Did you hear the one about Catholics “worshiping” statues?

October 9, 2012 by  
Filed under Apologetics, Patrick's Blog

True story!

The disapproval many Protestants have toward the Catholic custom of displaying religious statues and images is fueled by a suspicion that Catholics must be engaging in idolatry by worshiping those statues (forbidden in Exodus 20:3-5 and Deut. 5:6-9). Take it from me. This misconception is far more widespread than you might think.

About 20 years ago, as I arrived at a suburban Chicago parish where I was to conduct an apologetics seminar that evening, I noticed a life-sized statue of Our Lady of Fatima prominently displayed on the rectory lawn.

Directly in front of her statue were three smaller statues of Lucia, Francisco, and Jacinta — the children to whom Our Lady appeared. Their statues were kneeling in prayer, hands folded and heads bowed before the larger statue.

Turning to Karl Keating, who was in the car with me, I joked, “What a great religion Catholicism is! Not only can we worship statues, but our statues can worship statues.”

We chuckled at the absurdity of the thought.

I repeated this sarcastic quip during the seminar and, predictably, the Catholics in the audience laughed.  Some folks, though, seemed puzzled by the laughter. The reason? As I discovered during the Q&A session, they actually believed that Catholics do worship statues. I had a good opportunity, then and there, to explain the biblical teaching about religious images in the Catholic Church.

The following explanation is excerpted from my book Does the Bible Really Say That? Discovering Catholic Teaching in Scripture (Servant Books):

Admonitions against idolatry appear throughout Scripture (e.g., Numbers 33:52, Deut. 7:5, 25, 9:12, 12:3; 2 Kings 17:9-18, 23:24; 2 Chron. 23:17, 28:1-3, 22:18-25, 34:1-7). In 1 Corinthians 10:14 St. Paulwrote, “beloved, shun the worship of idols (Romans 1:18-23).

God condemns the sin of idolatry, whether in the form of worshipping statues, or stock options, or sex, or power, or a new car, any thing as an idol. But He does not prohibit religious images provided they are used properly. For example, in Exodus chapter 25 God commands Moses to carve statues of angels.

The LORD said to Moses . . . you shall make two cherubim of gold; of hammered work shall you make them, on the two ends of the mercy seat. Make one cherub on the one end, and one cherub on the other end; of one piece with the mercy seat shall you make the cherubim on its two ends. The cherubim shall spread out their wings above, overshadowing the mercy seat with their wings, their faces one to another; toward the mercy seat shall the faces of the cherubim be. . . . There I will meet with you, and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim that are upon the ark of the testimony, I will speak with you of all that I will give you in commandment for the people of Israel” (Exodus 25:1, 18-20, 22; cf. 26:1).

This shows clearly that there are circumstances in which religious images are not merely permissible but actually pleasing to God. Another example is the rather humorous incident described in 1 Samuel 6:1-18. In Exodus 28:31-34 the Lord commanded that Aaron’s priestly vestments be adorned with images of pomegranates. In Numbers 21:8-9 He commanded Moses to fashion the graven image of a snake that would miraculously cure poisonous snakebites (a mysterious foreshadowing of the cross of Christ [cf. John 3:14; 8:28]). And in 2 Kings 18:4, when the people began worshipping the bronze serpent, the King immediately destroyed it. What once was a legitimate sacred image had become an object of idolatry. (A cautionary tale for anyone tempted toward superstition or idolatry).

And notice what God told Solomon as he constructed the Temple: “’Concerning this house which you are building, if you will walk in my statutes and obey my ordinances and keep all my commandments and walk in them, then I will establish my word with you, which I spoke to David your father. And I will dwell among the children of Israel, and will not forsake my people Israel.’ So Solomon built the house, and finished it.” (1 Kings 6:12-12-14).

This statement is important because the Templecontained a vast number of statues and images including angels, trees, flowers, oxen, and lions (cf. 1 Kings 6:23-35, 7:25, 36). Solomon’s decision to include these religious images came from the gift of wisdom God had blessed him with (cf. 1 Kings 3:1-28). And far from being displeased by such images, “the LORD said unto him, I have heard thy prayer and thy supplication that thou hast made before me: I have hallowed this house, which thou hast built, to put my name there for ever; and mine eyes and mine heart shall be there perpetually” (1 Kings 9:3).

Obviously, God would not have blessed Solomon and “hallowed” his temple filled with statues and images if He did not approve of them — further proof that images can be good when used to order our minds toward God and heavenly realities.

Remember too that St. Paulcalled Christ “the express image” of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15). The Greek word here for “image” is eikonos, from which we derive the word “icon.”

Just as we keep pictures of our family and friends to remind us of them, we also keep statues and images in our homes and churches to remind us of our Lord, Our Lady and the Saints.

