Most Catholics, especially converts to the Catholic Faith, have heard this assertion at some point: Catholics worship and pray to Mary and the saints. Of course, we know this statement is not true because we know we only worship the one Triune God and that our salvation comes only from Jesus, on whom all of our liturgical activity is centered. That said, it is certainly true that we give special honor to Mary and the saints.

This confusion actually finds its root in language and translation, which is not uncommon. For example, consider the word “respect.” The way you show respect to your spouse will differ from how you show respect to your children. You may also have respect for a certain position or office, but not for the person who holds that position. Additionally, your respect for the law does not originate from love in the same way it does for your family and friends. All of these situations use the same word to describe something that is not exactly the same thing, yet we all have a general understanding of what the word means in the context it is used. In order to properly understand the hierarchy under which we honor God, Mary, and the saints, we will go back to the original Greek with the help of St. Thomas Aquinas.

St. Thomas considered honor, adoration, and worship as activities that fall under the virtue of justice. In other words, giving people the honor which they are due, by virtue of either who they are, or what they have done to earn it, is to give them justice. Therefore, it was very important that St. Thomas clearly defined the distinctions among these forms of honor to ensure the best practice of justice given the specific context. He says:

where there are different aspects of that which is due, there must need to be different virtues to render those dues. Now servitude is due to God and to man under different aspects: even as lordship is competent to God and to man under different aspects.

You see here that he says we owe servitude to both God and man, but that it will look different depending on whom we are serving.

In his Summa Theologica, St. Thomas methodically analyzes what type of honor is properly owed to whom. You can find his treatment of the issue across several questions in Secunda Secundae of the Summa, but I will summarize some key points here for you. Essentially, he pored over scripture in its original Greek and examined how the words latria and dulia, both referring to how a servant honors his master, were used and in what context, and his findings offer the clarifications in language by which the Church bases her properly ordered forms of honor. It is also important to note, that he studied the writings of St. Augustine, who considered the same questions centuries earlier, giving him credit where credit was due. Here is what he found:


Latria literally means “worship” and refers to a form of honor that falls at the liturgical level. Latria is the highest form of honor and worship and is due to God alone as an uncreated being from whom all created things come. There is no being greater than God and therefore, out of justice, He is all-deserving of our highest forms of servitude and adoration. In his analysis, Thomas cites St. Augustine who also used the word latria to describe what is to be given to God alone, saying:

For this is the worship which is due to the Divinity…and to express this worship in a single word as there does not occur to me any Latin term sufficiently exact, I shall avail myself, whenever necessary, of a Greek word. λατρεία (latria), whenever it occurs in Scripture, is rendered by the word service. But that service which is due to men…is usually designated by another word in Greek, whereas the service which is paid to God alone by worship, is always, or almost always, called λατρεία (latria)…” (City of God, Book X).

Practically speaking, this distinction in vocabulary indicates that we, as Catholics, in all of our liturgical and personal prayer, place God above all, directing all of our praise and worship to Him alone.


Thomas then goes on to deal with another type of honor that is owed to created beings, because they are deserving of it saying, “in this way honor is always due to a person, on account of some excellence or superiority.” For Thomas, someone who possesses excellence is someone who excels at some particular thing like virtue, which we find in the saints, or in sport, for which we award medals. Again, for Thomas, it’s all about justice, so when a person has worked very hard to excel at something good, they deserve a certain recognition for that excellence. Notice that he also includes the word “superiority” to his explanation, so excellence exists in a hierarchy, or on a spectrum, and we owe honor to those more excellent, which is evidenced throughout scripture with regard to servitude or respect from one human to another. Thomas refers to this type of honor as dulia, while also indicating that it is an honor distinct from God, saying:

Wherefore dulia, which pays due service to a human lord, is a distinct virtue from latria, which pays due service to the lordship of God…while dulia properly speaking is the reverence of servants for their master, dulia being the Greek for servitude.

So, within the context of the Church, canonized saints have been identified as those who have excelled in virtue, meriting the greatest heights of heaven, and therefore worthy of our respect and honor in the form of dulia. They have successfully done what we strive to do and we look upon them with awe and wonder as examples. Think of a superstar athlete, or a professional at the top of his or her field. They are given awards, honors, and accolades and we work hard to approach their excellence in our own rights, while looking to them as a model or for advice. The same is true for the saints and we express it in the form of dulia as we seek their guidance, assistance, or intercession, but never placing them above God.


Rightfully, St. Thomas identifies a third term reserved for the Blessed Mother alone because, while she is greater than any other created being, she is still subordinate to God. Neither latria nor dulia adequately describe the honor that is properly owed to Mary. So, Thomas says:

Since, therefore, the Blessed Virgin is a mere rational creature, the worship of “latria” is not due to her, but only that of “dulia”: but in a higher degree than to other creatures, inasmuch as she is the Mother of God. For this reason, we say that not any kind of “dulia’” is due to her, but “hyperdulia.”

He also identifies three reasons why, out of justice, the term hyperdulia is properly owed to Mary: 1) by virtue of her Immaculate Conception, she is full of grace and from her conception, she has excelled in grace over any other saint or angel; 2) by virtue of her being the Mother of God and as such, the Mother of the Head of the Church; and 3) by virtue of her perfect obedience to God’s will throughout her life, committing not even one venial sin. When we honor Mary with hyperdulia, we honor God with latria, because we recognize both her excellence, and its source in He who created her.

Now that we have clarified the distinctions between latria, dulia, and hyperdulia, consider how language plays a role in how we understand things. How does your life of prayer, praise, adoration, and worship illustrate the different forms of honor we offer to God and others? Thank St. Thomas Aquinas, under the form of dulia, of course, for working tirelessly to work out these theological truths for us so long ago, and God, under the form of latria, for revealing them.


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