I like to hear and to read about people’s conversion stories to the Catholic Church—about the process they’ve been through in trying to assimilate all that our glorious Faith offers us. More often than not, there tends to be some tension within them about Mary’s role in the Church and in praying to her and the saints.
Many articles have been written by those outside of the Church who make the claim that Catholics are heathen idol-worshipers. They point to the first of the Ten Commandments (and for the sake of this article all bible quotes are from the NAB) which says, “You shall not have other gods beside me.” The commandment continues, “You shall not make for yourself an idol or a likeness of anything in the heavens above or on the earth below or in the waters beneath the earth; you shall not bow down before them or serve them”(Ex. 20:2-5). From there, they make the claim that Catholics worship saints, statues and Mary. Let’s take a look at this Scripture passage and unpack it.
We know how the Hebrew people went to Egypt during a time of great famine; how the people were enslaved for hundreds of years, how Moses fought the Pharaoh, Raamses (Ex. 1:11) and bade him to “Let my people go” (Ex. 9:1) as God had instructed Moses. What many do not realize is that God had a reason for wanting the Hebrew slaves to be set free — “that they may serve me”(Ex. 1:12).
However, the Hebrews not only needed to be freed from the slavery of Pharaoh, but they also needed to be freed from the idols that some of them had taken to worshiping (but not all of them did) if they were going to serve God. That’s what the ten plagues were all about — God “demolishing” each of the ten major Egyptian plagues that were being worshiped in order to show forth his power over them.
The first plague, of course, was of the water of the Nile being turned to blood…in the Egyptian pantheon of gods, Hapi was the spirit of the Nile, the guardian of the Nile. In the second plague (frogs) Heqet was the goddess of fertility and water; she had the head of a frog. In the fifth plague, Hathor was the goddess of love and protection; she was oftentimes depicted with the head of a cow; hence the death of cattle and livestock. For more on the other plagues (gods/goddesses) go here.
Thus the Hebrews were freed from slavery in Egypt. God lead them into the great desert and at the top of Mt. Sinai he gave them (through Moses) his Law — the Ten Commandments. Therefore, the command “You shall have no other (strange) gods before me” was confirming the actions he had just completed in Egypt. The rest of this commandment, “You shall not make for yourself an idol or a likeness of anything in the heavens above or on the earth below or in the waters beneath the earth; you shall not bow down before them or serve them”, also refers back to those Egyptian gods. It was a reminder to not go back to their worship of idols. Looking at this latter part of the commandment I will state that in the Catholic Church statues that are depictions of saints and the Virgin Mary are not in any way formed in a “likeness of anything of the heavens above (in the air) or on the earth below or in the waters beneath the earth”.
When God makes such declarations to his people (or even when prophets prophesy) what comes forth “from the mouth of God” MUST be relevant for the times of the hearers. Saints and the Virgin Mary had absolutely no relevance to the people of Moses’ time…there is no prior context.
The next “problem verse” in Sacred Scripture where Catholics are accused of making and worshiping idols is in Jeremiah 10:3-4 — “For the carvings of the nations are nonentities, wood cut from the forest, fashioned by artisans with the adze (ax), adorned with silver and gold”. From there the leap is made by fundamentalists who exclaim, “See? The Bible does not allow Christmas trees!” But again, this is taken totally out of context. Jeremiah is a prophet who is exhorting God’s people to be faithful to God and his Law. Then he goes into a bit of satire to poke fun of the pagans who were making idols for themselves — idols made “out of wood” (v. 8). The following verse (5) indicates, “they cannot speak; they cannot walk”. Then Jeremiah adds, “Do not fear them, they can do no harm, neither can they do good”. This same exhortation is repeated by Isaiah in 40:19-20 and 44:14-17. It is also in Psalm 115:4-8 and in Psalm 135:15-18. To repeat — prophecies and commands of God MUST have relevancy for the time at hand and not some 2,000 years in the future. Neither Jeremiah, nor Isaiah nor the writer(s) of Psalms 115 and 135 had any concept of Christmas trees. Further, no Christmas tree that I have seen has ever been carved with eyes, ears, a mouth, etc.
The third text of concern is Deuteronomy 4:12, 15 where Moses clearly states that God has “no form” and thus many non-Catholics exclaim that it is not known what God looks like. Muslims do not allow for images of God — they assert, “Rendering images of God in Islam is an impossibility, and amounts to disbelief” (http://www.islamreligion.com/articles/331/can-we-see-god). Neither does Judaism for it “firmly maintains that G-d has no body” and adds that, “Any reference to G-d’s body is simply a figure of speech, a means of making G-d’s actions more comprehensible to beings living in a material world” (http://www.jewfaq.org/g-d.htm).
However, since the Incarnation of God in the person of Jesus, He has become “fair game” to render into images. Indeed the ancient Christian hymn quoted by St. Paul in Colossians calls Jesus “the image of the invisible God” (1:15). God is also referred to as a father and thus it is ok to depict him as a fatherly figure.
God’s prohibition against idols is because he has called himself “a jealous God” (Deut. 5:9) and a “consuming fire” (Deut. 4:24).
Jealous? Can God be jealous of wooden idols? He isn’t. He is jealous because as a father he wants the best for us his children and he knows that the idols can do no good (see Jer. 5:6). No wooden idol has the capacity to give his Law, to establish a covenant with his people or to love his people. Idols do not have a will but with God we can know and choose to follow his will.
There remains just two more verses to look at as I “turn the tables” on those who use these illustrations to claim that Catholics worship idols…I would like to ask how they handle God’s command to “make two cherubim of beaten gold for the two ends of the cover” of the tabernacle (Ex. 25:18)? Doesn’t this go against God’s previous command? Not really because God was against the carving of idols where one could bow down and worship them. The operative words are “bow down and worship” as God says in Ex. 20:5. Lastly, I would also ask them how they would explain God’s command to cast a bronze serpent (Numbers 21:4-9) for people to look at if they have been bitten by one of the serpents as they journeyed through the desert. Notice that after the people repented of their complaints against “this wretched food” (the daily manna in the desert), God did not cause the serpents to just slither away but commanded an image of them to be cast in bronze and then hung upon a pole for those who had been bitten to look upon and thus be healed.
Catholics do not worship the Virgin Mary; rather, they greatly revere her. Honor and veneration of the saints is called “dulia” while the veneration of the Virgin Mary is called “hyper-dulia”. Adoration which belongs to God alone is called “latria”. Saints are our friends…that “great cloud of witnesses” spoken of in the Letter to the Hebrews (12:1). The Virgin Mary is our mother because we call her son Jesus our brother. Many people who complain about Catholics worshiping idols have photos of loved ones in their homes, in their wallets, on their cell-phones. We know that those who have gone before us are indeed dead in the body but not in spirit…they are quite capable of praying and interceding for us.