I’ve often heard accusations against Roman Catholics of idolotry–even a subtle polytheism–because of the language that they often use of “praying to the saints.” It’s common to hear further allegations that Roman Catholics engage in “conjuring the dead,” an occult practice that is forbidden in the Scriptures.
In fact, Roman Catholics do not worship the saints, and are not engaged in occult practices. Rather, they ask the saints for their prayers, acknowledging the mystical union that binds all of God’s people, living and dead.
Theologically, this is rooted in the reality of the resurrection and unity of the church. Believers do not cease to exist when their earthly life is over. Instead they depart to the Lord (2 Cor. 5:8), and are very much alive and still part of the Church as they await their new, resurrection bodies. Roman Catholics look to Jesus’ words in Mark 12:26-27 (“He is not the God of the dead, but the living…”) as well as the appearance of Moses and Elijah to Jesus to further support the idea that departed Christians (saints) are in fact alive (Mark 9:4).
Although there is a degree of separation between the living and the dead, it is at least suggested in the Scriptures that this “veil” may be thinner than we think (Hebrews 12:1).
Roman Catholics believe that we may ask departed saints for prayers, just as we might ask a living friend or family member to pray for us. A Roman Catholic might ask, “If it is helpful for our living brothers and sisters to intercede for us, wouldn’t it also be just as helpful (if not more so) to ask for intercession from one who is already united with the Lord in a deeper way?”
Roman Catholic theologian Alan Schreck admits, “The Bible says very little about the intercession of the saints in heaven.”1 However, he points to images in the book of Revelation of departed Christians offering the prayers of those on earth to God as a sweet-smelling incense (Revelation 5:8). Roman Catholics also argue from early Church history that this has always been the understanding of the community of the faithful. They cite the writings of theological giants and church leaders like St. Jerome and St. Augustine, both of whom condoned prayer to the saints and spoke of it as a normal Christian practice.
Augustine simultaneously warned against worshiping the saints, seeing a clear difference between asking for intercession and offering saints the kind of worship reserved for God alone.
The Roman Catholic Church, no doubt, has seen much superstition and ungodly folk practice come from the abuse of this belief. However, Protestants are not immune from the corruption of even the most godly doctrines (think: the distortions of the doctrine of God’s provision in the Prosperity Gospel movement). Abuses of a doctrine or belief do not automatically relegate such thinking to the realm of the occult.
On the contrary, it becomes clear as we make the effort to understand the Roman Catholic point of view that official Roman Catholic doctrine has not left historic Christian orthodoxy on this secondary matter of faith.