Saturday, December 4, 2010

Do Catholics worship icons?

December 4th, The Feast of St. John of Damascus
St. John Damascene is hailed as the Church’s great defender of icons and iconography. He is often considered the last of the Eastern doctors and is renowned for his Summa Theologiae, which is titled, De Fide Orthodoxa.
The influence of this holy doctor, which was great in his own time, is yet a light to the Church in the modern world – we require icons, sculptures, and sacred music in our Liturgical prayer as well as our personal devotion.
The Second Council of Nicaea stated the faith of the Church – “We define that […] the representations of the precious and life-giving cross, and the venerable and holy images as well […], must be kept in the holy Church of God […], in houses and on the roads, whether they be images of God our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ or of the immaculate Lady the Mother of God, or of the holy angels and of all the saints and just.”
And why do we reverence icons? Because, as St. Basil the Great teaches, “the honor given to an image goes to the original model.” (De Spiritu Sancto, 18,45)

Do we worship icons?
Nicaea II states that we give to icons a “respectful veneration (proskunesis, adoratio), which, however, is not the true adoration (latria, latreia) which, according to our faith, is due to God alone.”  The Council draws a distinction between the reverence which is given to icons (calling it veneration) and that given to the Divine Essence (calling it adoration).
We notice, however, that St. Thomas Aquinas does not make this distinction between icon and archetype. The Common Doctor tells us that we worship with latria not only the Divine Essence, but also the humanity of Christ, the true Cross, and images of Christ and the Cross (cf. ST III, q.25). Is the Angelic Doctor at odds with an Ecumenical Council? Can the doctrine of St. Thomas be reconciled with the infallible teaching of Nicaea II?
Let us be clear: St. Thomas is not saying that we worship icons of Christ for their own sake, as though the icon itself had some power; Thomas is not an idolater. On the other hand, neither is St. Thomas saying that we look at an icon of Christ and then, passing around or over the icon, we worship God. Rather, we worship Christ through worshiping the icon of Christ. Thus, we worship through the icon, and we worship the icon itself (insofar as it is considered in relation to Christ and our worship of Christ).
St. Thomas draws a distinction: When considering whether the humanity and divinity of Christ are adored with the same act of latria, he states that two things may be considered, the person adored in himself and the cause of his being adored. Thus, “if at any time it happen that we speak of honoring a man’s hand or foot, it is not by reason of these members being honored of themselves, but by reason of the whole man being honored in them. In this way a man may be honored even in something external; for instance in his vesture, his image, or his messenger.” (ST III, q.25, a.1)
Now, in the case of Christ, he is worshiped with latria on account of his divinity alone – but, since Christ is one person in two natures, there is only one adoration which is given Christ, when considered in relation to the person adored. Hence, when the flesh of Christ is considered as the Incarnate Word of God, his humanity is properly worshiped with the adoration of latria.
Similarly with icons of Christ: Since “Damascene quotes Basil as saying, ‘The honor given to an image reaches to the prototype,’ i.e. the exemplar” and, since the exemplar is Christ, who is adored with latria; it is clear that the icon of Christ must be worshiped with the adoration of latria. The latria given to an icon of Christ is given not on account of the icon in itself, but considered in relation to Christ whose image it is. “Since, therefore, Christ is adored with the adoration of latria, it follows that his image should be adored with the adoration of latria.” (ST III, q.25, a.3)
A Reconciliation between St. Thomas and Nicaea II, The Council of Trent
“Further, the images of Christ, of the Virgin Mother of God and of the other saints are to be kept and preserved, in places of worship especially; and to them due honor and veneration is to be given, not because it is believed that there is in them anything divine or any power for which they are revered, nor in the sense that something is sought from them or that a blind trust is put in images as once was done by the gentiles who placed their hope in idols; but because the honor which is shown to them is referred to the original subjects which they represent. Thus, through these images which we kiss and before which we kneel and uncover our heads, we are adoring Christ and venerating the saints whose likeness these images bear. This is what was defined by the decrees of the Councils, especially the Second Council of Nicaea, against the opponents of images.” (25th Session of Trent, Decree on the Invocation, the Veneration and the Relics of Saints and on Sacred Images)
Trent makes the same distinction which St. Thomas had made, emphasizing the difference between the thing adored and the cause for which it is adored. Thus, icons are reverenced on account of another thing, the archetype! The Council then insists that in giving the proper reverence to icons of Christ, we are adoring Christ. Hence, there is a sort of union between explanations of St. Thomas and of Nicaea II: Latria is certainly involved in our veneration of icons of Christ, but the latria is surely going to Christ and not remaining with the icon. St. Thomas is in agreement with this point.
It seems that Nicaea II, in a time of great turmoil and struggle, sought to emphasize that the cause of the veneration of icons of Christ lay not in the icon itself, but in Christ. Hence, the Council emphasizes that the icons are not adored with latria – meaning that they are not worshiped entirely in themselves and for their own sake, as is the Divine Essence.
St. Thomas, in a calmer time more suited to careful theological discourse, tries to follow the reasoning of Nicaea II to its logical conclusion: Though an icon of Christ is not worshiped for its own sake, it is properly adored with latria on account of Christ whose image it is.
St. Thomas emphasizes the quality of the worship, whereas Nicaea II emphasis the cause of the worship. While the quality of the worship due an icon of Christ is equal to that given to Christ’s humanity which is equal to that given the Divine Essence; the cause of the worship is different, since we worship the icon as an image of Christ, but we worship the Divine Essence on account of itself.

