Let ‘veneration’ be veneration

Do you remember that post more than a week ago about the issue of Catholics (and other believers in ancient communions) praying “with,” and not “to,” the saints? This issue came up in the context of the rapid movement of the late Pope John Paul II toward sainthood in the Catholic Church. Click here the original post on that.

Several things have come up in the past week or so that make me want to offer an update on the subject.

First of all, I used the subjects raised in the earlier post for a Scripps Howard News Service column on the topic. Here is a key chunk of that:

Simply stated, what does it mean to say believers can ask saints to pray on their behalf during the trials of daily life or in times of crisis? Father Arne Panula has faced this kind of question many times, especially as director of the Catholic Information Center a few blocks from the White House.

In press reports, this mystery is reduced to an equation that looks like this — needy people pray to their chosen saints and then miracles happen. It’s that simple. The problem, stressed Panula, is that this is an inadequate description of what Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Christians and some other Christians believe.

“What must be stressed is that we pray for a saint to intercede for us with God. Actually, it’s more accurate to say that we ask the saint to pray ‘with’ us, rather than to say that we pray ‘to’ a saint,” he said. “You see, all grace comes from the Trinity, from the Godhead. These kinds of supernatural interventions always come from God. The saint plays a role, but God performs the miracle. That may sound like a trivial distinction to some people, but it is not.”

After this column ran I was hit with a small wave of strongly worded posts from Protestants who — no surprise — fiercely disagreed with the beliefs of ancient Christians on this subject. Some, of course, argued that the early Christians could not possibly have believed in asking for the intercessions of the saints and added that this (a) means that Catholics, the Orthodox and some others “worship” the saints and that these same traditions argue that Christians cannot pray directly to God and the Jesus Christ. Both claims are inaccurate, in terms of doctrine and traditions (although it does appear that some believers IN THOSE CHURCHES are confused on the proper ways to express these ancient beliefs).

It doesn’t help anyone when mainstream media reports get these doctrines wrong, as well. That is simply more fuel for the fire.

Thus, the following Associated Press correction caught the attention of several readers:

By The Associated Press (CP) …

VATICAN CITY – In stories Jan. 14 and Jan. 15, The Associated Press reported that Pope John Paul II could be publicly venerated, or worshiped, once he is beatified. The story should have made clear that such veneration of saints in the Roman Catholic church is different from the worship owed to God alone.

Thus, later AP stories that offered updates on the John Paul ceremonies offered the following conclusion:

Once he is beatified, John Paul will be given the title “blessed” and can be publicly venerated. Veneration is the word commonly used to refer to that worship given to saints, either directly or through images or relics, which is different in kind from the divine worship given to God only, according to reference work, the Catholic Encyclopaedic Dictionary.

John Paul’s entombed remains, currently in the grotto underneath St. Peter’s Basilica, will be moved upstairs to a chapel just inside a main entrance for easier access by throngs of admirers.

OK, that’s better. But note this confusion statement in that passage: “Veneration is the word commonly used to refer to that worship given to saints … which is different in kind from the divine worship given to God only. …”

What? Now, the reference is tied to a Catholic reference book. That’s good. But the double use of the word “worship” is still confusion and it is not the way that I have, through the years, heard Catholic authorities state this doctrine. Frankly, the language in the correction noted earlier is shorter, clearer and more accurate.

Catholic readers (and journalists who are Catholic), what think ye on this issue? Personally, the Orthodox would say that “veneration” is veneration and that “worship” is worship. Attempting to have a double definition of “worship” is too much for an ordinary reader to follow, methinks.

Before clicking, “comment,” please remember that the goal here is to discuss how mainstream media cover this issue. The journalistic goal is to accurately report the content of the traditions in these churches. The goal is NOT to argue about the doctrines themselves, unless one was writing an actual story about debates on that topic — perhaps in an ecumenical gathering on that topic.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    tmatt–You are right in my opinion. Worship is worship and should be used only with regard to one’s relationship with God. Veneration is veneration and is how we respectfully relate to the saints.
    The dictionary I have has as meaning one for worship: “reverence or devotion to a DEITY.” As for venerate it says simply: “to look upon with deep feelings of respect.”
    Thus those in the media and elsewhere who use the words virtually interchangeably are quite simply wrong.
    It is important for the media to get it right because so many non-Orthodox and non-Catholics pick up their understanding of our Faith from the media.

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com mattk

    When someone addresses the Lord Mayor of London as “Your Worship” that person knows a different kind of worship is intended than that worship due God. The same as when, in the BCP wedding service, a bride says “with my body I thee worship”. English is bendy flexy. The worship can mean different things. I think common readers know this.

  • Rick

    Since Latin is the official language of the Catholic Church, it might help to look at how distinctions are made in that language.

    Dulia refers to honor and veneration of saints.

    Hyperdulia refers to greater honor and veneration of the Virgin Mary.

    Latria refers to worship that is given only to God. Saints and the Virgin Mary are not subjects for Latria.

