Idolatry, Roman Catholic Style


Our Lady of Czestochowa

One of the charges often leveled against members of the Roman Catholic cult is that they worship idols. Rome, of course, is quick to deny such allegations, as are those under her sway.

My dictionary offers this definition of the word IDOL:

1 a : an image of a divinity : a representation or symbol of a deity or any other being or thing made or used as an object of worship; broadly : a false god : a heathen deity
b : an image (as of a saint) used in Christian worship
2 a obsolete : an appearance, aspect, or likeness of something
3 : a form or appearance visible but without substance : an incorporeal image or phantom
4 : something or someone on which the affections are strongly and often excessively set : an object of passionate devotion : a person or thing greatly loved or adored
5 : a false notion or conception
-- "idol." Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged. Merriam-Webster, 2002. (17 Sep. 2007).

Catholics point to teachings in their Catechism, where one might read strong reminders from Scripture concerning idols and those who worship them:

2112. The first commandment condemns polytheism. It requires man neither to believe in, nor to venerate, other divinities than the one true God. Scripture constantly recalls this rejection of 'idols, (of) silver and gold, the work of men's hands. They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see.' These empty idols make their worshippers empty: 'Those who make them are like them; so are all who trust in them.'[Ps 115:4-5, 8 ; cf. Isa 44:9-20 ; Jer 10:1-16; Dan 14:1-30 ; Bar 6 ; Wis 13: 1-15:19 .] God, however, is the 'living God'[Josh 3:10 ; Ps 42:3 ; etc.] who gives life and intervenes in history.--Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), 2nd Ed., (c) 1994/1997 United States Catholic Conference, inc.

This is godly teaching, drawn directly from the oracles of God as recorded by the Prophets, the Psalmist and writers of non-Canonical books. Sadly, the CCC does not stop here, but goes on to explain that the worship Catholics render before images is not idolatry. The rest of paragraph 2112 reads:

Religious worship is not directed to images in themselves, considered as mere things, but under their distinctive aspect as images leading us on to God incarnate. The movement toward the image does not terminate in it as image, but tends toward that whose image it is.[St. Thomas Aquinas, STh II-II, 81, 3 ad 3.]--Ibid.

Now, let's take a moment to closely examine the words in this second paragraph:

"RELIGIOUS WORSHIP IS NOT DIRECTED TO IMAGES IN THEMSELVES, CONSIDERED AS MERE THINGS…"

Well, I should hope not. I cannot imagine that any Catholic actually believes that the object or image to which he is praying is the actual intended object of his worship. No! That can't be true, for Catholics pray to the Blessed Sacrament, which is but a bit of bread that has been blessed by a priest. They believe that this wafer embodies the "real Presence" of Christ.

. . . In the most blessed sacrament of the Eucharist 'the body and blood, together with the soul and divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ and, therefore, the whole Christ is truly, really, and substantially contained.'[Council of Trent (1551): DS 1651.] . . .--Para. 1374, CCC

Well, that's all right then. After all, if the consecrated wafer really is Jesus Christ, then when the Catholic faithful genuflect before the ciborium and make the sign of the cross on their foreheads, heart and shoulders - sometimes kissing the fingers which did the deed as an additional sign of piety - they are praying to the person of their Christ. I guess that's okay. NOT!

". . . BUT UNDER THEIR DISTINCTIVE ASPECT AS IMAGES LEADING US ON TO GOD INCARNATE. . . "

I suppose this is telling RCC believers that when they pray to a statue or some other representation of Mary, or St. Francis, or any of the other Catholic demigods, and then plant a kiss on the thing they really are just using the object to channel or focus their prayers and gestures of affection to God Himself. One wonders why they don't simply pray to God, without all the intervening crockery, paint and marble.

". . . THE MOVEMENT TOWARD THE IMAGE DOES NOT TERMINATE IN IT AS IMAGE, BUT TENDS TOWARD THAT WHOSE IMAGE IT IS . . ."

