One day at work, a woman inquired about my religious background. I told her I was Catholic. She immediately responded by “warning” me about a couple things, including that God has commanded his people, “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image…[and] Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them…” She bluntly pointed out that this is exactly what Catholics do and completed her untimely analysis by reminding me that God has strictly forbidden such idolatrous actions. She was a Jehovah’s Witness. I patiently listened, half-stunned and half-disappointed that I didn’t have time to engage her about this rather weak objection to Catholicism. Has anything like this ever happened to you?
I also have a Christian friend who frequently refers to “idols” when speaking about the Catholic Church. No matter how many times I have corrected his word usage and explained the practice of praying by statues or images, he continues to use the word “idol” when referring to such things (but only when they are in a Catholic setting). I don’t think he’s doing it to be obnoxious (I don’t think…). I think he has just been conditioned from a young age to use certain language when speaking about the Catholic Church. Do you know anyone like this?
You are probably wondering what happened next in both of these situations; but that information is for another time. Rather, I would like to explain why accusing Catholics of idolatry is unreasonable.
REASON 1. The “graven image” commandment must be read in context. The Israelites had a history of intentionally falling into true idol worship before graven images, so God gave them a “friendly reminder” that He alone should they serve as God. But in Exodus 26 and Numbers 7, for example, you will see that God had nothing against statues as icons. He commanded that two cherubim be carved on the ark. This angel artwork was not to be worshiped, and it wasn’t. Catholic statues are not to be worshiped, and they aren’t.
REASON 2. Catholicism is monotheistic and always has been. We are completely aware of the first commandment and have no God other than God Himself. We believe in one God. It’s in our Creed that we’ve been saying since the 4th century.
Official Catholic teaching says:
“Idolatry is a perversion of man’s innate religious sense. An idolater is someone who ‘transfers his indestructible notion of God to anything other than God’” (CCC 2114).
REASON 3. An act of reverence before an inanimate object does not equal idolatry. We would not gasp at the scene of a soldier kissing a picture of his wife. Surely, most Christians have knelt before a Bible or a cross in prayer and managed to avoid worshiping it. From a scriptural standpoint, clearly it was acceptable that David danced with all his might before the ark (2 Sam 6). Joshua fell prostrate before the ark of the covenant (Jos 7:6), but not because he was worshiping the ark. He was worshiping God whose presence was signified by the ark. In Catholic Churches, statues and images merely signify the presence and/or intercession of spiritual members of the Body of Christ (such as the saints) or Christ Himself (with exception of the Eucharist which is not a mere symbol—it simply and literally IS Christ); but these images do not replace that which they represent. Statues and images are aids to prayer.
Here’s why Catholics pray to saints for their intercession.
REASON 4: We cannot justly judge the interior disposition of another. Indeed, worship is both public and private; but as to the private or interior dimension, who can know the heart of another besides God (Lk 16:15). Someone’s public or external appearance might suggest the possibility of worship, but the interior state of the person’s heart remains hidden. To accuse another person of idolatry can be rather presumptive.
REASON 5: God is not opposed to all images and artwork in a place of worship. It’s all about the intention behind it. Read 1 Kings 6-9 and see how God responds to the house built by Solomon for God. Here’s a couple passages to illustrate why:
“He carved the walls of the house all around about with carved engravings of cherubim, palm trees, and open flowers, in the inner and outer rooms. The floor of the house he overlaid with gold, in the inner and outer rooms.” (1 Kings 6:29-30)
Here is God’s response to Solomon’s work:
“The Lord said to him, “I have heard your prayer and your plea, which you made before me; I have consecrated this house that you have built, and put my name there forever; my eyes and my heart will be there for all time.” (1 Kings 9:3)
There is more to say but I’ll stop here. I hope that if you are Catholic, this post will affirm you in your Catholic prayer life and if you are not Catholic, I hope this clears up any concerns you have about statues or images being unbiblical.
I’ll leave you with the 8th century words of St. John of Damascus:
“The beauty of the images moves me to contemplation, as a meadow delights the eyes and subtly infuses the soul with the glory of God” [On The Holy Images].