Do Catholics worship Idols? Part 1: Statues of Jesus

Quite some time ago, after a post about contemporary idolatry, I promised one of my commenters a response to his question whether the Catholic use of statues in prayer constituted idolatry. Since one of my BLT co-bloggers has also just started a dialogue on idolatry, this seemed like a good time to come back to that long-deferred question.

The accusation of idolatry in Catholicism can mean more than one thing, so for clarity, I will treat separately the questions about statues of Jesus, statues of the saints, and the veneration of Mary.

The question of whether sacred images were permissible to Christians was settled, at least for Catholics and Orthodox Christians, at the Second Council of Nicaea in 787, as the final resolution of the iconoclast controversy. The council distinguished between sacred images and idols, and upheld the longstanding tradition that

just as the figure of the precious and life-giving Cross, so also the venerable and holy images, as well in painting and mosaic as of other fit materials, should be set forth in the holy churches of God, and on the sacred vessels and on the vestments and on hangings and in pictures both in houses and by the wayside . . .

For by so much more frequently as they are seen in artistic representation, by so much more readily are [people] lifted up to the memory of their prototypes, and to a longing after them; and to these should be given due salutation and honourable reverence (ἀσπασμὸν καὶ τιμητικὴν προσκύνησιν), not indeed that true worship of faith (λατρείαν) which pertains alone to the divine nature; . . .

but to these, as to the figure of the precious and life-giving Cross and to the Book of the Gospels and to the other holy objects, incense and lights may be offered according to ancient pious custom. For the honour which is paid to the image passes on to that which the image represents, and [s/he] who reveres the image reveres in it the subject represented.

From the decree of the Council, emphasis mine.

Before I go on, let me testify to that last emphasized statement from this conciliar teaching: I grew up Catholic. Even as a teeny tiny Catholic child, I was never, for one moment, ever confused about the difference between the statue of Jesus, or the crucifix showing Jesus on the cross, and Jesus himself. It was always obvious to me that God was in heaven, and the statue was a picture of God: just like Grandma was in Michigan, and the image in the frame was a picture of Grandma.

But there is a more interesting theological point here, pertaining to the reason why, as a general rule, Catholic churches contain images of Jesus but not of God the Father. According to the doctrine of the Incarnation, Jesus himself is the image (ikon) of the Father. As John Damascene argued in his Discourses, and as Piero Marini summarizes here,

However the most important argument was theological; the dogmatic foundation for the cult of icons is the Incarnation. The Word became flesh: Jesus is the human face of God and therefore we may represent Him (Discourses, I, 22). The Old Testament forbade images; in the Old Covenant God had revealed himself only by word. In the New Testament, the Word becomes an image.

Iconography and Liturgy, Office of Papal Liturgical Celebrations, 20 January 2005

I had as a child, and still have, a small statue of the Infant of Prague, that shows Jesus as a child king. (This was considered a particularly suitable statue for children, as we were encouraged to relate to Jesus who had been a child just like we were.) I never prayed to the statue. Looking at the statue reminded me of Jesus, to whom I prayed. If anything, I thought of the statue as a sort of holy doll: not in the sense of a toy to be played with, but in the sense of something that imitated, but was not the same as, the Person that it represented.

The Protestant Reformation, shaped as it was by the invention of the printing press that made it possible for every Christian to have and to read the bible, saw little need for one of the traditional functions of sacred images as the bible and prayerbook of the illiterate. Shaped, too, by the abuses of money and power of the Roman Catholic Church at the time, it was often rightly suspicious of lavishly and expensively decorated churches. But the strands of Protestantism that reject all forms of sacred art seem to me to have lost their way from the balance of the Incarnation, that affirms the goodness of matter and physicality, and fallen into a sort of dualism that abhors matter and values only spirit. While it is true that persons can become enamored of the beauty of sacred art as an end in itself, rather than as a means by which our souls are directed towards God, this is equally true for all other elements of worship: beautiful music or prayer texts or powerful preaching can just as easily become ends in themselves, as any honest church musician, liturgist, or preacher knows.

The Catholic use of many forms of sacred art, including statues of Jesus, crucifixes, and the cross, are consistent with a theological anthropology that affirms the goodness of matter, and provides a means by which our human sense of sight and appreciation of beauty can be engaged in liturgical and devotional prayer. Far from being idols that we worship, these statues help us to fulfill the great commandment that we love the LORD our God with our whole being.

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15 Responses to Do Catholics worship Idols? Part 1: Statues of Jesus

  1. Theophrastus says:

    Is it fair to say that your opinions on this subject are basically the same as Aquinas’s opinions in Summa Theologica 3.25.3 and 3.25.4?

