Idols v. Statues

Statues of Christian Saints

One of the common accusations leveled against Catholic by both Protestants and Muslims is that we worship idols. One of the reasons why this happens, particularly among Muslims, but also among some Protestants too, is that they really don’t understand what an idol is. Their knowledge of the subject is elementary, almost childlike. If they see an image, or a statue, in a place of worship, they cry “idolatry!” without even questioning what the image/statue is, or why it’s there. Such accusations indicate that a person is either unable to do the smallest amount of research into the topic, or just doesn’t want to.

So to help people understand, let’s just jump right into it. The following video is from a Hindu source, where idol worship is real, and nobody in the religion denies it. Idols are considered part of the religion itself. Since this short video comes from a self-admitted idolatrous source, we can safely assume they know a thing or two about idolatry…

As the video explains, idols are symbolic representations of ideas, concept and/or forces of nature. They’re not designed to represent a real person or thing. Sometimes they may look inconspicuous, like a real person, animal or actual thing in nature. However, their meaning is different. They may look like natural people, animals or things, but they are actually representative of ideas, concepts or forces of nature…

Likewise, idols don’t have to look like natural things, and more often than not, they don’t. With the exception of European Paganism, most idols take on the form of hybrid human-animal creatures, to emphasize that they’re not meant to depict actual persons, animals or things, but rather ideas, concepts and/or forces of nature…

All of these are idols because they’re not meant to represent a real person, animal or thing, but they are meant to be worshiped. That’s the second qualification, the image in question must be worshiped as representing something that is divine. In order to be an idol, and image must…

  1. Represent something that is not a real person, animal or thing, and…
  2. Be an object or symbol to focus worship on an idea, concept or force of nature.

If it doesn’t have BOTH of these qualifications, it’s not an idol. For example, the following is a statue of a bull, and it’s meant to represent the idea of a bull market, or a strong market. However, nobody worships this thing. It’s just a statue in New York and people walk past it all the time, but it would be a rare day to see people bowing down to it, prostrating before it, or offering sacrifices of food or burning incense before it…

Wal Street Bull
Wall Street Bull

Now it could be said that there are plenty of people out there who worship the false god of mammon, and I agree, there are. However, you don’t see those people prostrating before this statue and offering food and incense to it. It’s an image of an animal, meant to represent a bull market, but nobody worships the statue itself. So it’ not an idol. If you want to see real idol worship, this is what it looks like…

Hindu Idol Worship in the Home

Hindu Idol Worship in the Temple

Neo-Pagan Idol Worship

As you can see, there are some common themes of idol worship and some variations. Not all idolaters bow down to the earth prostrate, but some do. The common theme is sacrifice, and worship directed toward the idol, however each culture defines an act of worship. The most common act of worship in primitive cultures is to bow down in a prostrate position before an image of some sort, and to offer food and incense to the image.

Now, let’s contrast this with statue veneration. There’s a huge difference. The word “veneration” means “respect.” So we’re talking about respecting images here, not worshiping them. A statue is simply an image of a real thing, usually a person, meant to represent that actual real thing — not an abstract idea, concept or an invisible force of nature. So here’s a contrast for example…

Carving of Zeus = Represents Lightning, Thunder, Sky, Order, Justice = Object of Worship of these things = IDOL
procession - Edited
Carving of Virgin Mary = Represents a Real Person = Not an Object of Worship = STATUE

Catholics, Orthodox, and Anglicans venerate (respect) the statues, carvings and paintings of real people, heroes of the Christian faith, who stand as an example for the rest of us. When these images are venerated (respected), the respect transfers to the real person the image represents. Such acts of respect might include carrying a statue in a procession, crowning a statue, adorning one with flowers and occasionally lighting a candle before one. However, none of this is worship, and the reason why it’s not worship is because Catholics, Orthodox and Anglicans have a specific act of worship that is reserved specifically for God, and that act is called the “Holy Mass” or “Divine Liturgy.” This is the reason why Catholics are REQUIRED to go to Mass on all Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation, because it insures that Catholics worship God alone on a regular basis.

The Holy Mass (Divine Liturgy) is offered to God and God alone. It is not offered to The Blessed Virgin Mary, Saint Joseph or any other Saint. Only God gets the Mass. The Mass is only directed toward God alone. This is authentic worship of the one, true God, according to Catholic teaching, and nothing else will suffice.

To Catholics, statues are just statues, and they always represent real people, whether they be Saints or Angels.

I think what is most telling about the clear difference between statues and idols is an unfortunate act that happened in the Vatican gardens in October of 2019. Some native Amazonians were invited to celebrate their tribal rituals before Pope Francis. In the midst of their rituals, they bowed down and worshiped a wooden idol, which was a representation of their goddess Pachamama or Mother Earth. Here’s the entire video, but you only need to watch a minute and a half of it, starting at 10:45, which I’ve cued to start automatically…

Many Catholics were stunned at this. How could this happen? What was clearly an act of idol worship was performed in the Vatican gardens, and many faithful Catholics were hurt and scandalized by it. Why the pope would allow this is a mystery. No previous pope ever would — not in the Vatican! To make matters worse, these Pachamama statues were paraded around the Vatican, and the streets of Rome, and finally displayed before the altars of Our Lord in at least one Church in Rome, possibly more. This was the inevitable response by faithful Catholics…

The idols were taken from one church and thrown into the Tiber River. THAT is how good and faithful Catholics handle idolatry in their churches. This historical event is important, because it clearly contrasts the difference between statues and idols, between veneration (respect) of mere images, versus worship of false gods. The next time a Protestant or Muslim accuses Catholics of worshiping idols, show them this video. This is what we Catholics do to real idols when they get into our churches.

Once again, an idol is not the same as a statue. An idol is meant to represent an idea, concept or force of nature that is worshiped. A statue, in contrast, is just an image of a real person who is not worshiped. Idols are forbidden in Sacred Scripture, but statues are not. If you would like to learn more about the difference, see my previous blog Do Catholics Worship Statues?

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