Do Some Catholics Unintentionally Worship Images of the Saints?

An exchange between Catholic apologist Godwin Delali Adadzie of ARE CATHOLICS CHRISTIAN.COM and senior Catholic apologist Mark Joseph Bonocore of The Catholic Legate some 13 years ago when Godwin was still learning more about the Catholic faith and apologetics. It was formerly hosted on his Catholic apologetics online ministry called Sts. Peter and Paul Catechism Ministry.

A visitor to Sts. Peter and Paul Catechism Ministry from the Philippines made some observations in his country and sent some questions via email. The questions were forwarded to Mark for some help.

First off, why do we have images? (i know you’ve already answered this in the Q & A section but i something to add) is it not stated in Deuteronomy 4:15-20 not to make images. unless instructed so by God Himself (like in cases of the Ark of the Covenant and others). Here in the Philippines, we have a lot images, statues, etc. of Jesus or Mary or Saints that are usually used for processions and other tradition-related functions. And many of the people here, especially the uneducated in the Catholic catechism, who are probably, though unintentionally, worshiping these images. Is it possible that the rationale of Deuteronomy 4:15-20 is not to make idols or images, so as not to be mistaken on who to worship? Also, as you said, if the image is leading the people to idolatry, it should be destroyed. (II Kings 18:4) but what if the use of images have already taken root in the hearts of people as both inspiration, but then again a cause of mistaken idolatry. what should be the best course of action? or maybe Deuteronomy 4:15-20 should just be followed and the creation of images should be halted to stop idolatry. There are instances that people kissed images, with the consent of priests, i find it a bit…not right.

Well, the first thing that must be appreciated here is that Christians, unlike Jews, are not bound by the prescriptions of the Mosaic Law; and what Deuteronomy says about not making images is a prescription of the Mosaic Law. As St. Paul teaches, again and again, we are not bound to the Mosaic Law AS LAW, but merely bound to the righteousness behind the Mosaic Law. Thus, while we may not commit idolatry, we are not bound to any of the specific Mosaic prescriptions designed to discourage idolatry. Secondly, it must be appreciated WHY the Mosaic Law forbad the making of graven images. This was forbidden in order to teach the semi-pagan ancient Israelites who were delivered from Egypt that the God of Israel is not like the gods of the Egyptians, or the Canaanites, or their other pagan neighbors, which took the forms of men and animals. The God of Israel was not part of creation, but beyond and above all of Creation –the very Author of Creation itself. And, because of this, the God of Israel could not be reflected in any graven image; nor were the Israelites to make graven images that depicted other, pagan gods, which would compete with their love and devotion to the One God. This was the situation in Old Testament times. Ah! But, in the New Testament, things changed dramatically. Why? Because, Christ came to us IN THE FLESH. In Jesus Christ, God became man –a man who could be seen and perceived by human senses. In Christ, the God of Israel lowered Himself and united Himself to His own Creation, becoming a man Who could be seen and imaged. For example, if you had a camera back in the 1st Century, you could have taken a photograph of Jesus! You could also have painted a picture of Him. And this is exactly what St. Paul refers to in Colossians 1:15, where he writes …

“He (Christ) is the [visible] IMAGE of the invisible God …”

And so, in Christ, for the first time in the history of Creation, God could be seen, and one could make a painting or sculpture of Him. For, in seeing Christ, one sees the Father (e.g. John 14:9). And this, combined with the fact that we are no longer subject to the Mosaic Law (but freed from the Law through the Covenant of love that we have in Jesus) changed everything when it came to having religious images. For, if Christ is “the [visible] image of the invisible God,” then the very purpose of the legal prescription of Deuteronomy 4 is no longer applicable! For, an image (a statue or painting of Jesus) underscores and affirms that His Incarnation (His becoming a visible man) is a reality. And the same applies to images of the saints, who are, in themselves, images of Christ (reflecting His holiness –see 2 Corinth 3:18), just as Christ is the image of the Father.

