An explanation of the origins of the accusation and how to respond effectively.
Externally it could seem that a gesture of veneration of an image is similar to that of a pagan idolater, but there is a substantial difference. What and where is the difference?
It is in the intention of the person’s heart and what the image means to him. The same is true with the gesture of genuflection that “subjects” make before monarchs; it is a sign of respect required by protocol. No one actually intends to adore the king or queen. It must be understood, once and for all, that images do not mean the same thing to us as they did and do for pagans who really consider them to be gods. We do not adore images, and we know perfectly well that they are only representations, whether of Christ or of his saints.
We agree, then, that one cannot take a text out of context. What is forbidden, I repeat, is not making images, but rather adoring them.
Another proof that the first commandment of God’s law doesn’t refer to simply any kind of images, not even all religious ones. The Hebrew word used in the first commandment is “pésel” which means “idol.” There are words in Hebrew that refer to other kinds of images that are not idols, to refer to decorative or representational images: words that are not used in the first commandment. If an image is not an idol (an image which is considered to be a God in and of itself), then it is not a problem, and our places of worship can be full of them, just as Solomon’s Temple was—that same temple that Jesus visited after it was rebuilt. There is no record of him objecting to the presence of images therein.
There are two other gestures of the faithful that are very beautiful: kissing relics of the saints and touching their images. What are they doing? They are expressing their love for those who intercede for us and who inspire us in our Christian life. It is an expression of their desire to have personal contact with that saint. Besides, because those images are blessed by God, something of that blessing can in some way pass through them. Certainly, it is a manifestation of a very simple faith, like that of those who sought healing by touching the sick with face cloths or aprons that had come into contact with Saint Paul (Acts 19:12), or like the well-known story of the woman whose hemorrhage was healed when she touched Jesus’ cloak (Mark 5:26-31). Does anyone think that these people believed they were healed by face cloths or cloaks? We recall that Jesus spoke of faith like a tiny mustard seed (Matthew 17:20).
A Protestant once said to me, “If the Church were to remove all the images from its churches, I could consider the possibility of returning to communion with it.” We don’t believe that this is the solution to sectarianism. We aren’t going to destroy all of our images to satisfy those who have misunderstood the teaching of the Church or the behavior of good practicing Catholics. The solution is instead to catechize them, in charity, so that they come to the fullness of faith.
This article appeared originally in the Spanish-language version of Aleteia.
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