In any case, Christians know that the image, even if it is an image of Christ, is not divine, and as a consequence the material aspect of the image itself is not worshiped. An image represents the Son of God, or other people intimately related to Him; this is why it is licit to create images of the Virgin and of the saints. The image is simply a representation and a reminder of those people. In other words, when we pray before an image, we are not worshiping the image. We are not talking to the material that makes up the image, but rather worshiping God (latria), or venerating Mary (hyperdulia) or the saints (dulia).
The Second Council of Nicaea of 787 (Session 7, 302), the seventh ecumenical council, against iconoclasts, stated: “The honor given to the image is directed to the person represented therein” (Denzinger, page 155).
In the Church we venerate saints, because they deserve our true respect, admiration and gratitude. Their images help us to remember them and at the same time bring to mind religious truths of great spiritual value, and they tell us something related to our lives. For example, thanks to images we remember who the saint was (bishop, layman, religious, etc.), which virtue they practiced most (purity, poverty, obedience, etc.), and what made them holy (martyrdom, study, missions, etc.). In the same way, when we see an image of the Mother of God we remember that we have an immaculate mother in heaven who loves us, intercedes for us and asks us to live a holy life.
When we see an image of the blessed souls in purgatory, we remember that purgatory is real and we are inspired to pray for the deceased. The images are like having a portrait of our parents in our house to look at and kiss with respect. It’s understood that we are not kissing the photo as such, but rather our parents who are far away or who have passed into eternity. In books there are portraits of famous people so that the readers may know what they looked like and, if they were good people, admire and imitate them; and no one sees this as a problem.
In public buildings and squares there also are statues of great heroes in front of which people place wreaths of flowers, and that is fine. Who criticizes that? No one. Neither are we saying to all those people that they are “adoring” images, because we know that what they are really doing is paying homage to and remembering with great respect people who are worthy of admiration.
The saints are not adored through their images, they are venerated. Adoration is only for God. To venerate is to recognize the value that someone or something has for me, for which the person or thing deserves our respect. We venerate our parents and our homeland, but we don’t adore them. We adore only God.
Once a Protestant told me, “But kneeling in front of images is adoration.” This is another error. One cannot tell people’s intentions and accuse others of idolatry just by external appearances. Even the least educated Catholics know in the depths of their heart that a sacred or religious image is neither God nor a saint. I believe that even a child seeing an image knows that an image is just that, that it is not God or the saint that it represents.
We have to remember that the gesture of kneeling has different meanings according to the intention with which it is done. When we kneel before an image, we do it as an act of veneration directed at whomever the image represents. When the elders of Israel prostrated themselves before the Ark of the Covenant, they weren’t prostrating themselves before a wooden box, but before God. It is the same thing that happens when we pray before the tabernacle or a monstrance; we are not praying to a box or a metal object, but to the Lord, truly present in the Eucharist.