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 25 years ago, as Karl Keating and I arrived at a suburban Chicago parish where we were 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, as we were getting out of our rental car, 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 later that evening at the seminar and, predictably, the Catholics in the audience laughed. Some folks, though, seemed puzzled by the laughter. The reason? As I discovered, when a local Baptist minister raised the issue during the Q&A session, he and several other non-Catholics in the audience that evening actually believed that Catholics do worship statues. It was the perfect 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:
Today, being the feast day of my beloved patron saint, Patrick, I post this for everyone’s edification and for the glory of the Triune God.
I bind to myself todayThe strong virtue of the Invocation of the Trinity:I believe the Trinity in the UnityThe Creator of the Universe.
I bind to myself todayThe virtue of the Incarnation of Christ with His Baptism,The virtue of His crucifixion with His burial,The virtue of His Resurrection with His Ascension,The virtue of His coming on the Judgement Day.
I bind to myself todayThe virtue of the love of seraphim,In the obedience of angels,In the hope of resurrection unto reward,In prayers of Patriarchs,In predictions of Prophets,In preaching of Apostles,In faith of Confessors,In purity of holy Virgins,In deeds of righteous men.
I bind to myself todayThe power of Heaven,The light of the sun,The brightness of the moon,The splendour of fire,
The flashing of lightning,The swiftness of wind,The depth of sea,The stability of earth,The compactness of rocks.
I bind to myself todayGod’s Power to guide me,God’s Might to uphold me,God’s Wisdom to teach me,God’s Eye to watch over me,God’s Ear to hear me,God’s Word to give me speech,God’s Hand to guide me,God’s Way to lie before me,God’s Shield to shelter me,God’s Host to secure me,Against the snares of demons,Against the seductions of vices,Against the lusts of nature,Against everyone who meditates injury to me,Whether far or near,Whether few or with many.
I invoke today all these virtuesAgainst every hostile merciless powerWhich may assail my body and my soul,Against the incantations of false prophets,Against the black laws of heathenism,Against the false laws of heresy,Against the deceits of idolatry,Against the spells of women, and smiths, and druids,Against every knowledge that binds the soul of man.
Christ, protect me todayAgainst every poison, against burning,Against drowning, against death-wound,That I may receive abundant reward.
Christ with me, Christ before me,Christ behind me, Christ within me,Christ beneath me, Christ above me,Christ at my right, Christ at my left,Christ in the fort,Christ in the chariot seat,Christ on the deck,Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me,Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks to me,Christ in every eye that sees me,Christ in every ear that hears me.
I bind to myself todayThe strong virtue of an invocation of the Trinity,I believe the Trinity in the UnityThe Creator of the Universe.
And now, here is the “back story” of this famous prayer, quoted from the Catholic Encyclopedia:
St. Patrick learned from Dichu that the chieftains of Erin had been summoned to celebrate a special feast at Tara by Leoghaire, who was the Ard-Righ, that is, the Supreme Monarch of Ireland. This was an opportunity which Patrick would not forego; he would present himself before the assembly, to strike a decisive blow against the Druidism that held the nation captive, and to secure freedom for the glad tidings of Redemption of which he was the herald.
As he journeyed on he rested for some days at the house of a chieftain named Secsnen, who with his household joyfully embraced the Faith. The youthful Benen, or Benignus, son of the chief, was in a special way captivated by the Gospel doctrines and the meekness of Patrick.
Whilst the saint slumbered he would gather sweet-scented flowers and scatter them over his bosom, and when Patrick was setting out, continuing his journey towards Tara, Benen clung to his feet declaring that nothing would sever him from him. “Allow him to have his way”, said St. Patrick to the chieftain, “he shall be heir to my sacred mission.” Thenceforth Benen was the inseparable companion of the saint, and the prophecy was fulfilled, for Benen is named among the “comhards” or successors of St. Patrick in Armagh.
It was on 26 March, Easter Sunday, in 433, that the eventful assembly was to meet at Tara, and the decree went forth that from the preceding day the fires throughout the kingdom should be extinguished until the signal blaze was kindled at the royal mansion. The chiefs and Brehons came in full numbers and the druids too would muster all their strength to bid defiance to the herald of good tidings and to secure the hold of their superstition on the Celtic race, for their demoniac oracles had announced that the messenger of Christ had come to Erin.
St. Patrick arrived at the hill of Slane, at the opposite extremity of the valley from Tara, on Easter Eve, in that year the feast of the Annunciation, and on the summit of the hill kindled the Paschal fire. The druids at once raised their voice. “O King”, (they said) “live for ever; this fire, which has been lighted in defiance of the royal edict, will blaze for ever in this land unless it be this very night extinguished.”
By order of the king and the agency of the druids, repeated attempts were made to extinguish the blessed fire and to punish with death the intruder who had disobeyed the royal command. But the fire was not extinguished and Patrick shielded by the Divine power came unscathed from their snares and assaults.
On Easter Day the missionary band having at their head the youth Benignus bearing aloft a copy of the Gospels, and followed by St. Patrick who with mitre and crozier was arrayed in full episcopal attire, proceeded in processional order to Tara.
The druids and magicians put forth all their strength and employed all their incantations to maintain their sway over the Irish race, but the prayer and faith of Patrick achieved a glorious triumph. The druids by their incantations overspread the hill and surrounding plain with a cloud of worse than Egyptian darkness.
Patrick defied them to remove that cloud, and when all their efforts were made in vain, at his prayer the sun sent forth its rays and the brightest sunshine lit up the scene. Again by demoniac power the Arch-Druid Lochru, like Simon Magus of old, was lifted up high in the air, but when Patrick knelt in prayer the druid from his flight was dashed to pieces upon a rock.
Thus was the final blow given to paganism in the presence of all the assembled chieftains. It was, indeed, a momentous day for the Irish race.
Twice Patrick pleaded for the Faith before Leoghaire. The king had given orders that no sign of respect was to be extended to the strangers, but at the first meeting the youthful Erc, a royal page, arose to show him reverence; and at the second, when all the chieftains were assembled, the chief-bard Dubhtach showed the same honor to the saint. Both these heroic men became fervent disciples of the Faith and bright ornaments of the Irish Church.
It was on this second solemn occasion that St. Patrick is said to have plucked a shamrock from the sward, to explain by its triple leaf and single stem, in some rough way, to the assembled chieftains, the great doctrine of the Blessed Trinity. On that bright Easter Day, the triumph of religion at Tara was complete.
The Ard-Righ granted permission to Patrick to preach the Faith throughout the length and breadth of Erin, and the druidical prophecy like the words of Balaam of old would be fulfilled: the sacred fire now kindled by the saint would never be extinguished.