One of the common objection we encounter from our non-Catholic friends is on the use of images in worship. They will say that Catholics in using images in their religious worship is guilty of violating the first commandment of the Decalogue (Exodus 20:4-6). In this article, it is my intention to enlighten our protestant brothers on this Catholic belief and practice in the hope that by clarifying certain misconceptions we will be able to draw closer to each other into the unity of faith in which our Lord Jesus himself so earnestly desire (John 17:11).
The biblical verses commonly cited against the Catholic use of images such as Isaiah 42:8; 40:18-20, Deuteronomy 4:15-18, and Exodus 20:4-6 condemns idolatry which is the worship of images as gods or in place of God. This practice which was common among the pagans and in certain occasions was also committed by the Israelites is what God prohibits. Together with our Protestant brothers the Catholic Church also condemns idolatry as a grievous sin against the first commandment. In response to the protestant reformation which denies the use of images in worship the Catholic Church sets down clearly her teaching on this matter in the Council of Trent:
“The images of Christ and of his Virgin Mother and of the other Saints are to be had and retained especially in churches, and a due and honor and veneration is to be given them NOT BECAUSE any virtue or divinity is believed to be in them that for which they are to honored as what the heathens do who placed their hopes in idols BUT BECAUSE the honor which is given them is referred to the originals which they represent..”
Therefore, the Catholic Church does not teach and Catholics do not believe that images have any power, virtue or an ounce of divinity and it is not the image, per se, which is the object of our veneration but the originals which they represent.
Although the Bible condemns idolatry (worship of images as gods) it however permits and even commands the proper use of images in worship. For example in Exodus 25:18-22 God commands Moses: “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. This propitiatory you shall then place on top of the ark. In the ark itself you are to put the commandments which I will give you. There I will meet you and there, from above the propitiatory, between the two cherubim on the ark of the commandments, I will tell you all the commands that I wish you to give the Israelites.”
The temple which King Solomon built and dedicated to God was adorned with sacred images as we can read in Ezequiel 41:17-19. “As high as the lintel of the door, even into the interior part of the temple as well as outside, on every wall on every side in both the inner and outer rooms were carved the figures of cherubim and palm trees: a palm tree between every two cherubim. Each cherub had two faces: a man’s face looking at a palm tree on one side, and a lion’s face looking at a palm tree on the other; thus they were figured on every side throughout the whole temple.”
After the Temple was built God was pleased and sanctified the place of worship for his people as we can read in 2 Chronicles 7:12-16: “The LORD appeared to Solomon during the night and said to him: “I have heard your prayer, and I have chosen this place for my house of sacrifice. If I close heaven so that there is no rain, if I command the locust to devour the land, if I send pestilence among my people, and if my people, upon whom my name has been pronounced, humble themselves and pray, and seek my presence and turn from their evil ways, I will hear them from heaven and pardon their sins and revive their land. Now my eyes shall be open and my ears attentive to the prayer of this place. And now I have chosen and consecrated this house that my name may be there forever; my eyes and my heart also shall be there always.”
Gathering these facts from Scriptures, we can safely conclude that God does not absolutely forbid the use of images in religious worship otherwise God would contradict himself by prohibiting in one part of the Bible what he explicitly commands in another part. Catholics DO NOT worship sacred images for we DO NOT believe that they possess any power in themselves. If despite this some people will still continue to ascribe to us beliefs and practices which we also condemn and abhor then they should also remember another commandment of the Decalogue: “Thou shall not bear false witness against thy neighbor.”