The history of the Church has, in some sense, been shaped by wars over words.
When we speak of God who is one being yet has three persons, of Christ who has the same substance as the Father and the same substance as man, and of Jesus who was incarnate of Mary, the words we use—being, person, substance, incarnation—are loaded with enormous meaning. It took centuries of councils, schisms, and some violence for the Church to hash out the implications of such words. Needless to say, unless you live in the world of postmodern nihilism, words matter a tremendous deal.
In fact, one of the most infamous heresies of all time could be described as a debate that hinged on a single vowel. In the fourth century, the Arian heresy reared its head, challenging the divinity of Christ in its false claim that Jesus was, effectively, a creature of God the Father. In 325 AD, the Council of Nicaea, struck back against this heresy, affirming in what would later become known as the Nicene Creed that Jesus Christ was ‘begotten, not made, one in being with the Father.’
It goes without saying, there is gulf separating the heretical and orthodox positions. But when it comes to terminology, the difference is surprisingly razor thin. The Nicaeans used the Greek word homoousios, defined as ‘consubstantial,’ or ‘one in being.’ The operative word for the Arians was homoiousios, meaning ‘of similar substance,’ according to the Liddell-Scott Greek Lexicon. Now go back and reread both words. There is only one letter that’s different. You might have noticed the extra ‘i’ in the Arian word, which in Greek would have been an iota. It’s just one vowel, but this was one time an iota did make difference. Big time.
In contemporary times, the hot-button words are no longer the ones used to define the nature of God, but those we use to describe our relationship with Him. Topping the list is ‘worship.’
Just about any Catholic who is serious about the faith and has had to defend it against Protestants and others has at one point or another probably had to respond to charges that we ‘worship Mary.’ The inevitable response usually goes something like: ‘Catholics don’t worship Mary. We venerate Mary.’
This is a useful distinction. But it isn’t entirely accurate. Technically, worship is the umbrella term for both the veneration of saints and angels and the adoration of God. Here are some examples of its historic use that may surprise you:
■ Pope Leo XIII, in Divinum Illus Munus, his encyclical on the Holy Spirit in 1897, refers to the ‘worship paid to the saints and angels.’
■ Here’s Pope Pius X, writing in Ad Diem Illum Laetissium, his encyclical on the Immaculate Conception in 1904: “For to be right and good, worship of the Mother of God ought to spring from the heart; acts of the body have here neither utility nor value if the acts of the soul have no part in them.”
■ It’s not just the popes. The edition of the Catholic Encyclopedia published in 1912 has this comment in its entry on ‘Christian Worship’: “In accordance with these principles it will readily be understood that a certain worship may be offered even to inanimate objects, such as the relics of a martyr, the Cross of Christ, the Crown of Thorns, or even the statue or picture of a saint.” [emphasis added]
Don’t dismiss the above quotations as outdated. Here’s one more recent example, from Pope John Paul II’s encyclical, Redemptoris Mater: “It does not surprise us therefore that Mary occupies a privileged place in the worship of the ancient Oriental Churches with an incomparable abundance of feasts and hymns.”
These texts do not contradict contemporary usage. ‘Worship’ should be understood as the generic word. ‘Adoration’ and ‘veneration’ are the specific terms. If we wanted to harmonize the two we would speak of the ‘worship of adoration’ and the ‘worship of veneration.’ (The technical terms for adoration and veneration are latria and doulia, respectively.) Steubenville theologian Mark Miravalle offers a similar explanation in his book, Introduction to Mary: The Heart of Marian Doctrine and Devotion:
Here a further clarification should be made regarding the use of the term “worship” in relation to the categories of adoration and veneration. Some schools of theology use the term “worship” to introduce both adoration and veneration. They would distinguish between “worship of adoration” and “worship of veneration.” The word “worship” … in these classical definitions was not at all synonymous with adoration, but could be used to introduce either adoration or veneration.
The broad meaning of ‘worship’ shouldn’t scandalize us. A useful comparison could be made to the word ‘prayer.’ For Protestants, prayer is something that done in relationship with God—they are shocked that Catholics not only pray to God, but also to saints. The standard Catholic response is that in older English usage ‘to pray’ was another way of saying ‘to ask’—and, therefore, nothing is theologically amiss in ‘asking’ things of the saints.
The same holds true for worship. Break out your Shakespeare: in the Elizabethan English of his time, certain characters were addressed as ‘Your worship.’ In fact, this is still the correct form of address for magistrates in the British court system to this day. (See this citizen’s guide.)
But worship and prayer have followed different paths over time. Worship narrowed in meaning, becoming a synonym for adoration in contemporary discourse. But prayer never lost its original, broader meaning for petitions that are directed to God, as well as the saints and angels.
Using ‘worship’ as another word for ‘adoration’ of God is probably a sure-fire way to avoid confusion in dialogue with non-Catholics. There’s no reason to stop using it in this restrictive sense.
But this shouldn’t lead us into confusion about the historical uses of the word. It pays to have a firm grasp of this. The most obvious advantage: now you won’t be caught off guard if someone happens to have dug up evidence that the Church really does render ‘worship’ to Mary.
But knowing the history of worship, as a word, is more than another addition to our apologetics toolkit.
It also enriches our devotional life by helping us to better understand what we do when we venerate saints and adore God. Recognizing that ‘worship’ is an umbrella term for both acts helps us to understand that the two are connected. Veneration, while radically different in character from the adoration of God, is not divorced from it. Indeed, the saints and angels are only worthy of veneration because they are in the presence of God. It is only because His infinite glory is reflected in them are they worthy of any honor. If anything, it would be wrong to venerate angels and saints if we didn’t keep in mind their relationship to God.
In turn, any honor we pay to the saints ultimately honors God. This is how Pope Leo XIII understood it. Here’s the full quotation for the earlier-cited excerpt from his encyclical: “The worship paid to the saints and angels, to the Mother of God, and to Christ Himself, finally redounds to the honor of the Blessed Trinity.” We see this in the first chapter of Luke, when Elizabeth honors Mary. Mary passes it all on to God in the Magnificat prayer: “My soul doth magnify the Lord.”