Friday, June 19, 2009

Do Catholics Commit Idol Worship?

While having a pleasant evening last night with a friend and several of her acquaintances, I was reminded of an all-too-common belief among some Protestants: that Catholics (some of them, anyway), when they pray in front of statues or images, are practicing a form of idolatry.

I want to comment on this from the point of view of what it would actually require to really be able to conclude truthfully and honestly that another human being is engaging in idol worship. I'll start by laying out some basic facts that all people of reason and fair judgment should agree with.

Real idol worship (indeed, any worship, for that matter) is an act that is not primarily external but mainly internal to the one doing it. In other words, you cannot tell what is truly in a person's heart--whom (or what) they are worshiping--from outside observation alone. Worship is essentially determined by what comes from the center of a person's soul--from the heart. It does not essentially derive from one's physical gestures or surroundings.

Here is a corresponding observation: You cannot tell that a person regards something as an idol and is worshiping it simply by what physical objects are in front of him, nor, by his physical gestures. For example, some Christians have Sunrise services on Easter Sunday morning. Nothing wrong with this! Now, such a service may involve facing East, toward the rising sun, and engaging in gestures and words of worship. From external appearances only, this might appear similar to ancient pagan sun-worship. Would it be fair, then, for an observer to conclude, without speaking to the worshipers about what they intended in their hearts, that they were worshiping the rising sun? Of course not! Or, consider this. Some Christians like to have some sort of devotional space set up in their home--a place set aside to pray, read the Bible, and worship God. No problem! Now, this might include putting a Bible in a position of special prominence, perhaps on a special stand or pedestal, highlighted with a decorative cloth, and perhaps even a display of real or artificial flowers nearby. An observer might see the pious Christian kneeling in front of the Bible and praying, hands clasped, and conclude, "this person is worshiping the Bible" (as in, the physical book in front of her)--"she is making a physical book into an idol and worshiping it." Would such a conclusion be reasonable or fair, without asking the person what was in her heart as she prayed? No. Certainly not.

I simply would like to point out that the very same consideration should apply to Catholics. By the mere fact that a Catholic is praying, including kneeling, in front of a statue or a religious image, does not by any means prove that they are worshiping that statue or image. And to conclude that they are doing so, without bothering to ask, is tremendously uncharitable. I would even suggest, that to presume that the largest group of Christians in the whole world (more Christians are Catholic in the world than any other group) are idolaters, without knowing what is in their hearts when they pray in front of a statue or image, is incredibly contrary to the love and good will that we are called upon by Christ to have for fellow Christians. We are to love one another, and should presume the best of each other, not the worst.

Any preacher or Christian evangelist who makes any sort of blanket statement implying that people who pray in front of statues or images (i.e. Catholics) are idolaters, is in fact assuming the worst of his fellow Christians. He is presuming to read the hearts of such people, when in fact he does not know what is truly in their hearts at all.

I could go into a Buddhist temple and kneel silently near a statue of Buddha, and yet I could still pray an ardent prayer to Christ in my heart. It might look, from the outside, like idol worship. But, it would not be. Simply being in front of a Buddha would not make any difference to what the prayer in my heart truly was.

I might have a picture of a deceased loved one on my wall. If, on occasion, I were to kiss my fingers and touch the photo, would I thereby be worshiping the photo? Of course not. No fair person would suggest this. The gesture would represent affection for the person represented in the image, not for the image itself.

If I ask another Christian to pray for me for a specific intention, am I thereby making that person an idol? Of course not. If I am especially eager to ask a person who is especially close to Jesus--someone considered holy--to pray for me for a specific intention, would I be making that person an idol? Of course not. It is only natural to have a little more personal emotional investment in asking a person who is very prayerful and Christ-like to pray for you than someone who is less remarkable in this way.

Now, bring all the above to bear in the situation of a Catholic kneeling in prayer in front of a statue of a Saint, and let's say even kissing his fingers and then touching the statue (something I have personally done). First, as I do so, I am by no means worshiping the statue. In truth, any claim I am doing so is highly unjust, and frankly, silly. What am I doing? There is only one being I am worshiping--and that is God, in the persons of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Period. No one else is being worshiped. But what am I doing, then, with the statue? Well, I am simply asking another disciple of Christ--the particular Saint the statue represents--to pray on my behalf for particular intentions. Unless we believe that Christians cease to exist when they die, there is nothing odd about asking a deceased disciple of Christ to pray for me. They are still part of the body of Christ, alive in heaven, and still are able to pray on behalf of others just as people alive on earth can pray for others when asked. And, just as I might be more emotionally moved as I ask someone living whom I consider very holy to pray for me, so too, I am emotionally moved as I ask a brother or sister in heaven to pray for me. So, the gesture of kissing the statue is not worship of the statue. It is simply a very normal, human expression of a particular emotional and spiritual bond that I feel with a particular Saint, especially as I ask him or her to pray on my behalf. It is no more odd or shocking than hugging someone physically living here on earth as I ask him to pray something special for me. This is very human, very normal, and has nothing at all to do with idolatry. The Saint whose statue I kiss--knowing that the statue only symbolizes the person (like kissing a picture of my grandmother)--is not a fiction. This person is a real person, alive now in heaven. And, by the grace of God, I will see this person someday in eternity in the bliss of heaven as we worship our Savior together. I do not think our Lord will mind as I thank my brother for his prayers on my behalf. Isn't this mutual care and concern part of what it means to be brothers and sisters in Christ?

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