One of my old college roommates responded by asking what to make of the objection that these sorts of prayers are idolatrous:
To summarize what I was taught/raised with, prayer to the saints is essentially idolatry or supplementing (or replacing) Christ with the deemed-appropriate saint.
Granted, I haven’t had or taken the time to check the scriptures you referred to regarding supplications and intercessions. Do you have a response to that objection to saints?
The best way to approach this question is to ask: why, specifically, might prayer to the Saints be idolatry?
First, because you’re “going to someone other than Christ.” After all, Christ is the “sole Mediator between God and man” (1 Timothy 2:5), so if you want ask for someone’s help, or want someone to intercede for you, you should just go to Him.
This argument relies on a Biblical distortion. Evangelical author Greg Koukl has written about how we should “never read a Bible verse.” His meaning is that Scripture has to be read in its proper context. It’s easy to take an isolated phrase out of context and distort its meaning, like saying that Scripture says that “there is no God” (cf. Psalm 14:1). There’s a similar (albeit less extreme) sort of distortion at play here. That famous “sole Mediator” line is taken from half a sentence in St. Paul’s first letter to Timothy. But in context, Paul is teaching in favor of intercessory prayer, not against it (1 Timothy 2:1-6) :
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all men, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way. This is good, and it is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as ransom for all, the testimony to which was borne at the proper time.
So Christ’s singular act of Mediation, par excellence, is the Cross. Paul doesn’t conclude from this that we shouldn’t pray and intercede for others, but that we should, since God desires that all men be saved. So it’s not wrong for me to pray for you. But is it wrong for you to ask me to pray for you? Clearly not. St. Paul does exactly that with the Roman Christians in Romans 15:30-32, writing,
I appeal to you, brethren, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to strive together with me in your prayers to God on my behalf, that I may be delivered from the unbelievers in Judea, and that my service for Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints, so that by God’s will I may come to you with joy and be refreshed in your company.
So if going to someone other than Christ for help is idolatry, then St. Paul is an idolater.
A second reason praying to the Saints might be idolatry is that we overdo it. For example, a decade of the Rosary contains ten Hail Marys and only one Our Father. So the problem isn’t that we’re going to Mary or the Saints, but that we’re going to them excessively.
This is an unbiblical scrupulosity. Taken seriously, you would have to count up the number of minutes you spent speaking to your spouse or spending time with your kids, and make sure that you were spending at least that much time in prayer to God… otherwise, you worship your spouse or kids! There’s a reason that nobody acts this way outside of the context of prayer to the Saints: it’s obviously wrong. You don’t limit how much you love your neighbor because you think that it might make God jealous. Obeying the second Great Commandment doesn’t threaten your fidelity to the first (see Matthew 22:36-40); instead, your love of neighbor flows from your love of God. So prayer to the Saints isn’t idolatry just because we’re going to someone other than God for help; nor is the fact that we might choose to do so often.
A third reason it might be idolatry is that it’s worship by definition. We’re “praying” to the Saints, and some definitions of prayer define it as worship. But the English word “prayer” has two other relevant meanings: to ask for something (e.g., “pray tell,” “we pray this Court for relief,” etc.), and to venerate someone. We pray to the Saints in the latter two of these senses, but in the first one. Here, an important distinction needs to be made:
In Roman Catholic faith and practice, God alone is the object of worship (latria). However, veneration (doulia) is given to saints who have “run the race”, “finished the course”, and have received “a crown of life”. It is also important to realize that no Catholic has an obligation jure divino of venerating either relics, icons, or saints. While this kind of devotion is not necessary for salvation, the Church recognizes the usefulness of such forms of devotion, recommends them to its members, and resists any condemnation or contempt of such practices (cf. Council of Trent, Session 25).
So Catholics and Protestants agree that worshiping the Saints is idolatry. But that doesn’t prove that venerating the Saints is. We see honor and veneration given to the Saints in Scripture: for example, the entirety of Hebrews 11, praising various Saints who came before us, and holding them up as encouragement that we might emulate them (Heb. 12:1-3).
