Catholics cop a lot of crap from fundamentalists for having statues in their churches. According to these fundamentalists, Catholics are committing the grave sin of idolatry by doing this. Even more damnable in the eyes of these heathen Protestants is the fact that Catholics bow down to the statues and some Catholics even go so far as kissing them. This seems like clear and undeniable evidence that Catholics disregard and stand in contradiction to the scriptures; our good God’s infallible words:
Exodus 20:1-6 RSV-CE:
And God spoke all these words, saying, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.“You shall have no other gods before me.“You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me,but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.
The basic moral principle that both Catholics and Protestants (and Jews and Muslims) agree on is that it is inappropriate to worship anyone but God alone. To worship something that is not God as God is the grave sin of Idolatry.
So, why do Catholics do this? Why do Catholics bow down to statues? There are lots of things to consider.
Veneration versus Worship: Which one is related to Idolatry?
A very helpful distinction to keep in mind is that between veneration and worship. Simply stated, veneration is a physical action that someone performs with their body towards some other physical object, whereas worship is an attitude in the heart of a person towards an object that may or may not be physical. In this way, it becomes possible to venerate an object without worshipping it, as well as to worship something without venerating it, and finally to both venerate and worship an object simultaneously. To worship anything other than God is Idolatry, however it is permissible to venerate almost anything without any Idolatry being committed.
Some examples may be helpful. If you were ever to meet someone of royalty, for example a Saudi Arabian prince or the Queen of England, etiquette would require that you make some sign of deep respect towards the monarch, for example by genuflecting or kissing a ring. Now, some fundamentalist Muslims and Christians would get uncomfortable about this and their overclocked idolatry detectors would be pinging deep in the red end of the scale. However the vast majority of both Protestants and Catholics would consider this to be a socially acceptable expression of respect towards the Monarch. Reasonable people would not consider these actions of veneration to be idolatrous, because it is understood that we are not worshipping the monarch, we are merely venerating them.
It is the same with Catholics and their statues. When Catholics kiss, genuflect before and bow down to statues of Saints, Mary or Jesus, they are simply Venerating the depicted figures, but they are definitely not Worshipping them. There is therefore no idolatry occuring.
Another example may help. When a mystic sits completely still for an extended period and focuses his mind on union with God, his heart may very easily slip into a state of extremely intense and ecstatic worship of the good God on high. In this case, he is sitting completely still and so is not demonstrating any evidence of veneration, however within himself there is occurring extremely strong and delightful waves of love and worship towards God. It is appropriate that there be no act of veneration in this case because acts of veneration always have to be directed towards some physical object or location, however God does not have a physical location; he is simultaneously omnipresent and located nowhere. For this reason even if the mystic wanted to venerate God, he wouldn’t be able to. Instead he must direct his worship towards God in an abstract sense. So in this case, there is worship without veneration.
An interesting example for Muslims is the fact that during their five daily prayers they prostrate towards the Kaabaah in Mecca. Prostration is an extremely profound movement of veneration, so it is rather telling that Muslims pray towards a physical location, despite their intense aversion to idolatry. The explanation in this case is that their action of veneration – the Salat prostrations – are directed towards Mecca, however their attitude of worship is directed towards God alone, who has no physical location.
A final example is appropriate. When Catholics engage in adoration of the Eucharist, this is an example of a simultaneous veneration and worship, because the Catholic belief is that the bread they are staring at has literally been transubstantiated into the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ himself. The Catholics believe they are literally staring at God, and so they may bow down towards the Eucharist as an act of veneration whilst simultaneously confessing the divinity of that towards which they bow in their hearts as an attitude of worship. In this case, there is both veneration and worship. Whether you believe that this is idolatry depends on your view of the Eucharist.
The crucial point is that veneration and worship are distinct. It is permissible to venerate pretty much anything, but it is only appropriate to worship God. In summary, veneration is an action of the hands, whereas worship is an attitude of the heart. Idolatry is the worship of anything other than God, but veneration of pretty much anything is always permissible.
Dulia, Hyperdulia and Latria
The doctrine of theosis declares that God became man so that man might become God. According to theosis, the saints all participate in divinity to different degrees, and therefore it is appropriate to “worship” the saint to the exact degree that they participate in divinity. Of course, Mary participates in Divinity to the maximal possible extent, so it is appropriate to direct maximal worship towards her. However, it is an established principle that worship is to be directed to God alone, and while Mary and all the saints have been truly “divinized”, when push comes to shove they are fundamentally human and not divine. The water is muddied: should we or should we not worship these saints who have attained to a combination of created and divine natures?
