One good way of understanding my belief is to ask: What differences does it make? Devotion to saints makes at least seven important differences to Catholics. In each case, fundamentalists find Catholicism too mystical for their tastes.
First, saints make a difference to our prayer. We’re not alone when we pray. We’re surrounded by saints. If there was any one experience that brought me aboard the Barque of Peter, it was realizing that as I prayed I wasn’t alone, but was joined by Peter and Paul, Augustine and Aquinas and the whole company of angels and saints on that great Ark.
But fundamentalists think Catholics pray to saints as we pray to God, rather than just asking saints to pray for us to God. That would be idolatry, of course. There’s a major misunderstanding here that comes from the change of meaning in the word “pray.” Pray used to mean “request”; now it usually means only “worship.”
The only possible reason for fundamentalists objecting to this practice, since they too ask each other to pray for one another, would be if they knew that the saints, the blessed dead in heaven, don’t hear or care about us. In other words, they implicitly claim to know that death separates the Church on earth from the Church in heaven spiritually as well as physically, so that prayers can no longer “get across” the barrier of death.
This is because they don’t have the Catholic vision of the Church as Christ’s Mystical Body. They admit that the Church is Christ’s, and that it is His Body, because these notions are explicitly taught in Scripture. But they balk at the “mystical” part. Not that the invisibility of the saints is the problem—that would be the materialist’s objection. No, fundamentalists believe in the invisible (God, souls, heaven), but this doctrine is not just about something invisible but something mystical. Mysticism seems to them (as one wag put it) to begin in mist, center in I, and end in schism.
Saints make a difference, secondly, to death. Death does not divide us. The Church Militant (on earth), the Church Suffering (in purgatory) and the Church Truimphant (in heaven) is one Church. Again, this is too mystical an ecclesiology for fundamentalists. Though Hebrews 12:1 says we are “surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses”(RSV), fundamentalists interpret these not as living saints in heaven watching us, but as dead martyrs on earth in the past who “surround” us only in our memories. (The same Greek word means “martyr” and “witness.”)
A Presbyterian writer told the story of how after his father died, when he was twelve, he prayed for his father, as was his custom, before going to bed. His mother heard him and rebuked him: “Son, you must not do that any more. We are not Catholics.” He said he felt as if his mother had just clanged shut a great iron door in his face; as if his father’s physical death had not been so horribly final as this spiritual isolation.
The human spirit cries out against this apparent triumph of death over presence. The French Catholic philosopher Gabriel Marcel called death “the test of presence.” If presence is soul-to-soul and not just body-to-body, then death, in removing the body, does not remove presence.
Saints make a difference, third, to the nature of the Church. The Church is not just what we can see (“the Church Visible”). It is also not just “the Church Invisible” in the sense of the number of redeemed souls on earth. It is a single spiritual organism with a cosmic unity spanning heaven, earth and purgatory. Once again, it’s the mystical quality of Catholic doctrine that fundamentalists fear. It’s too scarily big for them.
Fourth, saints make a difference to what community means. To include the saints in our present Church community is to have a mystical view of community, not just a political, psychological and sociological view. This means that we are each other’s arms and feet, and “each other” includes the dead as well as the living. The human spiritual family is so strong that it is just as much a family when death makes its links invisible as when life makes them visible. The “mystical” here again frightens fundamentalists.
Fifth, saints make a difference to heroism. Ours is the first society in history without heroes—unless we still have the saints. Fundamentalists can sometimes be quite heroic themselves in their personal lives, but they’re typically American in their suspicion of “hero-worship” as too aristocratic, hierarchical and mystical. They prefer plain, butter-and-eggs people whom they can see and feel comfortable with rather than extraordinary, superior, invisible heroes of the past. (Fundamentalists also tend to ignore the past, since their denominations are all so recent.)
Sixth, saints make a difference to hope. Anyone can be a saint. It is everyone’s purpose and vocation. The most mediocre of us is called to heroic sanctity. This hope is a high and exalted one; but the fundamentalist, though hoping for heaven, hopes merely to get there, to “get saved” (justified). The Catholic hope also involves being perfected (sanctified). vFinally, saints make a difference to meaning. They give us the meaning of life, the purpose of our existence. This is sanctification. For fundamentalists, Jesus is called “Savior” because He saves us from hell, i.e., from the punishment of sin. For Catholics, He is called “Savior” because “He shall save His people from their sins.”
Note: The Seventh way that saints make a difference regards Mary. That aspect was discussed in a previous installment. – The Editors
Excerpted from Dr. Kreeft’s, Fundamentalists — as appeared in National Catholic Register (1988)—and appears here with the kind permission of the author.