If Catholics worship statutes, then they’re not Christians but pagans. Obviously, this Protestant charge needs to be addressed because it poses a serious obstacle to healing the widespread division among Christians.
By Deacon Frederick Bartels
28 October 2017
Over the years, I’ve often been involved in the RCIA program and its associated catechesis. It’s a wonderful experience to walk beside people who, called by God and assisted by his grace, have discovered the truth, beauty and goodness of the Church. Invariably, non-Catholic Christians entering the Church point out that they’ve often heard about how Catholics practice idolatry: the worship of “graven images” and/or saints. Their Protestant friends often object, “But Catholics worship saints, right?”
RCIA students often complain that idolatry is the single biggest objection their Protestant friends have against Catholics. It seems many of our Protestant brethren remain convinced that Catholics bow down to images of the saints, especially the Virgin Mary. They’re convinced that Catholics actually worship the saints!
If Catholics worship statutes or saints, then they’re not Christians but pagans. Obviously, this charge needs to be addressed because it poses a serious obstacle to healing the widespread division among Christians. On one level, the idea that Catholics worship images and/or saints seems silly. How is it possible for people to really think Catholics are so in the dark theologically that they would give worship to creatures and statues? Nevertheless, the stereotype lives on.
The evidence offered for this alleged infraction is nearly always based on either direct visual observation or reports of what others have heard about what Catholics do. For example, a Protestant sees a Catholic kneel before a statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe and concludes that, based on what is seen, the Catholic is indeed worshipping an image. Either that, or the Catholic is worshiping Mary because he is kneeling before her in prayer. When Catholics are asked if they are worshipping a statue or Mary, the answer is “no.” Somehow, though, such an answer is deemed inaccurate. If a Catholic kneels before a statue, he is therefore worshipping it. If he kneels in prayer to Mary, he is therefore worshipping her. End of story. But isn’t that a simplistic, judgmental and narrow view?
By and large, the candidates in RCIA find the whole notion of Catholic worship of images or saints as ridiculous. Although they can rarely articulate why Catholics do what they do when venerating the saints, the reasonableness of the practice, and why there is nothing wrong with kneeling before a statue and praying to a saint, they intuitively realize how absurd it is to suggest that Catholics are statue-and-saint-worshipping idolaters.
I think a significant part of the stereotypical Catholics-commit-idolatry notion melts away when people begin to understand just how deeply Christian are Catholics. As Catholics, we pray to Christ, we worship him as Savior and Redeemer, at Mass the body and blood of Christ is offered to the Father for redemption and forgiveness, and the Church insists on each of her members developing a personal and intimate relationship with Jesus. The Eucharist—the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Christ—is the heart of the Church and the source and summit of the Christian faith. The entire life-force and energy of the Church is drawn from the Eucharist. Based on the evidence, there’s no question that Catholics are Christian. For example, the very first paragraph of the Catechism of the Catholic Church begins by speaking of God the Father’s will that all men enter the Church as their home and experience the salvation won by the saving passion and death of his incarnate Son, Jesus Christ.
If Catholics are Christians who worship Christ and adore the Tripersonal God alone, doesn’t it seem over-the-top bizarre for Protestants to remain convinced that Catholics are apparently oblivious to the problem with worshipping statues or giving adoration to saints?
What is idolatry?
In an attempt—once again among thousands of others—to clear things up, one of the first issues to sort out is what constitutes idolatry. Idolatry is not about the way things look, but rather it’s about the intention behind a particular activity. When a Catholic kneels before a statue, does he intend to worship it? Nope. His intention is to build a relationship, to honor (venerate) a particular saint, not worship the Christian who has gone before us. If a Catholic kneels before a crucifix, his intention is to worship and adore Christ whose image the crucifix represents. These images, whether statues or crucifixes or icons or paintings are symbols which help to direct our thoughts to the person(s) they depict. In other words, they are representations that assist us in contemplating the mysteries of the faith and the communion of saints.
For example, what if I see a Protestant kneeling in prayer with a Bible in hand? I would know his intention is to worship God, not the Bible. The fact that he is kneeling with a Bible is no proof at all of his offering worship to a book.
