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This weekend my son and I participated in our Scouting council's annual Ten Commandments hike in which we walked to 10 different churches and heard a short talk on each of the 10 commandments from Exodus 20. The lone Catholic church on our route (churches were largely represented based on proximity, not theology) was assigned the following passage:

You shall not make yourself a carved image or any likeness of anything in heaven above or on earth beneath or in the waters under the earth.—Exodus 20:4 (NJB)

(My very first problem in researching this question is that, while this was labeled the second commandment by the organizer of the hike, it's the second half of the first according to Catholic tradition.)

It seems we had some bad luck since the priest who was representing the Catholic position did not do a very good job of explaining idolatry to us. He mostly explained that the stained-glass windows (which were not unusual in the other churches we visited) and the statues (which were absolutely unique to that church) were not worshiped. Rather they were to be a reminder of the great saints of the past, their deeds, and that we could ask them to pray for us as we might ask a friend.


The particular difficulty I'd like to resolve in my own mind is why Catholic churches use statues, which are carved, rather than flat images. The Orthodox church specifically uses icons in order to avoid idolatry. Stained glass, for better or worse, has become a nearly universally accepted church decoration. To me, either of these art forms go a long way to helping remind us (and especially visual learners) the deeds of the saints without risking they will be worshiped. So what is the Catholic reasoning for including carved statues in places of worship?

Update: It occurs to me that if I'd asked the question a month or so ago, I would have been confronted with the statues many Protestants do set up in our churches: the Nativity scene. My parent's church, where I was baptized, even includes a little ritual of having a child bring new figures to be added to the scene over the weeks of Advent. In my rush to judgement, I didn't stop to think if I had a plank in my own eye. Talk about hypocrisy! So, I really am not trying to "score points" on my Catholic brothers and sisters or further the cause of the Reformation. I want to understand.

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Iconoclasm history lesson time! (I'm not writing that one though...) –  Affable Geek Jan 30 '12 at 19:02
    
I removed some stuff that wasn't really about the question. –  DJClayworth Jan 31 '12 at 16:31
    
@DJClayworth: That's fine. There are some other bits that I included mainly for the purpose of showing my question is motivated by a desire to understand. They could probably be removed too, I suppose, since people have largely given me the benefit of the doubt. –  Jon Ericson Jan 31 '12 at 16:38
    
Sounds like whoever assigned that one to the Catholics was trying to make some sort of point. I hope you thanked the priest for being patient in the face of such blatant rudeness. –  TRiG May 4 '12 at 19:49
    
@TRiG: I really doubt it. The organizer had many constraints: avoiding dangerous street crossings, not going past noon or starting too early, not interfering with the services in the two Adventist churches, forming a reasonable loop, beginning at a church that had good parking, and so on. The Catholic church also had a wedding later in the day, so it was not available for later commandments. A better-spoken priest would have had no problems answering the question, I suspect. (And he was not the worst speaker that day by any means.) –  Jon Ericson May 4 '12 at 20:04
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4 Answers 4

up vote 7 down vote accepted

I was just reading this EWTN article on the 10 commandments in connection with another post on this site, but it's appropriate here too.

And I won't attempt to justify my Church beyond what the Catechism says:

2131 Basing itself on the mystery of the incarnate Word, the seventh ecumenical council at Nicaea justified against the iconoclasts the veneration of icons - of Christ, but also of the Mother of God, the angels, and all the saints. By becoming incarnate, the Son of God introduced a new "economy" of images.

2132 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."70 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.

CCC 2131-2132

Exodus states a few chapters after the Decalogue

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 26:18-20

I'm not trying to point out inconsistencies. I assume that the Bible is internally consistent and it's done a good job of ordering society for a long time. It's pretty apparent that the Jews of the Bible had no problem smashing opposing nation's idols and there's no history of ancient busts of David or Solomon popping up.

So, as I meant to say a bit ago, when I referenced the EWTN article on the 10 commandments, they reflect the Natural Law. They're not strange and arbitrary commands of God, as they would be if they favored iconography over sculpture. One could say that you'd be less given to idolatry given an icon over a statue, but that'd be a natural law argument, not a purely theological one.

Finally, if Jesus is the Lord of the Sabbath, and the Sabbath is made for man and not the other way around, then why is art not made for man?

Sacramentals do assist in prayer, some austere monastic types not like them, but others do. To be able to talk to Mary, who hears your prayer and intercedes on your behalf, is something that can be helped through art.

