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Are Roman Catholics required at any time to bow down or make obeisance to or kiss statues, images, icons, etc. (i.e., inanimate objects)?

If so, is it considered a sin not to?

  • @PeterTurner. Just to clarify the bounty requirement beyond a "detailed canonical answer". The OP seemed to mean "at any time" to refer to the PRESENT (i.e. any time during mass, or any time when a Catholic is in the church building). So can we take canonical answer to mean what is in effect at present? Or are you looking for a historical answer (i.e. any time in the past as well as present?) What if local variations are allowed (like in Asia, Africa, etc.)? – GratefulDisciple Oct 15 at 21:30
  • @GratefulDisciple if there's a historical answer it would be vastly improved by saying why the practice changed. I'm not going to increase the scope of the question though. Local variations (if approved) would probably be appropriate. – Peter Turner Oct 15 at 23:11
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  • During Mass, as the occasion warrants, Catholic priests/deacons (not the lay faithful) are required to:
  • Bow before the tabernacle the first time they cross it.
  • Kiss and incense the altar and the Gospel book during mass.
  • Incense the Cross and the tabernacle
  • Every Catholic as a sign of belief and respect has to bow before the alter, genuflect before the reserved Blessed Sacrament and kneel if the Blessed Sacrament is exposed. This is done every time they cross these when moving from one place to another. Priests are excused from this norm when celebrating Mass.
  • In some Asian and African countries during mass, the sign of peace is exchanged by bowing to each other because of their culture. (In western countries they shake hands, I am not sure about the universal norm for this. GRIM 82 leaves it to the local Bishops' Conference.)

Ignoring these without a grave reason and on purpose is considered to be Sin (provided other conditions are met). Note that these are just customs, no one is going to accuse a lay person if they don't follow these things; In-fact if you don't do this because you don't believe in what church teaches, then you have greater problems than worrying about these actions. But if you do believe, then as Card. Arinze says,

"If you believe that Christ is our God and He is present (in the Blessed Sacrament) why don't you kneel? Why don't you crawl? Why not show? Show respect."

Other than this there is no obligation on the part of Catholics to kiss or bow down to anything else (including persons).

  • It is to be noted that on Good Friday, during the veneration of Cross, the Cross is kissed. This is mandatory for priests. It is strongly recommended for lay faithful. But not obligatory.
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    It might be worthwhile to point out a distinction, which is probably obvious to Catholics but might not be understood by others. Bowing or genuflecting before a person (including the Blessed Sacrament, which is Jesus Christ) is a sign of respect for that person. Bowing before a statue or image is a sign of respect for the person depicted, not for the image. (In the case of a divine Person, the respect I mentioned here should be understood in the strong sense of "adoration"; in the case of mere human persons, it is ordinary respect, or dulia, or hyperdulia, depending on the person.) – Andreas Blass Dec 26 '14 at 15:10
  • Lay people must genuflect or bow when crossing in front of the Tabernacle. This liturgical action is not just reserved to priests and deacons. – Ken Graham Oct 15 at 23:34
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    "Ignoring these without a grave reason and on purpose is considered to be Sin". Can you please back up this claim with evidence? Notice two other answers state the opposite. – luchonacho Oct 16 at 13:11
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Are Roman Catholics required at any time to bow down or make obeisance to or kiss statues, images, icons, etc. (i.e., inanimate objects)?

The short answer is no.

Basically, it is an act of personal interior pious devotion.

However this ”no” needs a little more clarity to be understood. Even amongst Catholics there is a great amount of ignorance about this subject, simply due to the fact that many wholesome traditions have been lost or misunderstood since Vatican II.

For example, most Catholics and most Catholic websites will only admit two (2) types of bows. In fact, in the Roman Rite there are three (3) types of bows. I will not deal with the Lyonese Rite which in essence had nine (9) types of liturgical bows in it’s usage prior to the Second Vatican Council.

Let me say something about both of these gestures.

Bowing

There are three kinds of bows. (I hope all these distinctions aren't confusing. In fact, they're rather useful).

  • There's the simple bow of the head that we use at the Name of Jesus. During the Mass, that head bow is also used at the Name of Mary, and at the Name of the Holy Father.

  • There's a medium bow of the head and the shoulders. In monasteries we use that bow to greet another monk in order to honor the presence of Christ in our brothers. That is, when we process into choir, as we get to the center and split off to go to our choir stalls, after bowing to the altar we bow to one another: a medium bow.

  • Then there's a profound bow, bending the entire body at the waist, touching the knees with the palms of the hand. That bow is used when the deacon asks the priest for a blessing before reading the Gospel, when a monk asks the abbot for a blessing, or in the Liturgy of the Hours, whenever there is a Glory Be. At the doxology after every psalm, all the monks in choir make a profound bow in honor of the Trinity. This comes from the Rule of St. Benedict, where he says: "After the third lesson (he's talking about one of the nocturnes of Vigils) let the cantor intone the Gloria Patri, and as soon as he begins, let all rise in honor and reverence for the Most Holy Trinity." (RB 9).

For guests who aren't accustomed to monastic ceremonial, it's a very impressive thing to see all the monks in choir practically disappear into the choir stalls as they all make a profound bow for every doxology. Another instance for this kind of bow - as I mentioned - is whenever we pass in front of the altar, as a way of saluting Our Lord, for the altar always represents Christ.

