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Do Catholics Worship Images?

by Teresita Scully

When I was a little girl our closest neighbor was a dear older woman who was a staunch Protestant. We were good friends with Aunt Eddie and Uncle Bill despite the fact we were Catholics. However, Aunt Eddie could not refrain from frequently lamenting that we Catholics "worshiped idols."

In later years I was part of an intense ecumenical dialogue and even served as chairwoman of a large Ministerial Alliance. I found that many Protestant and Catholic seminaries had begun to exchange biblical scholars. Most ministers I met had done so much personal research and interpersonal dialogue that they no longer accused us Catholics of idol worship.

In some places today, however, we are witnessing a new wave of accusations of idol worship. There is a new generation of Christians who have not had the experience of shared scholars, ecumenical dialogue and inter-Church worship services. In this Update we'll take a look at how Catholics view and honor Jesus and the saints.

Images in our tradition

Images are really the heart of the matter. In the Old Testament the Jewish people were taught that the name of God cannot be pronounced and God cannot be imaged—no image is adequate to express the Godhead. The Jewish people knew that images representing other so-called gods were idols without meaning because there is only one God.

An image can be both an inanimate thing (a painted or carved figure) and a living thing. Image is encountered early on in Genesis as we are told that God created humankind in the divine image (see Gn 1:26). Most probably the image is in the human's capacity to plan, to desire, to achieve, to respond personally to one another and God. All of these qualities are seen in the living God described in the Old Testament.

In the New Testament, St. Paul uses the concept of image extensively. In his theology, Christ is the "image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation" (Col 1:15). God, who could not be imaged in the Old Testament, has given us a human image of the divine being.

Paul's poetic description is worth quoting at length: "And even though our gospel is veiled, it is veiled for those who are perishing, in whose case the god of this age has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, so that they may not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we do not preach ourselves but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your slaves for the sake of Jesus. For God who said, 'Let light shine out of darkness,' has shone in our hearts to bring to light the knowledge of the glory of God on the face of [Jesus] Christ" (2 Cor 4:3-6).

The human face of Christ has become the visible image of the God who could not be imaged in the Old Testament! In a certain sense God has revised the command that no one could make a visible image of the invisible God. It is God who has given us a visible image—the face of Christ.

For Paul, the whole Christian vocation can be summed up in the fact that we are all called to be conformed to this image: "For those he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, so that he might be the firstborn among many brothers " (Rom 8:29). Some of this conforming happens as we gaze on the Lord: "All of us, gazing with unveiled face on the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, as from the Lord who is the Spirit" (2 Cor 3:18).

This transformation does not happen just by virtue and grace. It happens also physically in that we share in Christ's resurrection by our own physical resurrection: "Just as we have borne the image of the earthly one, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly one" (1 Cor 15:49).

Helping us understand God

Because God made Christ a visible image of the invisible Godhead, the Church from the beginning realized that the rules of the Old Testament concerning images had been changed, so to speak, by the One who made the rules in the first place. We cannot make images of beings that do not exist and pretend they are gods. But we do now have an image of the One True God. As Jesus told his disciples, "—whoever sees me sees the one who sent me" (Jn 12:45).

Every time the issue of images has come up in the history of the Church, she has stayed with the principle that it is God who has given us a visible image; therefore we can imitate this divine action in our representations of Christ.

St. Paul explains in 2 Corinthians that, with respect to what the image of Christ means, a veil may remain over the hearts of those who read the Old Testament. But "the Lord is Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom" (2 Cor 3:17). The Church has always claimed this in the face of those who would impose a Christless interpretation of the Old Testament on its members.

The Old Testament does not forbid the crafting of images of heavenly creatures other than God. In Chapter 25 of Exodus the people are told to make images of cherubim to fit on the top of the ark of the covenant. These images were to help the people understand the importance of the ark. In Catholic art we create images of the angels, Mary and the saints who are not gods, but creatures of God, who help us understand what God has done for us.

Sacred images were part of the culture and worship of the first Christians as the art of the catacombs (the underground tunnels serving as tombs) testifies. The argument over images came up in the Eastern half of the Church in the first millennium when there were actually wars and bloodshed between those who wanted to destroy sacred images and those who held to the principle that these images were a window onto the divine, just like Christ's own humanity.