Additional passages to study:

John 14:9

Colossians 1:15

Hebrews 1:3

1 John 1:1-3

Related Catechism Sections:

[Listen to my debate on this subject with Protestant apologist James White]


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9 Responses to “Did you hear the one about Catholics “worshiping” statues?”
  1. Vatican Ninja says:

    I guess you better chuck all your kids action figures and My Little Ponies too huh? Seems silly in that light, don’t it? :P Statues are basically just 3-D paintings and no different than stained glass pictures. Better delete your face off this website too. Someone might worship it. :O *INTENSE NINJA SARCASM*

  2. Ana Zamora says:

    I’m mexican, living in Mexico, and also traveled a little. And everywhere I’ve been, in every church, I’ve lit a candle in front of a religious statue… why should it be mexicans fault that protestants think we catholics worship idols? I mean, the source of the relation between mexicans eand religious statues goes back as far as the colonial times when jesuits even arranged plays to teach the natives and there is not space to say more. Please be one with the catholics of the rest of the world and respect different visions and traditions, the only truth of one God is common to all of us, traditions are only details.

  3. Marie Asport says:

    Dear Patrick: Thanks for the teaching about the statues. I have been persecuted by “Christians” for it. I told them the same as you say and they insist on their opinion. I guess in Mexico they go to far when lighting candles and kissing statues, dressing the saints etc. etc. so (por unos pagan todos) Thank you for the wisdom that the Lord bless you with. God bless you

    Marie

  4. Weston Whitten says:

    Every child needs a little understanding, no matter what their age.
    Compare a statue to a grave marker. I usually talk out loud when I visit a loved one. It would appear that I am speaking to granite.
    If the child asks, “why go to the grave and talk, when we can do that anywhere?”
    Explain that it is a spiritual doorbell.

    Religious statues are memorials, not idols.

  5. ANNE says:

    As you have stated: The ‘ARC of the Covenant’ in the Old Testament was required to have a statue of an Angel on each side.
    Ex 25:18 – “And you shall make two cherubim of gold; of hammered work shall you make them, on the two ends of the mercy seat.” – GOD to Moses.

    I have explained to others – I have pictures of my children on the wall at home. I do not worship the paper its printed on or the children, but the pictures remind me of them and it makes me smile.

  6. TeaPot562 says:

    Given the amount of time that many in our society devote to pornography, “Sex” is definitely a favorite idol of many.
    TeaPot562

  7. Therese Z says:

    The problem gets worse when the media plays up photos of weeping people looking on at vandalized statues, and they stick their mikes in the faces of some old person who says “I loved her. She meant so much to me” and of COURSE it looks like they had worshiped the statue. And maybe they had, I have no illusions as to some of the Catholics I have grown up with. Makes no difference that the parish pastor is quoted speaking correctly about the meaning of art and the age of the statue and the good people who paid for it, etc. You carry away the weeping lady, and the idea is perpetuated.

  8. deMOAOC says:

    Another wonderful article Mr. Madrid!

    I’m always amazed at how Protestants can say that Catholic teachings and practices are not biblical, yet Protestants themselves don’t even know the Bible! Like the devil, they disunite* the whole of God’s word, taking only pieces which suit them. It is the Catholic Church alone who holds to the whole of God’s word, both written and oral**. That was quite evident when I was researching religion before I converted many years ago.

    * See Matthew 4:5-7 “….[The devil] said to [Jesus]: If you be the Son of God, cast yourself down, for it is written: That he has given his angels charge over you, and in their hands shall they bear you up, lest perhaps you dash your foot against a stone. Jesus said to him: It is written again: You shall not tempt the Lord your God.” (http://newadvent.org/bible/mat004.htm)

    (Notice how the devil, although he quoted Scripture, did not take the WHOLE of Scripture into account, but Jesus did. It isn’t surprising then that any “Christian” religion not founded by Jesus Himself would do as the devil and not as Christ!)

    ** Matthew 4:3-4 “….[Jesus] answered and said: It is written, Not in bread alone does man live, but in every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” (Ibid)

    (Notice here that Jesus says we must live by every word that proceeds from God’s mouth, NOT just every word that is written! (Cf. What Catholic’s mean by Tradition.)

    —–

    Incidentally, I’m looking forward to your new book “Envoy For Christ.” I read the preview on Amazon, and the story of how you (and Karl Keating) first met Scott Hahn is just priceless!

  9. Nancy says:

    Statues have been around forever. To say that Catholics worship them is ridicules. I explain it to my 2nd and 3rd grade students that it’s like have pictures of your family around the house. It reminds us of their love for us and our love for them. Those who say we worship statues need to remember what the commandment is really about- FALSE IDOLS, which, these days is money, wealth, notoriety, sports, beauty, etc. It’s not that difficult to differentiate.

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