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Veneration (Worship?) of Images


Catholics venerate or worship images. The Pope himself bows before statues of Mary. Similarly, they worship Christ in the Eucharist. They also possess statues, candles, and other such religious objects in their homes and churches. All these things violate the commandments and are offensive to God.

[The fashioning and veneration of images is forbidden as idolatry] “You shall not carve idols [any graven image] for yourselves in the shape of anything in the sky above or on the earth below or in the waters beneath the earth; you shall not bow down before them or worship them. For I, the Lord, your God, am a jealous God, …” (Exodus 20:4-5).


No, Catholics do not “worship” images. Veneration is different from the kind of exclusive worship and adoration owed to God alone. Rather, we honor and treat with respect those things which remind us of God and those in whom the Lord has done wondrous things. The honor we show the Blessed Virgin Mary is particularly pronounced; however, it is not the same kind of worship which we render to God. Unlike the ancient idol worshippers, the honor is paid not to the physical representation, but to the one who is signified. Definitions are very important. Holy objects often serve the same function as mementos and photographs in our homes; they remind us of our friends and family. Similarly, religious statues, pictures, and all the rest bring to mind our spiritual family of faith and our identity as part of it.

Candles are symbolic of Jesus himself. The smoke rises as prayer is taken into heaven. They give off light and Jesus is the Light of the World, dispelling the darkness of sin and death. They give off heat, and Jesus gave the warmth of healing and forgiveness to others. Like the candle which exhausts itself for our benefit, Jesus surrenders his life that we might be redeemed. Turning to the Eucharist, Jesus himself told us that it was his flesh and blood, the living sacrament of his presence. We can worship this divine mystery because it is Jesus and Jesus is God.

Fundamentalist anti-Catholics are not consistent on this score about graven images. Come Christmas, they usually have statuary-nativity scenes like everyone else. Also, if they were to be consistent in their strict observance of this commandment, it would also include the toy dolls they buy their children. Some cults actually do this! The Catholic view of images is based on the permissible symbolic use of them in the Old Testament and the fact that Christ himself through the incarnation reveals the transcendent God. God allowed images which symbolically pointed to our ultimate salvation in the Lord. The historical fact of the God-Man, Christ, ushers in a new “economy” of images [CCC #2131].

[To be healed from the poisonous bites of serpents] So Moses prayed for the people, and the Lord said to Moses, “Make a seraph and mount it on a pole, and if anyone who has been bitten looks at it, he will recover.” Moses accordingly made a bronze serpent and mounted it on a pole, and whenever anyone who had been bitten by a serpent looked at the bronze serpent, he recovered (Numbers 21:7-9). {See also Wisdom 16:6-8}

[Jesus’ humanity is a healing image of God] “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that those who believe in him may not perish, but may have life everlasting” (John 3:14).

[Regarding the ark of the covenant] “Make two cherubim of beaten gold for the two ends of the propitiatory, fastening them so that one cherub springs direct from each end. The cherubim shall have their wings spread out above, covering the propitiatory with them; they shall be turned toward each other, but with their faces looking toward the propitiatory” (Exodus 25:18-20). {See also 1 Kings 6:23-28}.

2 Responses

  1. [The fashioning and veneration of images is forbidden as idolatry] “You shall not carve idols [any graven image] for yourselves in the shape of anything in the sky above or on the earth below or in the waters beneath the earth; you shall not bow down before them or worship them. For I, the Lord, your God, am a jealous God, …” (Exodus 20:4-5).

    I found it interesting you used this quote, considering Catholics DO “bow down before them (graven images)” even though they do not worship them.

    While keeping objects that remind you of our Heavenly Father in the home is not only okay but something that should probably be encouraged, bowing before those objects is clearly prohibitted. To clearify, it is prohibitted to “bow down before them OR worship them.” Both acts, individually or taken upon together, are violative of this commandment.

    FATHER JOE: Yes and No. Actually, even when kneeling or bowing before an image or statue (as with Mary, Joseph or the Sacred Heart), we are simply adopting a traditional Christian prayer posture. The commandment prohibition for use of images is abrogated due to the Incarnation of Christ and the change in the “economy of images.” In other words, since God has entered into his creation, now the things of creation can signify or more adequately direct us to the true God and our salvation history. We are not Orthodox Jews or Moslems or Fundamentalist Protestants who argue an absolute prohibition to the use of images. Only if “bowing down” was part of false worship would such a posture be wrong. Even before statues, our prayer finds its proper object in Almighty God. Similarly, we ask intercession of the saints in heaven, not of the statue which depicts their image. We venerate objects but we worship God. We bow to the crucifix (an image) and maybe even kiss it, as on Good Friday. It immediately brings to mind the price Christ paid for our redemption. We bow (and some kneel) before receiving Holy Communion. In this case, we offer genuine divine worship. The sacred host is the REAL PRESENCE of Jesus Christ, who is God come down from heaven.

  2. Dear Fr Joe,

    I can see where the anti-catholic vitriol and condemnation can come from at times, and I believe that ignorance and indoctrination are not necessarily the only tools of Satan. We are often condemned for the ‘worship’ of images and over here, when I worked as a pall bearer (coffin carrier) for a number of years, if we did the funeral for a member of Jehova’s Witness we had to remove the simple wooden cross (not even a crucifix) from the crematorium chapel wall to satisfy their observance of their interpretation of the first commandment.

