If you’ve been Catholic for longer than 2 minutes, the chances are decent that you’ve been accused of idolatry. Idolatry being, of course, a pretty big deal. It’s the first of the Big Ten, and that is the important, but oft brushed-aside commandment that we will be tackling. This topic is so huge and multi-faceted that I really felt than in order to do it the justice it deserves, today’s post will be the first in a three-part series organized thusly:
- What is idolatry, and why is it a big deal?
- Non-Catholic Christian objections to Catholic praxis and why
- How to respond to #2
Hopefully, at the end of this series, we will all have a catechetical refresher on idolatry, a deeper understanding of the position/mindset of our separated brethren, and a renewed defense of our faith (apologetically speaking), so that we can better lift non-Catholic Christians up in prayer and evagelize more effectively. Therefore, without further ado, let us tackle point #1:
What is idolatry, and why is it a big deal?
Amidst the many instructions and commandments that God gave to Israel after their deliverance from Egypt, the first of them are a few biggies that we all know as The Ten Commandments. And, the first of these first commandments is one that’s easy to check off of our lists and say, “Oh yeah, got this one in the bag.” I am of the persuasion that this first of the first commandments is super important because, well, it’s the first thing God says to the Israelites:
Exodus 20:1 And God spoke all these words, saying:
2 “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.
3 “You shall have no other gods before Me.”
4 “You shall not make for yourself a carved image—any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; 5 you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, 6 but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.
(For our purposes, we will address verses 4-6 in the coming two posts, so remember them!)
As far as having “no other gods” before God, that part seems pretty easy, right? Pretty straightforward? I mean, none of us are out there worshiping trees, I’d assume. But this is so important not to brush aside. The Catechism has a lot to say about idolatry, but one pertinent paragraph says:
2113 Idolatry not only refers to false pagan worship. It remains a constant temptation to faith. Idolatry consists in divinizing what is not God. Man commits idolatry whenever he honors and reveres a creature in place of God, whether this be gods or demons (for example, satanism), power, pleasure, race, ancestors, the state, money, etc. Jesus says, “You cannot serve God and mammon.” Many martyrs died for not adoring “the Beast” refusing even to simulate such worship. Idolatry rejects the unique Lordship of God; it is therefore incompatible with communion with God.
You see that the object of idolatry does not necessarily have to be a person. It could be your free time, your career, money, power… anything that you give more importance or honor to than God. In the words of Mark Shea:
People with a cartoonish view of idolatry often tend to talk as though idol worship is something stoopid heads just get up one morning and start doing out of a perverse desire to prostrate themselves before a rock or something.
But, in fact, idolatry is typically born out of the deep love of something that is genuinely good and great. It is the best things in the world that become idols, not the worst. Nobody idolizes the band that opened for the Beatles (whoever they were). People idolize the Beatles, because they were really good. Nobody idolizes the mediocre ball player, the second-rate artist, or the guy who lost the race to be the first from New York to Paris. They idolized DiMaggio, Leonardo, and Lindbergh.
For just this reason, one of the tricky things about the Christian Faith is that we must always be on guard, not against loving creatures per se, but against loving them more than we love God. Keep God as your first and greatest love and you are free to love creatures (especially human beings) as much as you like. But get those loves out of order and, no matter how worthy the creature, you are an idolator.
As the Catechism also says, idolatry “rejects the unique Lordship of God”, and this is an important aspect to keep in mind as well. Jesus said:
Luke 6:46 “But why do you call Me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do the things which I say?”
As Christians, we know that obedience to God is required- God’s Lordship over us is unique in that there is no one else who holds a position over us that is anything like it. Your boss may ask you to stay late one night, but his lordship over you is nothing like God asking you to love Him with all of your heart, soul, mind, and strength. You may ask your children to clean their rooms, but your parental lordship over them is not like the Lordship that our Father has over us, when Christ’s words to St. Peter echo back to us through the ages: “Do you love Me more than these?”
Put someone else’s requirements for you over God’s, and it is idolatry. Outright rejection of His Lordship is idolatry because it elevates- to the pinnacle of importance- oneself.
This is why the Catechism says with absolute truthfulness that idolatry remains a constant temptation to faith. It’s something we all must be mindful of, because none of us are immune to idolatry. And, although Catholics are often on the receiving end of idolatry accusations- idolatry isn’t a Catholic problem… it’s a personal problem. One that all who profess Christianity must be ever vigilant against.
So what about statues? What about praying to saints? What about kissing icons? Where does this leave us with Mary? All questions that will be answered in the coming posts! Stay tuned!