Catholic Statues and the 1st Commandment

Tuesday, October 07, 2003



There has been a rift between some Protestant Christians and Catholic Christians over the use of religious art in worship, particularly when the art in question is statues. Those who oppose the use of statues appeal to the first of the Ten Commandments:
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, inflicting punishment for their fathers' wickedness on the children of those who hate me, down to the third and fourth generation; but bestowing mercy down to the thousandth generation, on the children of those who love me and keep my commandments. (Exodus 20:2-6)
From a purely literalist interpretation of the Bible, this command cannot be understood as an absolute prohibition against every form of religious statue. Only five chapters later in Exodus, God commands Moses to craft statues of angels to place over the Ark of the Covenant.
Make two cherubim of beaten gold for the two ends of the propitiatory, fastening them so that one cherub springs direct from each end. The cherubim shall have their wings spread out above, covering the propitiatory with them; they shall be turned toward each other, but with their faces looking toward the propitiatory. (Exodus 25:18-20)
Throughout the Bible, one finds detailed instructions in various places for the creation of elaborate works of art for use in worship. The Bible does not condemn religious art so much as offer us a challenge to avoid creating false gods.

Personally, I believe the human race is naturally monotheistic, and that polytheism developed over time due to different perceptions of the one true God. A warrior may have claimed that God is a god of war, and named him Mars. Another person may have said, "No. God is a god of love." and named her Venus. Others may have looked at a cow, seeing a perfect symbol of life in the milk and meat, and made images of God as a cow. Some people decided to create a pantheon in order to cover all bases. Overtime, these disagreements about the nature of God lead to the conception that there are many gods, and a sort of "fundamentalism" about images lead the human race into a literalization of symbols, to the point where cows become sacred cows for some people.

The insight of Moses and the Biblical writers is that humanity is the ultimate image of the divine. This is a humanistic theology that places the human person at the center of the universe. The prohibition to making statues of animals and other creatures was intended to draw attention away from symbols to the mysterious reality of the God who formed us in her own likeness.

The culmination of the humanistic message of the Bible for a Christian is the incarnation of God in human flesh in Jesus Christ. By joining the concrete historical condition of being a physical human being, God has sanctified the human condition and our physical reality. The incarnation reveals that God and spirituality are not opposed to matter and the flesh. Rather, it is in, through, with and around the world of matter and flesh that God is active.

By becoming a human being, it is as though God is saying, "Stop looking for me in heaven. I'm standing right next to you in your neighbor." Thus, Christ's entire moral teaching is aimed at love of neighbor. Spirituality divorced from the real world is dualism, which is not Christian.

Catholics celebrate the incarnation event by physically acting out certain symbolic actions instituted by Christ as signs of God's grace everywhere already present in the world. These physical actions are called sacraments. They are Baptism with water, Confirmation through the laying on of hands and anointing with oil, the Eucharist, the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession), Marriage, Ordination to ministry, and the Anointing of the Sick.

The use of religious art also expresses the wonder and truth of the incarnation event. Since the entire human condition is sanctified, and human beings seem to naturally be drawn to artistic expression, and it is humanity that images the divine, it makes sense that we would channel our artistic impulses to creating images of Christ and the saints. To deny this impulse could be construed as doubt about what occurred in the incarnation at best, or blatant dualism at worst.

Catholics do not worship statues as some of the neighbors of the Israelites did. At the time some of the Old Testament was written, humanity had fallen so deeply into polytheism and over literalizing symbols that some practiced superstition and acted as though statues were living beings. Food was even offered to the statues. Catholics denounce such practices as idolatry and superstition.

Catholics do show respect for religious art because of what the art represents. This is not worship. Those who are unfamiliar with our traditions and customs might consider that our reverence for religious art is very similar to the reverence people show for family photo albums.

Nobody in the modern world believes their family photo album is alive or has divine power, and yet, many of us consider these albums nearly sacred. Indeed, it would not be unheard of for a widow to kiss the photo of her deceased husband, and this is not considered idolatry.