    • Well, Aquinas makes my head hurt. He’s so thoroughly Aristotelian, that it’s hard for me to grok the arguments he makes. So his reasoning is certainly not the same as mine. In 25.3, he uses the two points that are important to me — he quotes Damascene quoting Basil: “The honor given to an image reaches to the prototype,” and notes that “But because in the New Testament God was made man, He can be adored in His corporeal image.” But he uses and builds on these two points in ways that I wouldn’t.

      Reading 25.4, I realize I didn’t actually talk about the cross as opposed to the crucifix, so let me do that for a minute. The veneration of the cross is the distinctive rite of the Good Friday liturgy: after the reading of the Passion, we venerate the cross both communally and individually.

      As I’ve experienced it, this is done communally by the display of the cross to the people, accompanied by the text

      Behold, behold, the wood of the cross,
      On which is hung our salvation:
      O come, let us adore.

      Ecce, ecce lignum crucis,
      in quo salus mundi dependit:
      Venite, adoremus.

      This text explains to me what we are doing and why we are doing it. The cross is the instrument through which our salvation was accomplished by Christ’s shame, suffering, and death for our sakes. The cross is meaningful to Christians as the symbol and locus of Christ’s suffering to take away the sin(s) of the world.

      We venerate the cross communally by acclamation, and individually by kissing it, traditionally, or by some other gesture indicating honor, reverence, and humility, because it is the place where Christ suffered and died. By venerating the cross, we humbly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledge the depths of his sacrifice.

      For Catholics, this aspect of sacrifice is also included in every celebration of the eucharist; but on Good Friday, in this rite of the veneration of the cross, we unpack this element to its fullest extent.

      So, my reasoning and conclusion with respect to the cross is very different from Aquinas on this one.

  2. Nicely done. It seems simple enough to know as a Catholic, but without truly understanding the heart and thought behind use of statues and other objects in helping direct prayer to God, it seems foreign to many.

    • Thanks. It’s interesting to me that this is an area where I suspect Catholics and some/many Protestants have tended to see the other as completely alien. Certainly it was mind-boggling to me that there were people who seriously thought we were praying to statues — how could anyone think that’s what we were doing? And yet it was just as mind-boggling to them that we had these graven images in our churches.

  3. Of course Caholics (and the Orthodox) do not worship idols. To suggest as much involves an oversimplification and straw man mischaracterization of the use of icons and images.
    But then Karen Amstrong suggests that the biblical polemics against idolatry involve a similar, perhaps deliberate, misunderstanding.

    • Thanks for your comment, Brant. (And for your thoroughgoing rejection of Catholics as idol-worshipers! 😉 )

      Sometimes I wonder whether “idol” is used to mean “any god other than the LORD.” It seems to be used that way by some fundamentalist Christians today who condemn Muslims as idol worshipers.

      I’ve heard the polemic argument, and I’ve also heard the idea that “worshiping idols” was used as a shorthand way of condemning the entire associated cult.

  4. Chris says:

    Above you have a lot of discussion and quotes and backing for your assertion. And others have commented agreeably. But I note that no one has quoted God on the topic, so let’s do so:

    > “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above
    > or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; […]”

    I’ll go ahead and assert that Catholics, even if they do not “worship idols” in their heart, get dangerously close.

    – make a graven image of something in heaven above? Check.
    – bow down to them? Check. (
    – worship them? (some say yes and some say no)

    Are you sure you want to stand before God some day and say, “Well, yeah, OK, so we made them and bowed down before them, but at least we only “venerated” them…” ?

    • Hi Chris,

      Thanks for your comment. It’s good to have an interlocutor on this. 🙂

      But I note that no one has quoted God on the topic, so let’s do so:

      So, several things:
      – I don’t know what the Hebrew words shachah or abad of the commandment connoted to their original readers. abad doesn’t appear to resemble either “worship” or “venerate”.
      – I believe the point of this commandment is the attitude one is to have towards the LORD, rather than specific gestures. The significance of gestures is well known to be culturally conditioned. Both the rabbis and Jesus summed up the ten commandments as “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” Both traditions emphasize that it is the heart, not the gesture, that matters.
      – As I mentioned above, John Damascene (explicated above by Piero Marini) is responding to whether the OT prohibition applies to the Christian era:

      The Old Testament forbade images; in the Old Covenant God had revealed himself only by word. In the New Testament, the Word becomes an image.

      I think this a sound and significant theological point. The Ten Commandments were given to a people who were not yet monotheistic, but henotheistic (the belief that there are other gods, but you’re only supposed to worship your own), and God at this point in salvation history had disclosed Godself only as an unseeable God that transcended every kind of thing that people could see: thus any image of that God would be idolatrous. In the Incarnation, God revealed Godself in the image of Jesus: when we see Christ, we see the LORD. Thus an image of Christ is not idolatrous but is a faithful image of the LORD.

