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Statues Aren’t Necessarily Idols

Here’s a pop quiz I used to give in parish seminars: “You recall that the Israelites melted down their jewelry and made a golden calf. What was wrong with making a golden calf?”

Before anyone had a chance to embarrass himself publicly, I gave the answer: “Absolutely nothing.”

When I asked that question and gave that answer, most people were stunned. “But we know making the golden calf was a sin,” they said. “The Israelites were condemned for it.”

Actually, my listeners knew no such thing. There wasn’t anything at all wrong with fashioning a statue from jewelry. What was wrong was that the Israelites then proceeded to worship the nonexistent god the calf represented. In other words, they committed the sin of idolatry. There never has been a sin of statue-making.

Statues or no statues?

“But God expressly forbids making statues,” say many Fundamentalists. They cite Exodus 20:4: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image,” and a statue is certainly a “graven image”—that is, an image made by human hands. When this verse is thrown at them, most Catholics are stumped for a response. If they were more familiar with Exodus, they could skip to chapter 25 and read the account of the ornamenting of the Ark of the Covenant.

The Lord commanded the Ark, which held the tablets of the Law, to be topped by—what else?—statues of two cherubim. The statues were to be made of gold, and the wings of the cherubim were to be held over the Ark, as though protecting it. So here we have the Lord, in chapter 20 saying, “Don’t make statues,” according to Fundamentalists, and in chapter 25 the Lord says, “Make statues.”

The key to this apparent contradiction is the purpose behind the making of the statues. In chapter 20 statues used in idol worship were condemned; in chapter 25 statues used for a proper religious purpose were praised.

This brings us to statues in Catholic churches. Fundamentalists see us kneel before statues of Mary and the saints and conclude we’re worshipping either the statues as such or at least the saints represented by the statues. We can’t blame them entirely for this misconception. Sometimes the misconception is fostered by our side.

A boo-boo of archaism

Some years ago I attended a nuptial Mass celebrated by a priest with a reputation for always saying the right thing. His reputation was destroyed by one gross slip of the tongue.

The bride had been raised a Catholic, but the groom had not. He was a recent convert. His entire family and almost all his friends were non-Catholics. Since many of the bride’s friends also were non-Catholics, few people at that Mass knew what was going on. The priest therefore interspersed his liturgical duties with explanations.

It is traditional, at the conclusion of the ceremony, for the bride to take a bouquet to a side altar and lay it at the feet of a statue of the Virgin Mary, at the same time praying that she might emulate Mary as wife and mother. When the time came for that gesture, the priest commented that the placing of the flowers is done because “we Catholics worship Mary.”

There was a collective sigh from the few Catholics in the church and a collective gasp from the non-Catholics, who just had their worst suspicions confirmed. Husbands looked at wives, boyfriends at girlfriends, and their faces said, “See! It’s just as I always thought!”

Was the priest right in what he said? Yes and no. He was right in his understanding of the word worship, but wrong to use it. He meant it in the wide sense of the nineteenth century, when the word was synonymous with giving honor. But today worship is used in the narrow sense of adoration, and adoration is due only to God. By using an archaic sense of the word, the priest inadvertently set back Catholic/Protestant relations.

Look at the word worship. It comes from the Old English word weorthscipe, which means the condition of being worthy of honor, respect, or dignity. To worship in the older, wider sense is to ascribe honor to anyone deserving it—parents, teachers, sages, God.

The highest honor, and thus the highest worship, is given to God alone and is called adoration. The honor or worship given to living men or to saints is of a different sort. Idolatry thus means giving to a creature the kind of honor or worship reserved for God.

As this priest found out, in the popular mind worship now means only adoration. In the nineteenth century Orestes Brownson, perhaps the foremost Catholic intellectual America has produced, could write a book called The Worship of Mary and could get away with it. No one could use that title today—except a Fundamentalist complaining about our attitude toward the Mother of God.

Honoring the living—and the dead

Is there anything wrong with honoring the living? Not at all. In fact, we’re commanded to do so: “Honor your father and your mother” (Ex. 20:12). In courtrooms judges are called “Your Honor.” (Yes, in Britain some magistrates are called “Your Worship.”) Letters to legislators are addressed to “The Hon. So-and-So.” Anyone, living or dead, who bears an exalted rank is said to be worthy of honor, and that’s particularly true of historical figures. Consider the way children are instructed (or, at least, used to be instructed) to honor the Founding Fathers.

So, if there’s nothing wrong with honoring the living, who still have an opportunity to ruin their lives through sin, or the uncanonized dead, about whose state of spiritual health we can only guess, certainly there can be no argument against giving honor to saints whose lives are done and who ended them in sanctity. If merit deserves to be honored wherever it is found, it surely should be honored among God’s special friends.

How is this honor expressed on a practical level? One way is through art. We show our regard for the saints by using representations of them—statues, paintings, mosaics, medals. In the same way we show our regard for our families by carrying photographs of them in our wallets.

The fact that a Catholic kneels before a statue to pray doesn’t mean he’s praying to the statue. A Fundamentalist may kneel with a Bible in his hand, but no one thinks he’s praying to a book. Statues and other “graven images” are used to recall to the mind the person or thing depicted. Just as it’s easier to remember one’s family by looking at a photograph, so it’s easier to remember the lives of the saints (and thus be edified by them) by looking at representations of the saints.


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