A Discursive Dialogue on Prayer

Anselm. Why, Boso! Hello, old friend! It’s been ages. How are you?

Boso. Not very well, old chap. Unfortunately, I’ve converted to Protestantism.

A. Protestantism? How gauche!

B. I’m afraid it’s true. I encountered a theological difficulty that I couldn’t reconcile with various strong intuitions pertaining to religion. I cannot, in good conscience, commit to a faith that requires me to assent to beliefs and practices that simply strike me as incorrect.

A. There are some 19th-century bishops who would like to have a word with you. Just because you don’t understand something doesn’t mean that others don’t! Whatever “difficulty” you’ve encountered, it probably has a neat, Thomistic resolution.

B. Be that as it may, it is not right to pursue a faith that grinds the gears of my conscience. I can no longer be Catholic. If I am wrong, may God forgive me.

A. How does one “convert” to Protestantism, anyhow? It doesn’t seem to have the ecclesiastical structure necessary to pull that off. . . . Anyway, never mind. My dear friend, I’m worried about your soul. Please tell me your reason for leaving the One Holy Apostolic Faith, so that I might soundly and irrefutably answer it, and, in doing so, put your mind at peace.

B. The problem is prayer.

A. Prayer?

B. Yes, prayer. You see, I watched a three-hour sermon by an angry Calvinist on YouTube, and he said that Catholics’ offering prayers to the saints is an iniquitous practice that invites the wrath of God upon our sinful, quisling heads . . . or something to that effect.

A. What dreadful words. The man is plainly a heretic.

B. Well, perhaps. However, that sermon got me thinking. What is prayer? My whole life, I’ve been praying to Mary, St. Joseph, and many other of the canonized saints. Now, I know that, when I pray to God, He hears me. But what about the saints, who, though glorified in heaven, in their substance remain limited human beings like myself? What if, this entire time, I’ve been offering prayers to blissfully ignorant saints, who can neither hear nor respond? Worse still, what if it’s as the angry Calvinist said—that prayer is only ever properly offered to God, and that praying to some other being is like bowing down before a graven image? I could be inviting the wrath of God down upon my sinful, quisling head!

A. Well, if you’re scandalized by the practice of praying to saints, then a simple solution is available to you: don’t engage in it. Nothing in sacred tradition mandates that you pray to anyone but God.

B. But that fails to get to the root of the problem, Anselm. The true quandary is this: if it’s true that praying to saints is a sin, then the Catholic Church, which endorses it, has lost her credibility in all matters, and is proven to be an imposter, and not the one true Church established by Christ, as she claims.

A. But what the Calvinist claims isn’t true, Boso. True, the worship of saints is gravely immoral, and is therefore forbidden by the Church. But the idea that praying to saints is equivalent to idolatry is rank nonsense. The Church has infallibly guaranteed that prayer to the saints is a perfectly inoffensive, yea beneficial, religious practice. Why, it’s been practiced since the earliest history of the Church.

B. But the tradition of the Church is exactly what I’m questioning! You can’t cite the consensus of the Catholic Church as an authority to defend Catholicism. It’s a circular argument. And I increasingly worry that most of these endlessly self-referencing, hair-splitting, legalistic doctrines will go up in flames—being found of a kind with the endless epicyclic rules of the Pharisees, of whom our Lord once said, “in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Matthew 15:9).

A. Now, hold on a minute. Your analogy with the Pharisees is false. Can the Church not make demands of the faithful, by means of the authority which Christ himself has vested in her? And can we not trust God to preserve the authority of the Apostles and their heirs?

B. I . . . do not know. Those sound like good assumptions. But maybe they aren’t.

A. Well, then let me take another tack, in order to convince you of the authority of the Church. Answer me this. Does it not stand to reason that Christ, upon His bodily assumption into Heaven, would institute a visible interpretative authority of His works on earth, in order to spiritually guide the growth of His people?

B. Yes, I suppose that this would be reasonable.

A. Then, as John Henry Newman has argued, since the Catholic Church presents itself, by means of internal consistency, good works, and apostolic succession, as the most clear candidate for fulfilling such an expected role, should we not abductively infer that the Church is this very authoritative interpreter, and so submit to her judgments in all things?