Oops!! Looks to me as though Thomas Aquinas needed a proof reader. First he tells us, in what has become official RCC doctrine, that images lead religious worship rendered them to God. Then, in the next sentence, he explains that the 'movement toward the image' (whatever that gobbledygook means) does not stop with the image but "TENDS TOWARD THAT WHOSE IMAGE IT IS."

Now, taking Aquinas literally, which is always risky when dealing with RCC theology, one would reasonably assume that religious worship offered to a statue of St. Michael would 'tend toward' Michael the Archangel, a created being, and not toward God. By the same token, when one is about to flag down a cab in New York City, the prayers, petitions and offerings he might direct to St. Fiacre (patron saint of cab drivers) presumably tend to that particular spirit. I find it interesting that Fiacre is also patron of gardeners, gunners and those afflicted with syphilus, but that is an aside and not relevant to the subject being examined.

Let's see how this goes: the RCC catechism cites Scripture and Apocrypha to denounce idolatry, then goes on to teach that the RCC practice of rendering worship to created things is okay, because the worship 'tends toward that whose image it is.' Roman Catholic churches, literature and dashboards abound with images of Christ and His body parts (heart, etc.), Mary and other demigods. Catholic faithful wear amulets, scapulars, and medals, all of which depict 'sacred' body parts, various deities of the RCC pantheon, etc. In that Roman Catholics indeed do render 'religious worship' to all these things, or 'that whose image it is,' and since not all these images are of God, then one might reasonably conclude that Roman Catholics indeed do practice idolatry.

Just a refresher concerning what idols are:

IDOL...Any person or thing, other than God, usually an image of some kind, to which divine worship is paid...--Donald Attwater, Ed., A Catholic Dictionary, 1942 Ed., (C) 1931 The MacMillan Co. w/ Nihil obstat & Imprimatur

Note the use of the weasel word divine. This suggests to me that it must be okay to render less-than-divine worship to a plaster statue of a saint or to a scrap of cloth from a rag that has been touched to the tomb or reliquary of some Catholic demigod, or saint.

Given that Catholic faithful kneel, pray, burn candles, etc., before images of body parts and the demigods that Catholics call saints, one would think that so doing must surely constitute idolatry. Not so, for the Catholic Church has found a way to justify such idolatrous activities. This is made clear in the remainder of the entry in Attwater's dictionary:

...The images in Catholic churches are not idols because the divine worship is not given to them. The :graven things" forbidden by Exodus xx, 4-5, are precisely idols as above, and not images in themselves/--Ibid.

Roman Catholicism's official Catechism helps us to understand what constitutes idolatry:

2138. Superstition is a departure from the worship that we give to the true God. It is manifested in idolatry, as well as in various forms of divination and magic.--CCC, Op. cit.

The Roman Catholic Church is dead against idolatry and makes no bones about her stand. A quick look at her Catechism will back up that statement:

2113. Idolatry not only refers to false pagan worship. It remains a constant temptation to faith. Idolatry consists in divinizing what is not God. Man commits idolatry whenever he honors and reveres a creature in place of God, whether this be gods or demons (for example, satanism), power, pleasure, race, ancestors, the state, money, etc. Jesus says, 'You cannot serve God and mammon.'[Mt 6:24 .] Many martyrs died for not adoring 'the Beast'[Cf. Rev 13-14.] refusing even to simulate such worship. Idolatry rejects the unique Lordship of God; it is therefore incompatible with communion with God.[Cf. Gal 5:20 ; Eph 5:5 .].--Ibid.

What is an idolater? The Catechism of the Catholic Church provides an answer:.

2114. Human life finds its unity in the adoration of the one God. The commandment to worship the Lord alone integrates man and saves him from an endless disintegration. Idolatry is a perversion of man's innate religious sense. An idolater is someone who 'transfers his indestructible notion of God to anything other than God.'[Origen, Contra Celsum 2, 40: PG 11, 861.]--Ibid.

Not too long ago, I watched a television documentary that included a segment on the 'holiest place in all of Poland.' Earnest Catholics would immediately recognize that I am talking about the monastery at Czestochowa, home of the famous painting known as the Black Madonna. This painting, which has hung in the same place since the 13th century, is credited with innumerable cures and other miraculous happenings.