We Catholics don't feed statues and if a statue broke, it would be discarded, just as a damaged or faded photo may be discarded. However, it is considered sacrilegious to deface or vandalize religious art, because the art serves as a reminder of God and God's people.

Religious art served the Christian Church well in the period prior to the Reformation. In an age when many people were illiterate, religious art was a manner of conveying Gospel stories to children, simple farmers, and peasants. Furthermore, religious art can aid in prayer by giving the person praying something to focus their gaze and concentration to help prevent wandering thoughts. Images of the saints remind us that we are connected to a long tradition and that we worship God with the communion of angels and saints in heaven even as we gather here on earth.

The Church's understanding of the command against idolatry has developed and broadened over the centuries. While superstitious beliefs such as feeding statues are an obvious violation of the commandment, many other forms of superstition have been added to the list. Catholics consider astrology, tarot cards, and any theory of being powerless to fate a form of idolatry. Furthermore, anything we make a higher priority than God in our lives can be a form of idolatry. Money, revenge, sex, drugs, power, fame, and status can all become idols.

Catholics interpret Sacred Scripture in a living tradition that we believe is guided by the Holy Spirit. Church leaders have gathered periodically from across the whole globe to make solemn and binding decisions about how passages of Scripture should be interpreted. These gatherings are called Ecumenical Councils. The seventh such council was held in Nicea in 787 AD, and this council determined that it is actually heretical to try to destroy and discourage religious art. Catholics accept this council as an authoritive and binding interpretation of the Scripture and Apostolic Tradition.

While there is no law binding any Catholic to use statues, it is considered wrong to condemn those who do. Almost all Christian churches from the ninth century to the Reformation had religious art, and even to this day, many Protestant demominations join Catholics in using statues and icons. The Eastern Orthodox churches also have a strong tradition of using elaborate religious art and iconography. Even some of the most strictly literal Evangelical Protestant worship spaces have at least a painting of Jesus!

Some critics of the Catholic Church believe that the treasury of art that the Church owns should be sold and the money given to the poor. What is often forgotten is that some of the most magnificent church buildings were built by the poor, for the poor. If you take a 10,000 dollar piece of art, sell it, and divide the proceeds among a village of 1000 poor people, each of them will get 10 dollars, which is what each one contributed to build their church. The poor, themselves, will tell you that they do not want their churches dismantled in order to help them!

I love the Church's reverence for the arts and its ability to convey the Gospel message in non-verbal medium. Yet, I also believe that Vatican II was right to call for simplification of our worship spaces. Partially, this is ecumenically sensitive. Why create unnecessary conflict with our Protestant siblings over this issue?

However, I also think that some Catholic churches, often in reaction to Protestantism, made the worship space look more like a museum than the place where we gather around the altar to offer our very selves to the father with Christ. Some churches are simply so cluttered with religious art that the eye is not drawn to the Eucharistic action or to each other. Thus, our own Catholic worship is made poorer by excessive concern with art and not enough attention to Eucharist.

In some cases, the church art has become so elaborate that we lose the sense of Jesus as an itinerant preacher who reached out to the poor and marginalized. In other cases, religious art is so focused on a single ethnic group that other groups feel excluded.

There is a middle ground between iconoclasm and excess. Statues should probably be largely reserved to chapels and grottos, while iconography, paintings and murals are used predominantly in larger worship space. Two dimensional images engage the eye differently and are more appropriate to the gathering space for the Mass than excessive statues. Images of saints in pluralistic nations such as the United States should be careful to include many races and both genders so that all people are well represented.

The Catholic Church, with its reverence for sacred art has made a significant contribution to culture. This contribution is very humanistic. Yet, this is not the stale humanism of the atheistic secularist. It is a deep humanism grounded in the belief that the source of the entire universe became one of us and reveals himself in people created in the divine image. Our religious art expresses the core of our belief!

Peace and blessings!

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posted by Jcecil3 1:01 PM

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