B. Your words are almost persuasive. But, dear Anselm, even Blessed John Henry Newman believed that the entire deposit of faith developed organically out of the earliest traditions of the Christian Church, as recorded in Holy Scripture. Thus, you ought to be able to defend the permissibility of praying to saints from Scripture—or, at least, you should show that it is not irreconcilable with Scripture, which is my primary concern. If this cannot be done, then, while it would remain reasonable to expect God to have left us with a clearly recognizable authority for interpreting the Scriptures and codifying Christian theology and praxis, perhaps I should conclude that God has left this role vacant, for wise yet unknowable reasons of His own.

A. I see. Then you will not submit to the authority of the Church?

B. It is not out of a stubborn spirit that I will not, but out of a genuine fear of God. If I am to submit to the Catholic Church in matters spiritual, I must first be certain that I am correct in identifying her as a legitimate religious authority.

A. How do you presume to do that?

B. As you will undoubtedly grant, there are litmus tests for verifying that a particular authority has, in fact, been delegated a place within creation by God. The authority of a religious institution must not be self-justifying, but should instead prove its legitimacy through that institution’s agreement with other known truths, and through the predictive power of its various propositional claims. If an authority meets those epistemic requirements, while also having some prima facie legitimate claim to being an authority in the first place—such as, admittedly, apostolic succession, along with Newman’s other criteria—then, and only then, should I consider it trustworthy enough to project its judgments into other areas of which I have no independent knowledge, and to accept these things “on faith”, trusting in the inductive record of my source.

A. Then, if sound argumentation could clear away the thickets of doubt preventing you from rationally accepting the authority of the Church . . . ?

B. Then, yes; I would gladly return to Catholicism.

A. And if I could show that praying to the saints does not conflict with the Bible—one of your “other known truths”?

B. Then I suppose I ought to accept praying to saints as a legitimate religious practice.

A. Right, then. I will begin my argument. By the end of it, if you follow me closely and are honest with yourself, I will have led you back into the fold. Am I correct in assuming that you at least accept the authority of Scripture?

B. I do, for it does not seem worthy of doubt that God would have inspired His prophets and His apostles to write exclusively the truth.

A. At least you do not go so far as other Protestants in your corrosive doubt, by questioning even the authority of the Bible.

B. Not so fast. You should note that I accept as Scripture only those books accepted by the consensus of the Nicean-orthodox denominations—namely, the sixty-six books of the Protestant Bible. These seem to me to be the most reasonable to trust; the rest have been called into question by a plurality of godly people.

A. Most of those books are only “called into question” by Protestants! You’re begging the question by excluding them.

B. No, you’re begging the question by including them!

A. You Protestants are insufferable at times. Why should Nicea be the standard of orthodoxy? Drawing the line there, or with any other particular ecumenical creed, is arbitrary.

B. It’s not arbitrary—although it is more ostensive than stipulative. I know orthodoxy when I see it, and when I abstract it from its instantiation in a variety of denominations and creeds, I arrive at something approximating the Nicene Creed. Regardless, it is the best that I can do for now. If you are to convince me of anything, you will have to work within the boundaries of my current convictions.

A. Fine; I shall submit to your restrictions, unfounded though they are. Even with this argumentative encumbrance, I will demonstrate that prayers offered to saints are not in violation of Scripture. Now—what, in exact terms, is your worry? That “prayer is only ever properly offered to God, and that praying to some other being is like bowing down before a graven image”?

B. That seems to cover it, yes.

A. So that bit about not understanding or knowing if the saints could hear you was not a valid theological concern?

B. It is a concern, but a secondary one—one that only arises because I cannot trust the Church’s factual claim that the saints can hear and act upon prayers made to them. If I could trust the Church generally as a religious authority, then I could trust her in this claim as well. It is the apparent conflict, between Scripture and Catholic praxis, which strikes me as irreconcilable.

A. Why do you think that prayer is only ever properly offered to God? Is that explicitly stated in the Bible?

B. Well, no—not in so many words. However, I do think we should start from a position of skepticism toward the practice, given that the only time any mere mortal successfully communicates with the dead, it is in the context of necromancy, and the man who does it is judged by God for it, and rapidly sentenced to death (1 Samuel 28).

