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Do Catholics worship Mary? The Saints? Statues and images?

March 16, 2007

How many times as Catholics (and even Orthodox) we get asked if we worship Mary or the Saints or statues and images in general? Many times. Although it takes more than just a few words to explain ourselves, for the sake of brevity, let us look a little bit of history and terminology.

The Iconoclastic Controversy

Although we know that the early Church seemed to have no problem with images as we see depictions of martyrs and even Christ in catacombs, for instance, the controversy over the use of images in the Church arose in the 8th and 9th centuries. The iconoclastic controversy was based on the question of whether the veneration of icons or images should continue in the Church or not.

The controversy had two parties: the iconoclasts and the iconodules. The iconoclasts, literally destroyers of images, considered veneration of images to be idolatry and that any depiction of Christ, for instance, was mere superstition. On the other hand, the iconodules believed that although Christ was fully divine, he was also fully human and assumed our human nature, so to depict him as such was by no means wrong. St. John of Damascus was a strong defender of Icons:

Of old, God the incorporeal and uncircumscribed was never depicted. Now, however, when God is seen clothed in flesh, and conversing with men, I make an image of the God whom I see. I do not worship matter, I worship the God of matter, who became matter for my sake, and deigned to inhabit matter, who worked out my salvation through matter. I will not cease from honouring that matter which works my salvation. I venerate it, though not as God. How could God be born out of lifeless things? And if God’s body is God by union, it is immutable. The nature of God remains the same as before, the flesh created in time is quickened by, a logical and reasoning soul.

(On Holy Images)

Latria, hyperdulia, and dulia

Worship is the symbol of veneration and of honour. Let us understand that there are different degrees of worship. First of all the worship of latreia, which we show to God, who alone by nature is worthy of worship. When, for the sake of God who is worshipful by nature, we honour His saints and servants, as Josue and Daniel worshipped an angel, and David His holy places, when he says, “Let us go to the place where His feet have stood.”

St. John of Damascus, On Holy Images

The Seventh Ecumenical Council at Nicea in A.D. 787 ruled the difference between worship (latria in Greek), which is only due to God and veneration (dulia in Greek), which is due to angels and saints. Hyperdulia, on the other hand, is a heightened form of veneration, which is due to the Blessed Mother as the theotokos or “Bearer of God.”

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