The old argument resurfaced in the Western Church during the Protestant Reformation when the reformers, anxious to do away with abuses, shortsightedly did away with all imagery. The debate continues today with Christians who are not able to interpret the Old Testament in light of the image of Christ.

Idols: A different matter

What is an idol? A passage from Jeremiah gives us a very good insight: "Learn not the customs of the nations, and have no fear of the signs of the heavens, though the nations fear them. For the cult idols of the nations are nothing, wood cut from the forest, wrought by craftsmen with the adze, adorned with silver and gold" (Jer 10:2-4).

The operative word in this passage is nothing. If you take away the wooden image, there is no reality behind it. No divine being exists that gives meaning to this piece of wood. St. Paul makes a strong argument on the same point in 1 Cor 8. In Corinth, animals were sacrificed to idols (carvings of beings that did not exist except in people's imaginations) and then the meat was sold in the market. There was controversy over whether Christians should eat this meat. Paul argues that there is no meaning behind these idols because there is in reality only one God, the creator of heaven and earth (see 1 Cor 8:4-13). Idols have neither value nor meaning because there is no reality behind them.

But Paul also realizes that some simple people are not capable intellectually of separating the material object (the idol) from the lack of a spiritual reality associated with it: "But not all have this knowledge" (1 Cor 8:7). In order not to scandalize those who are weak-minded, he will not eat this meat in front of them. But he is clear that, other than offending the weak-minded, it would not bother his conscience to eat the meat because he knows that there is no spiritual reality which the wooden figures represent—they are meaningless.

How does this apply to the Catholic practice of having statues of Christ and the saints? Are these figures idols? No! There is a spiritual reality that the image represents. Christ's humanity came into existence at the moment of his conception and will continue to exist forever in the further dimension of the Kingdom.

The same can be said of the saints. They truly exist. They are that great "cloud of witnesses" (Heb 12:1) who surround us. They are those who are clothed in white robes in the vision of John (Rev 7:9). Their prayers for us go up like incense before the throne of God (Rev 5:8). So let us be very clear: In the biblical sense, images of Christ and the saints are not idols; there are spiritual and physical realities in the glorified bodies of Christ and his beloved which the images represent. If the images are lost or destroyed, the spiritual reality remains. If you destroy an idol nothing remains.

Catholics and saints

Do Catholics worship the saints? To worship someone is to acknowledge that the one who is worshiped is divine, is God. Sometimes we can confuse cultural gestures of reverence for gestures of worship. In doing so, we often judge not as God does, by what is in the heart, but rather by appearances (see Jn 8:15, Is 11:3).

Catholics hold saints in esteem because they are such wonderful images or mirrors of Christ. Paul several times exhorts his readers to be imitators of him: "Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ" (1 Cor 11:1, also Phil 3:17, 1 Cor 4:16).

Devotion to the saints comes back to the theology of image: Christ is God's image, the saints are Christ's image. We honor them because we desire to imitate them. We pray to them the same as we call upon earthly friends to do a favor for us. This too, is scriptural. In Acts we read of Peter and John going up to the Temple for prayer and encountering a beggar. Peter says to him, "I have neither silver nor gold, but what I do have I give you: in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazorean, rise and walk" (Acts 3:6). Peter makes it clear that he has the power of Christ in his possession.

To be sure, it is Jesus who heals, but Peter holds the right to extend that power. The same can be said of Paul. In Acts 19:11-12 we read, "So extraordinary were the mighty deeds God accomplished at the hands of Paul that when face cloths or aprons that touched his skin were applied to the sick, their diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them." These texts are the basis of the Catholic practice of asking saints to help us, of honoring (not worshiping) the bodies and relics of saints.

Like a family album

In those conversations with Aunt Eddie so many years ago I had little idea of what to say to the charge that we Catholics worshiped idols. I had not read about the Iconoclastic Controversies of the eighth century, when Christians in the East were attacked for their use of icons in prayer. I had not read the treatises of the Church Fathers on these topics. I had not studied the history of the Reform. I had not yet immersed myself wholeheartedly in the Scriptures. I had not even read St. Paul's doctrine on image which runs like a golden thread through the major Pauline Epistles.