A. The incident between Saul and the Witch of Endor was chronologically prior to the Harrowing of Hell. The saints in heaven are dead only bodily. Remember, “He is not the God of the dead, but of the living” (Mark 12:27).

B. I think you’re pulling that verse out of context—using it as a convenient proof-text without much meaningful analysis. Christ’s words were spoken as part of an argument, against the Sadducees, in favor of the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead. Nevertheless, suppose, for the sake of argument, that I grant your claim, and drop the charge that the weight of Scripture points toward suspicion of any communication with the bodily deceased . . .

A. . . . because such communications, when performed in ancient cultures, were almost always done in the context of witchcraft or other demonic inventions, whereas prayer to the saints is not . . .

B. . . . then it is still true that prayer is an inherently worshipful thing, and that worship should only ever be offered to God.

A. If you believe that, then you misunderstand the nature of prayer.

B. The Catechism of the Catholic Church clearly states that prayer is inherently God-directed (CCC 2558-2565). By the standards of your own Catechism, how could prayer not be worshipful?

A. This objection just goes to show that a multitude of supposed philosophical problems arise from first-order confusion about language. That passage clearly means something different from what Catholics mean when we talk about “prayers to the saints”. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be in the Catechism, since the Church clearly endorses “prayers to the saints”—whatever it means by that phrase.

B. Go on, then. Explain the distinction at large.

A. Prayer is not inherently worshipful. Prayer is just . . . well, I suppose that prayer is speaking to someone who isn’t physically present.

B. So Zoom calls are prayers?

A. No! Of course not. And, now that you mention it, Adoration is also prayer, even though Christ is physically present in the Eucharist. Let me modify my definition, then: prayer is speaking to someone who is receiving your communication spiritually; that is, not through a physical medium—either because they are not embodied, as with God the Father and the spirits of the saints in heaven, or because we are in communication with their spirit rather than their body, as with Christ, Who, although presently in Heaven, remains embodied, but presumably does not hear our prayers with His physical ears, through sound waves or some similar contrivance.

B. When Mary spoke with the angel Gabriel, who appeared to stand right in front of her, was that prayer as well?

A. Maybe. That may seem strange, intuitively. But if that sort of thing should get caught up in this working definition of prayer, I don’t see why it should matter. I’m only trying to approximately isolate the intuition behind our language patterns, so that we can have a clearer picture of what we’re talking about when we use the word “prayer”.

B. Fair enough. Answer me this, however. If prayer is not inherently worshipful, then why do some Catholics distinguish between praying to God, and praying with the saints to God? The line I’ve heard is: “Catholics don’t pray to saints; they ask the saints for intercessory prayers to God, just as we all ask one another for intercessory prayers here on earth”.

A. Well, yes, that’s a good intuitive way of putting it. But that explanation implicitly relies upon a different definition of “prayer”, and I’d prefer to stick with the one that I’ve fixed—because it’s specific, and reduces to other, better-understood concepts, so we can refer back to it if we get confused.

B. Which definition was that? All of this high-powered philosophical hair-splitting has my brain rattling around in my skull.

A. Alright, I will specify. Let’s say that “prayer”, in Catholic natural language, can contextually mean one of two things, which we stipulatively define as follows: Prayer1 is “the raising of one’s mind and heart to God or the requesting of good things from God” (CCC 2559). As prayer1 is stipulated to be “God-directed”, it is, of course, inherently worshipful. Prayer2 is as I have defined it: “verbally communicating to someone who is receiving your communication spiritually”. This is the definition which I rely upon when I say that praying2 to the saints is not inherently worshipful.

B. If a pagan prays to Zeus, then Zeus does not receive any communication, spiritual or otherwise, because Zeus does not exist. Yet many would say that the pagan is still engaged in prayer. Does the fact of whether one is truly engaged in prayer—and do the truth-values of various other prayer-facts—thus depend upon one’s intentions, or upon the objective relationships which obtain between the parties involved in the communication, regardless of supplicant’s beliefs?