St. John Damascene, pray for us!


Toma Blizanac said...

is there any difference between venerating an icon and venerating a sculpture?

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Toma, Good question! Icons are traditionally written in a great spirit of prayer. This accords a certain dignity to them.
Whereas some sculptures are made more for the purposes of artistic pride.
Hence there is a certain priority which is given to icons over all other painting or sculpting.

However, even if the artist has bad intentions, a sculpture or painting or icon of Christ can and should be venerated.
Consider the example of St. Andrew, who venerated the cross made for him by pagans as though it were the very Cross of Christ. I wrote on this point on Nov 30th.

Finally, consider that Christ's Cross itself was constructed not for religious purposes, but as a means of torture. And yet, we worship the Cross and say that it is our only Hope!

Blessings to you!

Anonymous said...


To clarify, it's safe to say that an icon is worshipped in the same manner as Christ is worshipped, as if it IS Christ...but not because of the icon (simple matter), but because of who it represents/signifies (God). So is it safe to say that the icon is a proxy of Christ?

Also, I've heard it commonly stated that saints and their images are not given adoration, but rather veneration. Thus, with the message of your post in mind, images of Christ are taken one step further and given adoration. Is this correct?

Thirdly, is the preference for icons versus three-dimensional statues more an east-west cultural difference? I've often heard that as an explanation for the lack of statues in orthodox churches. If so, does this have anything to do with the iconoclasm movement back in the first millenium A.D.?

Thanks for your input,

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

You have understood my point correctly.
I am holding that we do worship the icons of Christ with true adoration (not merely veneration).

However, we DO NOT worship the icon as if it is least not exactly. For we worship Christ's divinity in itself and for its own sake. But we worship the icon of Christ as an image of his humanity and of his divine person. Thus, the icon is not exactly a proxy of Christ, but rather an image by which and through which we worship Christ himself.
{I hope that makes sense}

Finally, I don't know of any theological preference for icons or statues. The basic point seems to hold for both: they are images of Christ (or of the saints). However, it is true that the East generally favors icons, whereas the West favors statues and paintings (however, icons are popular enough in some places, especially in south-eastern Italy).
However, I am not aware of the difference of emphasis having any direct relation to the iconoclasm controversy -- both statues and icons were being destroyed at that time.

Blessings and peace to you!

Cordelia at Catholic Phoenix said...


When an icon, or any holy image for that matter, is blessed, doesn't that make it a sacramental, thus giving it some real power to transmit graces to us? How are unblessed and blessed holy images any different?

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

You have brought up an important point: It is very good to have holy images blessed!
There is, of course, no essential difference between a blessed icon and one that is not blessed (it is only an accidental change); but there are certainly additional graces attached to a blessed object.
Moreover, the blessing of the Church, conferred by the priest, tends to bring the personal devotion more fully into the whole life of the Church -- which is especially important for the protection of personal devotions from outside attacks (both human and demonic).

Finally (and here I am really speculating), it seems that icons take on their effect only when they are being used -- they lead us to God only when we are looking at them and worshiping God through them. Blessed objects, however, seem to have a more objective quality about them -- they confer graces through the power of the Church (ex opere operantis).
Still, sacramentals are, of course, very different from sacraments which confer grace through the power which Christ has bestowed upon the rites (ex opere operato).

We all should have at least a couple of blessed holy images in homes -- at least one blessed crucifix, a statue or image of Mary and another of the Holy Family, and also a patron saint. Additionally, it is good to have many non-blessed images around as well.

It is good to remember that a non-blessed image can be thrown away, but a blessed image must be either buried or burnt.

Blessings to you in Christ! BTW, I really loved the Apple Tree carol from your latest post!

Anonymous said...

Thanks Reginaldus, it's all quite clear now. Also in response to the 'blessing' of sacramentals, I think it's noteworthy to mention that this is God's equivalent of the 'cursing' of objects done by proponents of witchcraft.

