Monday, February 26, 2007

Protestants and the rosary

I grew up Protestant in the Northeastern U.S., in an area with many Irish and Italian families, so most of my playmates when I was in elementary school were Catholic. This was somewhat (ahem!) before Vatican II, and both Protestant and Catholic kids were taught by their parents (and sometimes even in Sunday School) to regard the other with suspicion, if not downright hostility. My Catholic playmates, for instance, said they were told they would spend eternity in Hell if they (literally!) so much as set foot inside a Protestant church building.

Boy, have things changed. While there are still plenty of Protestants who believe the Roman church is the Scarlet Woman of Babylon, for the most part Catholics and Protestants now acknowledge each other as fellow Christians, are often fairly relaxed about attending each other's worship services, and I suspect that informal, unofficial sharing of Communion is more common than the authorities on both sides would like to think. There are still plenty of incompatibilities (women priests, to name one) but I don't see that degree of almost superstitious mistrust of the "other" any more.

The status of the Virgin Mary is a point of difference between Catholics and Protestants, of course, and that's one of the reasons Protestants tend to be rather wary of the rosary. Unfortunately, I think people brought up Catholic often demonstrate how little they understand about their "separated brethren" when they blithely suggest that Protestants can pray the rosary too.


There are four main points I can think of about the rosary that give many Protestants problems. Briefly they are (from the Protestant point of view):
(1) What about Jesus's prohibition of "vain repetitions" in prayer?
(2) Does the Rosary give Mary too much honor?
(3) Do saints actually hear the prayers of living people?
(4) Is it legitimate to ask saints for favor?

I should make it clear here that when I say "Protestants" in this discussion, I am not including modern Anglicans or Episcopalians. There are certainly Anglicans who do say the rosary, either in the same form common to Roman Catholics or some other form, such as the modern Anglican rosary (which I still want to write about sometime). But what Americans usually call "mainstream" Protestants (Presbyterians, Methodists, etc.), and essentially all of the more evangelical and conservative Protestants, are generally opposed to the rosary as a Roman practice, and that's who I'm referring to here.

As I've said, Catholics do sometimes cheerfully assert that Protestants, too, can "honor" the Virgin Mary and pray the rosary. But I've noticed that somehow, all the Catholic stories that circulate about Protestants praying the rosary tend to end with the story's Protestant becoming a Catholic. If those are the only stories you ever hear, the (inadvertent) message is "If you start praying the rosay, you'll become Catholic" -- as though the rosary were the first step down a slippery slope!

I noticed this on Rosary Workshop's "Why pray the rosary?" page and mentioned it to the website's owner, Margot Carter-Blair -- who shared my amusement, once I'd pointed it out. Margot is now looking for some good stories about Protestants praying the rosary who stay Protestant.

Hmmm. Looks like this is the start of another series of articles....


The first challenge Protestants frequently offer is Matthew chapter 6, verse 7, where Jesus says (in the original King James 1611 spelling): "But when yee pray, use not vaine repetitions, as the heathen doe. For they thinke that they shall be heard for their much speaking."

This verse has had various English translations. Wycliffe's version from around 1400 says: "But in preiyng nyle yee speke myche, as hethene men doon, for thei gessen that thei ben herd in her myche speche." ("But in praying, nil [do not] ye speak much, as heathen men do, for they think that they are heard in their much speech.")

The Bishop's Bible (1568) says, amusingly, "But when ye pray, babble not much, as the heathen do. For they thynke that they shalbe heard, for theyr much bablinges sake."

One modern version puts it: "And in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words." In all the versions the next verse says "Therefore be not lyke them, for your father knoweth, what thynges ye haue nede of, before ye aske of hym."

The King James version, however, is so entrenched in the English language that "vain repetitions" is the actual phrase the debate tends to focus on. Protestants generally assert that any repetition of the same prayer over and over must be "vain" by definition, since God really only needs to be asked once, and repeating the same words doesn't add anything.

The usual (rather feeble) Catholic defense is to argue that Christ didn't mean to prohibit all repetition but only vain repetition -- which is a very incomplete answer, since it leaves open the question of how you tell whether it's vain or not.

I think there's a point here, though: saying the same thing over and over doesn't necessarily mean it's less sincere. Parents and children, husbands and wives tell each other "I love you" over and over, and it doesn't seem to mean any less to them for being repeated.

Protestants generally don't see that their own argument isn't completely consistent. There may be no particular virtue in repeating the same prayer over again, but Protestants will cheerfully pray the "Our Father..." weekly and daily throughout their lives anyway. Many Protestants are taught that "true" prayer is spontaneous and from the heart, expressed in one's own words or wordless desires -- but if that were literally followed at all times, we'd all be praying like Quakers, who only pray as they feel "inspired" to do so. But in fact, most Protestant worship services do include standard, pre-written prayers in which everyone is expected to join. I was brought up, for instance, saying one that begins "Almighty and merciful Father, we have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep...." every Sunday without fail.

I think both sides would admit that the idea of saying a prayer 10 or 100 or some other "round number" of times is something humans have dreamed up for our own satisfaction, not something God particularly cares about. (100 is only a round number if you're using a base-10 number system, anyway!) So perhaps the question that needs to be addressed is whether or not it's a good thing to allow our human preferences for certain numbers to affect our prayers this way. I can certainly see that reasonable adults could have different opinions on this.

posts in this series:

Part I: Protestants and the Rosary
Part II: Worship, honor, and the Virgin Mary
Part III: Addressing saints
Part IV: Can Protestants hail Mary?