What Is Idolatry?

Mary Ann Collins
(A Former Catholic Nun)

October 2002
Revised April 2006

Throughout the history of Israel, there was a problem of idolatry. Some of the people would worship "foreign gods" (the gods of foreign nations). At times, idolaltry was practiced on a large scale. We first see it with the golden calf which Aaron made, while the Israelites were at Mount Sinai. God warned Moses about idolatry. Wide-spread idolatry is described a number of times in the Book of Judges, and it is a recurring theme of the prophets. Following are some examples:

"And the Lord said unto Moses, Behold, thou shalt sleep with thy fathers; and this people will rise up, and go a whoring after the gods of the strangers of the land, whither they go to be among them, and will forsake me, and break my covenant which I have made with them." (Deuteronomy 31:16)

"And yet they would not hearken unto their judges, but they went a whoring after other gods, and bowed themselves unto them: they turned quickly out of the way which their fathers walked in, obeying the commandments of the Lord; but they did not so. And when the Lord raised them up judges, then the Lord was with the judge, and delivered them out of the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge: for it repented the Lord because of their groanings by reason of them that oppressed them and vexed them. And it came to pass, when the judge was dead, that they returned, and corrupted themselves more than their fathers, in following other gods to serve them, and to bow down unto them; they ceased not from their own doings, nor from their stubborn way." (Judges 2:17-19)

"For he [King Manasseh] built up again the high places which Hezekiah his father had destroyed: and he reared up altars for Baal, and made a grove, as did Ahab king of Israel; and worshipped all the host of heaven, and served them." (2 Kings 21:2-3; also see verses 4-9)

"And they set them up images and groves in every high hill, and under every green tree: And there they burnt incense in all the high places, as did the heathen whom the Lord carried away before them; and wrought wicked things to provoke the Lord to anger: For they served idols, whereof the Lord had said unto them, Ye shall not do this thing." (2 Kings 17:10-12; see verses 1-23)

Most modern westerners don't overtly worship pagan gods with animal sacrifices, temple prostitution, and child sacrifice. But there is more to idolatry than ancient pagan customs. According to "Webster's Dictionary," idolatry also means "Excessive love or veneration for anything." (You cannot have excessive love or veneration for God. But you sure can have it for created things.)

Is it idolatry to say that we cannot be saved unless Mary helps us? That would mean that the sacrifice of Jesus Christ was not sufficient to save us. Some popes have declared that there is no salvation apart from Mary. [Note 1 gives the address of an Internet article with quotations from popes.]

Is it idolatry to say that there is no salvation without the Pope? Again, that would mean that Jesus is not enough. Some popes have declared that no person can be saved unless he or she submits to the Pope. [See Note 1.]

Is it idolatry to call the Pope "Holy Father"? In the Bible, that term is only used for God. Jesus used it when praying to His heavenly Father. (John 17:11)

Is it idolatry to sing hymns to the Pope? It is traditional to sing papal hymns. You can buy recordings of them online. [Note 2]

Is it idolatry to say that “the Pope is less than God but more than man; who shall judge all and be judged by no one”? Pope Innocent III said that. He also said, “Every cleric [clergyman] must obey the Pope, even if he commands what is evil; for no one may judge the Pope.” Does it promote idolatry when a Pope declares, “We hold upon this earth the place of God Almighty”? Pope Leo XIII declared that in 1894. Is it idolatry to address the Pope as “Your Holiness”? The protocol of the Catholic Church requires it. [Note 3]

Is it idolatry to venerate Mary and the saints? According to "Webster's Dictionary," one definition of "veneration" is "expressing reverent feeling; worship" and one definition of "devotion" is "religious fervor". Catholic Canon Law says that all Catholics should cultivate devotion to Mary, including praying the rosary. (The rosary has ten prayers to Mary for every one prayer to God.) Every fixed altar in churches is required to have a relic of a saint. [Note 4]

Is it idolatry to venerate "images"? Canon Law says that Catholic churches should have "holy images" (statues, pictures, etc.) and that Catholics should venerate these images. [Note 5] In contrast, the Bible forbids the veneration of statues or other images. It says,

"Thou shalt not make thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the waters beneath the earth: Thou shalt not bow down thyself unto them, nor serve them" (Deuteronomy 5:8-9).

The Infant of Prague is an example of the extent to which veneration of images can be taken. It is a statue of Jesus as a baby. It is kept in a church in Prague, Czechoslovakia. Miracles are attributed to this statue. Pilgrims come from around the world to venerate it. The statue wears expensive clothing and a gold crown set with jewels. It has 70 different sets of clothes. In 1995 it was carried in solemn procession through the streets of Prague. The procession was led by two cardinals. Churches in many countries have replicas of this statue. [Note 6 has links to Internet articles with pictures.]

Is it idolatry to worship consecrated bread? The Catholic Church says that during Mass the bread and wine literally turn into the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ. Catholics are taught to bow before the bread and to worship it. According to Catholic Canon Law, Catholics are supposed to worship the Eucharist with "supreme adoration". [Note 7]

If the answer to any of these questions is "yes," then the Catholic Church teaches its members to practice idolatry.


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