It is helpful to introduce a helpful historical distinction at this point. There are three different kinds of worship: Dulia, Hyperdulia and Latria.
Dulia is worship reserved for a divinized saint. To the extent that the saint is united to God and has divinity permeating his soul, it is appropriate to worship the saint. The reason why is that you are not actually worshipping the saint as a created being, but are instead worshipping the divinity that is united to that saint. To the extent that the saint is divine, we worship them, to the extent that the saint is created, we do not worship. The technical term for this mixture of worship and non-worship is the word Dulia.
Now, Mary has achieved maximum theosis. She is as closely united to God as it is possible to be. As such, it becomes appropriate to direct maximal worship towards her. However, the fact remains that Mary is essentially human before she is divine, and therefore it would be inappropriate to give her the fullness of worship reserved for God himself. In this way, the worship we give to Mary is also the worship of Dulia, just as with all the other saints. However on account of the fact that Mary has achieved maximum theosis, she also receives maximum Dulia. Theologians invented a new term for this maximal level of worship: Hyperdulia. In essence, it is still just the worship of Dulia, however due to it’s maximal nature, it is called hyperdulia.
Finally, there is the worship reserved for God himself. This is the worship of Latria. To give Latria to anything but God would be the deepest idolatry, for this is the form of worship reserved for him and him alone. Catholics direct their Latria towards the Eucharist during adoration, or towards God in the abstract during deep prayer. To direct Latria towards Mary or a Saint would be gravely sinful, because regardless of how deep their experience of divinity, they are fundamentally human before they are God. Whereas God himself is Divine before he is human, and it is therefore appropriate to give him the infinitely elevated worship of Latria, rather than the lower and lesser worship of Dulia.
In summary, it is appropriate to worship anything that is divine just to the extent that it is divine, however it is important to pay attention to the essential nature of the object you are worshipping: If the object is fundamentally created before it is divine, then we should only give it the worship of Dulia, whereas if the object if fundamentally divine before it is created (ie, God himself) then we should give it the worship of Latria.
But what about the commandments against statues, images and idolatry?
Someone might be reading this and think “That’s all well and good, but in scripture doesn’t God explicitly say that it is not permissible to make statues and bow down to them? All the arguments in the world can’t change that brute fact.”
This is true, so it is helpful to examine the status of the law in Christianity. The idea is that there is the Moral law and the Mosaic law. Jesus abolished the Mosaic law when he died and resurrected, however the Moral law is still in force. It can sometimes be hard to tell which commandment belongs to which law. However in this case the church has identified the commandment concerning statues as belonging to the Mosaic law, and as therefore having been abrogated by Christ along with the laws concerning ritual cleanliness, clean and unclean foods, sacrificial rituals and so on. Whereas the moral law against idolatry remains in force in the sense that it is inappropriate for Christians to worship anything that is not divine, and it is inappropriate to give the worship of Latria to anything but God himself.
It is interesting to revisit the arguments that were put forward at the seventh ecumenical council, which was primarily concerned with this very debate. The fathers of the council claimed that God abrogated the commandment against images when he became incarnate: When God took on the form and image of the man Jesus, he for all time made it permissible to make use of created images as an aid to worship. God represented himself with flesh, and in doing so made it lawful for Christians to represent the divine via other created images. If the commandment against representing God with images were still in effect, it would imply that God had broken his own commandment by becoming incarnate! This is clearly an impossibility, and the only possible conclusion is that God has abrogated the commandment in question by his incarnation.
One final consideration from the seventh ecumenical council is worthwhile touching upon. When a Christian venerates a statue and directs his worship of Dulia towards the depicted saint, they are not actually worshipping the statue; they are instead worshipping the saint whom the statue depicts. In the language of the council fathers, the worship directed towards a statue or image travels through the image to the “prototype”. In this way it is not the statue being worshipped, but the saint that the statue depicts.
An easy to remember way of expressing the principles outlined in this post is the following: Veneration is an action of the hands; Worship is an attitude of the heart. Also, we only worship an object to the extent that it is divine; Saints receive Dulia, Mary receives Hyperdulia, and only God himself receives Latria.