June 14, 2013

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Year of Faith: The role of statues and icons

John F. FinkI was asked, “Why do Catholics worship statues when the Second Commandment forbids making graven images?”

Before answering the question, I should say that various Christian traditions number the Ten Commandments differently and that Catholics include the prohibition against making graven images as part of the First Commandment.

The short answer to why Catholics worship statues is: We don’t. Religious worship of God or the veneration of saints, is not directed to images in themselves, considered as mere things, but to that which they represent—God, Mary or other saints. But that answer is hardly satisfactory.

Controversies about the veneration of images aren’t new. They were especially prominent in the eighth and ninth centuries in the Eastern Church. There, though, they involved icons, which are representations of Jesus, Mary or a saint painted on a wall, a partition or a wooden panel. The icons of the Eastern Churches take the place of the statues of the West.

In the eighth century, Byzantine Emperor Leo III became convinced that icons fostered idolatry and were prohibited by the biblical ban on graven images. Therefore, in 726, Leo issued an edict in which he declared that all images, icons included, were idolatrous and he ordered them to be destroyed. This began what was called the Iconoclastic Controversy from a Greek word meaning “image-breaking.”

Leo’s edict immediately met bitter opposition, especially from the Eastern Church’s monks, who had long taught the fine art of painting icons. St. John of Damascus wrote a spirited defense of the veneration of icons, saying, “What the written word is to those who know letters, the icon is to the unlettered; what speech is to the ear, the icon is to the eye.” Pope Gregory III condemned iconoclasm in 731.

The Eastern emperors, though, continued their iconoclastic policies for more than 50 years, until Empress Irene ruled as regent for her son, Constantine V. Irene believed in icons, so she and Patriarch Tarasius of Constantinople wrote to Pope Adrian I asking for a council to resolve the Iconoclastic Controversy. The seventh ecumenical council, known as the Second Council of Nicaea, opened on Sept. 27, 787.

The council promulgated a decree that approved the setting up of images, but said that they were not to be worshiped since the act of worship belongs only to God. It distinguished between the worship that is due to God and the “relative honor” that is given to icons. It quoted St. Basil as saying that the honor paid to sacred images is a “respectful veneration,” and “whoever venerates an image venerates the person portrayed in it.”

Through the centuries, Christians have prayed to the saints asking their intercession with God on our behalf. We believe in the communion of the saints, a spiritual communion among the living, the saints in heaven, and the souls of the dead still undergoing purification.

The icons of the Eastern Churches and the paintings and statues of the Western Church keep God and his saints before our minds and hearts, just as old photos of our parents or grandparents do. †

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