Mormons and Catholics: What It Means to be a “Saint”
By Alonzo L. Gaskill
There is sometimes a great deal of misunderstanding about the Roman Catholic position on saints and their role within the Church and salvation. Some of those misunderstandings have arisen because popular practice and the Church’s official position have not always been the same. While some might assume that Catholics both pray to and worship deceased Christians (whom they refer to as saints), context is important for understanding what certain acts of piety mean, and what the Catholic Church officially teaches on this matter.
It is true that around the fifth century the Catholic Church encouraged the veneration of relics among new converts to help them “solidify their faith.” 1 This probably did more harm than good, as it encouraged a practice the Church would later have to fight in order to end. For example, as early as the end of the eighth century, the Church found itself in a constant battle to keep its members from placing saints, angels, and the Virgin Mary above Christ in their acts of veneration, honor, and worship. The Second Council of Nicaea (AD 787) stressed that Jesus is the only one “worthy” of “worship and adoration.” 2 By the late Middle Ages, petitioning saints for help became somewhat popular as the Church taught that they dwelt in heaven in close proximity to God, thus having direct access to him. Thus began the Catholic practice of appealing to saints in an effort to convince God to heed a specific request. 3 In an effort to correct potentially skewed understandings of the role of saints within the Church, during the Second Vatican Council the Church shifted the emphasis from “the saints as miracle workers to the saints as models.” 4 Of course, old traditions die slowly. However, the Roman Catholic Church’s position has been, and remains to this day, that saints’ lives are simply examples to us that holiness is an achievable goal for any Christian who seeks it. 5 Thus, saints are not to be worshiped, but rather emulated in their examples, achievements, and particularly in their devotion to God. But what of prayer to saints? Certainly that happens within the Church. Of this practice, one Catholic author wrote:
We ask fellow Christians on earth to pray for us, why shouldn’t we ask those who are in heaven to pray for us, too? The “Hail Mary” is our way of asking Mary to pray with us as a senior prayer partner. You mustn’t imagine that we are praying to Mary and the saints instead of God. We are asking them to pray for us, and with us as prayer partners. If you had a prayer partner named Richard and you sent him an email asking him to pray for your father who has had an operation, we wouldn’t say you are praying to Richard instead of to God. . . . Asking saints in heaven to help was part of the ancient Hebrew tradition. The parable of Lazarus and the rich man indicates that Jesus accepted the idea that people in heaven could intercede for those on earth (Luke 16:22-28). 6
The idea that Catholics are not really praying to saints, but rather asking that they pray with them, is a commonly held view in Roman Catholic writings. 7 They are simply “invoking” or “calling upon” them for help. In support of this, notice the language of the popular Catholic prayer-the “Hail Mary”-which states, “Holy Mary . . . pray for us sinners.” Clearly Mary is being asked to add her prayers to ours. However, she is not being “prayed to” in the sense that one would pray to God.
According to Catholic thought, one should not worship or give adoration to anyone or anything other than God. However, the saints and angels deserve our respect and veneration for who they are and how they lived their lives. But respect and veneration is decidedly different than worship. 8 So, while Catholics might speak of “patron saints” as guardian angels, of sorts, technically they are simply righteous individuals now dwelling in the presence of God who deserve our respect or veneration 9 because of the way they lived. They are seen as having the power to “bend God’s ear” on our behalf because they have been exalted and now dwell in his presence. In that context, they may act as special protectors or intercessors. 10 But Catholics do not perceive themselves as “praying” to these saints-nor do they believe that answered prayers, miracles, or forgiveness of sins comes from saints. Rather, they come from God, although a saint may have interceded to help secure this blessing for the mortal requesting it. 11 As the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) taught, “it is fitting to love the saints who are our brothers and sisters in Christ,” but any devotion directed to them “is ultimately directed toward God.” 12
While Latter-day Saints do not request intercession of deceased individuals, we certainly do look to certain figures from our past as exemplars whom we venerate. President Brigham Young once noted:
Many . . . of the first Elders of the Church, were looked upon almost as angels. They were looked upon by the young members as being so filled with the Spirit and power of God that we were hardly worthy to converse with them. You hear the names of Bishop Partridge, of Brother W. W. Phelps, who is now sitting on this stand, of Parley P. Pratt, of David Whitmer, of Oliver Cowdery, and the names of many others of the first Elders who had been up to Zion, and I declare to you that brethren in other parts of the land, those who had not seen the persons named, felt that should they come into their presence they would have to pull off their shoes, as the ground would be so holy upon which they trod. 13
President Young was correct in his assessment of how Latter-day Saints tend to view some of the early leaders of the Church and even the famed Mormon pioneers. Indeed, a primary example would be the Prophet Joseph Smith, who is, to a great extent, the LDS version of a “patron saint.” Most practicing Mormons hold him in very high regard. Like Catholics with their saints, Mormons would certainly argue that we do not pray to Joseph Smith, nor do we expect miracles at his hands. 14 However, certain successors of Joseph Smith have taught that he does play an intercessory role akin to that of Catholic saints. For example, President Brigham Young stated, “No man or woman in this dispensation will ever enter into the celestial kingdom of God without the consent of Joseph Smith.” 15 Why is that the case? According to President Young, it is because Joseph Smith holds the “keys” over this last dispensation. Thus, he must intercede on behalf of those living in the dispensation of the fullness of times. They must accept the work of the restoration he was sent by the Father to establish. As they do so, his keys are utilized on their behalf. He is not to be worshiped or prayed to. But, from an LDS position, veneration is owed him for all he has done. As President John Taylor noted about the LDS understanding of Joseph Smith’s work as an intercessor: “Joseph Smith, the Prophet and Seer of the Lord, has done more, save Jesus only, for the salvation of men in this world, than any other man that ever lived in it” (D&C 135:3). Thus, Latter-day Saints do see the Prophet Joseph as having a role in helping you and I lay hold on God and salvation via the works Joseph performed and the things he restored.
