrepresent Protestant theological opinions at times.
All of this has highlighted for me the fact that there is a real need for honest and open dialogue. That's what I am all about—not theological arm-wrestling. It's not simply a matter of misunderstanding—there are real differences. But I think we talk past each other far more often than we realize.
Catholic Doctrine Teaches Salvation by Works and not Grace?
For example, one line that you’ll hear over and over again is that Catholics hold to a “works-righteousness” view of justification that somehow nullifies God’s grace. The dichotomy between the Catholic and Protestant approach is cast in stark terms: Protestants preach a Gospel of grace, while Catholics believe they “earn” their way into heaven with good works.
This is incredibly frustrating for knowledgable Catholics . . . and we hear it over, and over, and over again. (Once I heard this from a mechanic who brought it up after finding some Catholic materials in my car!)
People who view the Catholic Church this way have either actually never read the official documents of the Catholic Church or they haven’t read them very closely.
To disabuse people of their ignorance I simply turn them to the official compendium of all that Catholics believe, the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
The charity of Christ is the source in us of all our merits before God. Grace, by uniting us to Christ in active love, ensures the supernatural quality of our acts and consequently their merit before God and before men. The saints have always had a lively awareness that their merits were pure grace.
'After earth's exile, I hope to go and enjoy you in the fatherland, but I do not want to lay up merits for heaven. I want to work for your love alone. . . . In the evening of this life, I shall appear before you with empty hands, for I do not ask you, Lord, to count my works. All our justice is blemished in your eyes. I wish, then, to be clothed in your own justice and to receive from your love the eternal possession of yourself' (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 2011 citing Therese of Lisieux).I never tire of watching non-Catholics try to process this passage.
Many people would never think this is Catholic teaching. It is particularly strange to see this in the Catechism to those who “studied” Catholicism at a seminary. How could such a line appear in official Catholic documents? It just doesn’t compute for them. I’d submit that’s because they didn’t really study Catholicism in school, they only learned a caricature of it.
Just a Hip, New Catholicism?
“Well, then the Catholic Church has changed its view.” That’s the response I usually get next.
Um. . . no.
Here’s the Council of Trent: “. . . we are therefore said to be justified gratuitously, because none of those things that precede justification, whether faith or works, merit the grace of justification.” (Sess. VI, Chap. VIII).
So, to properly understand the Catholic view of the saints let me first insist: the grace of justification is not first “earned” by good works—it is purely gratuitous. It is due to God’s grace. As St. Therese of Liseieux is cited in the Catechism: The saints have always had a lively awareness that their merits were pure grace.
Notice again that I am not “recasting” Catholic teaching to somehow make it more palatable to non-Catholic Christians. I am citing from official Church documents. And I’m doing so in their own words.
Obviously, there is much more that could be said, but the heart of the matter should be clear: for Catholics, the saints are saved by God's grace—not because they have earned it due to their own ingenuity.
Hopefully, we can put that myth to bed.
Continue reading: See Part 2.