Fourth, it might be worship because it seems to involve “contacting the spiritual world.” This would serve as an objection against praying either to angels or the Saints in glory. But it would also seem to require saying that the Incarnation was founded upon idolatry, since that began with the Virgin Mary’s conversation with the Angel Gabriel (Luke 1:26-38). Zechariah actually speaks to an angel while in the Holy of Holies (Luke 1:8-22), which would seem to leave him particularly vulnerable to the Protestant charge that this sort of prayer distracts from God.
John actually goes further, speaking both to angels (Revelation 10:9, etc.) and to one of the elders (Rev. 7:13-14) in Heaven. We’ve got the example of the man praying to Abraham in Luke 16:23-24, as well as the conversation in 2 Maccabees 15:12-16. Scripture paints all of these conversations positively, and as distinct from worship. We see this contrast most clearly in Revelation, when John is twice rebuked when he goes to worship at the feel of an angel (Rev. 19:10, 22:8-9). Speaking to creatures (including angels and elders) in Heaven isn’t wrong: worshipping them is.
In the past, when I’ve made these kinds of responses to this argument, I’ve encountered two curious objections. The first is that the people in these examples can see the angels or Saints to whom they’re praying. That detail is irrelevant. When Abraham went to sacrifice Isaac, “the LORD’S messenger called to him from heaven,” and Abraham responded (Genesis 22:11). In any case, why would being able to see the person to whom you’re praying make it less like idolatry? After all, “the idols of the nation are silver and gold, the work of men’s hands. They have mouths, but they speak not, they have eyes, but they see not, they have ears, but they hear not, nor is there any breath in their mouths. Like them be those who make them! – yea, every one who trust in them!” (Psalm 135:15-17).
The other objection to this point is that, in each of the cases mentioned above, the angel or Saint initiates contact. But again, how is this detail relevant, and where does this logic lead? If Gabriel speaks to Mary, that’s okay, but if she speaks to him first, she’s an idolater? Where is this “you can’t speak to angels/Saints unless first spoken to” rule coming from, exactly? It’s neither logically nor Scripturally sound. In fact, it’s contradicted in at least two of the cases mentioned: the rich man initiates the contact with Abraham (Luke 16:23-24), as does John with one of the angels (Revelation 10:9).
These are the biggest reasons that I know of for why praying to the Saints might be idolatry. As you can see, none of them hold up. Scripture shows us that it’s okay to go to other people for help, Hebrews 11 venerates the Saints, and several places in Scripture show that speaking to the heavenly Saints and angels is okay, and not the same as worship or idolatry. But perhaps you’re still uncertain about praying in this way. Let me offer two counter-points that might help to bring you around.
Counter-Point 1: Scripture Praises Prayer to Mary
This is a point that I’ve made before, but it bears repeating. The Holy Spirit is outside of time, and knows all of history perfectly. This means that He knew that for centuries, everyone from popes and kings to the lowest peasants would venerate Mary and entrust themselves to her prayer and protection. He knew that they would write hymns praising her for her purity and faithfulness, and that the greetings offered by the angel Gabriel and by Elizabeth would be turned into a prayer on lips throughout Christendom throughout history.
And what does He do about this? What does He have to say about all of this future prayer and veneration? Does He inspire Mary (or any of the Apostles, or anyone in Scripture) to warn future generations against honoring Mary too much? Quite the opposite. Instead, Mary foretells and praises the veneration that future generations will pay to her (Luke 1:46-49):
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden. For behold, henceforth, all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
Protestants tend to want to interpret this in a cautious, minimalist manner, but that’s just not how most generations of Christians honored Mary. And that matters, since Mary affirms the praise given her by “all generations,” not just the carefully limited honor paid her by generations of Protestants after the Reformation. And instead of saying that Marian veneration threatens God’s holiness, she says that it’s on account of the Holiness of His Name and the great things He has done for her that this veneration occurs in the first place. Honoring Mary honors the God who blessed her beyond all women.
When it comes to Marian veneration, Protestantism wants to give us a red (or at least a yellow) light where the Holy Spirit has already given us a green light. That doesn’t mean that you’re obliged to pray to Mary or the Saints, but it means that you’re free to: “For freedom Christ set us free; so stand firm and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1).