In addition, a number of the Brethren have taught that there are angels who intercede, protect, or provide in the lives of the Saints, sometimes in response to prayers, and sometimes simply because intercession is desperately needed. Latter-day Saints acknowledge that other deceased disciples are used by the Father to meet the needs of His children upon the earth. 16 For example, Moroni came in answer to Joseph’s prayer (JS-H 1:29-30); Gabriel (or Noah) came in response to Zacharias’s prayers (Luke 1:13); an angel who was not a member of the Godhead came to John the Revelator, speaking by “divine investiture of authority” on behalf of the Lord (Revelation 19:10). Many other examples could be given. Latter-day Saints, like Catholics, believe that the members of the Godhead are not the only ones to interact with mankind. Stories in Mormonism of the deceased petitioning the living, particularly as it relates to the performance of temple ordinances, are legion. 17 And in LDS belief many an angel has been sent from the Father to address the needs of mankind, to intercede, or to do the Father’s will. President Joseph F. Smith taught:
Joseph, the prophet, and . . . the martyrs of this dispensation . . . are carefully guarding the interests of the kingdom of God in which they labored and for which they strove during their mortal lives. . . . We are closely related to our kindred, to our ancestors, to our friends and associates and co – laborers who have preceded us into the spirit world. . . . Those who have been faithful, who have gone beyond, are still engaged in the work for the salvation of the souls of men, in the opening of the prison doors to them that are bound and proclaiming liberty to the captives. . . . They see us, they are solicitous for our welfare, they love us now more than ever. 18
An additional parallel between Catholic Saints and LDS belief is to be found in the fact that Mormons see the various angels of the restoration as having specific, divinely assigned roles or parameters to their authority and intercession. For example, John the Baptist held and restored the keys of the ministry of angels. Elijah restored the keys requisite for family history work, thereby turning the hearts of fathers to children and the children to their fathers. Adam held and restored keys associated with temple ordinances, particularly the endowment. 19 Many other examples could be given. 20 The basic point is that Latter-day Saints see angels as having specific “job descriptions.” They have areas over which they hold responsibility, and for which they have a right to intervene and interact with mankind. This is very similar to Catholic Saints, who function as patrons or intercessors for specific groups of people or for specific needs. 21
When it comes to “saints,” Catholics and Mormons are very similar. The direction of the petition may not always be the same (i.e., Mormons hold that sometimes mortals intercede on behalf of the dead, and sometimes they intercede on our behalf-D&C 128:15, 18). Nevertheless, the idea of intercessors outside of the Trinity or Godhead helping save those who cannot help themselves is commonly held by both faiths.
Latter-day Saints and Catholics alike are instructed by their respective faiths to pray only to God. For Mormons that means directing one’s prayers to the Father. For Catholics that means praying to the Trinity. 22 Certainly, in both traditions, some may erroneously choose to do otherwise, 23 but such an act would be contrary to the official teachings and counsel of the two faiths.
Both religions also acknowledge that God may sometimes work through deceased holy persons, now angels, in order to answer prayers or intervene on behalf of God’s children. These persons or angels are traditionally individuals who are worthy of veneration but not worship. According to both faiths, whatever that intervening being brings or does, it is only a manifestation of the Father’s power and will. It is never to be connected with the power or will of God’s angelic representative.
