Friday, March 02, 2007

Protestants II: Worship, honor, and the Virgin Mary

protestants and the rosary, part 2

As I mentioned earlier, many Protestants have problems with the idea of praying the rosary, and the "explanations" offered by Catholics often don't answer their questions.

One point occurred to me after I'd finished my first post on this subject. I was talking about the Protestant objections to repeated prayers, and the explanations I was presenting were about saying the same prayer on a regular basis, such as every day. It didn't occur to me that I should also point out that, to those who are made uncomfortable by the rosary, while it's one thing to say the Our Father every day, it's quite another thing to say it fifty times one right after another. Even if the first of these doesn't seem to qualify as the sort of "vain repetition" counseled against by Christ, it's understandable that the second might seem like a different case.

This is especially true if, as Catholics sometimes explain, the intention of the repeated prayers is to induce a meditative state. This may seem to reduce the words of the prayer to a mechanical exercise without meaning. Certainly mechanical repetition, like drumming, can induce a detached state of mind.

Complicating the picture also is the meditation on the "mysteries", incidents in the life of Christ and Mary, which are supposed to accompany the rosary prayers. Can one really meditate on one thing while reciting another?

I think Catholics would respond to all this by saying that in their experience, repeating a prayer in the "background" certainly can be done prayerfully and with intent, even if there's also something else on one's mind at the same time. The "mystery" provides a sort of "flavor" to the repeated prayer. In a way it's similar to the "scriptural rosary" devotion, where each repetition of the prayer is coupled with a different Bible verse or theme. (I'll write about this sometime; it's a variation with a surprisingly long history.)

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To go on to a more major issue, though, the biggest problem Protestants have with the rosary is not so much with the prayers as with the status of the Virgin Mary, on whom the rosary is focused.

Protestants are taught that Mary is an ordinary human being, although it's acknowledged that by mothering Christ she became one of the greatest (if not THE greatest) of the saints. This is actually very similar to what Catholics believe. But many Protestants have the impression that Catholics "worship" Mary as a sort of "goddess." This is an understandable mistake if, like most Protestants, you have been taught that kneeling down in front of something equals worship, since you do often see Catholics kneeling in front of statues of Mary.

Of course, an article I read recently on a Catholic "answers" website pointed out that if kneeling equals worship, that would imply that a Protestant kneeling with a Bible or cross in front of them could be interpreted as "worshipping" the Bible or cross, which Protestants would agree is clearly not the case.

The Catholic church's social customs and gestures often have a long history, in many cases extending back into the Middle Ages. Protestants, on the other hand, mostly originated in the late 16th century and after, when customs were undergoing substantial change. Kneeling, for instance, was not always a gesture of worship; in the Middle Ages and Renaissance it was often merely a gesture of honor or respect, like bowing or curtseying. Children routinely knelt when asking their parents for permissions or blessings -- even when wishing them good night! Commoners knelt to their overlords, and of course everyone knelt before the King or Queen. But the late 16th and 17th centuries saw a gradual substitution of a mere bow or curtsey for kneeling, and kneeling was increasingly reserved in Protestant circles for God alone.

A second point is the difference between worship and honor. Catholics are taught that God is the only one we worship, and that saints are merely "honored." Mary is not by any means God's equal. She is given the highest degree of honor, as the greatest of the saints, but she is not worshipped. The technical words in Latin are latria, worship, and dulia, honor, and Mary is given hyperdulia (which we might translate "super-honor").

To Protestants unfamiliar with Catholic definitions, this may sound like minor quibbling over word choice. But I don't think it is. I think it's a way of expressing the basic dualism of Christianity: there is the Creator, God; and then there is the Creation, including humanity. While the two may become "united" in a loving relationship, they can never actually become each other except metaphorically. So saints, however great, can never be gods, and if we give them proper "honor" it means we are keeping that distinction in mind.

Catholics are at a disadvantage in that the quality of their religious education in the past has sometimes been very poor -- badly educated teachers passing on their misconceptions to hordes of school children, with virtually no adult education to correct the misconceptions later. (One thing I've always thought Evangelical Protestants do right is that everyone, adults and children, has Sunday School every week, as well as worship time.)

As a result of this bad education, especially before Vatican II, some Catholics have tended to treat saints as if they were little "gods" with powers of their own. But there's been a distinct change since then, thank goodness. Saints are no longer officially addressed in the liturgy with prayers that say, "Saint So-and-so, protect me from XYZ" or "Make me XYZ." Instead the typical prayer goes, "God, we thank you for Saint So-and-so, who did such-and-such. By his/her prayers may we be protected from XYZ." This makes clear that saints have no "power" of their own, but only whatever influence is granted to them by God hearing their prayers, and that it's God who we are actually asking and thanking, God who does everything.

This has strayed a long ways from the rosary, but I've taken a long way around to explain why something that looks like "worshipping Mary" is not at all intended that way by Catholics who understand what they are doing.

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?