Externals of the Catholic Church – The Veneration of Images

Even in this enlightened twentieth century and in this highly civilized land the average non-Catholic has a very hazy and sometimes a very erroneous idea of what Catholics believe. The prejudiced notions of a hundred years ago persist today in the minds of many. For them the Catholic is a “worshiper of idols,” a senseless dolt who bows down before lifeless things; who offers adoration to statues of dead men and women, and has almost lost sight of his Creator and Saviour. The inbred bigotry of generations of narrow-minded ancestors has been inherited in its fulness by many of those “native Americans” whose religion consists, for the most part, in an unwavering hatred of “Popery,” whose minds are filled with a constant dread lest the machinations of Rome shall overthrow the free institutions of our Protestant land, and who seem to have derived from their daily intercourse with Catholics no more knowledge of Catholic truths than their ignorant forefathers had in the days when Papists were few and far between.

The Catholic Doctrine

What is the teaching and practice of our Church with regard to images? Let us first set forth again the Catholic doctrine about worship. First of all, Catholics adore no one but God. Absolute and supreme worship is paid to Him alone, for He is the source of all good and of all graces, and no other being has any power whatever to forgive or sanctify or reward us.

Our Church honors and venerates the Saints and Angels, with a relative and inferior homage, as friends of God, as having the power of interceding for us; but she has never held that even the most exalted Saint is to be adored. A Saint in heaven is simply a saved soul made illustrious by exceptional virtue.

Now the Church has maintained for many centuries that the representations of our Blessed Saviour or of a Saint are worthy of honor; but she has never taught nor permitted that they shall be adored. A statue or a picture is, as it were, a portrait of the Redeemer or of a holy servant of God. It brings before our mind a vivid idea of the one whom it portrays. If the image be of our Lord Jesus Christ, He, of course, is entitled to the supreme worship of adoration, being God; but His image is not God, and is to be honored merely with reverence, not with adoration. If the statue or picture represents a Saint, he or she is not to be adored, for a Saint is not God. A relative homage only is to be rendered, even though the Saint be the most exalted and holiest of creatures, the Blessed Virgin herself; and the image or portrait of the person thus venerated is to be honored only as a means for directing and increasing our homage and veneration toward that person.

Therefore Catholics do not adore images, any more than they adore Saints. They give adoration to God. They pay religious veneration or relative worship to God’s Saints. They show reverential respect to images of God or of His Saints.

The Church’s Decrees

This matter was settled, once and for all, more than eleven hundred years ago in the second Council of Nice, in 787. “We define with all certainty and care that both the figure of the Sacred Cross and the venerable and holy images are to be placed suitably in the churches of God and in houses; that is to say, the images of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, of our Immaculate Lady the Holy Mother of God, and of the Angels and Saints. For as often as they are seen in these representations, those who look at them are ardently lifted up to the memory and love of the originals and are induced to give them respect and worshipful honor. So that offerings of incense and lights are to be given to these images, to the figure of the life-giving Cross, to the holy books of the Gospels and to other sacred objects, in order to do them honor. For honor paid to an image passes on to the one represented by it; he who venerates an image venerates the reality of him portrayed in it.”

The year 787 is a long while ago; but the above is still the standpoint and teaching of the Catholic Church. The customs by which we show our ” respect and worshipful honor” towards holy images have varied in different countries and at different times; but in no country and at no time has the Church permitted adoration or idolatrous worship of images. She has been obliged on many occasions to forbid excesses of reverence or such signs of veneration as might be misunderstood. In the decrees of the Council of Trent she states: “Images of Christ, the Virgin Mother of God and other Saints are to be held and kept especially in churches. Due honor and veneration are to be paid to them, not that any divinity or power is in them to entitle them to be worshipped, or that anything can be asked of them, or that any trust may be put in them, because the honor shown to them is referred to those whom they represent; so that by kissing, uncovering to, or kneeling before images we adore Christ and honor the Saints.”

