do catholics violate the commandments when they make images and statues and kneel before them in prayer?
E. Daniel Box
Catholics affirm that idolatry, which is the worship of images and false gods, is inherently sinful and expressly forbidden by God in Exodus 20. However, God's prohibition here applies only to the worship of images, and not to the making of images.
How do we know this? By examining all of Scripture (not Exodus 20 alone). To be specific, although it is true, as noted above, that God does forbid the "carv[ing of] idols for yourselves in the shape of anything in the sky above or on the earth or in the waters beneath the earth" in Exodus 20:4-5, He interestingly also commands the Jews, only five chapters later in Ex. 25:18, to build two golden angels that are to be placed on top of the Ark of the Covenant--the very place where God made His presence known. In addition to this, God commands Moses in Num. 21: 8-9 to make a bronze serpent, and says that whoever looks at it will be saved. In fact, Jn. 3:14-15 expressly tells us that this bronze serpent prefigured Jesus!
What's going on here? Is God contradicting Himself? The answer is "no." The golden angels on the Ark and the bronze serpent made by Moses were not idols--they were simply statues. There is a key difference. Idols are false gods and are sinfully made the object of worship, whereas icons, paintings, and statues are like photographs. Even though photographs remind us of our loved ones who are no longer with us, and even though we might kiss photographs as a sign of our love for the people depicted in them, we do not worship photographs. Similarly, Catholics might kneel in prayer before a statue or painting, but that doesn't mean that Catholics are worshiping the statue or painting. Instead, the statue or painting provides an occasion for remembrance and reverence, that then inspires a Catholic to kneel in prayer. But Catholics are firm in their belief that there is only one God, and He alone is entitled to worship.
There is very serious at stake in the debate over icons and statues--namely, the very identity of Jesus Himself. In other words, if we reject icons and statues, then, in a manner of speaking, we reject who Jesus is. Colossians 1:15 tells us that Jesus Himself is an "icon" (Gk. "eikon") or the "image" of the invisible God. That is, Jesus is God expressed through matter--He is the Word made flesh (Jn. 1:14)! The Christian faith is an incarnational faith, and not a Gnostic faith that looks to divide body and spirit. So Jesus' very person gives us the best defense of statues and icons--if God can take the form of flesh, then it's not sinful to attempt to express or depict God through other forms of matter, like paint, marble, etc.
Statues and paintings have no power (only God has power). Catholics don't care about the gold, marble, velvet, plaster, or canvas out of which the statue or painting is made. All of those things are simply means to an end--that is, these things are not God, but they are beautiful and help to inspire a strong prayer. Human beings are visual creatures, and God recognizes that, and approves of our visual aids to our prayer life, so long as we don't worship the visual aids themselves.
Daniel Box lives in Chicago with his wife, but is a proud Texan (Fort Worth native) and Mexican-American. He is a practicing real estate and zoning attorney, after having clerked with the Thomas More Society and served as the Board Chairman of the Chicago chapter of Young Catholic Professionals in 2015 and 2016. He received his Bachelor of Arts degree in Politics from the University of Dallas in 2012.