It’s a common question these days when speaking with Protestants. John J Dietzen in “The New Question Box” gives us a good response:
Images of Jesus and the saints have been used for decorational and devotional purposes since the beginning of Christianity. Today, only the most grossly uninformed person gives any credence to the old accusation that Catholics worship these statues or pictures.
Several hundred years ago, the Council of Trent explained the practice perfectly: “The images of Christ, the Virgin Mother of God, and of the other saints are kept and honored in churches not because it is believed that there is any divinity or power in these images, or that anything may be asked of them, or any faith put in them.
“The honor shown to them is really being given to the persons whom they represent. Through these images which we kiss, and before which we bow with bared heads, we worship Christ, and not the saints whose likenesses they display.”
Even many Catholics do not realize that, since such pictures and statues become intimately connected with what people believe about God and his revelation, the church is very careful about what images are allowed for public veneration. All such pictures or sculptures must be approved by the bishop or other proper authority.
The reasons most Protestant denominations do not allow images in their churches are varied. One is that, early in the Protestant Reformation there was much misunderstanding about the meaning of honoring images of Jesus and the saints nd “no statues” became one of the symbols of protest against the church of Rome.
Perhaps a more significant reason is that many early Protestant leaders, especially of the Calvinist and other Puritan traditions, were extremely austere and considered any sort of display, color, or emotion, such as might be encouraged by statues and pictures, totally out of place in religious worship.
This reminds me of a friend’s encounter with a Christian once. I forget where he met him, but my Catholic friend asked the other person, “Are you a Christian?” So as to differentiate between Catholic Christians and Protestant Christians, the other person responded, “I am a Protestant.” And my friend went, “I see, so what are you protesting against?”
While it is true that many Protestants today don’t know why they are called Protestants, it is also true that many Catholics don’t know why they are called Catholics. They just see it as just another name or label, but do we see what’s beyond that label? Or do we just see the external?
Indeed this is the very problem that causes the misunderstanding regarding statues and images – that we see only the external and do not see what’s beyond.
One good example is the use of photographs. Protestants may not have statues or images in their churches, but I am positive that they have photographs of their loved ones in their wallets, on their office desks, in their homes. I can also bet that if they got a chance to meet a famous person, they would at least take a photo with him and have it framed up on the wall.
But does that photo mean that it is the real thing? Do we talk to the photograph as we talk to the person represented in the photo? When we kiss the photo of our spouse or loved ones, don’t we know that we are only kissing a representation of him or her?
These photographs point us beyond the paper that they are printed on. They point us to the reality of that person. When we keep the photograph of a deceased loved one, and touch it sometimes, do we really think that we’re touching the real person? What we’re doing is keeping alive our memory of that person, what we loved about him, what that person means to us, what we admired about that person.
It is the same with Catholics and their statues and images, and it is a practice that has been taking place in Christian churches long before the first Protestant was born.
And indeed it is a beautiful and touching practice, to remember those saints that we admired, the Jesus that we love and his mother that we honour.