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.