Semantics and misinformation: the source of most confusion on any Catholic teaching.
In this case, it basically comes down to how one defines the word “worship.”
But let’s be clear. When someone charges the Catholic Church with “worshiping Mary,” they are usually implying that Catholics put Mary on par with God. This couldn’t be further from the truth. And to any Catholic that truly understands their faith, this sounds more heretical to them than to anyone.
Unfortunately, this charge is most often used by people who dislike the Catholic Church and are usually trying to add more confusion to the issue and damage the image of the Church.
If they were truly seeking understanding on the matter they would easily find a very reasonable truth, perhaps very different than the misinformation they’ve been told in the past.
First, let’s try to define the word “worship.”
In our culture and language, worship is often understood to be “reverence offered to a divine being.”
In this sense, worship is only for God. Catholics say AMEN! Offering this kind of reverence to Mary or anyone else as being divine would be heresy to a Catholic.
However, another common definition of worship is “extravagant respect or admiration for or devotion to an object of esteem.” In this sense, not only is worshiping someone or something other than God not a bad thing, it would be an entirely Christian thing to do.
Surely it is a good thing to give respect where respect is due. It is good to honor our parents and heroes. It is good to admire those that inspire us to be better people. It is good to remember those great examples that have gone before us. That is a part of building up the Body of Christ.
And certainly many people cherish and honor that old pocket watch passed down from their grandfather, the string of pearls from their great-great aunt, or the book of hymns their mother sung from every morning when they were growing up.
Are they worshiping these things though?
Are we worshiping our heroes when we honor and respect them as they return home from war? Or when we place flowers and kneel at the grave of a loved one? Or when we light a candle in honor of something important to us? Or when we look to the sky and ask our deceased grandmother to help us out in a hard time? Or when we give someone an award or title to recognize their accomplishment?
Again, that depends on how you define the word “worship.”
The traditional Catholic understanding of worship would be more like: homage paid to God, to Jesus Christ, to His saints, to the beings or even to the objects which have a special relation to God (New Advent).
So in this sense, it’s not a bad thing when worship includes all of these other people and things. It’s a good thing. It’s a natural and human thing.
Some say, “but that’s idolatry!”
Not at all. It’s no more idolatry than cherishing your grandfather’s old pocket watch, admiring an uncle, or keeping a picture in your wallet of someone you care about.
There’s an important distinction that must be made, though. If we honor a watch simply because it is a watch, it’s ours, and it does things for us – that’s idolatry. When our end goal in life is to possess a huge house, nice car, and fashionable clothes – that’s idolatry.
But when we are thankful for these things because we see God’s hand in them, because they remind us of the love of someone special, because they build us up – that is worship. And it’s actually, indirectly, worship of God.
When we love our neighbor, we love God. When we respect and admire all things that are good, we respect and admire God. It is all a form of worship, but only because of their relation to God. That’s the key.
To further clarify this, Catholics differentiate between a few “levels” of worship.
There is supreme, sovereign worship and adoration of God alone. This is known as latria. If this is given to any creature or thing aside from God, it is idolatry. All other forms of worship serve this in some way.
Then there is worship that honors and venerates martyrs, angels, saints, and things associated with them. This is known as dulia. This is simply the honor and respect that we owe to those that have served God in great ways. Its purpose is to honor God by honoring what He’s done through His creation.
Further, because Mary is the first among the saints, playing a unique role in the history of salvation, the veneration and honoring of Mary is known as hyperdulia. This is to recognize her as above other saints, while she is still infinitely small next to God. But because God chose to use her in such a special way and she – full of Grace – responded, Catholics recognize that.
The key is to see it all for what it is and to not get caught up in the semantics and prejudices. All of these forms of worship bring honor to God when done appropriately. They are connected, just as creation is connected to its Creator. The real sin is in separating those things. And that happens at both extremes.
On one extreme you have those who worship creation alone without recognizing God’s part in it. And on the other extreme you have those that wish to worship God, but think they can separate that worship from the very Creation from within which they do so.
Shouldn’t we want to worship the creator in every way that we can? A big part of that is properly respecting and honoring His creation – especially where His grace has worked the most and served Him greatest.
Any admiration, honor, or devotion to any holy thing or person can point us to God ever more strongly. It is in the beauty of God’s creation that He reveals Himself to us so that we can worship him that much more intimately. His creation has been given the power to illuminate His Love and does so most intensely in his greatest creation, made in His own likeness – human beings. Mary does this above all other human beings.
And certainly if the angel Gabriel greets Mary, “Hail, full of grace,” (Luke 1:28) then we should recognize her with the same reverence and respect – call it worship or not.