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Are You Tired of Hearing that Catholics Worship Images?

The Space Between Ritual and the Practice of Art Bob Aubuchon

Bob Aubuchon

Fr. Henry Vargas Holguín - published on 09/09/14

An explanation of the origins of the accusation and how to respond effectively.

Noemí F.Q. posed this question on Facebook: Why do we Catholics have images of what we worship, that is, of God? Where did the idea come from?

The use of images and religious pictures, principally in churches and homes, has been widespread from time immemorial. The topic of sacred images, however, can be fairly polemical. In the Church’s relationship with non-Catholic Christians, it can complicate things, because among other misunderstandings of the Catholic faith, many believe that Catholics worship or adore images. This, of course, is absolutely false.

It may help clarify this issue by taking a look at sacred history. In the Old Testament the worship of any kind of image or visual representation of the divinity was strongly prohibited.

The first commandment of the Decalogue states unequivocally:

“You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God” (Exodus 20:3-5).

Any kind of image that is presented as a divinity is therefore prohibited. The commandment begins by saying, “You shall have no other gods before me,” or in other words, “You shall not make any idols.” But despite this clear prohibition, immediately after having promised to fulfill the Law, the people made a golden calf and worshipped it as God: “These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt!” (Exodus 32:8).

This is exactly what God was warning them about. This sin of idolatry is the reason that God decided to destroy the people. Only Moses’ intercession was able to convince God to have mercy and forgive them (Exodus 32:1-14).  

God also warned the Israelites about the images that they would find among the pagan nations: “The images of their gods you shall burn with fire. Do not covet the silver or the gold that is on them” (Deuteronomy 7:25).

Naturally, this prohibition still stands in the New Testament with the same intention and objective. The Bible shows that Christians, too, avoided the use of images that could be the object of adoration. Saint Paul says, for example, in his discourse in Athens: “Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals” (Acts 17: 29).

And Saint John the Apostle warns: “Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21). The early Church also clearly understood that adoration is given only to God. In fact, this is why, in the Roman Empire, many Christians were martyred for refusing to adore idols.

Let us also keep in mind that idols aren’t necessarily sculptures or images. Especially today, the idols to which many of us are devoted—and in which we seek refuge and place our trust—are immaterial. These are idols that we try to keep hidden, for example, ambition, the taste of success, the tendency to place ourselves above others, the misuse of sexuality, the desire to be the only masters of our lives, any sin to which we are attached, and many others. These idols also distance us from God, and distract us from the true purpose of our lives: salvation.

What is the reason behind the prohibition in the Old Testament?

The true reason is that God is the only God. He doesn’t resign himself to be, for example, the first among the gods. Rather, He is the only God. Consequently, other gods and idols are nothing. Isaiah mocks the creation of idols and those who worship them (Isaiah 44: 9-20).

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