The sins of The Guardian copy desk

OK, OK. I know that the error I am about to dissect appears in a column, not a news report.

But this is ridiculous.

Who edits copy for The Guardian these days?

Who writes the newspaper’s headlines? Who is in charge of preventing errors? How does the following make it into print? Here’s the headline:

Why Mormons do not worship Mary

The headline, alas, is clearly drawn from the lede served up by columnist Tresa Edmunds:

In much of the Christian world, 8 September is recognized as the birthday of Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ. Which, as a Mormon, was news to me. Compared with many other Christian sects, Latter Day Saints don’t appear to pay much attention to Mary. We revere her as the mother of Christ, celebrate her sacrifices, and honour her as we do Eve or Sarah or other heroines of the scriptures, but we don’t worship her.

Now there are all kinds of comments — doctrinal comments — that could be made about the content of that paragraph. “Revere” is good. Ditto for “celebrate” and “honor.” From the perspective of the ancient churches, the key word that’s missing is “venerate.”

But “worship”? No. No. No.

It seems that we have to go over this once or twice a year. There have, for example, been fits of “worship” language abuse in the coverage of the Catholic Church’s decision to declare the late Pope John Paul II as “blessed.” Click here and then here for some recent examples.

It is true that the word “worship” can be used in ways that fall short of the “worship” that is reserved, in all of Christianity, for God alone. Perhaps the most famous example is in traditional wedding rites from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer:

WITH this Ring I thee wed, with my Body I thee worship, and with all my worldly Goods I thee endow: In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

The key to these frequent errors is that some journalists simply cannot seem to grasp the concept of Christians praying “with” the saints instead of praying “to” the saints. The whole idea is that believers petition the saints — especially Mary, the Theotokos — to pray with us to God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

So what’s going on? Here’s how the Orthodox writer Frederica Mathewes-Green (the wife of the senior priest at the parish attended by my family) reacted to this Guardian story in a listserv of writers that I frequent. This quote is used here with her permission.

… There is great sloppiness in that use of “worship.” The fault is the word “pray.” It’s just a method of communication. You communicate with the saints via prayer, as you communicate with God, but you view them differently. You can use a phone to call all different sorts of people.

It helps some people when I point out that “pray” originally meant the asking of a favor, “I pray you, pass the A1 sauce” or whatever.

I recall a Chick tract that showed Mary kneeling before God’s throne and begging him to forgive people for worshiping her. The author had inadvertently hit on exactly what the understanding of Mary is, that she prays for us.

So, all together now: Other Christian “sects” — meaning Catholics and the Orthodox, probably — do not “worship” Mary. Reporters and, especially, copy editors must get this straight, because they are printing errors of fact in terms of church history and doctrine.

IMAGE: A classic icon of St. Mary the Theotokos, with her hand — as always — pointing toward her Son in a gesture that symbolically says, “Not me. Him.”

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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.

  • Will

    It also raises the question of just who are the “many” mariolatrous denominations.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    We had a huge party for my aunt’s 90th birthday. Who knew we were committing idolatry!

    Serious journalism comment: it’s The Guardian.

    Really serious journalism comment: ignorance of the vast majority of Christian belief aside, she does make her case, within the framework of Mormon doctrine. You can’t say she’s illogical.

    Thanks for the quote from Mathewes-Green. It’s helpful, particularly the reference to Jack Chick.

  • Julia

    I have a question about this passage in the column:

    Personally, Mary has significance to me far beyond other women in our scriptures. She is the closest avatar we have to our heavenly mother,

    Who is this “heavenly mother”? Do Mormons believe God has a wife?

  • Will

    Short answer: Yes, they believe in our mother in Heaven… and that God Eloheim is literally our father in Heaven.

    Apostle Richards allegedly retorted to a gentile farmer that “I don’t see how God could have a son if he didn’t have a wife.”

    We had a knock-down drag-out about this in the glory days of the Compuserve Religion Forum. Those were the days…

    I wonder how Tresa Edmunds would react to a column on “Why Catholics Don’t Worship Joseph Smith”.

  • Jon

    Will says ‘I wonder how Tresa Edmunds would react to a column on “Why Catholics Don’t Worship Joseph Smith”.’

    Answer: she’d do exactly as this very helpful article has done, and point out that Mormons don’t worship him either.

    I think what has been confusing, and not just for Mormons, about the Mary and Saints aspect is, as has been helpfully pointed out, the, may I say transgressive?, culture of prayer, meaning that in its literal sense, not its theological sense. It certainly used to be confusing to me, and to some extent I still see it as superfluous.

    But what helps even more than just saying Catholics don’t worship Mary or the Saints is to explain the notion of a surplus of Grace. We still don’t entirely get it, or if we get it we don’t necessarily groove on it, but it makes the difference between supplication and worship clearer.

  • Daniel O. McClellan


    Thanks for the post. I wonder, though, if there’s an appreciable difference between a petition and a prayer when it comes to non-mortal beings that are not physically present. The distinction seems rather arbitrary to me.

