The short answer is NO. Catholics do not worship Mary.
Now here’s the long answer. In spite of the constant yammering of anti-Catholics who claim that Catholics do worship Mary, the simple and undeniable fact is we do not. It’s the height of arrogance when one religious group (such as Muslims or anti-Catholic Protestants for example) proposes to tell another religious group (Catholics) what we actually believe. You would think we already know. So let me lay this out in the most simple way possible. The Roman Catholic Church absolutely forbids the worship of anyone or anything besides Yahweh, who is the Holy Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Ghost). Worship of anyone or anything else is considered idolatry and apostasy. Any Catholic who engages in such forbidden worship automatically ceases to be Catholic in that very act. Any member of the Catholic Church who promotes the worship of anything or anyone, other than Yahweh, is guilty of apostasy and subject to the penalty of excommunication (banishment from the Catholic Church). According to official Catholic teaching, Mary is a creature. She was a human being, a very special human being who was filled with grace, but a human being nonetheless. Therefore, since she is not Yahweh, she cannot be worshiped. Any attempt to do so is a violation of the Catholic faith and subject to the penalty of excommunication. So once again, the answer is NO, Catholics do not worship Mary.
Objection #1: But what about all those idols of Mary everywhere?
First things first, a statue is not an idol unless two things are present…
- The statue, or image, must represent a false god.
- The statue, or image, must be worshiped.
Statues of Mary meet neither qualification, any more than a statue of George Washington. They’re just statues. Nobody worships them, and they don’t represent false gods. If you believe that all statues are idols, then I suppose a visit to Washington DC is going to be tough for you. There are statues of famous people everywhere!
When we Catholics put up a statue of Mary, it is just a statue. Even if we put flowers and candles around it, it’s still just a statue. Even if we pray in close proximity to it, it’s still just a statue. A statue doesn’t become an idol unless (1) it represents a false god, and (2) it is worshiped as such. We Catholics are not allowed to worship anyone or anything other than Yahweh (The Holy Trinity) and since Mary is not Yahweh, any statue of her cannot be an object of worship. Therefore, we Catholics don’t worship statues of Mary. These statues are just statues, not idols.
Objection #2: Doesn’t God forbid the making of statues (of any kind) in the second commandment?
No, actually, he doesn’t. Again, let’s correct some misconceptions. The prohibition against making idols is in the first commandment not the second. Protestants renumbered the Ten Commandments in the 16th century to put an emphasis against statues, because they were heavily influenced by Muslim iconoclastic thinking during this time, but that has never been the traditional Christian numbering of the Ten Commandments in the West. The Ten Commandments come from Exodus 20. This passage of Scripture tells us there are Ten Commandments, but it actually lists about 13 direct instructions, and it does not tell us how these 13 instructions should be arranged into 10 commandments. That is left up to tradition. Jews have their tradition, Western Catholics have another, Eastern Orthodox have another, and Protestants still yet have another.
Most Protestants are familiar with the Protestant way of numbering the commandments, but it’s not the only way. We Catholics lump the prohibition against making idols together with the first instruction that says to only worship Yahweh and forbids the worship of false gods. This is for the sake of context. God is not forbidding the making of statues altogether, but rather the making of statues for the purpose of worshiping false gods — i.e. idols. This is demonstrated in Exodus 25, wherein God specifically instructed Moses to make graven images (statues) out of gold for the Ark of the Covenant. If God forbade the making of statues entirely in Exodus 20, then he just contradicted himself in Exodus 25. So we know the commandment against making idols doesn’t mean a blanket condemnation against all statues entirely. It can’t be. Otherwise God contradicts himself. This is a real Protestant dilemma. If Exodus 20 prohibits the making of all statues, then how do they explain God’s command to make golden statues in Exodus 25? A proper, and contextual, interpretation of Scripture makes it clear that it’s okay to make statues of people, animals, heavenly creatures and mythical creatures, just so long as said statues are not worshiped as false gods.
Objection #3: Why make statues of Mary in the first place?