In the documentary, viewers were shown scenes of hundreds of Catholic faithful, travelling by train, bus and automobile, or tramping along country roads while carrying backpacks. All were moving toward the walled monastery where they intended to render homage to the Black Madonna. One scene depected hundreds of Catholic faithful, dressed warmly, for the weather was chilly, lying face down on the grassy field outside the monastery, arms spread wide, as they prayed and paid homage to the Black Madonna. Another scene, inside the monastery, showed people in the same attitude offering their religious worship to the somewhat tattered and gilded image of Mary.

Another scene showed a huge crowd gathered outside the monastery during a papal visit. The voice-over said that as many as a million people are in attendance at Czestochowa when popes come to pay their religious worship to the Black Madonna. The camera cut away to a wall covered with gold crosses, pendants, and other tokens of gratitude to the Black Madonna for services rendered and prayers answered. For those who may have been inspired to leave an offering but found themselves a bit short of cash, the thoughtful monks had provided an ATM machine at the shrine.

But all these prayers, humbling postures and fiduciary sacrifices are not wrong, says the Roman Catechism, for they are not rendered to the painting, but to the created being represented by the painting. And, of course, it is not adoration.

2132. The Christian veneration of images is not contrary to the first commandment which proscribes idols. Indeed, 'the honor rendered to an image passes to its prototype,' and 'whoever venerates an image venerates the person portrayed in it.'[St. Basil, De Spiritu Sancto 18, 45: PG 32, 149C; Council of Nicaea II: DS 601; cf. Council of Trent: DS 1821-1825; Vatican Council II: SC 126; LG 67.] The honor paid to sacred images is a 'respectful veneration,' not the adoration due to God alone:--CCC, Op. cit.

Forgive me. I am so naïve. When I see people lying prostrate on wet grass or a cold stone floor, praying before what is an altogether unremarkable painting, some of them in tears or showing other signs of rapture, you cannot convince me they are not rendering worship to the being before whose representation they are praying. And that constitutes idolatry, as far as I am concerned, but Catholicism say differently:

IDOLATRY: ...To worship God in a wrong way (e.g., by joining seriously in the worship of the Jews) is also a form of idolatry. Catholics are sometimes accused of idolatry in respect of the Blessed Sacrament, our Lady and the saints, relics and images; they do indeed worship the Blessed Sacrament--because it is God under the appearances of bread; to our Lady and the saints they give a veneration and honour which may be properly accorded to those who are human like ourselves but immeasurably exceed us in virtue, and are moreover now in very truth at the right hand of God; to images is given honour which refers to those whom they represent: God is worshipped through the image, which itself can neither hear nor help.--Attwater, Op. cit.

Did you get that? Mary and the Catholic saints are at the right hand of God. Hmmm. I wonder where that came from? If I understand this, the images Catholics pray before and/or to are mere representations of former humans and can neither hear the prayers nor help the prayer, yet God somehow is worshipped by praying to an image of Saint Melvin, or whoever. Sounds like doubletalk to me.

Some Jews of Isaiah's time prayed to statues and other representations of the various gods they looked to for protection and favor. Speaking through the Prophet, God had this to say about those idols/images

To whom will ye liken me, and make me equal, and compare me, that we may be like? They lavish gold out of the bag, and weigh silver in the balance, and hire a goldsmith; and he maketh it a god: they fall down, yea, they worship. They bear him upon the shoulder, they carry him, and set him in his place, and he standeth; from his place shall he not remove: yea, one shall cry unto him, yet can he not answer, nor save him out of his trouble. Remember this, and shew yourselves men: bring it again to mind, O ye transgressors.--Isaiah 46:5-8, KJV

There is no need for statues, paintings or intercessors in order to approach God. Those whom He has chosen to be His adopted children, co-heirs with Christ, may approach the very throne of God in confidence, calling upon Him as 'Father.'

For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God. For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father. The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God: And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together.--Romans 8:14-17, KJV

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