But isn’t it idolatrous to kneel down in prayer before the Virgin Mary? Again, we have to consider what is intended in the activity of kneeling. There are many examples in history of people bowing or kneeling before another person in order to show honor or respect to that individual. In this case, the intention is to show honor to Mary, not worship. There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, there are times when justice requires we give honor to certain persons in society. Showing honor to a person (creature) is not the same thing as worshipping him.
When Catholics kneel before Mary in prayer, they are doing one of two things. 1) worshiping Christ (or the Tripersonal God) and asking Mary to intercede (pray) for them; or 2) praying (in this case, to pray means “to entreat” or “to ask,” not to worship) to Mary for her intercession before her Son, and, at the same time, giving her due honor and respect (veneration) as the Mother of God. Usually, it’s a combination of these two distinct but interrelated activities. They are interrelated because it’s difficult to imagine how someone can worship Christ and yet cut his Virgin Mother out of the picture as if she’s irrelevant. She’s not. She bore him, nursed him at her breasts, and witnessed the terrifying reality of his crucifixion. All of this—and more—she did as his sweet, unwaveringly dedicated, and tender Mother.
It is true that Catholics give a higher level of honor to Mary because of her status as Theotokos (literally God-bearer). The veneration given to Mary is categorized as hyperdulia, whereas the veneration given to other saints is termed dulia. Neither of these is adoration or worship. The word describing adoration and worship given to God alone is latria. I might add that the title Mother of God does not mean Mary is the mother of the divinity of God as if she somehow conceived the divine essence of the Holy Trinity. Rather, it means she is the mother of Jesus who is fully God and fully man. The title Theotokos, then, is a theologically precise way of stating who Mary is, who Christ is in his Person with respect to his divine and human natures, and the inseparable relationship between Mother and Son.
Kneeling in a prayer of entreatment before Mary or another saint is veneration, it is building a relationship with other members of the divine family of the Tripersonal God. It is communicating with our brothers and sisters in Christ who fully reside in the kingdom of heaven. It is asking the saints who enjoy the Beatific Vision to please pray for us here below. It’s not idolatry.
The First Commandment: You shall not make for yourself a graven image
What about the supposed prohibition against fashioning images? The First Commandment states:
I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them; …Ex 20:2-5
“You shall have no other gods before me.” Simple enough. That certainly prohibits pagan idolatry; i.e., the worship of false gods. “You shall not make for yourself a graven image.” Is this a prohibition against making any image? Nobody would think that. We make all sorts of images. We hang pictures on our walls, build sculptures in parks, erect statues in front of government buildings, and place wood carvings on our tables. Christians don’t view these as violations of the First Commandment. It’s clear that the real issue is what constitutes a “graven image,” not the making of any image.
Our Protestant brothers and sisters often think that an image of the Virgin Mary, another saint, or a statue of St. Michael the Archangel constitute graven images. Exercising a devotional practice with these images constitutes idolatry. But these ideas don’t line up with Scripture. If we move ahead some in the Book of Exodus, we find that God commanded two cherubim to be made, fashioned of gold and situated on top of the Ark of the Covenant (Ex 25:19 ff.). God apparently doesn’t have a problem with making images representing spiritual realities other than God and prominently displaying them. In the Book of Numbers, God directly commanded Moses to fashion a bronze serpent and erect it for the people Israel to see:
And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and every one who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” So Moses made a bronze serpent, and set it on a pole; and if a serpent bit any man, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.Nm 21:8-9
According to Numbers, the veneration of this particular image brought about, by the power of God, healing effects as it neutralized the snake venom coursing through the veins of the previously bitten Israelites. This is not unrelated to the importance of the use of sacred images by Catholics as conduits to help focus our thoughts on the Tripersonal God, who in turn works healing miracles in our hearts and souls by virtue of the communication of his supernatural grace. It’s not that the images communicate grace; it’s that they help direct our thoughts, mind, and prayer to God who justifies and heals those who turn to him in faith.