Statues of Mary are made for the same reason we Americans make statues of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. They are notable people who deserve to be honored and remembered. No reasonable American, no matter how religious, would ever think a statue of Washington or Jefferson is an idol. They’re given places of honor, and sometime made larger than life. Buildings and porticoes are built around them, to protect them from the elements, and insure they can be enjoyed for generations. How are they enjoyed? People stand in front of them for long periods of time, and stare at them. Sometimes they take photographs of them. Sometimes they pose for photographs in front of them. Is this worship? No. Of course it’s not.
If Washington and Jefferson, who founded our nation, are worthy of such honor, how much more so is Mary, the Mother of Jesus Christ? Washington and Jefferson were key players in the founding of our nation. Mary was a key player in the founding of our religion! She is much more worthy of honorable statues than they are. So Catholics make statues of her, for no more reason than to honor and remember the actual woman — the Blessed Virgin Mary. Likewise, these statues are given places of honor in our chapels and shrines, and they are often surrounded with flowers and candles. Again, this is not for the sake of worship, but rather the sake of honor and remembrance. The same is done for other notable figures in the history of the Church.
Objection #4: But I saw a Catholic bow down or kneel before a statue of Mary! That’s got to be worship! Right?
Bowing or kneeling have always been signs of respect in Western culture. Back in the days of royalty, and even still in some places, people will bow or kneel before a royal magistrate. Americans are not accustomed to this because the United States was founded as a republic, so royalty is not part of our cultural heritage. We don’t bow or kneel before the President of the United States, but they still do before the Queen of the United Kingdom. Yet when people do these things before royalty, is it worship? No. It’s just a very old sign of respect. The same can be said of a Catholic who wishes to show the same respect to the Blessed Virgin Mary. She’s not bodily with us anymore, so we can’t bow and kneel before her directly, but we can bow and kneel before her representation in the form of statue, relief, icon or painting. Is this worship? No. It’s just an old and traditional sign or respect.
Furthermore, while it is permissible for Catholics to respect an image of Our Lady this way, that doesn’t always mean that’s what’s going on when we see a bow or kneel. Sometime Catholics may just be praying to God, in close proximity to the statue. That happens too. It’s still not worship of Mary or the statue. Again, just ask a Catholic when you see one. “Do you worship God, or the statue of Mary?” After he/she looks at you like you’ve got two heads, the Catholic will always answer, I worship God of course.
Objection #5: Don’t Catholics pray to Mary? Isn’t that worship?
Actually, while we Catholics do pray to Mary, it’s not worship. This comes as a shock to a lot of Protestants because they don’t really understand the nature of prayer. You see, prayer is not worship. It can be a component of worship when combined with other things, but prayer by itself is not worship. It never was.
You see, Protestants get confused here because they’ve eliminated all traces of sacrifice from their weekly Bible services. A typical Protestant service, in nearly all denominations, consists of singing, prayer, and listening to a sermon. Occasionally, there might be a participation in a symbolic communion service. So I must ask you, is singing worship? When you sing, are you worshiping? Perhaps you are sometimes, but not all the time. Sometimes you might sing along with the car radio, or in the shower, or maybe you actually have a good voice and you sing for other people. Does this mean you’re worshiping? Well, not exactly. You see, you can sing and not be worshiping God. People do it all the time. What about when you listen to somebody speak? Is that worship? You do it at church, right? You listen to your pastor speak. Isn’t that worship? Well, not exactly. Listening to somebody speak could be part of a worship service, but it doesn’t have to be. You could do the same at a seminar, or in a classroom, or at a political rally. Listening to somebody speak doesn’t always mean you’re worshiping God, and it’s not an act of worship by itself.
The same is true for prayer. Singing isn’t always worship, and neither is listening to somebody speak. Likewise, prayer is not always an act of worship. The English word “pray” simply means “to ask.” Think of Shakespeare: “I pray thee sir…” The character is simply asking another character something. It’s not an act of worship. It’s just a request. So whenever we ask others for something, in the older English sense of the word, we are “praying” to them.
So the next logical question is this. Can you ask (or pray to) somebody who is no longer with us on earth? This is where the real bone of contention is. Catholics say “yes,” and Protestants say “no.” The Protestant assumption is that there is a veil of separation between the living and the dead, which can never be pierced, and so any communication between those on earth and those in heaven is simply impossible.
