A correspondent writes:
“I always thought it was clear Catholic Church teaching that worship is reserved for God. But now I’m having the terms latria, dulia, etc., thrown in my face and being told: ‘Hah! You Catholics worship Mary and not only that, you worship saints, too, you awful, terrible people, and you are all going to hell . . . yadda, yadda, yadda.’
I found that the original Catholic Encyclopedia states that we do worship Mary and the saints and also goes on to imply that we worship icons, statues, etc.
Could you please help me and others who are in desperate need of a method to explain Church teaching about these things?”
The basic problem is that the term “worship” has changed meaning in English. Originally, the term meant the state or condition (-ship) of having worth.
Originally, that’s all it meant: worship = worth + -ship. It meant the same as the contemporary English word “worthiness” (with its verb form meaning, “to acknowledge worth”). As such, the word could be applied in all sorts of ways, some of which survive today but are very rare.
For example, have you ever noticed in the Star Wars films that Han Solo refers to Princess Leia as “Your Worship” (much to her annoyance)? He’s not paying her divine honors. He’s employing an old British usage where certain mayors and judges and other public figures were (and still are) called “Your Worship.” He is thus needling her about the fact that she is a princess—a public official, a member of the royalty.
Here in America, we’ve replaced that usage with another one—“Your Honor”—but they mean exactly the same thing.
It’s helpful to know this since it shows that, despite how we normally use it today, the term “worship” doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with God or even religion.
Because of its original broad meaning in English, “worship” could be applied to the honor we show God, the honor we show the saints, the honor we show judges, the honor we show parents—all kinds of things.
But over time that changed, with the term being applied more narrowly until today it is applied only to the honor due to God, with a few archaic expressions like “Your Worship” for judges.
The original Catholic Encyclopedia, which was written a hundred years ago, reflects some of the old way of using the word. In twenty-first century America, though, using the word “worship” to refer to anything other than the honor due to God would be very confusing to a normal speaker of colloquial English.
Hence the confusion.
I thus wouldn’t get hung up about the word “worship.” What matters are the kinds of honor that are due to God, the saints, etc., which is where latria and dulia come in.
So that’s what I’ll write about next time.