Catholics are often accused by Reformed Christians of removing the commandment on creating graven images so we can worship and pray to our statues and paintings. This misunderstanding stems from the different ways the different faith traditions number the commandments. When the Catholic Church compiled what is now the bible into a single book there wasn’t chapter and verse. They were simply a collection of books and letters that were being read at Mass in every church. The Church complied a canon or measure of accepted books so that the same scripture readings were read in every church.
During the middle ages people were not literate for the most part. Before the invention of the printing press books were expensive and hard to come by. Bibles and Holy Scripture in written form was pretty much restricted to churches and the rich. It wasn’t until the 13th century that the bible was divided by chapter. We had to wait until the 16th century to see it further broken down by verse. The Protestant Reformation brought about different schools of theology and a differing set of commandments. Different religious traditions number the commandment verses in Exodus and the parallel verses in Deuteronomy differently. It is thought that the number 10 was used as an aid to memorization and not as a theology. There are eight different ways the Ten Commandments are numbered based upon the different faith traditions.
The first big difference between the Catholic numbering and the Reformed Christian numbering starts with the second commandment. The second commandment for a Catholic is;
Thou shall not take the name of the Lord in vain.
This is the third commandment for a Reformed Christian. The second commandment for a Reformed Christian is,
Thou shall not make unto thee any graven image.
For a Catholic this is part of the first commandment. The trouble comes in because we have shortened all of the verses of scripture to make the commandments easier to memorize. When you ask a Catholic what the first commandment is they should respond with,
“I am the Lord your God. You shall not have other gods before me.”
All faith traditions do this to make it easier to teach children the Ten Commandments. Reformed Christians falsely use this to make the claim that Catholics worship idols because our churches are full of statues and paintings. If this were true, and the Catholic Church removed this verse in Holy Scripture so we could worship idols, you would not find it in a Catholic bible. Pick up any Catholic or Protestant bible and you will find the following:
“You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. “You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.” - Exodus 20, 4-6
“You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. ‘You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, and on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.” – Deuteronomy 5, 8-10
So what about the claim that Catholic’s worship idols? The confusion here is with the words idol and icon. An idol is an object that an action is directed to. An icon is an object an action is directed through. Do Catholics worship idols? Absolutely not. Worship is reserved for God and God alone. Do Catholics use icons (statues, paintings, pictures) to focus our attention and direct our thoughts and prayers through to the person the icon represents? Indeed we do.
Let’s take a statue of Mary as an example. Why do Catholics kneel and pray before a statue of Mary? Are we worshiping the statue? Nope, not at all. Contrary to popular anti-Catholic belief we do not worship Mary. We venerate her because she is the mother of Jesus. Jesus loves and honors his mother, just as the fourth commandment tells him to, and so should we. The statute is an icon of the Holy Mother. We use it as a conduit to pass our veneration and prayer through to Mary.
See, to a Catholic a Saint is not a dead person but one who is alive and living with God. Saints include the angels. Just as I can ask you, dear reader, to pray for me or to pray for someone else I can also ask any of the Saints in heaven to pray for me as well. They are in direct contact with Jesus and their intercession with him on our behalf is powerful. There is nothing Jesus would deny his mother. Her intercession to her son is the greatest intercession we can get.
God alone can hear (silent) prayers. No one in heaven can hear our prayers directly. When we pray to Mary or one of the Saints God receives that prayer. He then permits the person we are praying to, to hear that prayer so they may also intercede on our behalf. We are all one big family who loves and prays for each other. Love is a beautiful thing.
We use icons to focus our attention and to remind us of who they represent. They are in essence the same thing as the pictures of my wife and children I carry in my wallet. I do not worship a statue any more than I worship a picture of my family. I have no doubt that those who accuse Catholics of worshiping idols have pictures of loved ones in their wallets and on the walls of their homes. Many put out nativity scenes at Christmas to remind them of the birth of Jesus. They are not worshiping an idol when they do so and Catholics do not worship idols by having statues in our churches.
Worship is reserved for God and God alone.