Additionally, both faiths’ positions on “saints” and angels tend to be grossly exaggerated and terribly misunderstood by those outside of the faith.Of course, there are differences in how each faith approaches the issue of saints or intercessors. For example, where Catholics would feel comfortable directly petitioning a deceased saint, Mormons would not. Catholics have a process whereby one is publicly and officially declared a saint (or “canonized”), but Mormons do not. 24 Catholic saints are assigned feast days on which they are celebrated, but Latter-day Saints have no such practice to commemorate the lives of those whom they see as now exalted or functioning as ministering angels. Likewise, in Catholicism the saints have assignments as “patrons” over countries, needs, or occupations. So, for example, Matthew is the patron saint over accountants, Francis de Sales is the saint of the deaf, and Patrick is the saint assigned over the nation of Ireland. True, in Mormonism certain angels hold specific keys and responsibilities. For example, Elijah holds the keys to turn hearts of fathers to children and children to their fathers; Adam possesses and reveals the keys of temple ordinances, particularly the endowment; 25 Peter, James, and John hold the keys over the Melchizedek Priesthood and the apostolic office. Nevertheless, Latter-day Saints do not see the specific ministry of an angel as being solely confined to a nation, occupation, or need.
1See Richard P. McBrien, Lives of the Saints (San Francisco, Calif.: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), 6.
2See McBrien, Lives of the Saints , 6.
3See McBrien, Lives of the Saints , 7-8.
4McBrien, Lives of the Saints , 2.
5See McBrien, Lives of the Saints , 8.
6Dwight Longenecker and David Gustafson, Mary: A Catholic-Evangelical Debate (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos Press, 2003), 175-76.
7For example, one Catholic scholar wrote, “Ecumenically . . . a main point of contention is the Catholic practice of invoking Mary as well as other saints and asking her to ‘pray for us.’ . . . Within a rightly ordered faith this is an expression of our solidarity in the communion of saints, analogous to asking other living persons to pray for us.” Elizabeth A. Johnson, “Blessed Virgin Mary,” in Harper Collins Encyclopedia of Catholicism, ed. Richard P. McBrien (San Francisco, Calif.: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995), 838. Elsewhere we read, “We do not pray to the saints as gods. We merely pray to the saints that they will intercede for us before God. . . . Why can’t we ask them-just like we ask our family and friends-to do us a favor? Why can’t they obtain a blessing for us? Why can’t they plead our case and present our petitions before Almighty God?” Paul L. Williams, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Lives of the Saints (Indianapolis, Ind.: Alpha Books, 2001), 81. Another penned this, “Prayer is the act by which one enters into conscious, loving communion with God. . . . When prayer is directed to the mother of Christ or a saintly intercessor, the one prayed to is viewed as connected with God” and is appealed to as a heavenly prayer partner of sorts. Margaret Dorgan, “Prayer,” in Harper Collins Encyclopedia of Catholicism , 1037. See also United States Catholic Catechism for Adults (Washington, D.C.: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2006), 146-47.
8See Williams, Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Lives of the Saints , 81-82; Peter J. Kreeft, Catholic Christianity: A Complete Catechism of Catholic Beliefs based on the Catechism of the Catholic Church (San Francisco, Calif.: Ignatius Press, 2001), 414-15.
9To “venerate” is to show some sign of respect. See “Veneration of the Cross,” in Harper Collins Encyclopedia of Catholicism , 1307.
10See “Patron Saint,” in Harper Collins Encyclopedia of Catholicism , 971.
11See Regina Coll, “Saints,” in Harper Collins Encyclopedia of Catholicism , 1156.
12Coll, “Saints,” in Harper Collins Encyclopedia of Catholicism , 1156.
13John A. Widtsoe, comp., Discourses of Brigham Young (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1998), 129.
