Does Catholicism Teach Idolatry?
The material on this page was written in the 1970s to respond to the criticisms of Walter Martin, founder of the Christian Research Institute (CRI) and the original “Bible Answer Man.” CRI has since withdrawn those criticisms and reversed its earlier conclusions (see “A Brief History of the Relationship between the Local Churches and the Christian Research Institute”). The text of this article is published here for the historical record, for the important points of truth it addresses, and because CRI’s criticisms, although withdrawn, are still repeated by others.
From: Answers to the Bible Answer Man – Appendix
Idolatry Condemned by God
Of all the things condemned by God, idolatry is the most serious. The first commandment is this: “You shall have no other gods before Me” (Exo. 20:3). Then in the second commandment God’s people are instructed to worship Him directly and not through any intervening object: “You shall not make for yourself an idol [i.e., an image], 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 [bow down to] them or serve them” (Exo. 20:4-5, NASV). There are literally scores of other passages in the Bible which also forbid the making or venerating of images. A few examples are:
You shall not make for yourselves idols, nor shall you set up for yourselves an image or a sacred pillar, nor shall you place a figured stone in your land to bow down to it; for I am the Lord your God (Lev. 26:1).
Cursed is the man who makes an idol or a molten image, an abomination to the Lord, the work of the hands of the craftsman, and sets it up in secret (Deut. 27:15).
Being then the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and thought of man (Acts 17:29).
[They] did not repent of the works of their hands, so as not to worship demons, and the idols of gold and of silver and of brass and of stone and of wood, which can neither see nor hear nor walk (Rev. 9:20).
From these verses the following points on idolatry are very clear:
- No one should make or set up an image or an idol of any kind.
- No one should bow down to an image.
- An idol or image is an abomination to God.
- Anyone who makes an image is under a curse.
- An idol is an image formed out of the imagination of man.
- Image worship is to bow down before things which can neither see, nor hear, nor walk.
- Image worship should be repented of.
Misleading the Public
It is therefore a matter of great seriousness for anyone to condone idolatry or in any way mislead people into thinking that it is not a serious matter. On his radio program of October 8, 1977, the Bible Answer Man did exactly this. He led his radio audience to believe that the Roman Catholic Church, the greatest practitioner of idolatry in the Western world, does not officially teach and practice idolatry. In glowing words he expressed his past history with the Catholic Church and defended her as a Church which condemns idolatry. In his own words he said:
I have been taught in Catholic schools and graduated from one. I was almost converted to Catholicism…I am thoroughly conversant with Catholic theology. The worship of a statue in a church or any other place by a Catholic is condemned as idolatry by the church…I have enough quotations on that to sink a ship. So they are not worshipping the statue…I’ll be glad to give you references. All you have to do is write me. Check it for yourself.
A request was sent to the Bible Answer Man for his documentation which he so generously offered on the radio, proving that the Catholic Church condemns the worship of idols. What was received in return was a letter from the office of the Bible Answer Man stating: “We have not developed any tracts or materials specifically on that yet…” and offering not one single shred of the evidence promised on the radio. On the radio it was claimed that there was enough evidence on this subject to “sink a ship,” but when the evidence was requested not one single sentence was produced. There are, however, literally mountains of documentation to prove that the Roman Catholic Church not only practices idolatry but even promotes it.
The Source of Modern Catholicism
Modern Catholicism dates from the Council of Trent held from 1545 to 1563. The Council of Trent was a counteraction to the Reformation. It fixed the standard to which all Catholics must conform and to which all converts to Catholicism must consent. When a person becomes a convert to Catholicism, he must profess the Tridentine Faith in which he promises to “undoubtingly receive and profess all…things delivered, defined, and declared by…the holy Council of Trent” (paragraph 11).
Those who remember the Second Vatican Council, which was initiated by Pope John XXIII and which closed in 1965, may be under the impression that the Second Vatican Council modernized and liberalized the Catholic Church. That Council did make changes but only in liturgy, administrative practices, and in certain matters of religious freedom. But it repeated the age-old claim that, while other Christians may have elements of truth and may be sincere in their service and devotion to Christ, the Roman Catholic Church is the only true church. Pope John XXIII, who presided at the first session, Pope Paul VI, who presided at the last session, and several prominent Cardinals made it plain that this Council would make no changes in the doctrinal structure of the church. The purpose of the Second Vatican Council was not to change the inner make-up of the Roman Catholic Church but to make her more efficient and more acceptable to the world of the twentieth century. An official document, entitled The Constitution on the Church, which was prepared by the Council and promulgated by the Pope, reaffirms the doctrine of the Catholic Church precisely as it stood before the Council met. It reaffirms the infallibility of the Pope; it repeats in substance the teaching of the Council of Trent on the Church that “Priests and Bishops are the representatives of God on earth…justly, therefore, they are called not only angels, but gods, holding as they do the place and authority of God on earth.” It reaffirms that priests have “the power of consecrating and offering the body and blood of our Lord and of remitting sins” (Catechism of Trent). I take pains to point out that the Council of Trent was the prime mover in molding the inner being and nature of contemporary Catholicism, and that the inner being of Catholicism was left untouched by the Second Vatican Council convened under Pope John XXIII.