  • Karyn

    Perhaps it’s some comfort that Ms. Edmunds mangled Mormon doctrine almost as spectacularly as she did Catholic teaching.

  • Cathy G.

    Copy editors? You mean newspapers still have those?

  • Bain Wellington

    From Pope Paul VI, Exhortation Marialis cultus (1974)

    Christian worship in fact is of itself worship offered to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, or, as the liturgy puts it, to the Father through Christ in the Spirit. From this point of view worship is rightly extended, though in a substantially different way, first and foremost and in a special manner, to the Mother of the Lord and then to the saints, in whom the Church proclaims the Paschal Mystery, for they have suffered with Christ and have been glorified with Him

    tmatt, you are picking a fight on the wrong word. We do not adore the Blessed Virgin (CCC 971), but there is no question but that the Church recognises (as does the English Language) that there are various levels of worship.

  • Daniel Vincent de Paul

    So this is a rant about a gap in oversight on a rant that fails to see the distinction of prayer and worship as according their uses by Catholic Authority as opposed to the uses employed by Latter Day Saint authority?

    Sounds oddly parallel, although perhaps by opposite reference points, to a more common humanistic misunderstanding of the distinction between worship and religion as regards the politcal liberties of either or both. Just bemusing the thought.

    Thanks for the article tmatt.

  • Jim

    EDIT: not hopelessly lost.

    It appears my copy-desk is also understaffed and incompetant.

  • Jon

    Ad Jim:

    Um, no.

  • Martha

    And now you all know the reason “Private Eye” refers to it as “The Grauniad:-)

    “The nickname The Grauniad for the paper originated with the satirical magazine Private Eye. This anagram played on The Guardian’s reputation for frequent typographical errors, such as misspelling its own name as The Gaurdian. The domain is registered to the paper.

    The very first issue of the newspaper contained a number of errors, perhaps the most notable being a notification that there would soon be some goods sold at atction instead of auction. There are fewer typographical errors in the paper since the end of hot-metal typesetting. One of their writers, Keith Devlin, suggested that the high number of observed misprints was due more to the quality of the readership than their greater frequency.”

    To be fair to the dear old Grauniad, I’ve had a small share of trying to explain Catholic doctrine on Mary to non-Catholics online and getting the ‘you lot worship her, all this veneration business is unBiblical, Mary was just a sinner and (the worst) treating her as a human incubator, i.e., she had no choice but to say “yes” to the Incarnation and therefore her part is neglible – literally after the birth of Jesus, her role in His life was finished’ lines.

  • John M

    What role is there for a columnist to express his/her belief that other branches of Christianity “worship” Mary in ways that s/he finds unacceptable? That’s most of what I see going on here.

    I personally find the idea of Mary as co-redemptrix or mediatrix repugnant and idolatrous. You can sub “worshipful of a false deity” in for idolatrous if you prefer. If I were quoted in a news article, or wrote a column saying such, I’d prefer not to be edited by the copy desk, unless I happened to misspell “repugnant”.

    I get that asserting in a straight news article that “worship” of Mary can’t be asserted. But that doesn’t change my opinion, and that column was nothing if not an opinion piece.


  • Daniel/Denial/Denail

    follow up on my earlier post (the guy at post # 10…maybe the graudian has an editing job open for me and my aphasia? Anyone think they’d be interested?

  • Flamen

    Bain Wellington is absolutely right. Furthermore, we do pray TO the saints and to Mary and ask for their intercession – petition being one of the aspects of prayer.

  • Jettboy

    I understand the point, but to a Mormon (and Protestants) the intercession of Mary and the Saints is still considered worship. You don’t pray to anyone other than God the Father in the name of Jesus Christ. In fact, praying to Mother in Heaven is considered blaspheme no matter how Holy She might be, although there are some ultra-feminist Mormons who argue differently. The point is, the columnist might have gotten it wrong from the viewpoint of a Catholic, but its completely correct from the viewpoint of Mormons and many others. Perhaps “veneration” should have been the word that was used, but that word doesn’t exist in Mormon religious culture.

    It does beg the question when is a person’s perception a false characterization and when is it an opinion? As a Mormon I understand what the wrong word usage with misleading or incorrect implications can do because it happens all the time. Yet, from the religious point of view of someone outside the faith some of the mischaracterizations are plausible (and many are just plain false). What does copy editing have to do with culture clashes?

  • http://!)! Passing By

    …is still considered worship

    … by you, perhaps, but journalism should reflect what Catholics mean by the words when Catholics use them. In a similar manner, journalists should reflect what Mormons mean when they use Mormon terms, not what Catholics think they mean.

    As noted in the comments above, “pray” and “worship” have specific meanings when Catholics use them. For my money, it’s bizarre (if not a case of false witness) for a non-Catholic to impose their own meanings on Catholic usage of those terms.

    I agree with others (including tmatt) that this is a column, not hard news. It’s still important to reflect the beliefs of other folks accurately, especially if you want to argue against those beliefs or draw a contrast.

