I recently asked one of my Protestant friends: “What is your biggest obstacle to becoming Catholic?” He answered my provocative question with a well-stacked list of Catholic beliefs. He replied, “Well I’ve never really agreed with the doctrines of Purgatory, the Pope, praying to saints, the Eucharist, worshipping Mary…” Immediately, I thought of a thousand different ways to reply to his honest but equally ignorant response… Do Catholics really worship Mary? I answer yes and no.
Now hold on Catholics! Please read on before you cast me aside as a heretic. And Protestants, your “I told you so!” is a bit premature. Let me explain:
First, Catholics are perfectly aware of the First Commandment. We know there is only one God and that we shall have no other gods before Him. But second, we recognize that certain persons deserve certain degrees of honour. When God says “honour your mother and father,” he is making it clear that there is a special level of respect due to our parents which would not be due, say, to the grocery store cashier.
In her official teaching, the Catholic Church says:
“Idolatry consists in divinizing what is not God. Man commits idolatry whenever he honors and reveres a creature in place of God” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2113)
So how could I answer “yes and no” to the question above? Well, in the King James Version of the Bible, 1 Chronicles 29:20 reads:
“And David said to all the congregation, Now bless the Lord your God. And all the congregation blessed the Lord God of their fathers, and bowed down their heads, and worshipped the Lord, and the king.“
The king here is David. Is the assembly committing idolatry? No. There is absolutely no condemnation of their actions in the following passages, nor is there mention of idolatry. The wording is simply a matter of language style.
The Revised Standard Version says it this way:
Then David said to all the assembly, “Bless the Lord your God.” And all the assembly blessed the Lord, the God of their fathers, and bowed their heads, and worshiped the Lord, and did obeisance to the king.
In this version we can see that differing levels of homage were being directed toward God and the King simultaneously. It is also well-illustrated that the assembly was bowing before God “in adoration” and bowing before the king “out of respect.”
So in the sense that worship can mean the kind of honour due to human superiors, like our parents, Catholics “worship” Mary. But in the sense that “worship” means the kind of adoration due to God alone, Catholics have always reserved such adoration for the one, true Trinitarian God who is infinitely greater than Mary. We recognize that Mary needed a Saviour just like the rest of us (she just happened to be His mother):
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden.” (Luke 1:47-48)
But we also give Mary a special level of homage that we give to no other human, including even the other saints. The Greek language captures this better than the English: To the saints in heaven, Catholics give homage or veneration, called dulia in Greek. But to Mary, Catholics give what is called hyperdulia. This is an elevated level of veneration, yet it is infinitely less than what is due to God alone, latria. Regarding veneration of Mary, the Catholic Church teaches:
“This very special devotion [to Mary] . . . differs essentially from the adoration which is given to the incarnate Word and equally to the Father and the Holy Spirit…” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 971)
So Catholics do not worship Mary in the modern sense, but in the other sense you might say we do.The point is, in evangelization, we need to define our terms to be sure we are speaking about the same thing—otherwise the dialogue goes nowhere. Furthermore, I will say without hesitation that all Christians ought to give special homage to Mary, for to ignore or withhold honour to Jesus’ mother is the not only an offence against her but also against Our Lord. How would you feel if your friends ignored or refused to honour your mother?
“All generations will call me blessed.” (Luke 1:48)