The reverence paid by Catholics to Holy Images does not offend against the commandment of God. It is true that the latter part of the first commandment declares: “Thou shalt not make to thyself a graven thing,” but this is explained by the words that follow: “Thou shalt not adore them (non adorábis ea), nor serve them” (Exodus xx. 4, 5, and Deuteronomy v. 9). The meaning, therefore, clearly is: Thou shalt not make unto thyself a graven thing or idol for the sake of adoring it as a false god or idol. The words, “bow down,” in the Protestant version, instead of “adore” are calculated unhappily to mislead unreflecting persons. This commandment cannot be taken to condemn the use of images intended to promote the honor and worship of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the True Living God, or the inferior honor due to the Holy Angels and the Saints, as this is not worship of strange gods, and therefore, not idolatry.
It was thus understood by the Jews, who by the commandment of God placed two graven images of the Cherubim on the Ark of the Covenant (3 Kings vi. 23), and other images of Angels in the Temple of Solomon (2 Paralipomenon –or 2 Chronicles- iii. 10, 11). It is, in fact, thus practically understood also by those Protestants who have no scruple in making graven images, and even setting them up in their places of worship.
No Christian certainly could find in his heart to treat the Crucifix, that affecting image and appealing likeness of Our Crucified Savior, as an idol, and trample it under his foot. Christian feeling would prompt him to respect it, as he respects and reveres the precious word, the sound, the very letters, of the Holy Name of Jesus.
It would be idolatry to worship any Saint, or the image of any Saint as God, but it is not idolatry to honor the Saints for what they are, namely the faithful servants of God, and to honor pictures of them for what these pictures represent.
Josue and the ancients did not break the commandment of God when they remained a whole day prostrate before the Ark of the Covenant and the likeness of the Cherubim, as stated in the book of Josue (vii. 6) in these words: “But Josue rent his garments, and fell flat on the ground before the Ark of the Lord until the evening, both he and all the ancients of Israel.”
As to those who fear lest it be idolatrous to pay honor to relics, I would only refer them to St. Jerome, who opposing Vigilantius for pretending that the honor paid by the faithful to relics was idolatrous, argued with him in this way: “Not only do we not adore the relics of the martyrs, but we do not even adore the Angels, the Archangels, the Cherubim and Seraphim. Yet we honor the relics of the Martyrs that we may adore Him Whose martyrs they are. We honor the Servants that the honor bestowed on them may redound to their Master.”
That God wills we should bestow honor on the relics of His Saints, we gather from the marvelous virtue with which it pleases God sometimes to honor their bones and other relics. Thus, in the Fourth Book of Kings we read, “Some that were burying a man … cast the body into the sepulcher of Eliseus [Elisha]. And when it had touched the bones of Eliseus, the man came to life, and stood upon his feet” (xiii. 21).
The afflicted woman in the Gospel who, full of faith and humility, trusted for her cure in the touch of the hem of the garment of Our Lord (St. Matt. 9:20); and those who had confidence in the “shadow” of St. Peter to cure their sick (Acts 5:15); and those who confided in the “handkerchiefs” and “aprons” that had touched the body of St. Paul, and brought them to the sick (Acts 19:12) – all these were not disapproved by Our Lord nor by His Apostles, but rewarded by God, Who, by these humble means, cured them.