On Cults and Man Worship, Some Fighting Words

In “Christology for Joe,” an article that answers questions from a thoughtful young man, I made some observations about the way the English language has been Protestantized. In this number of the Ad Rem, I excerpt from that article the part explaining the words used to distinguish the “cult” of the Blessed Virgin and the saints from the “cult” of the Blessed Trinity. This knowledge may prove useful in helping readers to think through, and deal with, certain objections that come to our religion from its critics.

The Germanic language known as English — from the Angles, the Germanic tribe that invaded Celtic Britain — developed substantially under Catholic influence. St. Augustine’s missionary monks were in England in the early seventh century, introducing many Latinisms into the developing language of the British Isles. The Norman invasion in 1066 enriched its vocabulary by the introduction of many French words, and gave it another Catholic influence. Until the Anglican Schism of the sixteenth century, England was a major part of the Catholic world, and its humane letters had a place of dignity in the literature of Christendom. Chaucer was a Catholic; the Arthurian Legends were Catholic; Shakespeare was possibly Catholic himself, and if not, certainly did not “Protestantize” the language. In short, our vocabulary grew and our literature developed while Merry old England was still Mary’s Dowry. Words like lord, lady, worship, adore, and pray had meanings and connotations more deeply rooted in the Catholic culture of England.

But Protestants — not so much Anglicans as Calvinist Puritans — gradually altered the usage of these words, if not by direct effort, then by simple use.

In these United States (whose early colonists included many Puritans), there was a direct effort to divorce our language from the Mother Tongue. It was the continuation, you might say, of the War for Independence. (Noah Webster compiled his dictionary largely for this politico-ideological purpose.) American English, especially of Noah Webster’s New England variety, was more “democratic” and less “monarchical” a language; and even the aristocrats (lords and ladies) took a beating in the developing language of our Republic. Because of all this, concepts of hierarchy — Catholic concepts — were downplayed. Eventually, a bishop or magistrate was no longer “my Lord”; one did not “pray” to a judge (”prithee, milord!”); and nobody was “your worship” except God Himself. All this had the net effect of abstracting a purely religious use, sanitized of Catholic concepts, for certain words. True, some holdovers still exist in the language, as when we call a property owner who rents to us a “landlord,” or when we read older versions of Scripture, but there is a prevalent Calvinism in much of our language that serves to prejudice the American ear in religious matters. (Orestes Brownson’s provocatively entitled “Mary Worship” and “Saint Worship” may have been so named to challenge this prejudice.)

All the foregoing is background to establish that, to our Catholic (and even Anglican) English-speaking forebears, to “pray” to someone other than God, to “worship” a man, and to call upon those in the ecclesiastical and even the civic hierarchy as “lord” did not smell in the slightest of brimstone. Today, however, we have the burden of explaining to a people whose common tongue has been religiously deconstructed what these things mean.

Catholic devotion to Our Lady and the Saints never put creatures on a par with the creator. This is amply proven in numerous works of an apologetical nature (see, for instance, my own “Praying to the Saints,” under the heading “Confirmed by Tradition”). Those who claim that we Catholics give saints the same worship we give to God have the burden of proving it from Catholic sources. The total absence of a smoking gun belies the falsity of their assertions.

There exists in the Catholic theological lexicon the following fourfold distinction:

Latria (cultus latriae) — We usually call this, in English, “adoration.” This is the worship given exclusively to the Blessed Trinity. It comes from a Greek word that the Latins liked so much they imported it. When we say cultus latriae, we are saying that to God is due the “cult of latria [or “of adoration”].” The word cultus has at least three meanings: “to till or cultivate; to protect or nurture; and (in an applied sense) to worship or honor.” From it, we get the words “cultivate,” “agriculture,” “horticulture,” etc. From it also, we get the word “cult,” as in religious veneration. At Dictionary.com, one can see the different meanings of the word “cult.” This proper religious use of the word is the first listed meaning, while the popular meaning of the word is No. 6. (Knee-jerk reactions to the word “cult” — “Ah! So, you Catholics admit you’re a cult!” — would provide yet more examples of the linguistic bias I wrote of earlier.)

Dulia (cultus duliae) — Coming from the Greek word for “servant” or “slave,” this category denotes the veneration shown to the saints, God’s “servants.” In this distinction, one can see that there is a difference between the reverence shown to God and that shown to God’s slave. The honor shown to a master (in this case, the Master of all) is obviously greater than the honor shown to a slave. Clearly, the old social convention of servitude serves as the point of reference for this distinction, just as it was employed by St. Paul to illustrate other concepts in Scripture.

Hyperdulia (cultus hyperduliae) — Because the Blessed Virgin Mary is a saint, she receives the genus of veneration we call “dulia.” However, because she is over all the saints, she is given the highest species of that devotion. So, we unite hyper, the Greek word for “over,” (its Latin equivalent is super) to dulia. The Mother of God receives the highest degree of reverence of any mere creature (excepting, that is, Christ’s sacred Humanity, which is a creature; more on that in a bit).

Protodulia (cultus protoduliae) — A further distinction of some authors employs the Greek word for “first,” prôtos. This is the devotion given to St. Joseph, who is revered “first” among the saints. (But Mary is honored “over” him!)

(A more detailed explanation of the division of latria and dulia can be found in my “On Worshiping Mary and the Saints.”)