So, properly understood, Catholic religious images affirm and celebrate the reality of the New Covenant. They show that we are no longer under the Law; and they proclaim that Christ is truly Incarnate and visible –that He has joined Himself to us and to His Creation, which He is renewing in His own image –that is, in Divine holiness. And this is exactly what the Ecumenical Council of Nicaea II (in A.D. 787) ruled in opposition to the heresy of Iconoclasm, which taught (incorrectly) that Catholics should not have religious icons (that is, statues or paintings of Jesus and the saints) because they are supposedly “prohibited” by the Old Testament. The Council of Nicaea II infallible corrected this error and proclaimed that statues and paintings are good and holy –that they re-affirm the reality of Christ’s Incarnation. Unfortunately, about 743 years later the error of Iconoclasm was resurrected by the Protestants in northern Europe; and it is the descendants of these Protestants who are promoting this error in the Philippines today. Do not be fooled. If a Protestant tells you that you are bound by Deuteronomy 4, then he is contradicting St. Paul (e.g. Romans 3:28) and claiming that we are still bound by the Mosaic Law (which is something even Protestants do not believe), and he is also implicitly denying the Incarnation of Christ.

As for uneducated people who might seem to be worshipping religious statues and paintings … While it is possible to abuse the veneration of icons, this almost never happens in the Catholic world; and for two reasons: 1) We have the Eucharist, which we know to be the Real Presence of Christ; and we worship Christ in the Eucharist. Any Catholic who is Eucharistic knows very well that we do not treat statues or paintings in the same way that we treat the Eucharist. There is a difference. And 2) Even if some uneducated Catholic “goes overboard” when venerating a statue or painting, the reality is that this statue or painting represents either Christ Himself or a saint –that is, someone who is IN the Body of Christ, His Church. This is very different than the situation in Deuteronomy 4, which was designed to prevent people from worshipping or giving affection to a PAGAN god, or something that had no valid connection to God. Look at it from Jesus’ point of view. Jesus loves His mother and the saints, who are mysteriously one-Body with Him, and who reflect His holiness and His glory. If a friend of yours showed excessive love for your mother or one of your children who you love, this would not be offensive to you, but would reflect on their love for you and their friendship with you, since it is their friendship WITH YOU that leads them to express love and devotion for your mother or your children, etc. And, in our Faith, this underscores and affirms our belief that the Church is truly the Body of Christ –that is, one-Flesh with Jesus. So, when we show love for any of His saints, we are showing love TO HIM. The saints are not a distraction from Him. Nor is kissing or expressing affection for an image of Him a distraction from Him. Rather, it is like kissing a photograph of a beloved family member who is far away. When someone does this, it’s not the photo that they are kissing or the paper that the photo is printed on, but the person that it represents. It is a sincere expression of love. And Christ will never reject such sincere expressions of love, whether it is directed toward Him specifically, or toward any member of His Church in Heaven (His saints). All belongs to you, and all belongs to Christ (see 1 Corinth 3:22-23).

Also, if someone wants to take Deut 4 seriously –that is, if they really want to obey the Mosaic Law (which is no longer binding on Christians), then they must do EXACTLY what it says. For, Deuteronomy forbids MAKING ANY AND ALL graven images. And this would include photographs of your family, and illustrations in books and magazines, and bill board images, and TV and movie images, and any other image that you can think of. Orthodox Jews, for example, are not permitted to make any of these kinds of images. They cannot be representational artists, for example. So, anyone who points to Deuteronomy 4 to argue that Catholics should not have statues or paintings must also never watch TV, or go to the cinema, or draw pictures, or take photographs, or do anything else that involves graven images. Since ALL OF THIS is forbidden under the prescription of Deuteronomy 4.

He also asks ….

Next, if you study Philippine Catholic practices or traditions, you’ll find that there is a pretty famous feast day tradition here at the Quiapo Church fittingly called “Quiapo Day”, wherein they celebrate by processioning the Image of the Black Nazarene. Legions of devotees come to Quiapo to celebrate that day, the procession involves pulling a big, thick, long rope, that is connected to the float that carries the image of the Black Nazarene. Sometimes in both the hype and confusion of the procession, people get hurt or even die, at the stampede of people. i’m alright with the celebration itself, there are a lot of processions in the Philippines, but none is comparable in magnitude as with Quiapo Day,Is it still right to do something like that? to the extent that poeple might lose their life in the process? and is it in a way a form of idolatry?

