The Problem with “Praying to Saints”

"All Saints" by Fra Angelico

“All Saints” by Fra Angelico

At one time in my life I viewed Christians as shallow people blindly following silly rules. As I was to discover, these perceptions were not only wrong, they were worlds away from reality. The root cause of my misconception was my confident ignorance. Until I allowed Christians to speak to me and define their faith their words, I was unable to get anywhere near the truth.

As a Protestant, I had the same problem when examining teachings of the Catholic Church. Even after more than a decade of study, one-hundred percent of my perceptions were framed, not by understanding how the Catholic Church defined or explained its own beliefs, but by how Protestants defined and explained them. With that as a back-drop, let’s look at a common concern with the idea of “praying” to the Saints.

First of all the word “prayer” was a huge stumbling block for me. It is very important for Catholics to understand that in the Protestant world, the word “prayer” is never used for any other purpose than to describe communication with God. So to hear someone was “praying” to a Saint easily sounded like sacrilege.

A similarly sized challenge for the Catholic is finding alternative words to describe this preternatural conversation. No Protestant has an issue with asking a friend to pray for them. The scenario of a prayer request to an earthly friend is easily described because the exchange happens in the natural realm. For example, “I talked with Bill and asked him to pray for me.” If a Catholic were to use natural-realm language like this to describe the expression of their needs to someone beyond this life, for obvious reasons, it would sound odd and incomprehensible. The difficulty is that aside from the word “prayer” what word could one use to describe this exchange? I can’t think of one that captures the true nature of the Catholic’s supernatural supplication. So, one is then forced into either falsely defining reality for the Catholic, or, allowing them to define what they mean by what they say.

An honest inquiry reveals that the phrase “prayer to” as defined by Catholicism in this context, can be accurately translated like this, “I sought to engage Saint Catherine to intercede on my behalf.” Now, any reasonable person would find this an odd and circumlocutious utterance. Instead, a Catholic achieves the same meaning from the efficient expression, “I prayed to Saint Catherine.” To a Catholic this does not mean that Saint Catherine, any more than Bill in the example above, takes the place of God. What it does mean is that Saint Catherine loves God, is a sister in Christ, cares about the person, and will likely intercede for them effectively. No more, no less.

So, if we accept a purely Protestant definition of a contextually Catholic use of a word or phrase, we end up with a contrived pseudosacrilege. If we use a Catholic definition in a Catholic context, we end up with something quite reasonable and biblically sound.

Unfortunately, the errant interpretive method outlined above is very common to Protestant evaluations of Catholic doctrine. This disappointing approach is unworthy of the often helpful perspectives Protestants bring to doctrinal discourse on important issues in the Christian life.

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  1. Thanks for this. As a cradle Catholic I find it difficult to explain what we actually mean by praying to the saints. All I know is that their intercession is a great grace & help for us.

  2. Dear Dan,

    Thanks for this piece. You are spot on. However you left one piece out of the jigsaw. Beyond the “prayer=worship” misconception, and even beyond the “I engaged St Catherine to intercede for me” clarification, there is one further step which I believe is the real problem for Protestants with the Catholic practice of invoking the intercession of the saints. It is this: talking to dead people. That’s the real problem. As you point out, there is no problem with asking my friend Bill to pray for me – because he is alive and I can just phone or text him to ask him to pray for me. But St Catherine has snuffed it. Doesn’t the Bible prohibit talking to the dead (all that Saul and Samuel stuff etc.). So here is where you drag in Romans 8, and “Nothing separates us from the love of Christ”, not even death. If death does not separate those who are baptised into Jesus Christ from Christ, then it does not separate those who are baptised into Christ from each other. Here there is a good deal of help from an unexpected source: the Lutheran Pastor/theologian/martyr Bonhoeffer’s “Life together”. In that book he distinguishes between an “anima”-based relationship between Christians (a psyche-based or natural relationship) and a truly “Spirit”-based (or pneumatic) relationship, in which Christians are related to one another not on the level of the natural level, but on the spiritual level – EVEN IN THIS LIFE. The very reason that I can ask Bill to pray for me is that he is my brother in Christ, united to Christ as I am in the Holy Spirit. And (this is the IMPORTANT bit) that relationship does not change with death. Hence, ‘talking to dead people’ is not an accurate description of what we do when we invoke the saints to intercede for us. They are alive and well, and united with Christ and with us in the Holy Spirit. Hence talking to them is not invalid, but an expression at the deepest level of the communion of saints.

    Once a protestant gets to the point of understanding the communion of saints in this regard, the matter is usually pretty much settled.

  3. Dan – thank you for writing this. I suggest this explanation of praying to a Saint: the supernatural request, made to someone whom the Church has declared to be in heaven, to “intercede on our behalf”.

    I would like to point out a couple of things.

    To claim “It is very important for Catholics to understand that in the Protestant world, the word “prayer” is never used for any other purpose than to describe communication with God.” is simply making an excuse for Protestants who assert praying to Saints is a sacrilege. Do not Protestants point to the evil of atheists “praying to Satan”? Of course they do. Protestants know prayer is simply the word describing how man speaks, or attempts to speak, on the supernatural level.

    What is really being expressed by Protestants? Almost all of the Protestant “problems” with the Catholic Faith come down to what you point out as “confident ignorance”, which unfortunately is really willful ignorance perpetuated by Protestant leaders. I say this because the Catholic Church has made readily available the actual teachings of the Church via the internet. Protestants chose to listen to individual priests and Catholics rather than Rome. Protestants do this because it allows them to build strawmen to attack and because if they were to go to Rome for the authoritative teaching of the Catholic Faith it would be an implicit recognition of the Seat of Peter. Such an implicit recognition opens the Protestant ego to having to defend the assumptions of Sola Scriptura and their desire to believe God would never have a closer “personal relationship” with someone other than themselves. Obviously these things do not sit well with the ego of man.

    You close with this: “This disappointing approach is unworthy of the often helpful perspectives Protestants bring to doctrinal discourse on important issues in the Christian life.” One truth often ignored by Protestants, and doctrinally lost Catholics, is that when a sea is sufficiently scattered across the land, all that remains are puddles. I’m sorry to say this but, the more modern the Protestant the less frequent I find their perspective to be helpful. There are few if any C.S. Lewis left, and the life giving waters of a puddle cannot sustain one for very long against Satan’s heat….

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