Full question by anonymous:
When Catholics pray before statues and kiss images of Christ or Mary aren’t they engaging in idolatry?
This can be broken into two separate questions.
1. Is creating and venerating a statue of God, and/or the saints, a violation of the First commandment found in Exodus 20?
2. When Catholics pray before these statues are they praying to the statue itself and isn’t that idolatry?
Starting with the first question, let’s take a look at the text of Exodus 20;
“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; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God” (Exodus 20:4-5a)
This is not an absolute prohibition on making sculptures or paintings, either of things in heaven or things on earth. God was instructing the Israelites to not create any image that they would then worship as a God.
If this was an absolute prohibition, as some claim it is, then God Himself broke it when He instructed the Moses to create a bronze serpent and to create two cherubim for the ark of the covenant, “And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent, and set it up as a sign; and every one who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” So Moses made a bronze serpent, and set it up as a sign; and if a serpent bit any man, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.” (Numbers 21:8-9)
And, “And you shall make two cherubim of gold; of hammered work shall you make them, on the two ends of the mercy seat.” (Exodus 25:18)
Some might say that this all applies to created creatures, but that there should never be images of God. This would be correct in an Old Testament sense, but as we know, Jesus gave us a new covenant. St. Paul says of Christ, “He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation” (Colossians 1:15) the Greek word eikōn is translated as “image” here in this verse, this word is where we get “icon” from. What St. Paul is saying is that Christ is the icon of God, God the Father is pure spirit, and as such, doesn’t have physical form, but Christ is the visible “icon of the invisible God.” The early church took this to mean that images of God are now acceptable to make and venerate.
The iconoclastic heresy was condemned by the Second Council of Nicaea in 787. The iconoclasts were a politically motivated faction that banned the use of any image in private devotion and liturgy, it was widely promoted by the imperial court in Constantinople but the ban didn’t include images of the emperor (very convenient for him). When the council took up this issue they decided that to ban images of God, the saints and Angels, was to deny the Incarnation itself.
As for the second question; you will not find one Church document or teaching that says any statue, image or icon contains the actual existence or soul of a saint or angel. When praying with an icon or statue (be it a statue of Christ or a saint), Catholics do not believe that the statue in front of them is that person, it is more akin to looking at a picture of a loved one to remember them better.
Praying in front of a crucifix helps to focus the mind, and prayer, on Christ and to remember His sacrifice for us, it doesn’t mean we think that it is actually Christ before us. Same with statues of Mary and the saints.
Paintings, stained glass windows and statues served as ways to teach the faith on times when the general population was barely literate. It wouldn’t have done the people of 15th century Ghent much good to hand them a catechism and Bible, but the altarpiece by Jan van Eyck could tell the story of the Lamb who was slain.
Idolatry can be defined as ascribing a divine nature to a created item or being. Nobody thinks the statue at the local parish is a god, or has any divine power. But then why do Catholics get mad if a statue is desecrated? Because it represents someone that we love, and who wouldn’t get mad if someone took a picture of a deceased loved one down from our wall and stepped on it. If someone spat on a picture of my father it would anger me, not because I thought the picture was my father, but because it showed disrespect to a person that I love. The same goes for images of Christ and the saints, the image represents someone that we love, and should be treated with the utmost respect.
That is why we venerate statues, icons and images.
(See my related post Do Catholics Worship Mary )
(To ask your own question about anything Catholic visit this page; Questions)