  • Mike O.

    Passing By, I have no dog in this fight. But I’d be curious to know if you would be ok with the columnist stating that, in her opinion, Catholics for all intents and purposes worship Mary provided she also went into detail as to what they believe?

    To give a non-religious example that honestly may not be wholly apt, in the early part of World War II the United States was technically neutral although through things like the Lend-Lease Act we definitely were supporting Great Britain. Would it have been fair for a columnist then to state that America, despite what it has announced, is not neutral? Again I don’t know if the analogy works here because I don’t know (and frankly don’t care) if Catholics kinda-sorta-maybe worship Mary. From a journalistic perspective on an opinion column, I’d want to know if the columinst is bound to what the definitions one side uses.

  • Jettboy

    Passing By, you could always take the side of no offense and substitute what others call “worship” and substitute the word “veneration” as that is really the meaning here. That isn’t to say I don’t understand what your getting at and therefore torn by the discussion more than I sound. As a huge example to turn the table, when people say Mormons aren’t Christian then to be fair the response should be “by them, perhaps, but journalism should reflect what Mormons mean by the words when Mormons use them.” The idea that the definition of “Christian” is historical isn’t very good either, because the definition of prayer as a form of worship has just as long a history. Again, my main argument isn’t if the veneration is the same as worship, but if its an editor’s job to pick sides by what they choose?

  • Mike X

    I almost wish that Catholics did worship Mary, that way I wouldn’t have to continually explain myself.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    Mike O – I think journalists are bound to presenting positions honestly. “Include” might have been a better word than “reflect” in my comment, because an opinion piece is just that – an opinion. But unless you want to look like an idiot, you won’t misrepresent the other’s views.

    Jettboy – If I were to write an essay on “Why Mormons aren’t Christian”, I would still be bound to include an accurate statement of what Mormons belief makes one a Christian. Moreover, I would, I presume, be presenting a list of doctrines in which (I claim) Mormonism diverges from (which I claim is) Christianity. In that list, I would be obligated to accurately present Mormon beliefs.

    Of course, such an essay would be different than the essay at hand, in which Edmunds seems mostly interested in presenting the Mormon view of Mary. Unfortunately, she manages to botch a contrast with Catholic doctrine and tradition. Such a contrast is entirely possible, but not by linking Mary’s birthday with Mary-worship.

    Mike X – I hear you, brother. :-)

  • Julia

    the definition of prayer as a form of worship has just as long a history.

    English words just don’t explain the problem here.

    In the Old Testament, there is praise/worship of God and there are requests that God do something. They are different things. Somehow Protestant-flavored English mushes these two things together as “prayer”.

    1) To this day, there is a section in court filings that tells the court what the plaintiff wants the court to do. It’s called the “prayer”, which has nothing to do with praising/worshipping the judge. Are lawyers acting on behalf of their clients idolaters because they direct a client’s prayers to judges?

    Catholics may similarly ask a saint to present their petition/prayer to God on their behalf. Sometimes, like looking for a real estate lawyer for a deed problem, they seek out a saint who is thought to be better able to relate to the particular petition. Other times, Catholics represent themselves, pro se, petitioning God directly.

    2) As to worship and veneration – there are appropriate Latin words that better explain the other aspect of what Protestants are also calling “prayer”. Words like “dulia” and “hyper-dulia” for what kind of praise/worship is appropriate to God as opposed to a much-admired saint.

    Visiting Cooperstown, I saw that Americans venerate exceptional humans, but don’t realize the similarity to saints – there’s even revered relics on display. I’ve seen sports writers equating election to the Hall of Fame to entering the Pantheon – but they don’t mean that Babe Ruth has really become a god. The speeches and toasts are expressing admiration, like Catholics extol their saints.

    A writer may think this is all a bunch of BS, but it would help if the writer would take the time to find out what Catholics mean by their terminology – it has been around much longer than the Reformation.

  • tmatt

    OK, I have had enough.

    Take the doctrinal battles elsewhere. The issue here is whether — in news or commentary — newspaper editors should publish works that twist the teachings of major religions, with no chance for the errors to be corrected.

  • http://n/a Mary De Voe

    @tmatt: “The issue here is whether — in news or commentary — newspaper editors should publish works that twist the teachings of major religions, with no chance for the errors to be corrected.
    The newspapers and their editors have no good will if they refuse to correct their mistakes.

  • John Pack Lambert

    I think one issue here is that the essay in question was about the Mormon (though really about the author’s personal view) of Mary.

    I think I would say this article would be much better if someone insisted that the author at least try to use the right words to reflect the views of others on Mary. Another plus might have been if someone challennged her basic assertion that the Latter-day Saint view of Mary differes from virtually all other Christians in the way she presents it. My suspicion is that she is really just interacting with Catholic views and ignoring protestants.

    I guess at some level the issue though is an assumption that columnists can write what they want with little need to ground their statements in facts. For the writing of a columnist this is not an overly exceptional failing to grasp what others believe.