Well, no, it is not a form of idolatry. But, it is irresponsible of the Church in the Philippines not to be more careful. The Church obviously has the obligation to protect people from getting hurt or killed, and if this is going on, then someone has not properly done their job. The bishop should put measures in place to protect people. What’s more, something like Quiapo Day is what is called a local custom or national festival. It is not a Catholic Tradition, since the rest of the Catholic Church does not celebrate it. Only that which is celebrated or observed universally by the Church is a true Catholic Tradition.

Another question, i know that the catholic religion has adopted some traditions from some other cultures (like Christmas, i think it came from a Roman tradition involving the sun god) is that “Christianizing” other beliefs so that the non-believers will join us? is that a “if you can’t beat them, join them” thing? or are other traditions created to fool the people into the fold? (especially here in the Philippines at the time of the Spaniards) So my question is, are we certain that every tradition or belief we are practicing, (especially here in my country) even items that are used in traditions or practices, are not from pagan traditions, or things that are made up to manipulate people. and are all these in accordance with God or just man-made?

Well, here, a few things need to be appreciated. First, Christmas itself was not a pagan Roman tradition. Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Christ and of the Incarnation –God becoming man. Obviously, the pagan Romans did not celebrate that, since it is a Christian belief. The only thing “pagan” or “Roman” about Christmas is the day on which the Church chose to observe this feast. For, December 25th which, in ancient times, was associated with the Winter Solstice (when the sun is closest to the earth), used to be the day on which the Romans celebrated a pagan festival called the Saturnalia. This was a big festival in ancient Rome, and a time to have parties and to spend time with friends and family. But, as the majority of Roman citizens stopped being pagans and started to be Christians, the Church merely changed the meaning of the celebration. Instead of celebrating a pagan festival in honor of the sun god, the Church encouraged people to celebrate the birth of the TRUE Light of the World, Jesus Christ. This was a natural and a fitting thing to do. The Church didn’t want to deprive the Romans of their yearly festival. Rather, it merely Christianized this day. And it did not do this to “fool” anyone. Not at all. Rather, what we believe is that Jesus is the King over all Creation Who came to restore the whole world to Himself. And so, because of this, anything that is good or beneficial can be submitted to Christ and Christianized (see 1 Tim 4:4-5). And this is what the Catholic Church did with all pagan cultures when it accepted the people of those cultures (whether they were Roman pagans or Filiopino pagans) into the Church. For, if you think about it, if God can take an “unclean” pagan (as the Jews saw them) and make them holy, then He can also make the good aspects of their old pagan culture holy too. The Church did not ask Gentile peoples (that is, former pagans) to give up their cultures when they entered the Church. Rather, the Church allowed them to keep all the good aspects of their cultures, and it Christianized these cultures, submitting them to Christ and adapting the meanings of certain things when necessary. A good example of this is the Christmas Tree, which was originally an element of the German pagan winter festival called “Yule.” For, the ancient pagans of Germany used to believe that, during the winter, their fertility gods lived inside the evergreen trees, which is why (they believed) these trees were still green in winter, when all the other trees lost their leaves. So, the pagan Germans would, as part of their winter festival, take evergreen trees into their homes and decorate them as shrines to honor their pagan gods. But, when the Church converted the Germans to Christianity it allowed them to keep their cultural festival and to decorate the evergreen trees (because this was fun for the Germans and they and their children looked forward to it). But, the Church merely changed the meaning of the custom, making it clear that there were no “gods” who lived in the tree, and that the tree should not be worshipped, but that the tree now represented the eternal life that we have in Jesus Christ. And so, the Yule Tree became the Christmas Tree. This is how the Church spread the Faith among the pagan peoples –taking their pagan cultures and making them into Christian cultures. And there is nothing dishonest or “tricky” about this. Indeed, Moses and the Jews before us did the same thing with numerous elements of pagan Cannanite culture. Passover is celebrated on the date that it is celebrated each year because, following the same lunar calendar, this was the day when the pagan neighbors of the Israelites (the Canaanites) used to celebrate their fertility festival. Likewise, the very plan and layout of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem (which Jesus called “my Father’s House”) followed the layout of the pagan Cannanite temples of the god Baal –the chief god of the Canaanite religion, who was represented as a goat. And, following this model, the Bible speaks of the “horns of the altar” in the Jerusalem Temple of the God of Israel. These “horns” originally referred to the goat horns of Baal which were a motif of his pagan altar. So, neither Judaism nor Christianity is immune from the influences of pagan cultures. Rather, they would take elements of pagan culture and consciously adapt them and change their meanings in order to convert people to the true Faith. And their is nothing strange about this. It’s not a case of “If you can’t beat them join them” at all. Rather, it is HOW the Church “beat them.” 🙂 It is how you convert people to Jesus Christ –by taking elements of their native culture and using these elements to communicate the truths of the Gospel to these pagan peoples. But, don’t take my word for it. Go read Acts 17:22-31, where St. Paul evangelizes the pagan Greek Athenians by taking elements of their pagan culture and using them to communicate the truths of the Gospel. In v. 23, Paul refers to a pagan altar (atop which PAGAN sacrifices were offered) to “an unknown god” and uses this to introduce the God of Israel to these pagan Greeks –saying that His God, Jesus Christ, is the “Unknown God” that this altar refers to. And then, in verse 28, Paul quotes, not one, but two PAGAN Greek poets (Epimenides of Knossos and Aratus of Solis, who was from Paul’s own home town of Tarsus) and applies what they have to say about a PAGAN concept of “god” to the God of Israel. So, if St. Paul could take pagan elements and “Christianize them” –that is, use them to effectively communicate the Gospel to pagan people, why can’t the Catholic Church do the same?? Indeed, it can do the same. It is merely following the example of the Apostles.