14Having said that, Joseph, like the Virgin Mary, has been seen by a number of Latter-day Saints since his passing. He appeared to his successor, Brigham Young, shortly after Brigham took over for the Prophet Joseph, and then apparently appeared to him again on Brigham’s deathbed. See Hugh Nibley, “Teachings of Brigham Young,” in Encyclopedia of Mormonism, ed. Daniel H. Ludlow, 4 vols. (New York: Macmillan, 1992), 4:1609; and Robert L. Millet, Alive in Christ: The Miracle of Spiritual Rebirth (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1997), 200-201. The Prophet Joseph also appeared to his wife Emma shortly before she died-some thirty five years after his martyrdom. See Joseph Fielding Smith, Origin of the Reorganized Church and the Question of Succession (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1909), 113. Wilford Woodruff indicated that Joseph appeared to him numerous times after he had been martyred. See Wilford Woodruff, Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, 1833-1898, Typescript , ed. Scott G. Kenney, 9 vols. (Midvale, Utah: Signature Books, 1983-84), 5:237. Many, many others made similar claims of post-martyrdom appearances of the Prophet Joseph Smith. In the sense that he has appeared to his devotees with some frequency after his death, Joseph seems to parallel the Virgin Mary or other Catholic saints. Regarding the appearances of Mary, one Catholic text notes, “Apparitions . . . of Mary have multiplied . . . especially in the later decades of the twentieth century. Some of these the Church had declared inauthentic . . . some of them, after long and careful investigation, she has declared ‘worthy of belief’ (such as those at Lourdes, France, in 1854, and at Fatima, Portugal, in 1917). Many of them are still under investigation.. . . . These are private revelations, not Church dogma, and Catholics are not bound to believe in them.” Peter J. Kreeft, Catholic Christianity: A Complete Catechism of Catholic Beliefs based on the Catechism of the Catholic Church (San Francisco, Calif.: Ignatius Press, 2001), 420.
15Brigham Young, in Journal of Discourses , 26 vols. (Liverpool: F. D. Richards, 1855-86), 7:289.
16See, for example, David O. Mckay, Conference Report , October 1968, 86; Hyrum G. Smith, Conference Report , October 1928, 81-82; George Q. Cannon, The Life of Joseph Smith, the Prophet (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1986), 494-95; Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation , 3 vols. (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1998), 1:54; Orson Pratt, in Journal of Discourses, 2:344; John A. Widtsoe, Gospel Interpretations (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1947), 28-29; and Daniel H. Ludlow, A Companion to Your Study of the Doctrine and Covenants, 2 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1978), 1:558. Many other examples could be given.
17See, for example, Jacob Heinerman, Temple Manifestations (Salt Lake City: Hawkes Publishing Company, 1975); Margie Calhoun, When Faith Writes the Story , 2d ed. (Salt Lake City: Bountiful Press, 1993); and Margie Calhoun, Stories of Insight and Inspiration , 2d ed. (Salt Lake City: Bountiful Press, 1993).
18Joseph F. Smith, Gospel Doctrine (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1998), 430-31.
19Joseph indicated that whenever “the Keys” have been brought from heaven “they are revealed . . . by Adam’s authority.” Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, The Words of Joseph Smith: The Contemporary Accounts of the Nauvoo Discourses of the Prophet Joseph Smith , Religious Studies Monograph Series, no. 6 (Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1980), 8.] Indeed, one LDS scholar wrote, “According to Joseph Smith, if Adam did not personally reveal the ordinances, he would send messengers who would teach his posterity the endowment counsels that would lead them in the way of life and salvation.” Andrew F. Ehat, “Joseph Smith’s Introduction of Temple Ordinances and the 1844 Mormon Succession Question” (master’s thesis, Brigham Young University, 1981), 256 n. 86.
20For example, Moroni is said to have held the keys of the record of the stick of Ephraim (or Book of Mormon). Elias held the keys to preside over the Restoration (under Adam). See Joseph Fielding Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1976), 157. Joseph of Egypt apparently held the keys of the Abrahamic covenant and its promises. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (or Israel) each held keys associated with the Abrahamic covenant and its promises, and Peter, James, and John held the Melchizedek Priesthood and keys associated with the apostolic office.
21For example, the patron saint of priests is Jean-Baptiste Vianney, the patron saint of clerics is Gabriel, the patron saint of mothers is Monica, the patron of military chaplains is John Capistrano, the patron saint of theologians is Augustine, and the patron saint of the Church is Joseph.
22Roman Catholics will sometimes direct prayers to the Father, other times to the Son, and sometimes to the Holy Spirit.
23On one occasion, while attending a meeting on the campus of the University of Notre Dame, I witnessed a female Catholic scholar offer the Lord’s prayer to “Mother in Heaven,” by saying “Our Mother, which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.” Similarly, at the conclusion of an LDS religion class, I heard a female student offer the closing prayer to “Heavenly Mother.” In both cases these women acted against their respective faith’s teachings on the matter of prayer. One might take either experience as proof that both Catholics and Mormons pray to individuals other than God the Father. However, clearly one must make a distinction between what individual Catholics or Latter-day Saints choose to do, and what the official teaching of their respective faiths is on this matter. The membership of these two faiths are instructed to pray only to God-not to saints, Mary, Mother in Heaven, deceased ancestors, etc.
24The exception to this (in LDS thinking) might be that there is a specified way in which we make our “calling and election sure,” namely by faithfully entering into and keeping covenants. In a sense, one might argue that the temple rite associated with this doctrine officially declares one a “saint.”