Try it next time you pass in front of the altar (that is, if the Blessed Sacrament is not there). Bend right in two, all the way down. Slowly, reverently. It is the Lord Himself you are greeting.

I was taught that in order to do a profound bow, one must cross your arms and be able to touch each knee with the opposite hand.

In traditional monasteries such as Fontgombault Abbey, the monks reverence statues of saints, Our Lady and Our Lord with a profound bow. This is an act of devotion which is not in any sense of the word a sin if it were not done.

One can see the diverse usages of bows at Fontgombault in this video. The Gregorian Chant is that of the monks of the same Abbey.

One must make a distinction when bowing and/or genuflecting towards the Blessed Sacrament in lieu of statues. For Catholics, the Blessed Sacrament or Holy Eucharist is in fact the Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the fullness of the Blessed Trinity and as such must reverence the Sacred Host as such: either with a genuflection or a profound bow. God is present amongst us in the Eucharist and not to reverence the Host with some form of external signs of devotion is being neglectful towards the Sacred. Not to do so, would be a sin if done intentionally and out a lack of respect. Even more, it is further not permitted to receive the Blessed Sacrament in the state of mortal sin. To do so, is also committing an additional mortal sin, more grievous than the one committed before.

Let us remember the words of St. Paul:

26For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes. 27Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. 28Each one must examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. - 1 Corinthians 11:27

Back to statues. At the Vatican, there is a statues of St. Peter. The faithful, have had the tradition over the centuries to to either kiss the feet of the statue so much that the toes have been worn away. It is totally only a tradition to do so and is not a sin to forgo such a pious traditions. Many pilgrims simply do not touch or kiss this statue of St. Peter at the Vatican. I know, for I had the privilege of visiting the basilica some years ago.

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On this ancient bronze statue, St. Peter has his right toes worn down by centuries of pilgrims who traditionally touch the foot.

This ancient statue of St. Peter, portrayed as he gives a blessing and preaches, while holding the keys to the kingdom of heaven is famous throughout the world. Some scholars have attributed it to Arnolfo di Cambio (1245-1302), but others believe that it is a V century casting.

Pilgrims who come to the Basilica traditionally touch and kiss its foot, so that it is literally worn thin. In the Middle Ages pilgrims who reached Rome, touched and kissed the foot of the statue and prayed to St. Peter asking that he be merciful and open the gates of heaven for them if they died during the pilgrimage. - Statue of St. Peter

Catholics bowing to, touching or kissing statues, images or icons of Our Lord, Our Lady or the saints are done so out of pure devotion and is not a sin if not done.

Pope John Paul II in his Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy: Principles and Guidelines has this to say about such gestures:

  1. Popular piety is characterized by a great variety and richness of bodily, gestural and symbolic expressions: kissing or touching images, places, relics and sacred objects; pilgrimages, processions; going bare-footed or on one's knees; kneeling and prostrating; wearing medals and badges... . These and similar expressions, handed down from father to son, are direct and simple ways of giving external expression to the heart and to one's commitment to live the Christian life. Without this interior aspect, symbolic gesture runs the risk of degenerating into empty customs or mere superstitions, in the worst cases.

It would be sinful for Catholics to handle such items in an irreverent manner or in an act of vandalism.

On Good Friday, all priests and faithful are encouraged to kiss the Crucifix during the liturgy of the Passion of Our Lord. The symbolism is extremely intense as symbolic gesture of love towards Jesus and the his redemptive actions on the Cross for our salvation. Again some only touch the crucifix, while other simply do not participate in this gesture.

The following articles may be of interest:

The Story of Our Lady of a Happy Death: Notre Dame du Bien Mourir

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Unless one is familiar with the Catholic religion, one will find it odd, if not downright sacriligious, to bow down to bread and wine (inanimate objects per the OP).

From the Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraph 1378:

1378 Worship of the Eucharist. In the liturgy of the Mass we express our faith in the real presence of Christ under the species of bread and wine by, among other ways, genuflecting or bowing deeply as a sign of adoration of the Lord. "The Catholic Church has always offered and still offers to the sacrament of the Eucharist the cult of adoration, not only during Mass, but also outside of it, reserving the consecrated hosts with the utmost care, exposing them to the solemn veneration of the faithful, and carrying them in procession."

So yes, there are times when Catholics are required to bow to inanimate objects. To not do so, given what they believe (that the bread/wine has been transubstantiated into Christ) would be a sin.

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    @SLM Given that the question presupposed Roman Catholics, the transubstantiated host is out of scope (doesn't count) because by that time the host is no longer inanimate, so your answer doesn't apply. Furthermore, Peter Turner wants a canon law reference. – GratefulDisciple Oct 18 at 0:08
  • @GratefulDisciple I didn't want a Canon Law reference necessarily (canonical answer is just one of the dropdown menu itmes, Catechism is good 'nuff) – Peter Turner Oct 18 at 13:58
  • @PeterTurner Thanks for the clarification; I don't know why my mind jumped with Canon Law where I should have picked up 'canonical' to mean widely accepted as a standard by a community. – GratefulDisciple Oct 18 at 14:08
  • @GratefulDisciple I understand and mentioned that from a NON Roman Catholic POV, it IS bowing down to an inanimate object (bread and wine). A Roman Catholic of course believes differently (that the bread/wind are transubstantiated by the priest at the altar). One might say either Catholics have it spot on or are in a host of problems. – SLM Oct 18 at 18:53

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