In reviewing the idol vs. icon issue, the top answer to What is the difference between icons and idols in churches that permit icons? defines an idol as "something worshipped as divine under the mistaken belief that it contains something divine or is itself God."

Catholicism has a long tradition involving relics, Eastern and Western rites. These relics are usually the remains or possessions of a great saint. Many of these relics are believed to give divine blessings of various types, including healing for the sick. This seems to fit the definition given of an idol. These relics are essentially items that house something divine, namely, divine power to heal.

I'm aware of some biblical arguments that these beliefs should be permitted, the most interesting of which is the man brought back to life simply by his body touching Elisha's bones, as detailed in 2 Kings 13. For purposes of this question, answers can assume the licit nature of relics. What I'm having trouble determining is exactly why healing relics don't count as idols.

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    The main difference is whether you believe it is the power of God that heals and he uses the relics. If someone believes that the relics itself have the power to heal or even a soul whose relics belong to that's where the error comes in.
    – Grasper
    Commented Dec 14, 2017 at 16:19
  • @Grasper I'd be concerned about the contrast between belief and practice. "It's by your love [works] they will know you." In this case, belief doesn't change the practice in any noticeable way.
    – user3961
    Commented Dec 14, 2017 at 17:40
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    right! If you act[work] like it is God's power and not the relic's you are safe. You can't separate faith from works. Catholics are not Protestants.
    – Grasper
    Commented Dec 14, 2017 at 19:39
  • The Ark of the Covenant did countless wonders (e.g., 1 Samuel 5:1-5). Is it therefore an idol ?
    – user46876
    Commented Apr 17, 2020 at 9:44

2 Answers 2


Fr. Ronald Knox (a good guy to read if you're a fan of Chesterton) wrote:

In a word, we are treating material objects and vocal formulas as the occasions upon which God himself will see fit to bestow a blessing upon us, in answer to the prayers offered when the object was hallowed, or the formula instituted. An exception must, of course, be made in favour of spots which are kept sacred by historical memories, or of relics which belonged to the saints; here our appeal for help is grounded, not upon the places themselves but upon the events which happened there, not upon the relics themselves but on the merits of the saints who have left them to us. And if, here and there, a taint of superstition (properly so called) infects the devotion of ill-instructed souls the Church will rather smile at their folly than hold up reproving hands; she knows how to deal with children.


So, in a sense a relic is like a materialized prayer. They're pointers to spiritual realities. I can't remember if you're a programmer by nature held over from Stackoverflow, but I think a programming analogy is useful.

If there's a generic thing called a prayer and it can manifest itself in many ways; through utterances (arbitrary or wrote), thoughts, good deeds, even instinctual actions (as a virtuous person might do who lays down their life for a friend). Then there's no reason a prayer cannot manifest itself through scapulars, crucifixes, relics, etc...

The Encyclopedia of Catholic History says that the two councils which talked about relics were the Second Council of Nicea. Your question was met head on, but with little explanation except:

How much more is it necessary that in the churches of Christ our God, the image of God our Saviour and of his spotless Mother and of all the holy and blessed fathers and ascetics should be painted? Even as also St. Basil says: "Writers and painters set forth the great deeds of war; the one by word, the other by their pencils; and each stirs many to courage." And again the same author "How much pains have you ever taken that you might find one of the Saints who was willing to be your importunate intercessor to the Lord?" And Chrysostom says, "The charity of the Saints is not diminished by their death, nor does it come to an end with their exit from life, but after their death they are still more powerful than when they were alive"

The second council is the mysterious council of Constantinople in 1084 that I can find nearly no information on.

It's a dogma that the blessing of God stays with things and places, so one ought to take it on faith.

the Council of Trent (1563) defended invoking the prayers of the saints and venerating their relics and burial places.

The sacred bodies of the holy martyrs and of the other saints living with Christ, which have been living members of Christ and the temple of the Holy Spirit and which are destined to be raised and glorified by Him unto life eternal, should also be venerated by the faithful. Through them, many benefits are granted to men by God.

Fr. William Saunders - WHY DO WE VENERATE RELICS? - EWTN

Elijah and Elisha (according to the Golden book versions at least), told the people who were healed through their intercession (Naaman and "the prayed for boy") that it was God who worked the miracle. A right understanding of relics would be that God is working the miracle.

My kids said the same thing when we were reading a few days ago about the Snake that God told Moses to raise up in the desert, but the explanation given (in the Catholic children's bible) is that's a type for Christ crucified.

Furthermore, relics are often kept in a place that requires a pilgrimage to go to. Canon law stipulates that relics cannot be transferred permanently to a new home without consent of from Rome.

