Catholic Theology (Part 5): On the “communion of saints” . . . or . . . Why Do Catholics Pray for the Dead?

…I believe in the holy catholic Church,
The communion of saints,
The forgiveness of sins,
The resurrection of the body,
And the life everlasting.
-Apostles Creed

In my most recent post I explored Catholic teaching about the “life everlasting,” including the doctrines of heaven, Purgatory, hell, and the final judgment. The doctrine of Purgatory, so foreign to Protestants, is wedded with another unfamiliar doctrine: the communion of saints. I grew up saying the Apostles Creed every Sunday, and I always thought “communion of saints” referred to fellowship among believers. And so it does, but the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC)specifies a wider frame of reference.

Graphics Courtesy of http://www.catholicgraphics.us

At the most basic level, “the communion of saints is the Church” (CCC §946). The Church shares a number of things in common, both physically and spiritually. First, “the riches of Christ are communicated to all the members, through the sacraments” (§947). Second, all that belongs to the Church belongs to the whole church (§947). As the Eastern Orthodox Church says before partaking in communion, “sancta santis,” or “God’s holy gifts for God’s holy people” (§948; cf. 950, 960). This is a beautiful expression of the biblical truth that Christ’s holy gift of himself is intended to make us holy.

Protestants agree that “Faith is a treasure of life which is enriched by being shared” (§949; cf. 961). This is part of what is meant by the “communion of saints.” We also join with Catholics in affirming that the gifts of the Spirit are given for mutual edification (§951). True communion involves sharing our possessions with the needy (§952) in love (§953).

However, when Catholics talk about the “communion of saints,” their view of the Church is much wider than the “church universal” (spread geographically) or the “church through the ages” (spread chronologically). They have in mind the church in three dimensions, or states. TheCCC explains, “at the present time some of his disciples are pilgrims on earth. Others have died and are being purified, while still others are in glory” (§954, emphasis mine; cf. 962). We, then, are unified with these believers who are already in heaven, or who live in Purgatory awaiting entrance to heaven because we are all incorporated into Christ (§955). According to theCCC, we should not merely learn from their examples, but commune through prayer, and in that way draw closer to Christ (§957). Those already in heaven “intercede with the Father for us” (§956). “We can and should ask them to intercede for us and for the whole world” (§2683) because their prayers benefit us (§1475). We, in turn, pray for those in Purgatory “that they may be loosed from their sins,” and may go on to heaven and pray for us (§958). Together with saints dead and alive, we praise God (§959).

As I explained yesterday, the doctrine of Purgatory is connected with the practice of praying for the dead (which in turn is based on a passage in the Apocryphal book of Maccabees). The doctrine of the “communion of saints” in Catholic thinking in turn prompts prayer for fellow believers who are on their way to heaven (cf. §1032; see 2 Macc 12:44–45).  Baruch 3:4 also hints at this, mentioning “the prayer of the dead of Israel.” The CCC explains, “By virtue of the ‘communion of saints,’ the Church commends the dead to God’s mercy and offers her prayers, especially the holy sacrifice of the Eucharist, on their behalf” (§1055; cf. 1371, 1689).

Though these teachings are most clear in the Apocrypha, we can find hints of in the Scriptures accepted by Protestants. First Peter 3:18–20 speaks of Jesus preaching to the disobedient dead before his resurrection. This implies that there is a place other than heaven or hell where dead people await their final destiny. Hebrews 12:1 pictures the saints who have died as “so great a cloud of witnesses” who are watching us live out our faith. From this passage we get a glimpse of some type of communion with them, a mutual edification.

“Communion of Saints” from http://www.catfoundations.org

Protestants, I suspect, are nervous about the Catholic understanding of the “communion of saints” for three reasons (1) the Bible clearly condemns communication with the dead (e.g. King Saul and the witch of Endor – 1 Sam 28:6–21), and (2) Protestants are reluctant to exalt any human being in such a way that the perfect work of Christ is eclipsed. He is our only good, and the one source of our righteousness. Since “all have sinned,” even those who have done great things for the kingdom of God are unworthy of our veneration. All glory belongs to Christ alone. (3) A third reason is that Jesus Christ is the only mediator we need: “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1Tim 2:5 RSV).

In fairness to Catholics, they are not seeking knowledge from dead saints the way Saul was with the deceased Samuel. While Saul was engaged in necromancy (magic) outside of God’s revealed will, prayers for the saints are “in Christ.” The reality of the resurrection changes what is possible. Catholics exalt no one above Christ. Their honoring of the saints is precisely because of God’swork in and through them. And they do not view the saints as mediating for us outside of Christ, but instead as sharing in his work of mediation as part of the royal priesthood. Still, the practice of praying to saints comes uncomfortably close to these aberrations and runs the risk of misunderstanding at a popular level. It’s no wonder Protestants want to leave a wide margin.