A. Whatever do you mean?

B. Let us assume that the pagan is, in fact, truly praying. Then there is something that makes that fact so. Now, arguably, there is someone who is receiving the pagan’s communication; it is likely that he is unwittingly praying to a demon (1 Corinthians 10:20), and that the demon is receiving that communication spiritually—making this a case of prayer2 as you have defined it. It is also the case that the pagan believes himself to be communicating with Zeus, and would call his action “praying to Zeus.” Now, which of these states of affairs do you think serves as a truthmaker for the fact that the pagan is praying?

A. It would be equally natural to describe that situation by saying that the pagan is praying to Zeus, and by saying that the pagan is praying to a demon.

B. And yet it would appear that each statement captures a different thing entirely—both of them true.

A. You are astute, it seems, in noticing that there are “internal” and “external” uses of the word “prayer”. The internal use refers to the goings-on inside the supplicant’s head, while the external refers to the actual fact of some communication having gone out from a supplicant and having been taken up by a second party. If you want to be pedantic, therefore, we can finalize our definition of praying2 as: “intending to verbally communicate to someone who is receiving your communication spiritually”; and add a third disambiguation, praying3, by which we shall mean, “verbally communicating and having that communication received spiritually”. This seems, at first blush, to fully cover the usage patterns of the word “prayer.”

B. Alright; you have clarified the distinction for me, and I have no further objections. Are you ever going to make use of those subscripts?

A. Leave my subscripts out of this!—they’re useful tools, and they make me feel important. But, no, I suppose that would be too effortful. From now on, when I use the word “prayer”, assume that I am talking about prayer2, which has no inherently worshipful connotations. This is, after all, what we mean when we debate whether it is permissible to pray to saints. We mean, “Is it licit to offer up a communication to, say, Mary, with the intention that she receive it spiritually?”—and not, “Is it licit to communicate and to subsequently be understood spiritually by a saint, regardless of what one was trying to do at that time?”

B. Very well; your pedantry seems accurate, and I am satisfied with the clarity thus achieved. But, Anselm, why should I accept that prayer—by which I, too, shall henceforth mean prayer2—is not worshipful? Perhaps it is not inherently worshipful. Yet in practice, it might be so closely tied to worship as to be inextricable from it even in our theorizing. After all, when Catholics pray to the saints, asking for their intercession, they frequently use language that does not keep carefully in mind the distinction at play between the saints’ prayerful intercession before God and their direct intercession, which is not possible for them. In other words, many Catholics appear to offer prayers to the saints which, in their contents, ought only to be offered to God.

A. That isn’t a fair objection, old friend. All elements of liturgy and sacrament will be abused alternately by the wicked and the ignorant. Should we cease offering the Eucharist at Mass, because some, being in a state of mortal sin, will undoubtedly ignore our stern warnings of the necessity of self-examination, and so eat and drink judgment upon themselves? Of course not. It is regrettable that we fail the ignorant in proper catechesis, and that we do not more sternly rebuke the wicked. However, that does not render our doctrines invalid.

B. I agree; but I am not speaking only of laypeople. Worshipful language is baked into common liturgies and prayers approved by the ecclesiastical authorities. The final prayer of the Rosary, for example, is the “Salve Regina”, which goes like this: “Hail Holy Queen, mother of mercy; our life, our sweetness, and our hope. To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve. To thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this vale of tears. Turn, then, most gracious advocate, thine eyes of mercy toward us. And after this, our exile, show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus. O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary. Pray for us, O holy Mother of God, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ. Amen.”

A. That is dulia, not latria.

B. Often a distinction without a difference.

A. Not among the properly catechized!

B. Then what about the line about “show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus”? That seems to indicate Mary’s undertaking of an active role in our reconciliation with God—her prompting of action on God’s part—and ultimately to imply that Mary is more merciful toward us than Christ Himself, Who is depicted as needing the persuasion of His mother in order to incline His ear toward us.

A. This is an understandable misunderstanding, but ultimately it is not warranted from the text. The mere fact that Mary is described as “merciful”, and is asked to intercede for us, and to serve as a model for Christlikeness, does not mean that she is described as “more merciful than Christ”, or that her intercession changes Christ’s disposition toward us from one of indifference to one of lovingkindness. Nevertheless, for the sake of conscience, it would be prudent to avoid making such prayers around those whom it could scandalize. And if you happen to be such a person, then, again, you need not make such prayers yourself.

