Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
A reader writes:
I entered the Church last month, so I've already done plenty of personal study on the subjects of latria and dulia. I'm well acquainted with their *theoretical* differences. What I'm interested in now is their *practical* differences. How, in practice, do I venerate a saint or image without crossing over into adoration, and how do I actually go about adoring God, in Heaven or the Sacrament, in a way that is unique from veneration? I have the nagging suspicion that these are stupid questions with common-sense answers, but I thought I'd ask all the same. Thanks for clearing up the waters!
In most cases, there will be no practical difference in the sense of a difference between bodily actions, just as there is no difference between the bodily action of kissing your wife as you head off for work and kissing your mom or your daughter. The outward gestures are identical, but the interior relationship with each person is radically different. All are relationships we call "love", but each kind of love is radically different from the others and would be utterly wrong and even evil if accorded anyone other than the proper object of that love.
We have, in fact, a fairly limited range of bodily gestures open to us with which to offer veneration/adoration. So quite often, the same gestures will be used to communicate ether and what makes the difference is not the gesture itself, but the intention behind it (often known only to God and the worshipper) and/or the particular social and cultural context. So a man kneeling before a woman to propose is understood to mean something very different from a man kneeling before the Blessed Sacrament to adore. Indeed, even the word "adore" is used in varying contexts so that when the lover tells his beloved he "adores" her he does not mean what the Church means when she says, in the Gloria, "we adore you" to God. An "adorable" baby is not mistaken for God and those who call a baby adorable are not committing idolatry.
Similarly, prostration can be directed to God in adoration, or it can be directed to the Cross on Good Friday. Bowing and genuflection can also be directed at God or creatures depending on the context. And, as Judas shows, a kiss can mean both reverence or betrayal. Bottom line, the gestures of adoration and veneration are highly dependent on what we mean by them. This is why it is such colossal waste of time, as you know, for people to accuse Catholics of "worshiping statues" merely because they bow to them as a token of honor to the saint. Until you ask the Catholic what he means by the gesture there is no point at all in telling him what he means.