As for questioning your traditions … First, you must learn to distinguish between “tradition” (small “t”) and “Tradition” (capital “T”). When we speak of “traditions” (small “t”), we merely mean customs and practices that are local, and which usually have more to do with native cultural practices than with the Catholic Church itself. An example of this would be the custom of Filipino weddings, when the family wraps ribbons around the bride and groom, “binding” them together. This is a local Filiipino practice; it is not a practice or custom in the rest of the Catholic Church. That doesn’t mean that it’s bad or that it lacks a good meaning; it just means that it’s a local custom, and so “tradition” with a small “t.” When we speak of “Tradition” with a capital “T,” we mean either Apostolic Tradition –that is, the Traditional beliefs and practices that come down to us from the Apostles (such as the Eucharist or how to administer the other Sacraments), or customs which the Church has adopted universally and which have some canonical authority behind them. One is always free to question “traditions” with a small “t.” This is because the local church is not infallible, and sometimes traditions arise which are not helpful. But, we are not free to question or deny Traditions with a capital “T,” since they are true elements of the Catholic Faith, and they bind us together universally as a people.

And if we had adopted pagan traditions or the like, why did we do it?

As I said above, we did it to convert pagan peoples and to communicate the truths of the Gospel to them within their own native cultures.

and if it is still practiced today, why has it not been corrected yet?

Why does it need to be “corrected”? If something is given to Christ, then that thing becomes good and holy. It is no longer pagan, but Christian. For example, no one remembers that the Christmas Tree used to be the pagan Yule Tree. This is because the Christian Faith is victorious over the old pagan faith, and now the old pagan symbol is a 100% Christian symbol. This is how the Christian Faith operates. There are no Roman pagans or Filipino pagans any more. We are now Christian peoples, and our cultures are Christian cultures. Christian culture is pagan Gentile culture that has been “Baptized” into Christ. If this were not possible, then we should all be Jews and live as Jews. But, we know that, in Christ, both Jews and Gentiles (that is, pagans) now belong to the same Covenant in Christ. So, there is nothing that needs “correction” if it has been submitted in love to Jesus Christ.

I hope that helps.
Mark Bonocore
Credit: Godwin Delali Adadzie

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Note: While content aims to align with Catholic teachings, any inconsistencies or errors are unintended. For precise understanding, always refer to authoritative sources like the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Always double-check any quotes for word-for-word accuracy with the Bible or the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

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