The History of Images

When the persecuted Christians of the first centuries were forced to hide themselves and their worship in the catacombs of Rome, they began to enrich and ornament these gloomy caverns with representations of our Saviour’s life and miracles. And when they were able to practise their faith openly they took the abandoned temples of paganism and Christianized them with statues and crosses. In later ages, when the mighty cathedrals of Europe were built, the use of images for their adorning and for the inspiring of devotion became the universal rule, and the genius of the world’s greatest artists was employed to carve and to paint these ornaments of the house of God.

All through those centuries Catholics understood, as they understand now, that an image or a painting has no share in the adoration due to God alone. From the earliest days the representation of Christ or of the Saints was treated with respect, and gradually a tradition and practice arose of venerating these images with a ceremonial of religious honor.

In some Eastern Churches this honor was undoubtedly increased to an excessive degree. Prostrations, incensings, litanies and long prayers were offered before images. In Greek and Russian temples the walls are fairly covered with icons or tablets depicting a multitude of Saints. After a time a natural revulsion came from this excess. A reformation was begun by certain Byzantine emperors and others, but, like many so-called reformations, it was ill-advised and was carried too far in the opposite direction. It resulted in the heresy of the Iconoclasts, or image-breakers, who sought to root out all use and veneration of images in Christian churches. There were several outbreaks of this rebellion against the Church’s discipline, and bitter persecutions were waged against those who continued to venerate images. Gradually the heresy died out, and the Eastern Churches of today, whether united to Rome or separated from it, make far more use of images than we of the Western rite.

When Protestantism arose, the zealous “reformers” were filled with a wild hatred toward anything which reminded them of the faith they had abandoned. Many of the priceless carvings, statues and painted windows of the ancient churches of Europe were ruthlessly destroyed, and the followers of the new religion offered their “pure worship” in bare conventicles or in once-Catholic temples that had been denuded of everything that savored of Catholicity. In later times, in some Protestant denominations, there is a return to the aesthetic in worship; and carven altars, glowing windows, crosses and even pictures and statues, give testimony to the fact that the human mind feels the need of such outward helps for the furthering of religious devotion.

Abuses Are Possible

In some parts of the world – perhaps even among us – the veneration of images may be said to need watchfulness today. Extravagances are possible; and excessive devotion to an image, perhaps on account of some miraculous power which is claimed for it, may lead to a considerable neglect of more essential things. It is not edifying, nor is it an evidence of deep religious spirit, at a Forty Hours’ Devotion, for instance, to see some of our people (in all good faith, doubtless, and with the best intentions) lighting scores of candles before the statue of good Saint Anthony, while upon the main altar is enthroned the God Who created Saint Anthony – Jesus Christ, in the Sacrament of His love, exposed for adoration.

A Reasonable Practice

Is the veneration of images a reasonable practice? Why not? We render respect to other lifeless things simply because they symbolize something which we love or reverence. A loyal Englishman rises when he hears the strains of “God Save the King,” because he respects the constitutional monarchy which rules his land; and he would rightly resent an insult offered not only to his king but to a royal statue or portrait. An American citizen salutes the flag of his country, and bares his head when the national hymn rings forth in honor of that beautiful emblem of liberty. He would shed his blood to avenge an indignity offered to his country’s flag. Now if it be reasonable to show such respect to a piece of music, or a statue, or a square of colored bunting, why is it unreasonable to manifest it towards a portrait of our Saviour or of a holy Saint of God?

Is the use of pictures and images helpful for the attaining of fervor in prayer and the increasing of devotion towards God? Undoubtedly. If you or I were in a distant land, separated from one whom we love, would it not aid us to remember that loved one, if we had a portrait constantly before us? Images are aids to devotion, helping us to fix our attention on our prayers, to avoid distractions, to increase the fervor of our adoration of God and our veneration of the Saints.