When we read the First Commandment in context, we find there’s no prohibition against fashioning and using images. What is prohibited, is worshipping them. It is the act of idolatry directed at an image that makes it “graven.” When images are used properly, no sin is committed. If we think about it, it would be totally inconsistent for God to issue a blanket prohibition against making and using images that are tied in some way to the faith, such as an image of Jesus or the Virgin Mary or the Archangel Michael. Why? Because Jesus of Nazareth is the perfect image of the invisible God (Col 1:15). In Christ, the Son of God took physical form in assuming an individual human nature to himself. Christ is the living Icon of God.
Further, God the Father freely and intentionally created us as physical and spiritual creatures who rely on sensory input to discover, inquire, perceive and formulate insights. We learn through encounters with images and symbols, through sights and sounds, taste and touch. That we are creatures very much dependent upon our senses is the wise and loving plan of God. Why would God deprive us of the very things we need to help us discover and contemplate the mysteries of the divine faith? For example, what better way to begin to know Jesus than to pray to him while gazing upon a sacred image of his divine and human face? What better way to meditate on the love of God than to prayerfully gaze upon a crucifix? If I kneel down while in prayer before a crucifix, I am not worshipping an image, but rather giving worship to whom the image represents.
By virtue of the incarnation of the Son of God, who is himself the Icon of God, the use of holy images is elevated in relevance and importance. To deny the significance of sacred images is to deny the significance of the Incarnation.
The Iconoclasm of the Protestant revolutionary Ulrich Zwingli
Historically, iconoclasm provides the first instance of hostility toward holy icons, statues and other sacred images. Iconoclasm (literally “icon-breaking”) traces its roots to the early 8th century with Emperor Leo III in the context of a battle between Christians and Moslems. During the engagement, Christians utilized images on their battle attire; however, the fight did not go well. The Emperor blamed their loses on the use of icons and outlawed their veneration. A brutal persecution of icon supporters ensued producing many martyrs, especially from the ranks of monks. Iconoclasm was condemned at the Second Council of Nicea (A.D. 787) and eventually died out after the Fourth Council of Constantinople (A.D. 870).
It’s important to note that the use and veneration of icons enjoyed a long tradition in antiquity as implicit in the liturgy and devotion of the Church. Iconoclasm was a violent break from not only historical Christian practices but from those of the people Israel as well. For example, we read in 1 Kings (6:23 ff.) that Solomon adorned the inner sanctuary of the Temple with two cherubim; its walls displayed “carved figures of cherubim and palm trees and open flowers.” Cherubim were also engraved on the Temple’s doors.
In the 16th century, a new kind of iconoclasm reared up again with the Protestant revolutionary Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531), from whom the Puritans trace their roots. A former Catholic priest and stern figure who practiced a strict form of biblicism, Zwingli rigidly forced a stark and sterile simplification of his liturgy. Altars were stripped bare. Relics, icons, statues, candles, musical instruments, stained glass—all were cast off. The American Protestant distaste for Catholic devotional use of images, relics and icons is linked to the revolutionary and unorthodox practices this man introduced about five-hundred years ago.
Catholicism: it’s more, not less
If the use of holy statues, icons, and other sacred images is advantageous for directing our attention to the Tripersonal God and the saints, why not employ their use? Is it not better to use images in this way than to sweep them aside under the unreasonable and baseless charge of idolatry? No more is adultery committed in the proper use of images than it is committed by hanging a picture of our mother or a friend on the wall of our homes. And is it not helpful to display pictures of our loved ones? Do they not aid us in recalling our relationship with them? All the more important is the use of sacred images.
There’s an additional advantage to the use of sacred images: would that homes, office buildings, parks and other structures displayed them! They would offer a constant reminder of the divine faith of the Church that God himself revealed. They would help to direct our thoughts heavenward, rather than downward into the sink-hole of secularism. When we display numerous sacred images in our homes, people immediately know what we’re really about and who we really love. It affords a wonderful opportunity for conversation and evangelization.
Catholicism offers a historically rich, expansive and wondrous tradition of employing images to aid in directing our thoughts to holy people and things, including the Tripersonal God whom we worship and adore.
Catholicism: it’s more, not less.
Deacon Frederick Bartels is a member of the Catholic clergy who serves the Church in the diocese of Pueblo. He holds an MA in Theology and Educational Ministry and is a Catholic educator, public speaker, and evangelist who strives to infuse culture with the saving principles of the gospel.