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.