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:
1 John 1:1-3
Related Catechism Sections:
“Catholic Answers” was, in those days, simply a part-time tract and newsletter apostolate Karl had operated for a few years from his home, writing new materials in his spare time.
We made contact as the result of an article I happened across in our diocesan newspaper, a brief, blasé squib about a public debate on the papacy that Karl had engaged in with an itinerant Baptist minister who ran an anti-Catholic organization aimed solely at converting Catholics to the “truth.” That caught my attention.
I was excited to see someone else involved in apologetics, something I had developed a deep love for, doing it also in my spare time (I had a full-time career in sales). For some time I had assumed I was alone in the world in my love for apologetics, and it was energizing to see another Catholic out there mixing it up with critics of the Church.
I put down the paper and reached for the phone. The article had provided no contact information for Keating or Catholic Answers, so I doubted I’d be able to reach him, but just for a lark I decided to check with directory information.
To my surprise, presto, I had a phone number for Catholic Answers. But since it was well after 9:00 p.m., I knew no one would be at the office, so I called, intending to just leave a message. After a couple of rings, a voice answered: “Hello, Catholic Answers.”
“Um . . . hello,” I said, surprised that someone was actually answering the phone this late. “I realize I’m calling after hours, but I wanted to leave a message for Karl Keating.”
“This is Karl Keating,” the voice on the other end said.
“Wow,” I exclaimed. “I didn’t expect you to answer the phone,” and then I told him I had read the article and that I was happy to hear about the apologetics work he was doing.
An hour and a half later, we finished our phone conversation, and I had a new friend.
Karl and I had talked enthusiastically about our common love for apologetics, and I was impressed with all the good work he had undertaken, single-handedly, to answer critics of the Church. He told me about the tracts he had written, the monthly apologetics newsletter,Catholic Answers, he produced, and the debates he was engaging in. All of this was very exciting to me, and over the next several months, Karl and I spoke frequently by phone, comparing notes and discussing various apologetics issues.
Fast-forward now to early January,1988. Through a lot of prayer and reflection (read the details of that saga here), I had come to realize that God was calling me to do something for Him, something other than the secular work in sales I was doing at that time. The problem was, though I sensed He wanted something in particular from me, I had no idea what it might be.
For a solid month, in addition to praying the rosary every day for this special intention, I spent my lunch hours at a Catholic parish near my office on my knees in front of the Blessed Sacrament, praying and asking the Lord to show me what He wanted me to do with my life. I knew He was calling me to something, but I simply couldn’t discern what that something was.
So, deciding to “step out in faith,” I resigned from my job, determined to force the issue and find the new career I felt God was calling me to. That weekend, after I quit my job, Karl called. During the course of our conversation, I asked him to keep me in his prayers as I figured out what career direction I’d be headed in.
“Sure, I’ll pray for you,” he said. “But I can do something else. I’ve recently decided to shut down my law practice and open an office for Catholic Answers. I’m going to turn it into a full-time venture. Why don’t you come work with me at Catholic Answers and we’ll build it into something big?”
Without hesitating, I said, “No, thanks. I appreciate the offer, but whatever it is God wants me to be doing with my life, I’m sure it’s not apologetics.” Working in Catholic apologetics had never even remotely occurred to me as an option. It never entered my mind that I could make a living and support my growing family as an apologist.
But Karl was persistent. He reiterated his offer for me to come work with him and help establish the full-time Catholic Answers operation. Though I tried to demur, I can see now that God was working through him.
For the next twenty minutes we discussed the idea, and our call ended with my agreeing to give it a try. After all, he reminded me, what did I have to lose?
That phone call changed my life. Only months later, as I looked back on how it all happened, did it finally dawn on me that my prayers for God’s guidance had been answered. The Lord had shown me what he wanted from me. I was too blind to see it at first. I realized that this- being an apologist- was Christ’s answer to my prayers.
I had the privilege of working with Karl and the many other great people at Catholic Answers for eight years. When I became vice president of Catholic Answers, a few years into my employment there, I had the best seat in the house from which to watch the organization unfold from a part-time apostolate to the major institution it is today.
I thank God for that opportunity to have been a part of such a thing. During my time at Catholic Answers, I saw close-up the dizzying rise of Catholic apologetics: the flood of tapes and books, the seminars and debates, countless new converts, and now the once unheard of luxuries such as Catholic apologetics radio programs, websites, and the plethora of excellent apologetics television programs on EWTN.
Working with Karl, back in those early days before apologetics had caught on- well before being an apologist was acceptable, much less “cool”- was a wonderful and extremely enriching experience for me, personally, spiritually, and professionally. I learned a lot and had an immense amount of fun along the way, helping to “blaze the trail.”
I thank God every day for that privilege. I also thank my friend, Karl Keating, for inviting me to join him on the adventure.
— By Patrick Madrid (www.patrickmadrid.com), all rights reserved.
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