By RAYMOND DE SOUZA, KM
For quite some time I have been intrigued by the constant repetition common among non-Catholics that to have statues in church or at home smacks of idolatry. I remember the first time I was pushed against the wall by a Baptist man in a conversation: He simply said to me that it was a shame that such an evident Bible teaching was blatantly and systematically ignored by the Roman Catholic Church: God clearly forbade the carving of images, idols, and of honoring them. And yet Catholics fill up their churches and homes with images of saints and angels, which are abhorrent to God’s saints and His angels.
In those days I did not know how to answer this kind of objection, and as a consequence a profound doubt about the legitimacy of statues crept into my soul. It was shortly after my coming back to the practice of the sacraments, at the end of my teens, in a time when I was thoroughly immature in the faith, and totally ignored the biblical foundations of using statues and icons in liturgy and devotion.
Unfortunately, immaturity in the faith still remains among a great many Catholics today, and not only the young. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger pulled no punches at the sermon of the Mass of the Conclave that elected him Pope. He outlined the problem and proposed the solution when he said that Catholics cannot remain immature in the faith, in a state of inferiority, as they run the risk of being tossed about and carried here and there by any doctrinal wind. A clear faith, according to the creed of the Church, is needed.
I am pleased to contribute these articles on apologetics to The Wanderer in the hope that its readers will, in ever-growing numbers, take a greater interest in learning how to defend the faith and put their knowledge into practice.
But let us take a look at the main argument used by non-Catholics against the Church practice of having statues as aids to worship. Here is the key Bible teaching:
“I, the Lord, am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that place of slavery. You shall not have other gods besides me. You shall not carve idols for yourselves in the shape of anything in the sky above or on the earth below or in the waters beneath the earth; you shall not bow down before them or worship them. For I the Lord, your God, am a jealous God” (Exodus 20:2-5).
As is wont to happen among uncritical critics of Catholicism, they take a text out of its natural context to make a pretext against the Catholic Church. Idols and statues are as similar as, as we say in Australia, chalk and cheese. The similarity is just a little “ch” in the pronunciation. The meaning is quite different, as anyone can verify by trying to write on a blackboard with a piece of cheese or eating a chalk sandwich.
In the British world, you will find statues of Queen Victoria everywhere. In Australia and New Zealand, you can see statues of Captain Cook erected in public parks. In the United States, I am sure that no American fundamentalist believes that Lincoln Memorial in Washington is a pagan temple dedicated to the worship of a marble idol whose features bear resemblance to a dead president.
So, statues of Queen Victoria in public parks in Australia and the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., have a very specific purpose: They remind the people of the persons who are honored, their deeds performed for the good of the nation. If someone spray-paints or writes graffiti on the statues of Queen Victoria or Abraham Lincoln, he will not be simply disfiguring a piece of molten iron or white marble, but the memory of the person, and, by consequence, the nation’s values which, to a certain extent, are represented in the person’s statue.
That’s why statues are erected to honor great men and women. Mt. Rushmore is a typical example: It does not depict a four-headed monster; it is a great act of homage to four men who helped build the nation, albeit in different ways.
More: That’s why we keep photos of our loved ones in special places at home, and, at times, it is not uncommon for one to kiss a picture of a dead son or daughter, or of a spouse or fiancé who is away, as an expression of one’s longing to be in his or her presence.
When you see anti-American demonstrators burn Old Glory, you know perfectly well that they are not just destroying a piece of colored cloth — no, they indicate their desire to destroy the nation represented by that colored cloth.
Besides, aren’t a telephone directory, a dictionary, and a Bible just paper and ink? If you burn a Bible, don’t you think that any half-decent Christian would take offense? Of course! Burn a Koran and see the reaction!
Both logic and history prove that idols and statues are two different things, and Sacred Scripture shows the condemnation applied only to idol-making for the purpose of adoration, not against every form of artistic expression in sculpturing or painting for the purpose of aiding piety.
In the next article, we will analyze the text from Exodus and realize how a simple but attentive reading of the text will make it crystal clear precisely what God was forbidding, and what He was not.
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(Raymond de Souza is director of the Evangelization and Apologetics Office of the Winona Diocese, Minn.; EWTN program host; regional coordinator for Portuguese-speaking countries for Human Life International [HLI], president of the Sacred Heart Institute and a member of the Sovereign, Military, and Hospitaller Order of the Knights of Malta. His web site is: www.RaymonddeSouza.com.)