By Fr. Wesley Walker
At Earth & Altar, we've spent a significant amount of time arguing for the devotional practice of Invocation of the Saints.This is not merely because it is a practice we enjoy, but rather because it is a practice undergirded by important ecclesiological presuppositions. In debates about invocation, two objections are commonly leveraged against the practice. The first objection revolves around the issue of mediation. Dissenters argue that the practice impinges upon Christ's role as the sole mediator between humanity and God. The other objection pertains to the knowledge saints have in heaven; because those Christians who have died are not omniscient or omnipresent, they cannot know everything or hear the prayers of the Church Militant. These objections are not new nor have they gone unanswered. In fact, Thomas Aquinas provides us the necessary means to answer the question pertaining to the question of saintly knowledge in a way that sharpens our understanding of Christ's mediatorial work.
In question 72 of the Supplement of the Summa Theologica, St. Thomas treats the topic of prayer in relation to the saints. Contextually, question 71 pertains to how the prayers of the living assist the dead. Question 72 is concerned with the converse question of how the prayers of the dead assist the living. This involves three subquestions: (1) whether the saints know our prayers; (2) whether we should invoke them; and (3) whether their prayers for us are always granted.
When it comes to the issue of knowledge, there are two important arguments: creaturely finitude and the lack of saintly intervention. In relations to the first argument, objectors to invocation provide an important reminder: even beatified saints are still finite beings. At no point does theosis bring the creature into infinitude--there is still a distinction between Creator and creature. Further, there seem to be biblical warrants to support this. 2 Kings 22:20 speaks of King Josiah dying so that he will remain ignorant of the evil God brought on Israel, suggesting that those who have died are ignorant of what occurs on earth after their deaths. A second argument is an argument for silence. Saints are saints because they excel in charity in this life which entails caring for their neighbor. Beatified saints have a greater love than the living can attain, yet the saints do not appear to watch over or intervene for their friends and loved ones which implies what goes on here is unknown to them. The saints see the Word, not our prayers because prayer is in the heart and only God knows the heart.
In response to these objections, St. Thomas hones in on the main obstacle which is the distance between the Church Militant and Church Triumphant. This barrier is not insurmountable, because "The Divine essence is a sufficient medium for knowing all things” (Supplement 72) God is omniscient and by seeing his own essence, he sees all things. However, the Creator-creature distinction remains fixed. Seeing the essence of God cannot make one omniscient. A beatified saint cannot fully comprehend the Divine essence, but they see it in such a way that leads to their perfect happiness. To attain perfect happiness, the saints must "know what concerns themselves," knowledge that is communicated to them by the Word. Part of happiness, according to Thomas, consists of co-operating with God to assist the needy in the attainment of salvation, and therefore, the saints must be cognizant of our invocations of them. This recognizes two fundamental truths. The first is that we relate to God through the Church, the Body of Christ, which includes the living and the dead. The divine will is not in competition with human action but works in and through it.
In his answer to the problem of knowledge, St. Thomas provides us the tools to answer the more modern objection related to the mediatorial role of Christ. Many Protestants point out that our Lord is the only mediator between humanity and God. This is true, as St. Paul tells us in 1 Timothy 2:5, "For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus." The passage is clearly soteriological; Christ bridges the gap between humanity and Divinity by giving himself up as the ransom for all (1 Tim 2:6). Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe links the possibility of prayer to the work of Christ. Prayer can only occur because Christ elevates humanity into communion with God through the Incarnation. Prayer, generally speaking, is only possible because we are "in Christ." Ecclesiologically, union with Christ means union with others who are "in Christ" as well (cf. 1 Cor 12:12-27). The Word who bridges the metaphysical gap between us and God is also able to unite his Church, Militant, Penitential, and Triumphant, in himself across space and time. In spite of all her unhappy divisions, the Church remains a singular entity, united by Christ and made up of "all the company of faithful people," living and dead. Prayers to the saints, then, are by no means attempts to replace Christ's mediation. Quite the opposite: they are only possible because he is the only mediator between God and humanity. It is on the foundation of Christ's salvific work that invocation can be performed. And that God’s will for us to pray for each other can be accomplished.
Far from being weaknesses in the case for invocation, the "problems" of epistemology and mediation actually strengthen the case for the Catholic tradition. Because invocation as a practice flowing from sound ecclesiology centered on the mediatorial work of Christ, it is a practice that highlights the organizing principle of what it means to be the Church: Christ’s mediation. The final aspect of the discussion might be why we would ask saints for their prayers at all. It is here St. Thomas offers keen insights: "Since the saints who are in heaven are nearest to God, the order of the Divine law requires that we, who while we remain in the body are pilgrims from the Lord, should be brought back to God by the saints." The saints are secondary causes appointed as co-operators in God's economy of salvation. Their prayerful work for our salvation is in no way in competition with God, nor does appealing to them in any way diminish our belief in God's mercy, grace, and love, but rather, the saints are one of the means he uses to make manifest to us. God gives his Church great gifts and means of grace. While arguments against invocation are well-intentioned and represent attempts to grapple with important biblical and theological data points, they nevertheless represent a deficient ecclesiology that needs to be corrected by the Catholic tradition.