      I’ll go ahead and assert that Catholics, even if they do not “worship idols” in their heart, get dangerously close.

      On what grounds? I assert the contrary, based on my experience as a Catholic. Should we take a poll? That’s something like what church tradition already is – in G. K. Chesterton’s memorable phrase, it is the democracy of the dead.

      – make a graven image of something in heaven above?

      So, this may come across as semantic hairsplitting; but this is what occurred to me when I raead this point, and I think it’s legitimate cosmological interpretation. For the specific case of images of Christ, in a real sense those images are not in the form of anything in heaven above OR on the earth beneath OR in the waters below: because for us humans and for our salvation, he came down from heaven; by the power of the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became human; after suffering death, he descended into hell; after being raised, he ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He crossed all those boundaries and that is arguably one of the signifiers of his divinity.

      The image you show is a statue of Mary, which I’ll get to later – that raises different issues. And actually I don’t see any bowing down involved – it’s just a really big statue! (and a somewhat creepy one, but let’s hold that thought till I get to part 3 someday.)

      Are you sure you want to stand before God some day and say, “Well, yeah, OK, so we made them and bowed down before them, but at least we only “venerated” them…” ?

      I seriously have no worries about this, because God knows what is in my heart when the crucifix and statues of the LORD are instrumental in my prayer. I do not think God is a literalist or a legalist.

      • Chris says:

        Semantic hairsplitting is indeed what it is. Christ sits at the right hand of the Father (in heaven). Making an image of him is in clear contradiction to that one clause in the commandment. It is semantic contorsion to say otherwise.

        Also, you bring up the (two) great commandments which sum up the law and the prophets. Are you really making the point here that we may ignore the 10, or that they do not apply to us anymore? Yes, I agree, we need to look at the spirit of all the law together, but I don’t think that means we abandon the 10. Do you feel free to take the name of the Lord in vain thoughtlessly, for example?

        Also, John Damascene is not our God or Savior. Why quote him when we have a quote from God?

        • Yeah, I should have left the semantic point out of this discussion – I knew it would not convince you. 🙂 It was mostly just interesting to me.

          I’m quoting Marini who is interpreting Damascene who is interpreting the authors of Exodus and/or Deuteronomy (as he received them in, probably, Greek translation) in light of the received tradition from the early Christian church. Part of the disagreement that you and I are having here is really about what principles should be used to interpret scripture.

          One issue is about the scope that is being translated. For example, when I read Ex 20, I read all the following as one coherent statement:

          I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall not have other gods beside me. You shall not make for yourself an idol or a likeness of anything in the heavens above or on the earth below or in the waters beneath the earth; you shall not bow down before them or serve them.

          As I believe the LORD who is speaking here is the God we Christians understand as triune, I think this is a commandment about not worshiping *other* gods, and obviously (to trinitarian Christians), worshiping Jesus is *not* worshiping other gods. Whereas, if I understand your reading, you are separating the idol/likeness part from the no other gods part, and therefore see an injunction against any images. I don’t know if you also read there an injunction against making any images whatsoever even for purely aesthetic purposes, and would read this as an injunction against any type of representational art. I would guess you do not, and I do not, but I think it’s an arguable interpretation. After all there seem to be two statements there: a) do not make likenesses; b) do not bow down or worship them.

          Then again, some readers especially our Jewish sisters and brothers, would question why we Christians treat these 10 as special, and don’t equally honor the other 600 or so that are also given as part of the same story. Ex 21, 22, 23 carry on with more commandments given from God. Why don’t we treat those the same way? If they’re part of the Mosaic covenant, well, so are the first 10.

          I don’t think there is such a thing as a plain, uninterpreted reading of the text, even aside from issues of translation which itself inevitably involves interpretive choices. The more I study and learn about the cultural context in which these ancient texts originated, the more convinced I am of that.

          I do respect the whole-heartedness with which you approach this text, and your desire to be very sure you are abiding by God’s will, even though we disagree about how to interpret it.

          • Chris says:

            Thanks for your continued replies. Bear with me a bit longer.

            You say about scope: “I read all the following as one coherent statement”, but the Jews (and surely Jesus) learned that differently. Your quoted text amounts to two _separate_ commandments (one of many available refs: It may be difficult for RC ears to hear this, but the RC numbering of the ten commandments isn’t quite right (though all the points I make could be done without relying on the numbering issue). The way Jesus learned them (you must agree) would have been the right way. I say we cannot “brush under the rug” (my words) the part about idols.