  • Maureen

    They’re drawing from the old Catholic Encyclopedia from 1900-something. Back then, “worship” still meant “honor”, particularly in England. (The etymology of the word is worth+-ship, after all.) When a knight rode out on an adventure “to gain worship”, he sure as heck wasn’t planning to induce gullible natives that he was God.

    Nowadays, “worship” as “honor” has pretty much gone down the memory hole. When people quote the old Catholic Encyclopedia, they should bear this meaning shift in mind. Journalists are supposed to be interested in clarity, so they shouldn’t use it.

  • Maureen

    “convince gullible natives”. Sorry about changing sentences in mid-verb. :)

  • Passing By

    The Fellowship of the Saints is the large issue that journalists aren’t getting, which is no surprise, given the radical individualism of this culture and the problem we have with the possibility that each of us is not the hottest thing on the planet: someone might actually be… better. Humility is not our forte, let’s face it.

    The whole business really is exacerbated by the confusion of words – worship (noted in #2 above), honor, veneration, and what, particularly, it means to “pray”. Take away all the spiritual hoorah and medieval graphics (which I do rather like, to tell the truth) and we are simply asking for help.

    Perhaps not journalism related: it’s interesting that all Christians seek out the prayers of others in time of need; no one really practices a “Christ only” ideology. The difference is that the historic faiths – Catholic and Orthodox – don’t draw a bright line between the living and dead, but rather see that Christ is not alone. He is the head of a Body (Col 1.18), the center of “a great cloud of witnesses” (Heb 12.1). Our God is god of the living and the dead (Romans 14.9).

  • Julie

    As a Catholic, I feel the difference between worship and veneration more than I think about it in absolute terms. I certainly never feel like I am worshipping a Saint — it’s more like showing great respect. Shouldn’t that be an easy enough definition? Worship = Worship; Veneration = Showing Respect.

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com mattk

    Tmatt, was your use of “Let” in the headline a joke?

    1. to allow or permit: to let him escape.
    2. to allow to pass, go, or come: to let us through.
    3. to cause to; make: to let one know the truth.
    4. an impediment or obstacle: to act without let or hindrance.
    5. Archaic to hinder, prevent, or obstruct.

  • http://fatherjohn.blogspot.com/ Fr. John Whiteford

    I agree that in contemporary usage it is best to limit the use of the word “worship” to God, but there are many older translations in common use today because they are now public domain, and so people do need to understand that the word has a broader meaning. See question number 4 here, and the article link in the answer:


    And by the way, Dulia, Hyperdulia, and Latria are all Greek words, rather than Latin. :)

  • Bern

    Well, it was good the writer cited a source but not so good that the source was not contemporary. Yes, such can sow or support the confusion about Catholic belief and practice–see for example: http://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20101121185801AAfyAFN

  • http://ephesians4-15.blogspot.com/ Randy

    We need a word to refer to worship and/or veneration. Living in a protestant environment one needs to be hypersensitive about wording. But the fact there are different levels of blah. Where blah is the word we don’t have. The highest level of blah is worship and is due to God alone. Veneration is a lower level of blah. We venerate a person on their birthday of graduation. When venerate rock stars and football players. But we should venerate saints more. Yet still not worship saints.

  • http://www.mysteriousthings.net Marc

    I second Fr Whiteford, with the observation, however, that I’m not planning on ignoring the entire history of the English usage of ‘worship’ just because we poor folk in these latter days can’t be bothered to, you know, actually learn things about the language we use. The media in general have oceans of culpability when it comes to repeating untruths; in the grand scheme of things, this particular matter is of little moment. And I would point out that, at least in the theological works of many significant theologians of the 11th c onwards (e.g. Rupert of Deutz, Peter Lombard and Bonaventura), the words dulia, hyperdulia and latria are each of them taken up into the Latin and used as proper Latin words… although I guess the poor folk weren’t talking much about the distinctions.

  • MarkAA

    As a journalist, I’m not at all opposed to using reference books for specificity in a news story. However, journalists USUALLY call a living person as a source; that’s 95% of the way information comes into a story, from a living person’s mouth, mostly via a phone call. So it puzzles me why the reporter didn’t take the usual step of calling a theologian, priest, bishop, Catholic Answers hotline, something to explain veneration … and instead referred to an old reference book. There’s just something odd about that approach, and has my spidey sense tingling that an editor in the newsroom insisted on getting an “official definition” for this “veneration thing” rather than a human’s explanation, which could have headed off the language problem. Just odd.

  • Julia

    mattk & Maureen:

    Good explanation. I, too, went to New Advent to see what the 1911 encyclopedia said and immediately realized that the current use of the word “worship” has changed over time. It’s similar to what happened to the meaning of the word “scandal”.

    Another reason why classical Greek and Latin are still valuable. You can always refer back to the original meanings of words in Greek or Latin, regardless of where the English definition has migrated.