Thursday, October 08, 2009

Debunking another anti-Catholic myth: Catholics and idolatry/graven images

A friend of mine asked for some advice the other night. Apparently he was dealing with a fundamentalist that made some strange claims about the Catholic Church and how we've supposedly change the 10 Commandments (the first commandment specifically) to justify using statues, idols and images in our prayers and so forth. The claim also stemmed to how we, Catholics, can also justify praying to saints. Here's how I responded:

The way the 10 commandments are divided in the Catholic tradition are done so in a way to emphasise the implicit nature of the Jewish decalogue, namely the first commandment:

"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." (Exodus 20:2-5; Deuteronomy 5:6-9)

Which can be summarised to (it is usually written this way in catechesis):

"I am the LORD your God; You shall have no other gods before me."

This is only a summarisation and not an omission; the meaning of the commandment is implicit as we know full well that it also addresses the issue of idol worship and the use of graven images.

What's also important to note is how the first commandment is explained in the Catechism of the Catholic Church; canon law (reference:

The misconception is that the Catholic Church "skims over" the clause regarding idolatry, but it couldn't be more the contrary. The Catholic Church explains in full what idolatry is, how it can manifest, and why we should avoid it:

2112 The first commandment condemns polytheism. It requires man neither to believe in, nor to venerate, other divinities than the one true God. Scripture constantly recalls this rejection of "idols, [of] silver and gold, the work of men's hands. They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see." These empty idols make their worshippers empty: "Those who make them are like them; so are all who trust in them." God, however, is the "living God" who gives life and intervenes in history.

2113 Idolatry not only refers to false pagan worship. It remains a constant temptation to faith. Idolatry consists in divinizing what is not God. Man commits idolatry whenever he honors and reveres a creature in place of God, whether this be gods or demons (for example, satanism), power, pleasure, race, ancestors, the state, money, etc. Jesus says, "You cannot serve God and mammon." Many martyrs died for not adoring "the Beast" refusing even to simulate such worship. Idolatry rejects the unique Lordship of God; it is therefore incompatible with communion with God.

2114 Human life finds its unity in the adoration of the one God. The commandment to worship the Lord alone integrates man and saves him from an endless disintegration. 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."

Catholics do not commit the sin of idolatry when they use statues and icons in their prayer, worship, or meditations. We do not worship these statues and icons, nor do we worship Mary or the saints in place of God, and nor do we make any attempt to deify (to make divine) Mary and the communion of saints; to do so would be idolatry. All praise and worship goes to Christ our Lord God and Saviour, plain and simple!

"Graven images" explained in the Catechism:

2129 The divine injunction included the prohibition of every representation of God by the hand of man. Deuteronomy explains: "Since you saw no form on the day that the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, beware lest you act corruptly by making a graven image for yourselves, in the form of any figure. . . . " It is the absolutely transcendent God who revealed himself to Israel. "He is the all," but at the same time "he is greater than all his works." He is "the author of beauty."

2130Nevertheless, already in the Old Testament, God ordained or permitted the making of images that pointed symbolically toward salvation by the incarnate Word: so it was with the bronze serpent, the ark of the covenant, and the cherubim.

2131 Basing itself on the mystery of the incarnate Word, the seventh ecumenical council at Nicaea (787) justified against the iconoclasts the veneration of icons - of Christ, but also of the Mother of God, the angels, and all the saints. By becoming incarnate, the Son of God introduced a new "economy" of images.

2132 The Christian veneration of images is not contrary to the first commandment which proscribes idols. Indeed, "the honor rendered to an image passes to its prototype," and "whoever venerates an image venerates the person portrayed in it." The honor paid to sacred images is a "respectful veneration," not the adoration due to God alone:

Religious worship is not directed to images in themselves, considered as mere things, but under their distinctive aspect as images leading us on to God incarnate. The movement toward the image does not terminate in it as image, but tends toward that whose image it is.

* * * * *

Get your friend to read the following verses of scripture and ask him/her if idolatry is being committed here:

Exodus 25 (God instructs Moses to construct the Ark of the Covenant)
Numbers 21:8 (God instructs Moses to create a bronze snake)
1 Kings 6 (Solomon builds the temple)

If your friend answers "Yes", then ask him/her why would God instruct us to "cast ye not a graven image" for the instruction only to be ignored later?

If your friend answers "No", then ask him/her why it isn't and what makes it wrong for Catholics to do as Moses and Solomon did. Cite the paragraphs on idolatry and graven images (above) for clarity/emphasis.

* * * * *
Further Reading
If you'd like to learn more about why Catholics use statues, icons and images in their prayer and liturgy, and why Catholics pray to Mary and the saints, then I highly recommend the following informational websites:

God bless.


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