Enough Evidence to Sink a Ship
The Bible Answer Man’s statement that the Catholic Church does not encourage its constituents to worship statues and images can be proved to be blatantly false simply by referring to the official documents of the Catholic Church herself. On this matter there is surely enough evidence to “sink a ship.” In the Twenty-fifth Session of the Council of Trent, held on the third and fourth of December, 1563, the delegates of the Council decreed certain matters relating to The Invocation, Veneration, and Relics of Saints, and on Sacred Images. This is what the delegates enjoined, and this is what is still binding on all Roman Catholics throughout the world, the Bible Answer Man to the contrary:
The holy Synod enjoins on all bishops, and others who sustain the office and charge of teaching, that, agreeably to the usage of the Catholic and Apostolic Church,…they especially instruct the faithful diligently concerning the intercession and invocation of saints [i.e., praying to dead Christians]; the honor [paid] to relics; and the legitimate use of images…but that they think impiously who deny that the [dead] saints…are to be invocated; or who assert either that they do not pray for men; or that the invocation of them…is idolatry; or that it is repugnant to the Word of God, and is opposed to the honor of the one mediator of God and men, Christ Jesus; or that it is foolish to supplicate, vocally or mentally, those who reign in heaven.
In summary, what was said in the preceding quotation was:
- The invocation and veneration of the dead saints is agreeable to the usage of the Catholic Church.
- The Bishops and all who sustain the office in charge of teaching are to instruct the faithful in the matter of praying to the dead saints and requesting their help.
- Honor is to be paid to relics.
- The use of images is legitimate in spite of the fact that the Bible clearly states that you shall not make a graven image (Exo. 20:4).
- Those who deny that the dead saints are to be prayed to (invoked) are impious.
- Those who insist that praying to the dead saints is idolatry are also impious.
- They think impiously who imagine that it is repugnant to the Word of God, opposed to the honor of the one mediator, Jesus Christ, or that it is foolish to supplicate vocally those who reign in heaven.
This would seem to be enough to prove forever that the Catholic Church not only practices idolatry but teaches its constituents to do so. But this is not all.
The “holy Synod” continued:
The holy bodies of holy martyrs, and of others now living with Christ…are to be venerated [i.e., worshipped and adored] by the faithful; through which [bodies] many benefits are bestowed by God on men.
It’s Happening Today
Can anything be clearer than this? The dead bodies of human beings are to be venerated, that is, worshipped and adored, by the believers. And it is taught by the Catholic Church that these bodies convey spiritual benefits upon those who worship before them. This is not a fairy tale. In April of last year I visited Rome and made several trips to St. Peter’s Church. On the main floor of the nave of St. Peter’s were the dead and partially decomposed bodies of two previous Popes who are in process of being canonized for sainthood. The dead bodies lie in a glass case, and as I stood there I beheld “the faithful” come and kneel before the bodies to pray and worship. One need not step into Doctor Wonmug’s time machine and be projected into the Middle Ages to behold such blatant idolatry. One need only board a 747 at Los Angeles International Airport and fly to Rome, and he can behold it as it exists this very day, just as I did.
Not only did the Council of Trent teach that the faithful should venerate the bodies of the dead, but they without equivocation “condemned [all] who affirm that veneration and honor are not due to the relics of saints; or that [they] are uselessly honored;…and that the places [graves] dedicated to the memories of the saints are in vain visited.”
The Synod continued by saying:
The images of Christ, of the Virgin Mother of God, and of other saints, are to be had and retained particularly in temples, and that due honor and veneration are to be given them.
The Synod went on to say that these images are not to be worshipped because divinity or virtue resides in them or because any trust is to be placed in them, “But because the honor which is shown them is referred to the prototypes which those images represent.” A prototype is the original. Apparently these images of Christ, the Virgin, and the saints are considered to be genotypes, or copies of the originals. Surely this is superstition. The fact is that no one since Bible times has ever seen the Virgin Mary let alone Christ, and absolutely no physical details concerning their appearance is recorded in the Bible. The only passage which comes close to describing Christ is Isaiah 53, which does not present Him in a flattering fashion at all. There is no record that the church had any pictures of Christ during the first four centuries, let alone images of Him. The so-called pictures and images of Christ, Mary, and the saints are purely the product of someone’s imagination. Not one of them is a true replica.