Relics of great significance and other relics honored with great reverence by the people cannot be alienated validly in any manner or transferred permanently without the permission of the Apostolic See.

So either you need to make a pilgrimage to see them, or they do (as was the case recently when we viewed the relics of St. Maria Goretti that toured America last year)

The pilgrimage itself, acknowledged throughout the history of Christendom, is a powerful prayer. It's like the 4 men who lowered their friend in through the roof to be healed by Jesus, it's a lot of work to get there. But by their faith they're healed.

In summary, relics are sacramentals (tactile reminders of invisible realities) that are concrete prayers tied to times and events in history where God's grace was most evident.


Anathema to those who dare to say that the Catholic Church has at any time sanctioned idols.

Second Council of Nicæa

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    "We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans." An interesting perspective that the relics are a kind of prayer. Can you find a few more sources, perhaps in the Catechism? +1 in advance.
    – user3961
    Commented Dec 13, 2017 at 23:11
  • @freds, I did some digging, I think the Catechism only mentions relics here. I think the first quote by Fr. Knox gets at the spirit of what I was trying to say, but I may be taking it too far in a novel way that's not exactly what is really in line with what the Church thinks. It's how I understand it, as an analogy to Object Oriented Programming (Which is not the best way to interpret spiritual realities, don't get me wrong)
    – Peter Turner
    Commented Dec 14, 2017 at 5:49
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    So are you saying that a prayer is an interface? Commented Dec 14, 2017 at 14:25
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    Peter, have you seen this from catholic.org? Commented Dec 14, 2017 at 15:46
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    @matt no, I hadn't seen that - I saw those quotes about Sts. Polycarp and Jerome on other documents though, those would make good fodder for yet another answer. And yeah, I guess I'm saying it's an interface, I don't think that's terribly heretical. Having only programming metaphors for Christianity would be heretical, but balancing them with baseball and star wars metaphors takes care of that.
    – Peter Turner
    Commented Dec 14, 2017 at 16:02


Idolatry is, as the name suggests, that which concerns the worship of idols.

Since they (idols) are not God, idolatry is the worship of whatever is not God. That is, anything that is not God; a creature of God.

What is the difference between icons and idols in churches that permit icons?

The difference is in the fact that an idol is anything which is worshiped despite its not being God. This means that if it is not worshiped, then it is not an idol.

That is, the difference between a statue or a gold figure or whatever else, and an idol, is its use or non-use as such.

Therefore, statues (such as those God Himself commanded be made: Ex 25:18; 37:7; 1 Kgs 6:23, 32; Num 29:9-10) are not always idols period.

Thus, since Catholics do not, and are not, allowed to worship statues, but only venerate them as to the prototype (person) they represent (just as one kisses a photo of their love one, by which they mean to show love to their loved one, not paper or ink) there is no idolatry.

In fact, idolatry being a mortal sin, if one dies unrepentent of idolatry, that is, having worshiped anything or anyone who is not God, they will go to Hell.

"These relics are usually the remains or possessions of a great saint. Many of these relics are believed to give divine blessings of various types, including healing for the sick. This seems to fit the definition given of an idol."

This cannot be so, since we see this approved of in Scripture; and obviously, as the context shows, by God (who worked these miracles):

Acts 19:11-12 (DRB)

And God wrought no ordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, so that even there were brought from his body to the sick, handkerchiefs and aprons, and the diseases departed from them, and the wicked spirits went out of them.

Why don't healing relics count as idols?

Simply because idolatry involves worship; accepting healing through any instrument of God, on the other hand, is not.

Clearly, we can't disrespect a relic or item through which God works miracles or did so. It remains for us, then, to reverence or show respect for these channels of God's miracles and/or grace. Which are by definition, by that fact, holy.

We never worship a relic, or even the saint (Acts 10:25-26; 14:5), just venerate or reverence them (just as we don't worship a king, even though we do, and should, reverence them as the authority or representative of God in some way—whether through miracles or anything else—among us—Jn 19:11; Rom 13:1). There is a great divide between the two: and it resides in the heart and nowhere else.

How could God's own work through His instruments of various kinds possibility diminish His glory or detract therefrom? Isn't it the converse? Isn't that why, precisely, that He does these things (to make His power known through his saints in whom He is happy to show His generosity and power)?

  • Your argument would make sense if you can find a source that says the relic is actually not imbued with a power of God, but instead God acts purposefully through the relic each time a miracle is performed.
    – user3961
    Commented Dec 14, 2017 at 17:26

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