Counter-Point 2: Praying to the Saints is the Opposite of Idolatry
Finally, it’s not just that praying to the Saints isn’t idolatry. It’s that it’s the opposite of idolatry.
That’s because all idolatry is premised upon the belief that God isn’t enough. You don’t give God everything, and you don’t trust Him completely, because you still think that something else is necessary for your happiness. That’s why one of the chief Scriptural arguments against idolatry is that it’s ineffective. The prophet Samuel warns the people, “you must not turn from the LORD, but must worship him with your whole heart. Do not turn to meaningless idols which can neither profit nor save; they are nothing.” (1 Samuel 12:20-21) You turn away from God to try to get God plus, and end up with nothing.
This is also why Scripture speaks of covetousness and greed as idolatry. In his letter to the Colossians, Paul admonishes, “put to death therefore what is earth in you: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (Col. 3:5). Christ likewise speaks of greed as a form of idolatry (Matthew 6:24): “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.” Don’t write these off as mere figures of speech: greed really is a form of idolatry. You’re not getting on your knees and offering sacrifice to it: you’re just treating it like another Good besides God. And in both cases, you’re saying the same thing to God. Whether you’re worshiping Baal, or accumulating enough money to live a “worry-free” life, you’re telling God that He is too weak or too unloving to satisfy you, and so you have to turn elsewhere. So at the heart of idolatry is an idea of God’s impotence or inadequacy.
Contrast this with prayer to the Saints. When we ask Mary or the Saints or the angels to pray for us, we’re not saying, “God is too powerless to answer my prayers on His own, can you help?” Quite the opposite. If God were impotent, the prayers of Mary, the Saints and the angels would be worthless. So prayer to the Saints is built on the belief that God is mighty to save. It’s a total rejection of the idolatrous claims about God’s insufficiency. This is why it’s such a delight when atheists and agnostics ask us to pray for them: because just in coming to us, they’re confessing something (or at least the possibility of something) about God. So it is when we go to the Saints and ask them to pray for us: undergirding the whole thing is a confession of God’s sovereignty.
Idolatry relies upon the idea that God is impotent, or at least not powerful or loving enough. Prayer to the Saints relies upon the idea that God is sovereign, and powerful or loving enough to answer the prayers we’re asking the Saints to make for us. So the logic of prayer to the Saints and the logic of idolatry are diametrically opposed. That’s why we don’t need to worry about the one turning into another, and more than we need to worry about miracles (which work through God) devolving into magic (which seeks to work around Him). They might look similar on the surface, but they’re actually opposites.
The idea that veneration of the Saints is idolatry is built upon a series of weak arguments, none of which survive serious examination. Veneration and worship aren’t the same thing, and they’re treated quite differently in Scripture. Moreover, the Bible gives us examples of people going to others with their problems, of the just interceding on behalf of others, and of people speaking to angels and at least one elder in Heaven. Finally, Scripture encourages Marian veneration, and prayer to the Saints is the opposite of idolatry.
There is one remaining hurdle: gut feeling. For many Protestants and former Protestants, praying to the Saints just feels wrong. It’s a feeling that cuts deeper than rational argument, and their conscience just isn’t at peace with the idea. Here, mutual respect and love are called for. In the early Church, converts from Judaism couldn’t bring themselves to eat meat sacrificed to idols. Even if they logically knew it wasn’t idolatry, it still felt wrong. Paul’s reaction (in Romans 14-15 and elsewhere) was to call both sides to stop judging each other. He acknowledged that everything had been made clean, but still called upon the Gentiles to respect the scruples of their Jewish brethren; likewise, the Jews couldn’t force their scruples upon the Gentiles (Rom. 14:2-4). All were entreated to follow their conscience, since violating conscience is a sin (Rom. 14:5, 14, 23).
We would do well to follow that model. Praying to Mary and the Saints is Biblically sound, and spiritually beneficial, but it’s not obligatory. If someone’s conscience won’t allow them to do so, be gentle and generous with them. Protestants, don’t force your scruples on your Catholic brethren. Catholics, don’t needlessly scandalize your Protestant brethren. Love one another.