But one day when Aunt Eddie began her comments about "idol worship" to my sister and me, having carefully waited until our parents left, I looked up and saw a picture of Christ hanging in the hall. "But, Aunt Eddie, " I said, " you have a picture of Jesus hanging there." She was caught off guard and did not know what to say.

I took advantage of the silence to go on: "And look, on the table you have a picture of Grandma [she frequently took us to visit her very elderly and frail mother] and pictures of your friends. We like to have pictures of Jesus' mama and his friends too." Aunt Eddie was at heart a very good woman. From that day forward she never had another word to say about Catholics worshiping idols.


Prayer Aids

If I were to travel to an Asian culture having no knowledge of their customs, I might interpret the bows made to heads of families, or the custom of walking backwards out of their presence so as never to turn my back to them, as worship. Indeed, in some other culture these same gestures might well be reserved for worship. But in some cultures, they are gestures reserved to show respect to elders. There is no implication that this is worship, that sons and daughters are worshiping grandparents or elders.

My point is that the meaning of cultural customs comes only from the hearts of those to whom the customs belong. It cannot be imposed from without. The true meaning of age-old Catholic customs regarding prayer comes only from the hearts of Catholics. Its meaning cannot be imposed by other Christians or other religions.

What then is the meaning of using candles, flowers, incense and processions in Catholic prayer?


Candles are a very intimate part of Catholic culture, even something we can poke a little good-natured humor at. A recent joke tells about how many members of different Churches it would take to change a lightbulb. The punch line for Catholics was that they would not bother—they always use candles.

It is true that the Catholic Church—both Roman and Orthodox—has used candles for 2000 years now. Candlelight was very deeply embedded in the culture long before electric lights. But there is spiritual meaning to the use of candles also. The most striking for Catholics is the candle associated with the Easter Vigil, and with our Baptism. Light is a powerful symbol of Christ's victory over death. The paschal candle, lit at the Easter Vigil and placed prominently, reminds us of that. Each year at the Easter Vigil, the faithful are given candles lit from the paschal candle, symbol of the risen Christ, as they renew their baptismal promises. At Baptism, the newly baptized are given candles, lit from the paschal candle, and the exhortation to keep the light of faith burning bright in their hearts.

Besides symbolizing the light of faith, candles speak to Catholics of self-sacrifice. The flame that consumes the candle is like the flame of the Spirit encouraging a self-consuming love for others. A votive candle left burning in Church is a symbol of prayer saying that I would like to be there praying but must be elsewhere. Burning beside or before the representation of a saint, the candle says: "Please join your light of faith with mine in prayer for this intention."


Flowers are used constantly in Catholic devotions. They are a living species and testify to our belief in the life of the Resurrection. They are also symbols of affection, which simply say, "I love you" or "Thank you" to Christ, his mother or a saint.


Like the incense in the scene from Revelation (cf. 5:8), our use of incense signifies prayer. It also signifies respect. We use it to bless the altar, a symbol of Christ, to bless the Book of the Gospels from which we hear the Word of God. We use it to bless the gifts we offer, which will become the Eucharist. The gifts are sacred because they represent our work. We use incense to bless the faithful because Christ dwells in them by Baptism. Incensing is done to acknowledge sacredness or to bless.


Processions are an intimate part of Catholic culture. They go back to our Jewish roots. The procession is a miniature form of a pilgrimage. Pilgrimages were undertaken by Jewish people for many reasons—to recall the Exodus, to maintain contact with the temple. So too Catholics came to develop many processions for special occasions. We are basically a pilgrim people on a journey to a fuller dimension of the Kingdom: "Beloved, I urge you as aliens and sojourners to keep away from worldly desires that wage war against the soul" (1 Pt 2:11, see also Heb 11:13-16). Every procession reminds us of that.

Sometimes we carry the saints' images with us as we ask them to be present to us as we travel. Every procession is a physical testimony to our belief in this journey.


Teresita Scully is a catechist for youth and their families at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton parish in Tucson, Arizona. She has a Masters in Theological Studies from St. Norbert College, DePere, Wisconsin.

Next: Advent Daily Prayers: The God-shaped Hole (by Page Zyromski)


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