Worshipping Idols or Venerating the Saints?

“You shall not make for yourself an idol or a likeness of anything in the heavens above or on the earth below or in the waters beneath the earth; you shall not bow down before them or serve them.

For I, the LORD, your God, am a jealous God, inflicting punishment for their ancestors’ wickedness on the children of those who hate me, down to the third and fourth generation;

but showing love down to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.” (Exodus 20:4-6)

Catholics are often accused of worshipping idols because of our extensive use of holy images, icons, statues, and sacramentals in our homes or churches. But where does this misconception come from? On a segment of The Faith Explained, Cale Clarke took a look at this errant belief, why it’s not true, and how Catholics can respond to this accusation.

Cale began by explaining exactly why the making of holy images is allowed and not contradictory to God’s teaching. He referenced two passages from the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

“Nevertheless, already in the Old Testament, God ordained or permitted the making of images that pointed symbolically toward salvation by the incarnate Word: so it was with the bronze serpent, the ark of the covenant, and the cherubim.” (CCC, #2130)

“The Christian veneration of images is not contrary to the first commandment which proscribes idols. Indeed, ‘the honor rendered to an image passes to its prototype,’ and ‘whoever venerates an image venerates the person portrayed in it.’ The honor paid to sacred images is a ‘respectful veneration,’ not the adoration due to God alone:

Religious worship is not directed to images in themselves, considered as mere things, but under their distinctive aspect as images leading us on to God incarnate. The movement toward the image does not terminate in it as image, but tends toward that whose image it is.” (CCC, #2132)

In other words, we know images such as the ones we have to not be idols because we have seen such examples from the Israelites, the very ones who received this message from God. These images are not the object of our worship or devotion. The things they portray are the objects of “respectful veneration” in that they are pointing us to something higher. Veneration of a saint’s image is intended to venerate the saint, not the picture. It’s also worth noting that though we may venerate the saints, we never worship or adore them, for that is reserved for God alone.

Very often, however, the ones who will be accusing Catholics of worshipping statues and images will fall into the category of fundamentalist Protestantism, and they don’t care what the Catechism of the Catholic Church has to say. They want their evidence from scripture. Fittingly, some of that evidence comes from Exodus, the very book that states God’s teaching on idols.

“‘Make two cherubim of beaten gold for the two ends of the cover; make one cherub at one end, and the other at the other end, of one piece with the cover, at each end.

The cherubim shall have their wings spread out above, sheltering the cover with them; they shall face each other, with their faces looking toward the cover.

This cover you shall then place on top of the ark. In the ark itself you are to put the covenant which I will give you. There I will meet you and there, from above the cover, between the two cherubim on the ark of the covenant, I will tell you all that I command you regarding the Israelites.’”

God commanded the construction of the ark and the cherubim. And if that wasn’t enough, there were also other images and statues in the sanctuary of the temple. There were wooden angels, oxen, lions, palm trees, etc. (1 Kings, Chapters 6-7)

“Make a seraph and mount it on a pole, and everyone who has been bitten will look at it and recover.

Accordingly Moses made a bronze serpent and mounted it on a pole, and whenever the serpent bit someone, the person looked at the bronze serpent and recovered.” (Numbers 21:8-9)

When God commanded His people not to create images or statues, He did not mean that these things were completely banned in the religious context. He meant that we are forbidden to worship them, adore them, and pray to them. Catholics uphold the tradition of sacred imagery and objects as a reminder of our devotion to Our Lord and as reminders to appeal to the intercession of Our Lady and the saints.

Tune in to The Faith Explained weekdays at 12:30pm CT

John Hanretty serves as a Digital Media Producer for Relevant Radio®. He is a graduate of the Gupta College of Business at the University of Dallas. Besides being passionate about writing, his hobbies include drawing and digital design. You can read more of his daily articles at relevantradio.com and on the Relevant Radio® app.