The Catholic position is to say nonsense! Jesus Christ conquered death and the grave with his atonement on the cross and resurrection. The veil of separation between Christians on earth and Christians in heaven has been torn by Christ. All Christians, whether on earth or in heaven, are united by the Holy Ghost. He binds us together in spiritual unity which cannot be broken. Those in heaven (the dead in Christ) no longer have bodies, mouths, tongues or lungs. So they can’t physically speak to us anymore. They won’t be able to until after the resurrection. But they can “hear” us, not with human ears, but through the Holy Spirit of God. We can ask them to pray for us, just as we ask other Christians on earth to pray for us. Yes, we can ask Christians in heaven to pray for us. We can even ask angels to do so as well. This is supported with Scripture in Tobit 12:12, Revelation 5:8 and Revelation 8:4. Jesus, who was not only God in the flesh but also a Jewish man, demonstrated that communication with those in heaven is possible (through him) by doing it himself in Matthew 17:1-9. So did Jesus, a Jewish man, violate the Law of Moses by communicating with men in heaven? No, of course not. He could not have violated the Law of Moses, or else he would have sinned, and if he sinned he would not be our Messiah (Christ). Thus, Jesus demonstrated miraculously that communication with the Saints in heaven is possible, if it is done through him. If it’s good enough for Jesus, it should be good enough for us too. This is what the Bible actually says about these things. The Protestant tradition of a “veil of separation” between heaven and earth is just a tradition of men, invented solely by men. It’s not Biblical, and it’s not of God.
Biblical worship always involves two things that we just don’t see when it comes to prayers to Mary. The two Biblical requirements of worship are (1) full submission, and (2) sacrifice. The Catholic understanding of both happens only at the Holy Mass. This is where we Catholics fully submit ourselves to Yahweh (The Holy Trinity), and offer up the sacrifice of the Eucharist. This is parallel to how the ancient Israelites worshiped Yahweh, by going to the Temple for the purpose of submitting fully to God and offering up sacrifices to him. For Catholics, however, travel to a specific Temple is not necessary, because Jesus said that the hour would come when worship would no longer be bound to a Temple (John 4:21-24), and wherever two or three meet in his name, he will be there in the midst of them (Matthew 18:20). Likewise, we Catholics don’t need to offer the bloody sacrifice of lambs and goats, because Jesus is the final sacrifice made by God on the cross. This completed and living sacrifice is re-presented and adored during the liturgy of the Holy Mass (see more details here).
The liturgy of the Holy Mass does not offer prayers to Mary or the Saints. The entire liturgy is a prayer to God alone. It is during this liturgy that we Catholics worship God in the most literal and Biblical sense. This is how we Catholics understand worship, and that is why we Catholics are required to go to Mass. If we don’t go to Mass, we’re not really worshiping God in a Biblical sense. Mere prayer is just one tiny component of worship which, like music, can be offered outside of worship too. So mere prayer to Mary, or any Saint, is not worship in any kind of a Biblical sense.
Objection #6: Why pray to Mary and the Saints when you can just pray directly to God?
Why do Protestants ask other Protestants to pray for them, when they can just pray directly to God? It’s the same idea. Why? Why go to the trouble of asking other people to pray for you when you can pray to God yourself? When was the last time you asked a Protestant pastor if he would pray for you, and his response was “no, go pray to God yourself.”? It never happens. The Protestant pastor always agrees to pray for you, whatever your need is. So why to Christians of any type (Protestant, Evangelical, Catholic, etc.) ask others to pray for them? It’s simple really, the idea is to petition God with many different requests for the same outcome. To use an irreverent word, it’s lobbying. We Christians ask other Christians to pray for us because we’re lobbying God for an answer. It’s the same idea as multiple lobbyists making requests of a US Senator or Congressmen. If you can just get enough lobbyists, you might get a quick response. While to word “lobby” seems rather irreverent, the concept isn’t. In fact, Jesus encourages us to do it, because he reveals to us that God actually likes to be lobbied (Matthew 7:7-8). So when we pray for something, if it’s really important, it never hurts to get some more people praying with us.
We Catholics believe this too, but as I pointed out in Objection #5, we don’t just limit ourselves to Christians on earth. We ask Christians on earth to pray with us to God, but we also ask Christians in heaven to pray with us as well. We call this intercession to Saints, and by that we mean that we ask them (pray them) to pray to God with us.