            As for your next argument that the 10 are no more special than the rest of the law. Are we under the law? No. But do we abandon the law? No! – the law teaches us how we sin. Are you really making the point that Christians can abandon the 10 commandments?? If so, there is no need to continue this discussion (you can ignore the 10, though I will not). But if you are not making that point, let’s save the discussion of which parts of the OT law are most important for another time – it is a tangential distraction (IMO). Also, idolatry is mentioned a few times in the NT.

            You say you think there is no “plain, uninterpreted reading of the text”. To that I say: 1) if that were true, one would be able to convince oneself of basically anything – anything is permissible – but that cannot be the case, and 2) How much plainer do we need it? God wrote with his finger in stone for us, ten basic laws. As if He were saying “Here. Learn these. They’re important. See, I wrote them simply for you. IN STONE. Don’t blow it.”

            • Hi Chris,

              You say you think there is no “plain, uninterpreted reading of the text”. To that I say: 1) if that were true, one would be able to convince oneself of basically anything – anything is permissible

              That does not follow. “Interpreted reading” does not mean “any meaning I want to construe is equally valid.” There are objective standards for good interpretation. A number of them, to be sure, but not an unconstrained number of them — biblical scholars are not playing “anything goes” and in fact are trained to attempt to avoid the kind of subjective reading into the text that you’re describing.

              You say about scope: “I read all the following as one coherent statement”, but the Jews (and surely Jesus) learned that differently.

              The Jewish understanding of the God who made that covenant at Sinai was, and is, not the same as the Christian understanding of that very God. This difference must inevitably be taken into account when considering how to understand the commandments that govern one’s relationship with God.

              Also, neither the biblical Judaism of the Shared Scriptures, nor the Second Temple-era Judaisms of Jesus’ day, can be simply identified with the rabbinic Judaism of today. So I don’t think we can say that “surely Jesus” would have learned the Ten Sayings of Ex 20 in the same way that they are taught by rabbis today. Possibly he would have, but possibly not; I’d want to know more about how that evolved over time.

              Are we under the law? No. But do we abandon the law? No! – the law teaches us how we sin. Are you really making the point that Christians can abandon the 10 commandments??

              And this is where we probably come to a fundamental communications gap. I am absolutely not arguing that Christians should abandon the 10 commandments. However, it is true that the whole concept of law (which is a poor translation from the Hebrew, btw) and commandments is just one that does not resonate for me as a description of our relationship with God and with each other. Intellectually and emotionally, I do not see, and never have seen, how “law” and “commandment” cohere with the central tenets of the Gospel embodied in Christ’s life, death, and resurrection and in his relationship with the Father. There are a number of other equally biblical words and concepts that are more powerful, persuasive, and helpful to me (in terms of knowing when I sin) than law and commandment: love, justice, covenant faithfulness to name a few.

              I realize these ideas of law and commandment are prevalent and valued in the Christian tradition, and intellectually I treat them with respect for that reason, and with the awareness that maybe I’m just missing something here. And I’m sure there are people who think I am just fundamentally misguided here. And maybe they’re right, I don’t know!

              St. Paul says that all things are permitted to us, but not all things are good for us; and that we should have a care for each other’s consciences. I would never try to convince you that you should pray with statues, if you are persuaded that it is idolatry. (If I understand Paul correctly, then for you it *would* be wrong, even if it turns out that your interpretation is incorrect.)

  5. Chris says:

    Let me restart the thread so we may have a wider column. Permit me also to apologize for the rushed/snippy tone of my last post. I reread it now and, while I believe those points, I see places where they could have been made in a friendlier way…

    On “interpreted reading”, we may just have to agree to disagree about whether the 10 commandments, which were written in stone and carefully kept (for a time) by the Israelites, really need that much interpretation. In the spectrum of “level of interpretation needed”, I find little necessary for the 10 commandments, while I find more necessary for other more cryptic parts of scripture. You and I are probably closer to each others’ levels on those other parts.

    On OT vs. NT God (understanding of), I believe (as I think you do) that these two are necessarily one and the same – the father of Christ. Whether our understanding differs from ancient Jewish understanding may not matter much. Do you not believe (as I do) that God is to be both loved and feared? Do you fear God?

    On “law” – I think I understand a bit more now. Perhaps this is not so much a communication gap but a foundational difference. I see myself (or need to) as a sinner who is, but for Christ, under condemnation for my sin. And, even though saved, my flesh still has the urge to sin.

    And yes, I think you are spot-on with your interpretation of Paul’s take on personal differences in conscience. Yes, I am persuaded that prayer with statues is a kind of idolatry.

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