In short: At the core of Catholic teaching on the Church is the idea that we commune with all believers, those in heaven, waiting to enter heaven, or alive on earth (none of them are really “dead” the way the condemned are dead). The idea of prayer for the “dead” is most clearly seen in the Apocrypha, which Protestants do not accept as Scripture. The uncertainness of the idea of prayer for the “dead,” combined with the thin witness of Scripture about life between death and final judgment, make communion with the “dead” a matter about which Protestants will continue to feel uneasy. Some of this uneasiness may be unfounded, as I hope this post has shown. Orthodox Catholic teaching preserves the absolute uniqueness of Christ and his saving work on our behalf.

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About Carmen Imes

I entered Wheaton's doctoral program in 2011 with an Old Testament concentration under Dr. Daniel Block. I have an MA in Biblical Studies from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (Charlotte campus), and a BA from Multnomah University in Portland, Oregon. My husband, Danny, and I are missionaries with SIM and we have 3 great kids: Eliana, Emma, and Easton. You can find my personal blog at www.seminarymom.blogspot.com. I'm passionate about the Word of God, both written and incarnate, and I long to see our generation transformed so that we can truly know God and reflect Him to the world.
This entry was posted in Quotes, Reflections, Systematic Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Catholic Theology (Part 5): On the “communion of saints” . . . or . . . Why Do Catholics Pray for the Dead?

  1. Peter Green says:

    These have been great summaries–thanks, Carmen. For what it’s worth, I always thought of communion of the saints to include both communion with those alive (the Church militant) and with those dead (the Church triumphant), partly on the basis of Hebrews 12. This I was taught in my Reformed church.

    That being said, I do think the prayers to the (dead) saints runs afoul of the OT prohibitions against communicating with the dead, most vividly portrayed in the account of the Witch of Endor, which you note. I think it might be a mistake to so limit the application of those prohibitions to attempts to acquire knowledge, as was the case with Saul. After all, praying to the saints, or praying to God on behalf of those in purgatory is an attempt to affect reality across the chasm of death. And I know that RCs will argue that the saints are “alive in Christ,” which brings about a new state of affairs and therefore new possibilities, but I disagree. For one, Jesus talks about Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob being “alive” in some sense, and yet any attempts to communicate with them would have been punishable by death in the OT. Those who have left the physical world and been sundered from their bodies are not to be communicated with by those who remain in the body.

    NT Wright has written an excellent, short book on the question of purgatory and prayers for the dead. He is eminently fair, but stands on his convictions contra RC doctrine.

    For All the Saints by NT Wright

  2. Carmen Imes says:

    Peter,

    Thanks for these thoughts! I’m glad to see that NT Wright has engaged this issue. I’d love to read what he has to say.

    I was encouraged to learn that Catholics do not think that prayers for the dead affect someone’s ultimate destiny, only the speed at which they get there. You cannot pray someone from hell to heaven after they die, but you can pray for the purification of someone awaiting entrance into heaven in purgatory.

    I don’t see any room in Catholic Theology for the dead to actually communicate with the living. They may (in Catholic thinking) pray to God on our behalf, but they don’t tell us anything. This separates it from necromancy. However, as I said in the post, it still comes uncomfortably close, and I’m not at all ready to embrace it.

    I suspect that many times we reject what is unfamiliar, simply because its unfamiliar. Taking this class helped me to take a closer look at some unfamiliar doctrines to see if – when seen from someone inside the Catholic faith – they would still be objectionable to Protestants. The “ick” factor can blind us to appreciating other points of view. I can now appreciate how a Catholic “gets here” from Scripture, though I’m not ready to walk the same path. I’ll check out Wright’s book.

    Thanks again!

    Carmen

  3. Peter Green says:

    Carmen, I agree that what Protestants normally think RCs mean be “communion of the saints” is wrong, and so it is helpful to properly understand their beliefs. I don’t think I made myself as clear as I ought to have, though. What I meant in my first comment is that, even understanding properly what RCs mean about communion of the saints, I still think it runs afoul of the OT prohibitions. I do not think that the OT prohibition was only against acquiring knowledge, which you note is not what the RCs are trying to do. Rather, I think any attempt to affect one reality from the other reality is prohibited. For instance, RCs who pray for those in purgatory are trying to affect something in that realm, namely, to shorten their time in purgatory. Likewise, when they pray to the dead saints they are trying to get those saints to affect our reality (albeit through God by prayer). In other words, knowledge acquisition is prohibited but it is not the only thing that is prohibited. To use an unfair analogy (but it’s the only one I can think of), voodoo dolls have nothing to do with acquiring knowledge, but involve trying to affect the interaction between two realms (the spiritual and the physical).

    I should note, though, that even though I do consider praying to or on behalf of the saints to be forbidden, I don’t think this makes the RCC “apostate” as some would argue. As Calvin said, we are all idol factories with our own grievous sins, and I no less than others.

  4. Carmen Imes says:

    Peter, thanks for clarifying. I’m no expert on necromancy. I guess one’s assessment of whether or not Catholics are guilty of it would depend on how the word is defined in the first place. It would be good to do a thorough study of what the OT says about communication with the dead and come up with a definition that way. You may well be right!

    Thanks for the interaction.
    Blessings!

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