Displaying statues and images, idolatry?

When I arrived one evening at a suburban Chicago parish to conduct an apologetics seminar, I noticed a life-sized statue of Our Lady of Fatima on the rectory lawn. Kneeling before that statue were three smaller statues of Lucia, Francisco, and Jacinta -- the children to whom Our Lady appeared. Their statues were kneeling in prayer, heads bowed before the larger statue.

Turning to my colleague in the car, I joked, “What a great religion Catholicism is! Not only can we worship statues, but our statues can worship statues.” We chuckled at the absurdity of the thought.

When I mentioned this incident during the seminar, the Catholics in the audience laughed at the notion of statues worshipping statues and the nonsense of humans worshipping statues, but some of the Protestants in attendance weren’t laughing. They looked puzzled. The reason, as I discovered during the Q&A session, was that some of them actually believed that Catholics do worship statues.

The disapproval many Protestants have toward Catholic religious statues and images is fueled by a suspicion that Catholics engage in idolatry by worshipping those statues. This concern is far more widespread than you might think. Most object to religious statues on biblical grounds.

God said to Moses, “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” (Ex 20:3-5; cf. Deut 5:6-9).

Deuteronomy 27:15 says, “Cursed be the man who makes a graven or molten image, an abomination to the Lord, a thing made by the hands of a craftsman, and sets it up in secret. And all the people shall answer and say, ‘Amen.’”

Admonitions against idolatry appear throughout Scripture (i.e., Num 33:52, Deut 7:5, 25, 9:12, 12:3; 2 Kings 17:9-18, 23:24; 2 Chr 23:17, 28:1-3, 22:18-25, 34:1-7). In 1 Corinthians 10:14 St. Paul wrote, “beloved, shun the worship of idols (Rom 1:18-23).

God condemns the sin of idolatry, whether it takes the form of worshipping statues, or stock options, or sex, or power, or a new car, any thing as an idol. But He does not prohibit religious images provided they are used properly. For example, in Exodus chapter 25 God commands Moses to carve statues of angels.

“The Lord said to Moses . . . you shall make two cherubim of gold; of hammered work shall you make them, on the two ends of the mercy seat. Make one cherub on the one end, and one cherub on the other end; of one piece with the mercy seat shall you make the cherubim on its two ends. The cherubim shall spread out their wings above, overshadowing the mercy seat with their wings, their faces one to another; toward the mercy seat shall the faces of the cherubim be. . . . There I will meet with you, and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim that are upon the ark of the testimony, I will speak with you of all that I will give you in commandment for the people of Israel” (Ex 25:1, 18-20, 22; cf. 26:1).

This shows clearly that there are circumstances in which religious images are not merely permissible but actually pleasing to God. Another example is the rather humorous incident described in 1 Samuel 6:1-18. In Exodus 28:31-34 the Lord commanded that Aaron’s priestly vestments be adorned with images of pomegranates. In Numbers 21:8-9 He commanded Moses to fashion the graven image of a snake that would miraculously cure poisonous snakebites (a mysterious foreshadowing of the cross of Christ [cf. Jn 3:14; 8:28]). And in 2 Kings 18:4, when the people began worshipping the bronze serpent, the King immediately destroyed it. What once was a legitimate sacred image had become an object of idolatry. (A cautionary tale for anyone tempted toward superstition or idolatry).

And notice what God told Solomon as he constructed the Temple: “‘Concerning this house which you are building, if you will walk in My statutes and obey my ordinances and keep all My commandments and walk in them, then I will establish My word with you, which I spoke to David your father. And I will dwell among the children of Israel, and will not forsake my people Israel.’ So Solomon built the house, and finished it.” (1 Kings 6:12-12-14).

This statement is important because the Temple contained a vast number of statues and images including angels, trees, flowers, oxen, and lions (cf. 1 Kings 6:23-35, 7:25, 36). Solomon’s decision to include these religious images came from the gift of wisdom God had blessed him with (cf. 1 Kings 3:1-28). And far from being displeased by such images, “the Lord said unto him, I have heard thy prayer and thy supplication that thou hast made before Me: I have hallowed this house, which thou hast built, to put My name there forever; and Mine eyes and Mine heart shall be there perpetually” (1 Kings 9:3).

Obviously, God would not have blessed Solomon and “hallowed” his temple filled with statues and images if He did not approve of them -- further proof that images can be good when used to order our minds toward God and heavenly realities.

Remember too that St. Paul called Christ “the express image” of the invisible God (Col 1:15). The Greek word here for “image” is eikon, from which we derive the word “icon.”

Just as we keep pictures of our family and friends to remind us of them, we also keep statues and images in our homes and churches to remind us of Our Lord, Our Lady and the saints.

Patrick Madrid is an author and public speaker. Visit his web site at www.surprisedbytruth.com

Additional passages to study: John 14:9; Colossians 1:15; Hebrews 1:3; 1 John 1:1-3

Related Catechism Sections: CCC 1159-1161, 2112-2114,