The only thing we know about the Lord’s physical features is that He was a Jew. How would you like it if someone who had never seen you and knew nothing about you resorted to his own imagination, background, and nationality to come up with an image of you? The result would be fraudulent. I would resent it. And certainly Christ resents with a passion all these fraudulent, counterfeit genotypes of Himself. No picture or idol can do justice to His personality or portray His deity. According to Deuteronomy 34:6, the grave of Moses was kept beyond the reach of idolatry. It would have been sheer horror, to say nothing of blasphemy, for the body of Moses to have been displayed in a glass case for the devout Israelites to come and venerate. It is also significant that the physical features of Christ have been kept beyond the reach of idolatry. The Bible is extremely clear: (1) It says on the one hand that God is a Spirit, and that they who worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in reality (John 4:24); and (2) it also says that:
being…the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and thought of man (Acts 17:29, NASV).
The Council of Trent says:
Great profit is derived from all sacred images, [and] by the images which we kiss, and before which we uncover the head, and prostrate ourselves, we adore Christ, and we venerate the saints, whose similitude they bear.
To make such a statement is to fly in the face of God’s Holy Word. It is to require the faithful to practice idolatry contrary to what God enjoins in His Holy Word.
The Council declared that “if any abuses have crept in amongst these holy and salutary observances, the holy Synod ardently desires that they be utterly abolished.” But the whole thing is an abuse. It is not that abuses have crept in “amongst these holy observances”; even these things which were enjoined by the Council are giant abuses. Praying to dead saints, veneration of dead bodies, worshipping before relics and images, kissing idols and prostrating before them, are the greatest of abuses. It is not that abuses can creep in among these things; these things in themselves are the abuses. In fact, the Council of Trent introduced one gigantic abuse after another. And the decrees of this Council still officially represent the position of the Roman Catholic Church today. Even if it were true that Roman Catholics prayed only to the spirit represented by the image, it would still be sin because (1) God has forbidden the use of images in any manner; and (2) there is only one Person to be worshipped, who is God Himself through our Lord Jesus Christ.
A Great Mystery
The Bible Answer Man tells us that Roman Catholics do not pray to the idol but to the spirit that is represented by it. But this is the answer given by idol worshippers the world over. The simple fact is that the Catholic Church consecrates statues and images, that her priests bless them, that they are placed in churches and in homes for her people to bow down to and offer incense before. Neither can it be denied that she does this in contradiction to the second commandment, and that she teaches as Christian doctrine that which is entirely contrary to Scripture. If the Apostles were to return to earth today and enter a Roman Catholic Church, they would not be able to tell the difference between the pagan worship of idols which they knew in the first century and the contemporary practice of kneeling before images, burning incense to them, kissing them, praying to them, and carrying them in public processions. The Roman Church today is as thoroughly given to idolatry as the city of Athens was when Paul visited that place in Acts seventeen. Why the Bible Answer Man would tell his radio audience that he has enough material “to sink a ship” showing that Catholicism does not teach idolatry is a great mystery. The only feasible answer seems to be that in him there is still a great residual amount of sympathy and respect for the Roman Catholic Church. The prolonged exposure which he received as a young man in Catholic schools has apparently influenced him and left its mark upon him. There is no other way to explain his attempts to whitewash a system which is blatantly idolatrous. His ordination papers may be issued by the Southern Baptists, but in his heart he is still sympathetic to idolatrous Catholicism.
Not Individuals But a System
It is important to point out that what I have said in this article is not directed to Roman Catholics as individuals. It is directed at the religious system. I am fully aware that there are many Roman Catholics who are genuine, born-again believers in Christ. Perhaps many of them do not invoke the help of saints, worship before the bodies of the dead, superstitiously believe that spiritual benefit can be derived from venerating relics, or practice image worship. But the fact is, these believing Roman Catholics to the contrary, that a system of idolatry exists which is known as the Roman Catholic Church. Those who are in it, even though they may be genuine believers in Christ, are lending their support and their presence to a system which is clearly condemned by God in the Bible. It is this fact that the Bible Answer Man should point out in faithfulness to his audience rather than whitewashing the whole situation and misleading his listeners. John Henry Newman, an Anglican priest who later turned Roman Catholic and rose to the rank of Cardinal, in his book, The Development of the Christian Religion, admits that “Temples, incense, oil lamps, votive offerings, holy water, holy days and seasons of devotion, processions, blessings of fields, sacerdotal vestments, the tonsure (of priests, monks and nuns), images, etc., are all of pagan origin” (p. 359). If a Cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church itself admits to these things, why should a Southern Baptist radio preacher try to cover it up? May the Bible Answer Man be helped to realize his responsibility to be faithful to the truth, no matter how unpopular it might be.
This is the fourth in a series of five articles.