Protestant Concerns: …Don’t Catholics use forbidden ‘graven images’ and ‘pray to idols’?

Religious artwork was widely used by all Christians across the world prior to the protestant reformation of the 16th century. This is holy and proper because Jesus Christ, whom scripture calls the ‘image of the invisible God,’  was incarnated into a human body that could be seen, heard, and touched.  Religious imagery has proven to be a beautiful and useful form of preaching the Gospel, especially across the centuries of widespread illiteracy.  Just as political leaders and war veterans are honored with statues and memorials, the Church honors the religious leaders and saints that have ‘fought the good fight’ before us.  If you see a Catholic praying before a statue or candle, it is not because they are worshiping the object before them, but because the object is serving the intended purpose of directing thoughts and prayers to God (either directly or via the intercession within the communion of saints).

The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes the Catholic understanding of holy images:

“The sacred image, the liturgical icon, principally represents Christ. It cannot represent the invisible and incomprehensible God, but the incarnation of the Son of God has ushered in a new “economy” of images:

Previously God, who has neither a body nor a face, absolutely could not be represented by an image. But now that he has made himself visible in the flesh and has lived with men, I can make an image of what I have seen of God . . . and contemplate the glory of the Lord, his face unveiled.27

Christian iconography expresses in images the same Gospel message that Scripture communicates by words. Image and word illuminate each other:

We declare that we preserve intact all the written and unwritten traditions of the Church which have been entrusted to us. One of these traditions consists in the production of representational artwork, which accords with the history of the preaching of the Gospel. For it confirms that the incarnation of the Word of God was real and not imaginary, and to our benefit as well, for realities that illustrate each other undoubtedly reflect each other’s meaning.28

All the signs in the liturgical celebrations are related to Christ: as are sacred images of the holy Mother of God and of the saints as well. They truly signify Christ, who is glorified in them. They make manifest the “cloud of witnesses”29 who continue to participate in the salvation of the world and to whom we are united, above all in sacramental celebrations. Through their icons, it is man “in the image of God,” finally transfigured “into his likeness,”30 who is revealed to our faith. So too are the angels, who also are recapitulated in Christ…

“The beauty of the images moves me to contemplation, as a meadow delights the eyes and subtly infuses the soul with the glory of God.”32 Similarly, the contemplation of sacred icons, united with meditation on the Word of God and the singing of liturgical hymns, enters into the harmony of the signs of celebration so that the mystery celebrated is imprinted in the heart’s memory and is then expressed in the new life of the faithful.”   – paragraphs 1159-62

“Sacred art is true and beautiful when its form corresponds to its particular vocation: evoking and glorifying, in faith and adoration, the transcendent mystery of God – the surpassing invisible beauty of truth and love visible in Christ, who “reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature,” in whom “the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily.” This spiritual beauty of God is reflected in the most holy Virgin Mother of God, the angels, and saints. Genuine sacred art draws man to adoration, to prayer, and to the love of God, Creator and Savior, the Holy One and Sanctifier.”
– paragraph 2502

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