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 imagedno
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 imagethe 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
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
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 representthey 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
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.
Next: Advent Daily Prayers: The
God-shaped Hole (by Page Zyromski)