While cleaning out my shed, I found a tattered, black and white photo of my father. I was ecstatic. You see I have never met my father, although from what I have been told he was a wonderful man. Five weeks after giving birth to me, my 21 year-old mother received notice that my father had been killed in action. He had been sent to Vietnam when my mom was seven months pregnant, so he never got a chance to hold me or even get to know me.
Of course I revere this photo. The image of my young father, dressed in his uniform, and smiling broadly at the camera is something that I will always treasure. By looking at the photo I have a means to both honor and remember him. Am I somehow worshipping my father’s photo by giving it a prominent place on my mantle piece? Of course not. I know that it is just a picture, no matter how treasured, and that my real father is no longer alive.
The same concept is true of Catholic artwork. No one thinks that a bit of plaster is the real Virgin Mary. Paintings, statues and religious artwork have no actual power.
Some will argue that there should be no religious artwork at all. They will point to Exodus 20:4 that states 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. Let’s pretend for a moment that this verse wasn’t completely taken out of context. Read literally it would mean that we can use no visual images at all, not artwork, not movies (which are visual representations of living things), not even photographs. Remember the verse itself makes no exception for non religious artwork.
God, himself, commanded the Israelites to make statues to adorn his temple. Exodus 25:18-20 Make two cherubim of beaten gold for the ends of the propitiatory, fastening them sot 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. Considering that these statues were connected to the ark, it is hard not to call them religious in nature.
The verse though is actually taken out of context. The next verse reads Exodus 20:4 You shall not bow down before them (idols) or worship them. For I, the Lord, am a jealous God…. This makes defending the Catholic practice very easy. We do not worship idols or statues. You can not accidentally worship something, worship has to be purposeful or else what is the point?
I will occasionally have conversations with some non-Catholic’s who will point out that Catholics do certainly kneel in front of statues. Kneeling by itself is not an act of worship. This can be proven by many examples. Men are certainly not worshipping their intended bride when they kneel while proposing. We are not worshipping the sides of our beds when we pray before we retire. For many years society knelt in honor of royalty. This was not a form of worship but of respect. Today, bowing is common in Asia, yet no one believes that Asians are worshipping their friends and family.
Even in the bible we find people bowing down without intent to worship. Some examples are Genesis 19: 1-Lot bows his face down to the ground before the two angels and he is not corrected by them. Genesis 18:2 Abraham also bows to the ground in front of angelic guests. Again this is not worship but a way to exhibit hospitability and respect due to guests. In II Samuel 9: 8 we are old that Jonathon’s son bows to David. Just from studying the bible alone, we can deduce that bowing or kneeling is not, by itself, an act of worship.
Just as I can look at the photo of my father and remember someone that I never knew, Catholics can contemplate religious artwork and be reminded of the holy men and women who have passed on into heaven and whose lives remain an example for us all.