Catholics worship statues.
Raise your hand if you’ve encountered that statement.
That’s a lot of hands.
I’ve ran into this “argument” against Catholicism quite a few times over the years (one of the side-effects of being a Catholic blogger, I suppose) and, wouldn’t you know it, I met it again yesterday.
What brought it on this time? A simple posting of a detail from Raphael’s Transfiguration, showing Christ rising in dazzling white robes into the air from the top of Mount Tabor with the words “This is my Son; listen to Him” from Luke 9:35, words which were ringing in my ears from that week’s Gospel reading.
1. The Charge: You Catholics Clearly Break God’s Law
While most people enjoyed the meme, one fellow disapprovingly left “Ex. 20:4” in comments. For those of us who haven’t memorized lists of Bible passages (i.e. any of us who are not Protestants) the relevant passage is:
You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth (RSV, for this and all following Bible quotes)
Pretty straightforward isn’t? God clearly tells us, right in the Decalogue, in what our Protestant brothers call the Second Commandment (we Catholics know it as the First) not to do the kind of thing Raphael was up to - making images of things.
Case closed. We Catholics are horrible people and need to have a “come to Jesus moment,” as a priest I know likes to say.
2. What Else Does the Bible Say About Images?
Well, maybe not so fast. You see that same God, just a couple chapters on in Exodus gives Moses this order,
And you shall make two cherubim of gold; of hammered work shall you make them, on the two ends of the mercy seat. (Ex 25:18)
Worse yet, God later - in Numbers 21:8 - commands Moses yet again to break his “no images” commandment,
And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and every one who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.
That’s right, God not only orders Moses to make a “graven image” but He also works life-saving miracles through this piece of forbidden art.
What are we dealing with here? Has God, perhaps, forgotten His commandments?
3. Context is King!
That doesn’t seem too likely. Maybe our fundamentalist friend’s “proof text” needs a bit more context. Let’s look at the verses immediately preceding and following Exodus 20:4, shall we?
You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments. (Exodus 20:3-5)
As we can see, God isn’t banning art, as if drawing a picture of a tree is a sin. He is banning the worship of images (i.e. idolatry).
A little more context fleshes this out all the more. What are the chosen people doing while Moses is atop Mount Sinai? They are melting down the gold they took with them out of Egypt and… well let’s listen in…
When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron, and said to him, “Up, make us gods, who shall go before us” (Exodus 32:1)
That is what God is banning. It’s okay to have “images.” It’s even okay to have religious images. God Himself, as we’ve seen, commands us to have religious images. What isn’t okay is worshipping these images as if they were God or gods. They aren’t. They are merely artifacts, created by men. Psalm 115 lays this out nicely,
idols are silver and gold, the work of men’s hands. They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see. They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell. They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk; and they do not make a sound in their throat. Those who make them are like them; so are all who trust in them. (v. 4-8)
4. Do We Even Still Have Idols Today?
Now we might be tempted to sit back and think, "well I’m not tempted to build a statue of some animal and carry it before me as a god - I’m cool on this one." Not so fast. The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us that,
idolatry not only refers to false pagan worship. It remains a constant temptation to faith. Idolatry consists in divinizing what is not God. Man commits idolatry whenever he honors and reveres a creature in place of God, whether this be gods or demons (for example, satanism), power, pleasure, race, ancestors, the state, money, etc. Jesus says, "You cannot serve God and mammon.” Many martyrs died for not adoring "the Beast" refusing even to simulate such worship. Idolatry rejects the unique Lordship of God; it is therefore incompatible with communion with God. (2113)
That’s right. Anything that is more important to you than God is an idol. It doesn’t have to be as obvious as making a calf of gold rings. It could merely be gold (i.e. money), or power, or pleasure, or a political party, or your country, or even your family. None of those things are intrinsically bad. In fact, some of them are the very best things we have in this world. And that is exactly why it is so easy to make idols of them. Thus Jesus tells us,
If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:26)
Nothing can be allowed to take the place only God deserves in our lives. Nothing. To let something else become the center of our existence - sex, money, power, family, honor, etc - is to erect “golden calves” of our own. And these idols are also “the work of men’s hands” and they too “make their worshippers empty.” Which is why one of the last commands in the Bible is, "Little children, keep yourselves from idols.” (1 John 5:21).
5. TL;DR version
Images are fine. Images worshipped as gods (i.e. idols) are not. Oh, and read the Bible, not just “proof texts” from it.