The Splintering of Religious
Devotion in Catholicism
Theologians and historians have often written of the doctrinal differences between Catholicism and Protestantism — differences having to do, say, with attitudes towards the Eucharist, the role of faith in achieving salvation, the relationship between the institutional church and its members, and so on. Less well-studied are the systematic differences between the practice of Catholicism generally and the practice of Protestantism generally. One such difference, and the one of concern of this chapter, has do with the greater proliferation of separate and distinct religious devotions in Catholicism. Quite apart from those devotions that are part of the official liturgy (like the Mass, the Eucharist, and the Sacraments), Catholics engage in a wide variety that of extra-liturgical devotions of precisely the sort discussed in this book. Though Protestants also engage in extra-liturgical devotions (a home or office Bible study group would be a good example), the range and variety of such devotions hardly match what is found in Catholicism.
In part this particular difference in religious practice derives from a doctrinal difference concerning the Virgin Mary and the saints. Catholicism holds that Mary and the saints can intercede with God on behalf of the faithful; this view has always been rejected by all Protestant groups. Seeing Mary and the saints as potential intercessors with God obviously creates a psychological atmosphere that facilitates the emergence of cults and devotions organized around these beings.
But the greater proliferation of cults and devotions in Catholicism does not derive entirely (or even mainly) from the fact that the Catholic pantheon is peopled with a greater variety of supernatural beings who can benefit humanity. It derives also from the fact that Catholics seem more willing to splinter the devotion to particular supernatural beings into a wide range of separate and distinct devotions, each of which is logically independent of the others, and (apparently) gratifying in itself.
This splintering of religious devotion is most evident in the case of devotion to the Virgin Mary. Although it is convenient to talk about a cult of Mary