The one thing you will notice about all Catholic prayers to Mary and the Saints is that we don’t ask them to perform miracles. Rather, we ask them to ask God (with us) to perform the miracles. We don’t ask Saints to grant our requests. Rather, we ask them to ask God (with us) to grant our requests. Basically, we ask them to become our prayer-partners.
We Catholics tend to go to the Blessed Virgin Mary quite frequently, to ask her to intercede for us as our prayer-partner. We go to her more often because of the special relationship she has with Jesus Christ as his mother. She makes the ultimate prayer-partner, because she has a Biblical history of getting Jesus to do things sooner than he normally would (John 2:1-11).
Objection #7: Catholics call Mary the Mother of God. That means they think she’s greater than God, or is a goddess herself. Mary is the mother of Jesus, not the Mother of God.
If we say that Mary is not the Mother of God, we have just downgraded Jesus Christ to a mere human being and not God in the flesh. If you’re a Muslim or a Jehovah’s Witness, I understand this, because that’s exactly what these religions teach. But if you’re a Protestant or Evangelical, hence a “Bible Christian” or “Born Again Believer,” then this objection is totally illogical, and borders on an ancient heresy called Nestorianism. It was popular in the 5th century and universally condemned by all Christian leaders at that time.
You see, the Scriptures teach that Jesus Christ was both fully-God and fully-man. This is called the “hypostatic union.” This means that both the divine and human natures of Jesus Christ were perfectly bound together into one person. There is no separation between these two natures. They are interwoven throughout the whole person. This also means that Jesus Christ, from the moment of his conception, was fully-God and fully-man. He didn’t become God later. He was fully-God and fully-man from the moment he was conceived at the Annunciation, when Mary said the words “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word” (Luke 1:38). This means that Mary, carried God in her womb for nine months gestation. The divine embryo wasn’t half-God, or part-God, but fully-God, as he developed into a fetus, and eventually into a mature baby in utero. Thus, Mary carried God in her womb. The Greek word for this is Theotokos, meaning that she is the “God Bearer.”
When Catholics say that Mary is the “Mother of God” what we mean by that is that she is the Theotokos (Θεοτόκος), meaning she carried God in her womb. If we want to be specific, we can say the specific Person of the Holy Trinity she carried was God the Son. She did not carry God the Father in her womb, nor God the Holy Ghost, but we know that God the Father and God the Holy Ghost did play a role in the incarnation of God the Son in the womb of Mary.
This in no way means we think Mary is somehow “greater than God” or that she’s a goddess. Far from it. The statement is a reflection of her humanity (mothers are always human, not divine, in Christian teaching), and that she was chosen among women to carry Jesus Christ, the God-Man in her womb, who was always fully-God as well as fully-man, from the very moment of his conception.
In short, by calling Mary the “Mother of God” (Theotokos or “God Bearer”) the statement is really pointing toward Christ not Mary. What we’re really saying is that Jesus Christ was fully God from the moment of his conception and he didn’t “become God” at some later point. What we’re doing is reinforcing the orthodox teaching that God became man, and rebuking the heretical idea that a man became God. To deny that Mary is the “Mother of God” (Theotokos or “God Bearer”) is to deny, perhaps unwittingly, that Jesus Christ was always God. To persistently do this, even after it’s been explained, is to embrace the 5th-century heresy of Nestorianism.
Objection #8: Catholics call Mary the “Queen of Heaven.” There is only one King of Heaven and that’s Jesus Christ. Therefore, Catholics put Mary on the same level as Jesus.