    I accept fully their beliefs and would never condemn them for it. They believe that Jesus was not crucified but was killed at a torture stake (unless they’ve changed), and see the cross as a pagan fertility symbol and hence their opposition to it. If that is their genuine belief then so be it and God loves them also even in their error.

    What most Catholic bashers fail to grasp is the setting in which this regulation was generated. All around the Israelites there were pagan waring groups, small and not so small nation states all claiming land and harvest fruits and the ‘Jews’ were also at war with many of them. Most believed in many gods and Moses led his group to ‘The Promised Land’ but they, too, were want to go back to thier old ways of manufacturing false gods and worshiping them still.

    When Moses arrived the first time with the ‘ten commandments’ on 2 tablets of stone after his period (40 days possibly) of commune with God, his merry band of leaderless wanderers had already made a Golden calf, a false god, and they used to offer human sacrifice to these idols as well as worship them. So Moses came up with this new code of behaviour, either inspired by God, or actually written by God, or possible just by his own understanding based on his view of humanity. It matters not to me how we arrived at the 10 commandments (and also the other regulations defined in Duteronomy and Leviticus etc), they were a very good program of living.

    As the human race developed a better understanding of just why we are here and what is expected of us we either grew in wisdom, or God revealed more and more of His part in all of this, and initially the books of the ‘Old testament’ were assembled and given full gravity. Obviously there were still pagans and barbarians out there and the Jews saw it to set themselves apart from this lot and develop a very strong identy with such practices as circumcision and very strict dietary regulations.

    We only need to look at the Greek and Roman groups to see the very many Gods that were kicking around at the time. All these gods were worthy of worship for various reasons and of course The Emperor of Rome was seen as a real deity.

    So there was a very powerful temptation for the Jews to wander from the truth and abandon YHWH or just demote Him to a similar status as all of these other gods. There was a real need for the Chosen People to remain on the right path.

    Well we are on the right path now, and unlikely to start worshiping false gods again……….or are we? We may no longer fashion images of Baal or Boaz, Venus or Isis, but what about money, football, job status, expectations that we place on our children? These too can become false gods that we place before subservience to YHWH. And I can see where the Catholic bashing, hype inducing ascerbic rhetoric of the fundamentalist Christian who condemns us for ‘worshipping Mary’ and yet stand on a stage for adulation in his $5,000 suit and fancy shoes. He wants and needs the power and ‘respect’ that his followers should be giving only to God, and he often screams tirades of abuse directed at us, and always based on a falsehood. It is the oldest trick in the book. Discredit your enemies by spreading false ‘truths’ about them and then condemn them for for their evil practises.

    The only time that they can get any credance is when there seems to be evidence to substantiate their claims, and as with the terrible incidents of satan’s attacks on The Church where paedophiles were able to hide within it for a while, so too can it be with some of the witnessed practices, mainly European in origin, of excesses of ceremony and display that possibly crosses the dividing line between reverence and worship.

    It is so often the case, even with, say, the sin of gluttony, or say the sin of envy. We can use a healthy yearning for improving our status within community, and the spin off can help not only us but the community also, on the other hand we can become so fired up with covetousness that we trample on everyone to get to the top. And so it is with food. We can share a meal with friends and eat and celibrate between periods of fasting and abstenance, and maintain a normal body weight, or we can indulge in the excesses that become gluttony and self destruction.

    So too is it the case with sometime ‘Catholic’ ceremony; it becomes fuel for the fire of acrimony and real hatred that I sometimes suffer from these Christian fundamentalists, and pointless even trying to refute. There are times when, not ‘The Church’ but some catholic churches can go overboard and it is not so much as giving solace and comfort to the needy and venertion to certain saints, but a very boarderling ceremony that would be seen by most, including Catholics at a distance, as Idolatory.

    Sometimes statues are adorned with masses of gold and precious stones, are elevated even higher than Moses’ staff, and even though I hate to say it, are ‘worshipped’, or, at least, that’s how it seems to me as an observer and a Roman Catholic of more than 6 decades.

    I suppose I would follow protocol and bow before my Queen as a sign of respect, here in England. I certainly wouldn’t show any respect for Charles but then that’s a different story, but I would comply with all of the necessary behaviou patterns should I ever be presented to her; not that it would ever happen. I imagine, too, that most Americans would dutifully honour and respect your President and comply with all of the necessary bowing and scraping that would entail even if it might be a little less than here with the Monarch. The republican might then claim that it was wrong to ‘worship’ the Queen of England and then go to war against us for teaching a false gospel. Not so daft as it sounds if you look at history.

    So I will continue to genuflect before the Real Presence in my church, to make the sign of the world’s mending everytime I enter, with Holy Water, and I will still light a candle to The Blessed Virgin or Saint Joseph and place it in front of a representation of them, and continue to ask for their intercession for this sinner. And if I am guilty of a falsehood, it is without knowledge of it, and I will have to face my judgement on that final day by The Lamb before the Seat of God, with the saints all around. I leave all judging to God and God alone, and for those who judge and condemn me I will look to see if there is any essence in what they say, and if I find it not to be so I will simply kick the dust from off my sandles, turn, and walk away.
    With Love, Paul

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