You may have heard some Christians make the claim that because Catholics have statues of Jesus and the saints in their churches or homes, they are violating God’s commandment: “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. 20:4–5); “Alas, this people have sinned a great sin; they have made for themselves gods of gold” (Ex. 32:31).
People who oppose religious statuary forget about the many passages where the Lord commands the making of statues. For example: “And you shall make two cherubim of gold [i.e., two gold statues of angels]; of hammered work shall you make them, on the two ends of the mercy seat…(Ex. 25:18–20). You will also find statues and images commissioned by God in: (1 Kings 6:23; 7:13-51, Num. 21:6-9, Judges 17:1-6). Did God want his people to worship all of these images and statues? No way! It was meant to help them to turn their hearts and minds towards him.
Before Jesus appeared on earth, images for God himself were forbidden. Since no one in the Old Testament had ever seen God face-to-face, no one knew what God looked like. In the New Testament however, God took on human form. “He[Jesus] is the image of the invisible God…(Col. 1:15).”
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says; “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 (#2132).
Catholics do not worship statues! We put statues in our Churches for the same reason that a person puts pictures of his family on the walls in his house. Catholics use statues, paintings, and other artistic devices to recall the person or thing depicted. Just as it helps to remember one’s mother by looking at her photograph, so it helps to recall the example of the saints by looking at pictures of them. Catholics also use statues as teaching tools. In the early Church they were especially useful for the instruction of the illiterate. In order to teach their children, many Christian denominations use religious instructional books and children’s Bibles that have pictures of Jesus in them. Aren’t pictures of Jesus two-dimensional images? Is this breaking God’s commandment? Not at all!
Just like Catholics, some Protestant Christians may sometimes hold up their Bibles during worship. Are these Christians worshipping an inanimate book made up of paper, glue, leather and ink or are they worshipping the God in heaven, who’s inspired word is in that book? The latter holds true, of course. In a similar manner, Catholics don’t worship or honor the plaster and the paint but the spiritual realities represented by the plaster and the paint.
A Catholic may pray to God in front of the visual aid of a statue of a saint, but a Catholic would never pray to a statue itself because that would clearly constitute idolatry. (Cf. Exodus 32:7-8 where the people prayed to the statue of the golden calf which was their god.) Until next time, God bless.