Actually, there is a very good reason why we Catholics call Mary the “Queen of Heaven.” It has little to do with Jesus’ divinity and everything to do with his humanity, particularly his Jewish humanity. You see, if you look through the Old Testament, you will see that there were two kinds of Jewish kings — the good kind and the bad kind. The bad kind of Jewish kings usually put their wives on thrones as their queens (1 Kings 16:31). This may not have always been the case, but it was the case most of the time. However, the good Jewish kings usually put their mothers on thrones as their queens (Jeremiah 13:18, Jeremiah 29:2). This may not have always been the case, but it was the case most of the time. Most notably, King Solomon put his mother, Bathsheba, on the throne next to him as his queen (1st Kings 2:19–20). Pay particular attention to how Bathsheba behaved as King David’s wife with humility and was not made queen. However, once her son ascended to the throne, she was made queen and acted accordingly. Almost every time the Old Testament books of 1st and 2nd Kings introduces a new monarch in Judah, it mentions the king’s mother, showing her intimate involvement in her son’s reign. The royal position of Queen-Mother was well-defined in ancient Israel and spoken of fondly by the Prophet Jeremiah: “Say to the king and the queen mother: ‘Take a lowly seat, for your beautiful crown has come down from your head. . . . Lift up your eyes and see those who come from the north. Where is the flock that was given you, your beautiful flock?'” (Jeremiah 13:18, 20).
Jesus was a Jew, and he was also the King of the Jews, as well as the King of Heaven and Earth. The implication is, as any good Jewish King would do, he named his mother to sit at his right hand as his queen in heaven and over the earth. This is reinforced in Revelation 12 with the image of the woman given the crown of starts. The concept is very much a ancient Jewish thing, but because we don’t live in the times of ancient Semitic kings, it can sometimes be hard for modern Americans to understand. Suffice it to say, it’s very Biblical. This in no way puts Mary “on the same level as Jesus” because everyone knows that a queen is never greater than her king.
Objection #9: Catholics believe Mary was perfect and without sin. Only God is perfect and without sin. Therefore Catholics elevate Mary to the level of a goddess.
That’s not true. Adam and Eve were without sin in the Garden of Eden. Does that mean they were gods? No! Of course not. Nobody believes that. But Protestants, Evangelicals or “Bible Christians” do believe Adam and Eve were created without sin. To say somebody is without sin does not mean you’ve elevated him/her to the level of deity. I’m sure Adam and Eve would agree.
Adam and Eve, the two first humans, were created innocent and immaculate. This means they had no stain of sin on them at all. Sin didn’t enter their lives until later, after they had eaten from the Tree of Knowledge (Genesis 3). Now the Catholic Church teaches that only four people in history were ever created without sin (immaculate), and these people are: Adam, Eve, Jesus and Mary.
Protestants, Evangelicals or “Bible Christians” would agree with three out of four, omitting Mary from the list. But as you can see, by acknowledging that Adam and Eve were created without sin (immaculate), they are admitting that you don’t have to be divine to be without sin. The Catholic Church teaches that God, by a special grace, saved Mary (through Christ) retroactively, allowing her to be conceived in a natural way, yet without sin (the Immaculate Conception). This was to prepare the way for Christ. Just as Christ is called the “New Adam” so Mary is called the “New Eve.” Mary’s “yes” to God’s plan, countered Eve’s “no” to God’s plan. Mary’s willingness to obey was foreseen by God, so God gave her the grace of being like Eve, having never known sin. But this doesn’t make her equal with God in any way. If anything it makes her more dependent on God, because it is through an extra miracle of God that she was conceived immaculate.
To be immaculate (without sin) does not mean one is above human. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. It means to be the type of human God intended us to be all along. Our first human parents were immaculate, before they fell into sin. All who are in Christ shall become immaculate (body and soul) at the Resurrection on the Last Day. To be immaculate is to have no stain (damage) of sin on the soul or body. It means to not be tempted by weak flesh. While sin is still possible (as in the case of Adam and Eve) it requires an active choice of the will, not a mere slip into bad habit or internal weakness. Mary could have sinned, just like Eve did, but she was spared from the routine, day-to-day weaknesses that we all experience. In order for Mary to sin, she would have had to will it, just like Eve did.
Many Christians will be surprised to learn just how Biblical this teaching really is, but I don’t have the space to go into it here. To learn more about this teaching on the Immaculate Conception, read my essay on “Mary — Conceived without Sin.”
Objection #10: Catholics call Mary the “Mediatrix.” There is only one Mediator between God and mankind, who is Jesus Christ. Therefore, Catholics elevate Mary to the same level as Jesus.
