Many Protestant Christians believe that Catholic devotion to Mary eclipses Jesus, or involves improper worship of a human creature. In this short article, Dr. Miravalle, whose wife Beth is a convert to the Catholic Church, explains a proper view of Catholic devotion to Mary.
We begin our inquiry into the person and role of Mary, Mother of Jesus, by addressing a most fundamental question: what is devotion to Mary?
To answer this question we must first make a basic distinction. Adoration, which is known as latria in classical theology, is the worship and homage that is rightly offered to God alone. It is the acknowledgement of excellence and perfection of an uncreated, divine person. It is the worship of the Creator that God alone deserves.
Veneration, known as dulia in classical theology, is the honor due to the excellence of a created person. This refers to the excellence exhibited by the created being who likewise deserves recognition and honor. We see a general example of veneration in events like the awarding of academic awards for excellence in school, or the awarding of the Olympic medals for excellence in sports. There is nothing contrary to the proper adoration of God when we offer the appropriate honor and recognition that created persons deserve based on achievement in excellence.1
Here a further clarification should be made regarding the use of the term “worship” in relation to the categories of adoration and veneration. Some schools of theology use the term “worship” to introduce both adoration and veneration. They would distinguish between “worship of adoration” and “worship of veneration.” The word “worship” (in the same way the theological term “cult” is traditionally used) in these classical definitions was not at all synonymous with adoration, but could be used to introduce either adoration or veneration. Hence Catholic writers will sometimes use the term “worship” not to indicate adoration, but only the worship of veneration given to Mary and the saints. Confusion over the use of the term “worship” has led to the misunderstanding by some that Catholics offer adoration to Mary in a type of “Mariolatry,” or Marian idolatry. But worship in the form of adoration of Mary has never been and will never be part of authentic Catholic doctrine and devotional life.
Under the category of veneration we see the honor and reverence that the saints rightly receive. Why? Because the saints manifested a true excellence in the pursuit and the attainment of Christian holiness, and in light of this excellence, Our Lord grants the saints in Heaven an ability to intercede for those on earth who are in the process of pursuing the same holiness. This is a basic principle of the mystical body of Christ and the communion of saints.
Thomas Aquinas points out a further truth regarding veneration of the saints. The devotion a person has to God’s saints does not end with the saints themselves, but rather reaches ultimately to God through the saints. This is an important element in properly understanding authentic Catholic devotion to the saints. To give honor to the saint who has excelled in loving union with God is also to honor the object of his loving union: God Himself.
For example, if you offered special hospitality to the children of your long-time friends, then ultimately you are offering a sign of love to your long-time friends themselves. This is analogous to the veneration of saints. When we honor those who spent their life pursuing intimate union with God, we are also ultimately honoring God who is the object of their love.
In short, we can say it is pleasing to God and, ultimately, it gives Him glory when we honor those who excelled in love of Him. This is true about honoring the Mother of Jesus because of her special role in union with the Lord.
Within the general category of veneration we can speak of a unique level of veneration, an exalted level of honor that would be appropriate for honoring a created person whose excellence rises above that of every other created person. It is in this special level of veneration, classically called hyperdulia, that we find the proper devotion ascribed to the Virgin Mary.
Hyperdulia, or special veneration of Mary, remains completely different and inferior to adoration that is due to God alone. Devotion to Mary is never to rival in nature or in degree the adoration proper only to God. While veneration of the Blessed Virgin will always be inferior to the adoration given uniquely to God, it will always be superior and higher than devotion given to all other saints and angels.
This distinction between adoration and veneration, and the unique veneration due to Mary, is discussed clearly in the following quote from the Second Vatican Council document, Lumen Gentium (66):
This [veneration of Mary], as it has always existed in the Church, for all its uniqueness, differs essentially from the [worship] of adoration, which is offered equally to the Incarnate Word and to the Father and to the Holy Spirit, and it is most favorable to it. The various forms of piety towards the Mother of God, which the Church has approved within the limits of sound and orthodox doctrine, according to the dispositions and understanding of the faithful, ensure that while the mother is honored, the Son— through whom all things have their being (cf. Col 1:15-16) and in whom it has pleased the Father that all fullness should dwell (cf. Col 1:19)—is rightly known, loved, and glorified, and his commandments are observed.
From Introduction to Mary: The Heart of Marian Doctrine and Devotion”.
1 For distinction of latria, dulia, and hyperdulia, cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II-II, Q 84, a. 1; Q 304, a. 1-4.