B. Regardless—is Christ not already merciful? Do we not have free access to the throne of His grace (Hebrews 4:16)?

A. Now you’re proof-texting, you scoundrel. That verse has a context, and prayer isn’t it. Besides, Hebrews doesn’t say that God won’t harden His heart toward sinful people, or even believers. Quite the opposite: if you were to read the entire chapter, you would see that the whole thing is a warning against allowing that to happen!

B. Upon closer examination . . . perhaps I did not think this objection through.

A. Indeed. Now, consider this. At the end of the Book of Job, God rejects the prayers of Job’s unrighteous friends, but tells Job to pray for them, that God would not deal with them according to their unrighteousness (Job 42:8). God wouldn’t hear those men’s prayers on their own behalf. Yet He would hear Job’s prayer, because Job was a righteous man. James 5:16 says, “The prayer of a righteous man availeth much.” Elsewhere, Christians are told to approach their communities for public confession, repentance, and restoration. Going to the saints for intercession, therefore, is biblical, insofar as the saints are more righteous than we, and their prayers should therefore be expected to be more efficacious before God—which, obviously, is by no means inconsistent with throwing yourself upon God’s mercy, and making similar petitions to Him directly, as well.

B. I see no obvious way to refute that. Nevertheless, the whole idea makes me uncomfortable. Doesn’t God want to show me mercy? Why wouldn’t he listen to my own, honest prayers? Why would he make me first jump through the hoops of playing a game of telephone with the saints?

A. I didn’t say that he wouldn’t answer you—only that He more readily answers the righteous, and that therefore it is prudent to ask the righteous to pray for you. That’s a scriptural position; if it makes you uncomfortable, then that is an emotional problem, not a theological one.

B. Perhaps you’re right. However, the fact remains that the language of the “Salve Regina”, and indeed of many other liturgical prayers to saints, are plainly worshipful.

A. I’ve already told you: that’s veneration, not worship.

B. I find it difficult to believe that most people understand the distinction, and do not approach Mary, through the language of that prayer, with a kind of reverence and awe which is not due to any created being.

A. Well, can you imagine a scenario in which a person could pray these words in the right spirit, firmly understanding the salient distinctions, and not fall into the trap of worshipping Mary?

B. Of course. I did it all the time, when I was a Catholic; although it discomfits me now.

A. So then you admit that it is possible to pray to saints without worshipping them.

B. Well . . . yes, I suppose I must. Even so, however, why should a devout man waste his time piling such praise upon a created woman, extolling her in very similar language as one would praise and glorify God Himself? Why should he not, instead, directly praise God?

A. One might as well ask why a devout layman ought to “waste his time” praising his wife!

B. That isn’t the same thing.

A. I believe it is nearly the same thing. Yet if you remain unconvinced, a more direct answer would be that God is not one-dimensional. He created creation so that creation could praise Him through creation. When we praise Mary, we glorify God’s purpose and work in her.

B. Then why not tell God that, as opposed to Mary? If I were a saint, here on earth, and someone came to me with ebullient liturgical praise, I would quickly reprove him, and tell him instead to praise God for creating all of the good qualities which he perceived within me.

A. That is a good point. Yet I must respond by saying that the Marian prayers are meant less to praise Mary to Mary as to remind ourselves of God’s overall salvific plan, and of the beauty and wisdom on display in His creation of Mary’s place within that plan. Devotion to saints ought to increase our devotion to God; if it causes us to minimize Christ, it should be avoided, but if it plainly causes us to draw nearer to Christ, then I can see no reason to reject it. By the way: we know that Mary is not being tempted toward pride when she hears our praises of her. She, in contrast with the hypothetical saint here on earth, has been glorified with Christ, and is not susceptible to temptations to sin. She, by virtue of her redeemed and glorified nature, reflects all of her received praise toward God. Praising her directly, therefore, is not inherently inappropriate, as it would be in the case of the saint on earth.