The Second Vatican Council states the following: “the Blessed Virgin [Mary] is invoked in the Church under the titles of Advocate, Auxiliatrix, Adiutrix, and Mediatrix” (Lumen Gentium 62). However, it goes on to say: “This, however, is to be so understood that it neither takes away from nor adds anything to the dignity and efficaciousness of Christ the one Mediator. For no creature could ever be counted as equal with the Incarnate Word and Redeemer. Just as the priesthood of Christ is shared in various ways both by the ministers and by the faithful, and as the one goodness of God is really communicated in different ways to His creatures, so also the unique mediation of the Redeemer does not exclude but rather gives rise to a manifold cooperation which is but a sharing in this one source. The Church does not hesitate to profess this subordinate role of Mary. It knows it through unfailing experience of it and commends it to the hearts of the faithful, so that encouraged by this maternal help they may the more intimately adhere to the Mediator and Redeemer.” (ibid)
The Catholic teaching on the title of Mediatrix for the Blessed Virgin Mary is such a touchy area with Evangelicals (Bible Christians) that it must be cited in its full context. This is the reason why I cited Vatican II above. The word Mediatrix does not mean “another Mediator” as if Christ’s mediation between God and Man was not enough. This is a typical misunderstanding that is commonly preached by anti-Catholics. The word Mediatrix means one who cooperates with the mediation of Christ, and in turn shares his mediation with others.
Think of it this way. Mary was the first Christian. She was the first to believe in Christ and the first to carry him inside her body (literally). Her entire life bears testimony to Christ, from the moment of her conception, to the Annunciation when she said she submitted to God’s plan, to bearing and raising our Redeemer, to following him during his ministry, to telling others to “do whatever he tells you to do” (John 2:5), to kneeling beside him at the cross (John 19:25-27), to receiving tongues of fire along with the Apostles on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 1:14). The point is, Mary is there at all the key points during Jesus life and after his resurrection. There’s a reason for this. She the Mediatrix.
There can be only one Mediator between God and mankind, and that is Jesus Christ. This means that Jesus alone, stands before the Father in heaven, making atonement for the human race. However, as that atonement is made, God’s grace is mediated back to mankind. Thus, we all share in that mediated grace, but before it gets to us, it was already received and shared through Mary, both in the times of the New Testament, and in our own times today. Mary is inseparable from the gospel story, and for this reason, she is the first to mediate back to us the graces received by Jesus who mediates to God (alone) on our behalf.
Think of it this way. Suppose you hire a lawyer to go obtain your contested inheritance. That lawyer (alone) presents the will, submits the proper paperwork, interacts with the judge, and obtains the court decree to administer your inheritance. However, once he has the decree, he turns it over to his legal aid (a nice young lady) who sees to it that you receive what your lawyer has won for you in court. This is one way of looking at how it works with Jesus and Mary. The lawyer represents Jesus here. He alone is our only Mediator between God and mankind. The legal aid represents Mary here. She alone dispenses what Jesus alone has obtained for us. A legal aid is not the same as a lawyer, just as Mary is not the same as Jesus. So the Mediatrix (Mary) is not the same as the Mediator (Jesus). Mary is inferior to Jesus, which means the Mediatrix is inferior to the Mediator, in a similar way a legal aid is inferior to a lawyer.
Admittedly, this is all very technical, but that is the nature of the Catholic Church, which is to define everything in the most technical way. This is how you answer questions. You can’t answer technical questions without giving technical answers. On the surface, to people who don’t understand the technical nature of this teaching, it might seem like something it’s not. We Catholics simply do not elevate Mary to the same level as Jesus. That’s just the fact. If any Catholic is doing that, he/she is doing so against the teachings of the Church, and committing the error of heresy.
Catholics do not worship Mary. We don’t put Mary on the same level as Jesus. We don’t believe Mary is a “goddess” and we don’t give her divine attributes. Protestants, like Muslims, often have a very hard time understanding this. For Protestants it comes from several misconceptions not only about the Catholic Church, but about the Bible itself. The Scriptures don’t always say what many Protestants presume they say. Closer examination often reveals something different. The moral to this story is; don’t be so quick to judge. The truth is sometimes more nuanced than we think it is. Catholics have been falsely maligned as “Mary-Worshipers” for centuries. It’s not true, and every time people say it, it’s slander. When they write it, it’s libel. God commanded us not to bear false witness against our neighbors (Exodus 20:16). Please don’t break God’s command by calling Catholics “Mary-Worshipers.” It’s just not true.