Monday, July 2, 2012

On the "communion of saints" ... or ... why do Catholics pray for the dead?

…I believe in the holy catholic Church,
The communion of saints,
The forgiveness of sins,
The resurrection of the body,
And the life everlasting.
-Apostles Creed

In my most recent post I explored Catholic teaching about the “life everlasting,” including the doctrines of heaven, Purgatory, hell, and the final judgment. The doctrine of Purgatory, so foreign to Protestants, is wedded with another unfamiliar doctrine: the communion of saints. I grew up saying the Apostles Creed every Sunday, and I always thought “communion of saints” referred to fellowship among believers. And so it does, but the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) specifies a wider frame of reference.

At the most basic level, “the communion of saints is the Church” (CCC §946). The Church shares a number of things in common, both physically and spiritually. First, “the riches of Christ are communicated to all the members, through the sacraments” (§947). Second, all that belongs to the Church belongs to the whole church (§947). As the Eastern Orthodox Church says before partaking in communion, “sancta santis,” or “God’s holy gifts for God’s holy people” (§948; cf. 950, 960). This is a beautiful expression of the biblical truth that Christ’s holy gift of himself is intended to make us holy.

Protestants agree that “Faith is a treasure of life which is enriched by being shared” (§949; cf. 961). This is part of what is meant by the “communion of saints.” We also join with Catholics in affirming that the gifts of the Spirit are given for mutual edification (§951). True communion involves sharing our possessions with the needy (§952) in love (§953).

"Communion of Saints"
However, when Catholics talk about the "communion of saints," their view of the Church is much wider than the "church universal" (spread geographically) or the "church through the ages" (spread chronologically). They have in mind the church in three dimensions, or states. The CCC explains, "at the present time some of his disciples are pilgrims on earth. Others have died and are being purified, while still others are in glory" (§954, emphasis mine; cf. 962). We, then, are unified with these believers who are already in heaven, or who live in Purgatory awaiting entrance to heaven because we are all incorporated into Christ (§955). According to the CCC, we should not merely learn from their examples, but commune through prayer, and in that way draw closer to Christ (§957). Those already in heaven "intercede with the Father for us" (§956). "We can and should ask them to intercede for us and for the whole world" (§2683) because their prayers benefit us (§1475). We, in turn, pray for those in Purgatory "that they may be loosed from their sins," and may go on to heaven and pray for us (§958). Together with saints dead and alive, we praise God (§959).

As I explained yesterday, the doctrine of Purgatory is connected with the practice of praying for the dead (which in turn is based on a passage in the Apocryphal book of Maccabees). The doctrine of the “communion of saints” in Catholic thinking in turn prompts prayer for fellow believers who are on their way to heaven (cf. §1032; see 2 Macc 12:44–45).  Baruch 3:4 also hints at this, mentioning “the prayer of the dead of Israel.” The CCC explains, “By virtue of the ‘communion of saints,’ the Church commends the dead to God’s mercy and offers her prayers, especially the holy sacrifice of the Eucharist, on their behalf” (§1055; cf. 1371, 1689).

Though these teachings are most clear in the Apocrypha, we can find hints of in the Scriptures accepted by Protestants. First Peter 3:18–20 speaks of Jesus preaching to the disobedient dead before his resurrection. This implies that there is a place other than heaven or hell where dead people await their final destiny. Hebrews 12:1 pictures the saints who have died as “so great a cloud of witnesses” who are watching us live out our faith. From this passage we get a glimpse of some type of communion with them, a mutual edification.

Protestants, I suspect, are nervous about the Catholic understanding of the “communion of saints” for three reasons (1) the Bible clearly condemns communication with the dead (e.g. King Saul and the witch of Endor – 1 Sam 28:6–21), and (2) Protestants are reluctant to exalt any human being in such a way that the perfect work of Christ is eclipsed. He is our only good, and the one source of our righteousness. Since “all have sinned,” even those who have done great things for the kingdom of God are unworthy of our veneration. All glory belongs to Christ alone. (3) A third reason is that Jesus Christ is the only mediator we need: “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1Tim 2:5 RSV).

In fairness to Catholics, they are not seeking knowledge from dead saints the way Saul was with the deceased Samuel. While Saul was engaged in necromancy (magic) outside of God's revealed will, prayers for the saints are "in Christ." The reality of the resurrection changes what is possible. Catholics exalt no one above Christ. Their honoring of the saints is precisely because of God's work in and through them. And they do not view the saints as mediating for us outside of Christ, but instead as sharing in his work of mediation as part of the royal priesthood. Still, the practice of praying to saints comes uncomfortably close to these aberrations and runs the risk of misunderstanding at a popular level. It’s no wonder Protestants want to leave a wide margin.

In short: At the core of Catholic teaching on the Church is the idea that we commune with all believers, those in heaven, waiting to enter heaven, or alive on earth (none of them are really "dead" the way the condemned are dead). The idea of prayer for the "dead" is most clearly seen in the Apocrypha, which Protestants do not accept as Scripture. The uncertainty of the idea of prayer for the "dead," combined with the thin witness of Scripture about life between death and final judgment, make communion with the "dead" a matter about which Protestants will continue to feel uneasy. Some of this uneasiness may be unfounded, as I hope this post has shown. Orthodox Catholic teaching preserves the absolute uniqueness of Christ and his saving work on our behalf. 

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