B. So many distinctions to remember! So many long-winded explanations of why one thing is really a second thing that only looks like the first thing!

A. Do not be insolent. You wanted a model—a proof of consistency between a set of propositions. Is anything I have said logically inconsistent?

B. No. I suppose it is not. However . . . all of this just seems like such a large theological burden to place upon laypeople. Even if your philosophizing is legitimate, not everyone is capable of grasping such fine distinctions, much less holding them in place in the midst of something as psychologically volatile as the religious experience of prayer.

A. Again: our failure of catechesis, and some people’s failures of discernment and introspection, do not invalidate the doctrines themselves.

B. Still, on a gut level, I feel uncomfortable rendering such effusive praise to created beings.

A. Then, as I’ve stated, you are not required to do so—only to avoid condemning those who are able to do so with a clear conscience. But Boso, if it is venerational excess which causes you to be wary of Catholicism—rather than the actual act of praying to saints—then you must realize that you can’t escape it by fleeing the Catholic Church! Don’t you see that Protestants do this too? Even modern Calvinists, the alleged heirs of the great iconoclasts of the Reformation, mass-produce coffee mugs with Calvin’s face on them, and crowdfund for hagiographic low-budget films about the life of Martin Luther.

B. I suppose that is true.

A. In any case, the point of praising saints with such exaggerated language is to glorify God through observing and extolling his wisdom, mercy, and grace in sanctifying these saints and setting them in their places, “like the stars forever and ever” (Daniel 12:3). In doing so, we find in them models worthy of emulation. Keep that in mind, and let your praise of the saints ultimately be praise of their God. Then you will find no temptation to worship them.

B. I suppose that makes sense. But still, when I hear someone praying to Mary in similar language as a pagan prays to an idol, my instinct is to say: if it walks like a duck, and talks like a duck . . .

A. See, I think this gets to the point of all of this. The problem with you Protestants is that you confuse the form and the function of prayer, and of praise, and of most everything else that you denounce. You associate the form of prayer with prayers offered to God, and so you assume that the form of prayer should only be offered to God, not realizing that it is the function of prayer that makes the difference. You praise God with the form of certain kinds of language, and so you assume that such praise should only be offered to God, neglecting the fact that it is the intent and purpose of such praise that make it what it fundamentally is. Your iconoclasts observe God’s prohibition of idol-worship and condemn carving images out of stone, thereby missing the entire point of the law. You are the legalists, not Catholics!

B. Hmm. I . . . will have to think on this. The idea of praying to saints still makes me uncomfortable. I don’t think that I could bring myself, in good conscience, to pray to anyone other than God—in any sense of the word “pray”.

A. But will you agree that there is no substantive biblical repudiation of the practice of offering prayers to saints, as I have laid it out?

B. I suppose that I have to agree that there is not—although there is not much textual support for it, either.

A. Yet you agreed earlier that there needn’t be direct Scriptural support, so long as the Catholic Church proved trustworthy in her judgments about spiritual things generally. Are you now a Sola Scriptura Protestant, too?

B. No. I stand by what I said: I agree that this isn’t an issue that ought to prevent me from becoming a Catholic again.

A. Then for now, I will remind myself of Romans 14:14-15, and welcome you as a brother with some psychological stumbling blocks rattling around within your conscience—of which I will be mindful, even as I seek to persuade you of their illegitimacy.

B. Thank you, old friend.

A. So, now that I’ve refuted all your objections, will you rejoin the Church?

B. I wish that I could.

A. But?

B. Well, unfortunately, now that you mention it, there remains the small issue of supererogation. . . .

A. I can see that your case of Protestantism is worse than I thought.

B. Perhaps. Yet, from our discussion thus far, I have regained some hope that I might eventually be reconciled with the Church.

A. Well, alright, then. Walk home with me, Boso; for I tire of standing and speaking in this boring, as-yet-undefined setting. We can discuss the rest of your quibbles and qualms within my monastic quarters, over a nice pot of tea.

About The Author

Josh is a Reformed Baptist, or at least something approximately adjacent to one. Raised in North Carolina but adopted by New England, he enjoys speculative fiction, amateur carpentry, and the irresponsible use of modal logic.

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