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Is Invoking the Saints Dangerous?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | May 14, 2013

While still an Anglican, Blessed John Henry Newman had some trouble coming to a Catholic appreciation of the role of the saints in Christian life. He seems to have understood from the first that the saints were wonderful witnesses to Divine realities and a superb inspiration to us all, but he balked at invoking their intercession for fear of diluting the honor due to God.

Newman emphasized this concern in a letter to the Anglican Bishop of Oxford in 1841, some four years before his conversion. He expresses what was then the common high Anglican attitude on the subject, including a notable disdain for the spiritual perception of what we might call the “common man”:

Every feeling which interferes with God’s sovereignty in our hearts, is of an idolatrous nature; and, as men are tempted to idolize their rank and substance, or their talent, or their children, or themselves, so may they easily be led to substitute the thought of Saints and Angels for the one supreme idea of their Creator and Redeemer, which should fill them…. The holier the man, the less likely are [such invocations] to be injurious to him; but it is another matter entirely when ordinary persons do the same. There is much less of awe and severity in the devotion which rests upon created excellence as its object, and worldly minds will gladly have recourse to it, to be saved the necessity of lifting up their eyes to their Sanctifier and Judge. And the multitude of men are incapable of many ideas; one is enough for them, and if the image of a Saint is admitted into their heart, he occupies it, and there is no room for Almighty God. [emphasis added]

A few years later, seeing the whole question with the eyes of a more obedient faith, Newman would have no such illusions about the difficulty of so simple a concept as the difference between a holy creature and the God Who created him; nor about the lack of ability of any normal and sane person to hold more than one idea, and to see the relationships among the ideas, at the same time. In fact, Newman’s argument in this letter is a rare display of nonsense so arrant that surely he must have shuddered to recall it in later years.

Happily, mistakes like this, even as an Anglican, were rare for Newman, who had a brilliant mind and who steeped himself in the sources of Christianity, including the Fathers of the Church. Moreover, one of Newman’s great strengths as a theologian, a philosopher and a controversialist is that he habitually gave the benefit of every doubt to his opponents. This slur against “the multitude of men” actually smacks more of the New England Transcendentalism of the same period, particularly Henry David Thoreau’s famous remark about “the mass of men”, which fairly reeked of the self-ascribed superiority of the “intellectual”.

But later Newman had no such illusions, and no such pretensions. Two brief passages will bear this out, in which Newman expresses the Catholic viewpoint in precisely the sort of accessible, warm and even familial terms which serve instantly to correct his earlier cold condescension. First, in a letter to an unknown correspondent in 1869, twenty-four years after his conversion:

[Y]ou would not think it against the Gospel, I suppose, to ask for yourself the prayers of a good man on earth. Why then should you scruple to ask his prayers, when, having left this world and gone to God, he has become possessed of a far greater power?

And then in 1881, in a letter to a Mrs. Pearson:

As the love of father on earth does not interfere with love of mother, and the love of mother leaves us capable of loving brother and sister, so a Catholic loves the Blessed Virgin and the Saints without any harm to the sovereign love and devotion which fills him towards the Holy Trinity in Unity.

Even earlier, Newman had noticed that exactly the opposite of what Anglicans and Protestants predicted actually took place as a result of veneration of the saints, and especially of Mary. The Protestant prediction has always been that insofar as people honor Mary and the saints more they will worship God less, the former taking the place of the latter, until there is no longer any true faith in God. But by the time he converted in 1845, Newman had realized that the result of the experiment was actually very different. For it was precisely in those regions and nations in which devotion to Mary and the saints was denigrated in favor of Christ that faith in the Divinity of Christ waned and ultimately collapsed. But wherever Mary and the saints continued to be honored in the Catholic way, a full understanding of the Person of Jesus Christ was retained.

Newman made this argument in his Essay on the Development of Doctrine (Part II, ch. 11, sec. 2), which he completed as a prelude to his entry into the Church. As he put it so neatly there:

[T]he question is one of fact, not of presumption or conjecture. The abstract lawfulness of the honours paid to St. Mary, and their distinction in theory from the incommunicable worship paid to God, are points which have already been dwelt upon; but here the question turns upon their practicability or expedience, which must be determined by the fact whether they are practicable, and whether they have been found to be expedient.

Of course the practicability and expedience of honor paid to Mary are proved in the concomitant protection and growth of faith in the Divinity of her Son; whereas in the absence of honor to Mary, that faith sickens and dies.

Insofar as we love the saints because of their sanctity, we are already raising our minds and hearts to God. As a Catholic, Newman discovered the remarkable diffusiveness of Divine love. So far from being diminished and used up as the claims upon it increase, the love of God strengthens and grows in us as it is shared. All the saints point like flaming arrows to God. Like them and with them, we yearn to rise.

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Show 3 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: bnewman - May. 15, 2013 11:08 PM ET USA

    As Dr. Mirus noted, Newman’s comments were typical of the attitude of the Church of England at that time. The concept of prayers directed towards the Saints (and also The Virgin Mother) breach a centuries-long Protestant teaching that this comes close to idolatry, if not actually being idolatry. Long ago, even though previously an atheist, as an English convert to the Catholic Church, like many others I had great trouble with this. The italicized section of the quote is a another story.

  • Posted by: AgnesDay - May. 15, 2013 12:39 PM ET USA

    I have said, when asked, that the Saints are proof positive that God's word "does not return to Him void, but accomplishes the purpose for which it was sent." Protestants have difficulty arguing with that, since either His word is transformative and makes saints, or is void and useless.

  • Posted by: koinonia - May. 15, 2013 6:57 AM ET USA

    Wonderful apologetic for contemplation. Even during our earthly pilgrimage we the baptized are happily included among the Communion of Saints who make up the Mystical Body of Christ. Thus not only is there "room for almighty God", this communion with the saints is apparently essential in a mystical sense to our communion with Him.

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