A good priest will tell you, if you need something, turn to Mary. Turning, is a physical act which requires a subject and when you see a statue of Mary in a Church, and to her left is Jesus, Body blood soul and divinity in the Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist. You've got a good basis for a spiritual platform from which to voice your petition.

The gist of it is, sacred art assists, rather than detracts, in the authentic worship of God.

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I respectfully disagree with your assessment of the ancient Jewish attitude to idolatry. A reasonable interpretation of the Old Testament is that it shows time and again that people can not be trusted to avoid worshiping what ought not to be worshiped. Even the ark of the covenant, God's seat on earth, was removed from them. However, you've done a far better job of explaining the issue than I heard this weekend, so an enthusiastic +1. –  Jon Ericson Jan 30 '12 at 20:03
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The Suffering Symbol (a snake on a stick) created by Moses eventually had to be broken down (in Numbers) for the same reason. So, +1 on @JonEricson but still +1 to you :) –  Affable Geek Jan 30 '12 at 21:41
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@Affable Geek, so maybe crucifixes were OK until just before the Reformation (ala John 3:14)? –  Peter Turner Jan 30 '12 at 21:46
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When I took an art history class (pre-Renaissance) and while I found the crucifixion images enormously helpful to my faith, I was disturbed by the near lack of resurrection images. It was nice to see Our Risen Lord (in stained glass) standing behind the crucifix in the Catholic church we visited. Images are enormously powerful and it's important to see not just the suffering Jesus, but also Christus Victor. –  Jon Ericson Jan 30 '12 at 22:20
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I'm relatively new to Catholicism, and on top of that I'm an Eastern Rite (Maronite) member so please take what I am about to say as private opinion. First off, we aren't called to uphold all the Jewish laws. I forget the passage, but Paul basically gives the statement that we have a new law in Christ and we don't have to go through circumcision, avoid mixing milk and cheese, and all the other stuff that Jewish law dictates. It may be generally a good idea to follow the spirit of the law of the old testament, but with few exceptions, we are not to slavishly follow the law. Secondly, as the commenter above noted, icons, statues, stain glass windows, etc. are not idols in the Old Testament sense as we use them as objects of cynosure and not as items of worship. Cynosure means "something that serves as a guide" and has connection to the navigation by the stars (the dog star to be exact). The statue, the window, or the icon are never to be worshiped, but to be more like a guiding star.

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I'm honored that you would answer my question as your first public action on Christianity.SE. Welcome! Thank you for including a cynosure to "cynosure". I don't think I've ever encountered that word. If we want to use Paul's words, I'd go with "“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything."---1 Corinthians 6:12. At any rate, +1 for an answer that honestly is helpful to me. –  Jon Ericson Jan 30 '12 at 22:07
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The prohibition in Exodus: "Thou shalt not have strange gods before me. Thou shalt not make to thyself a graven thing, nor the likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or in the earth beneath, nor of those things that are in the waters under the earth. Thou shalt not adore them, nor serve them (Exodus 20:3-5)." When Moses wrote this the population of heaven consisted of only Angels and God, all of whom are pure spirits, having no physical substance. As such, any image -- mental, drawn, graven, gilded (eg: calf), or otherwise -- would be inaccurate because an image, by it's very nature, depicts something which exists in the physical world. The conclusion being: any image that purported to be a likeness of any thing that is in heaven couldn't possibly be accurate and would only serve to confuse the mind of the beholder. After the Incarnation this changed: now the Word was made flesh: He had a physical substance that could be represented in the form of a humanly visible image.

The veneration of images was dealt with in detail in the fourth session of the second Council of Nicea in the discussion on the Veneration of Images -- you can read a lot more about that at the Catholic Encyclopedia. In short, similar to the reference above, the Saints and the Blessed Mother really existed in physical form so images of them are not idolatrous as long as it is understood that it's not the image that is being venerated but the person of whom the image is meant to be a likeness.

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i hope i can contribute a little idea and excuse me for my grammar coz im not an american.. idolatry refers to anything that man is worshiping by made of their hands or what so ever.. i'll just caught this from my brother in Christ, what is stated in the bible is just the likeness of what is in heaven like for example i will worship a stone, a cow, a tree, a picture, a sculptor, by which i worship them like the level of the true God,likeness of GOD, and forgetting the true God in heaven. where as in Catholic we pray for them with thought of God in heaven, and im surely know that GOD knows it....

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Hi John. While I appreciate the thoughts, I was really hoping for answers that explained the Catholic perspective in detail. Please see How to Answer. –  Jon Ericson Apr 5 '13 at 15:50
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