Spiritual forces can be tied to if the devil can do it for evil, surely God can and does do the same, but for a force of good!


Bernardus said...

Fr. Reginaldus,
I've always felt that crucifixes, icons, and images are important in my spiritual life. I can't say I worship the objects or felt I've worshipped them. They just draw me into a deeper relation with God. I do believe that blessed objects in my house are sacramentals and have some ability to transmit grace through them i.e. the holy water in the font by my side door (if nothing it gives me comfort that God is with me). One thing your discourse and other's comments do is encourage me to seek the Church's teaching on these things. I will visit the Catechism and perhaps learn something through the grace of God on the subjects of sacramentals, images, statues and icons.
Again, I am thankful for your teaching and the time you take to deliver the truth (or prod us to seek the answers ourselves :) ).
You are continually in my prayers. God bless you.

una fides said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
una fides said...


I thank you for your excellent blog. It really does contain much praiseworthy content. I also thank you for this explanation attempting to reconcile Nicea II with Aquinas.

First, I would like to clarify that in response to the title, not all Catholics worship icons with latria, as some of the saints including one of the greatest doctors of the Church, St. Thomas, have done. There are very many holy priests and orthodox theologians who disagree with Aquinas on this issue and instead hold to the teaching from Nicea II as it is explained from the texts from the Council itself.

Regarding your explanation:
If we presume that Nicea was only concerned with the cause of worship, then that would explain when it says we only adore the divine nature with latria, which would be done for its own sake. However, we would then have to apply a consistent hermeneutic and conclude that when the text says that we only venerate an image and do not pay it latria then we are paying that veneration for its own sake, for the sake of the icon itself. Therefore, by this reasoning the physical icons of Christ and the Cross would have a quality in and of themselves that is worthy of veneration apart from the divine image.

When you read the actual full text of the Council with solely this causal explanation of the worship, we find that it cannot be applied consistently without having to conclude that icons are somehow a holy and venerable piece of wood in and of themselves that deserve veneration for their own sake.

" these images the tribute of salutation and respectful veneration. Certainly this [veneration] is not the full adoration {latria} in accordance with our faith, which is properly paid only to the divine nature, but it resembles that given to the figure of the honoured and life-giving cross, and also to the holy books of the gospels and to other sacred cult objects."

Aquinas says to adore the images with latria, and Nicea says to pay the images veneration that is not latria. Both address the images, and both say contradictory things that this causal explanation does not reconcile.

God certainly is adored with latria for his own sake, and as Nicea II clearly teaches, images and icons are venerated with a lesser degree of worship and that adoration passes on to its prototype. God also receives glory when we venerate his saints, who too are made in his image and likeness.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

una fides, I admire your persistence and your faithfulness to the Conciliar texts!

Let me make a short response -- I think that you are misunderstanding a point I am making regarding the difference between veneration and adoration (as I propose them to have been understood by Nicea II).

For Nicea II (as I interpret it), we worship icons for the sake of God, this worship is called veneration.
We worship God for his own sake, this worship is called latria or adoration.

So, as I am using the term, it is not possible to "venerate" something "for its own sake" -- the very definition of veneration (as I am proposing Nicea II as used it) is to "worship something for the sake of something else."
Can you see how this is avoids the problem you have proposed.

In this way, I think that Thomas and Nicea II are reconcilable, though they use words differently the essential teaching is the same.

una fides said...

So then you are saying that Aquinas meant something different when he used the word latria than Nicea II. Nicea said do not pay icons of Christ and the cross latria, but Aquinas said you do. Is there any concrete evidence to support that Aquinas used the term to mean something entirely different than Nicea? And why would he do so? In either case, Aquinas is mistaken on something coming from this text. Judging from the reading of the text of Nicea itself in the full context, it makes much more sense that he simply overlooked this part from the Council rather than that he used a word from the Council to mean something entirely different than what the Council meant by it. Furthermore, the word used in the text of Nicea has the idea of worship of service, as I had pointed out in a previous posting. That we pay an adoration of service to God but we do not in the same way worship icons. Thus, whether we understand latria to mean an adoration of service or adoration for one's own sake, latria would not be appropriate to be paid to icons of Christ or the cross based on Nicea's use of the word. Would you agree?

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Yes! Finally, we are having some progress here! That is exactly what I am saying -- "Aquinas meant something different when he used the word latria than Nicea II."

No, Aquinas is not "mistaken on something coming from this text" -- the use of words had developed throughout the history of the Church. For example -- Nicea I says that one cannot say that the Father and the Son are of the same "ousia", but Constantinople states clearly that they are of the same "ousia" -- the Son is "consubstantial" with the Father (i.e. homoousios). This is just one example of THE SAME WORD BEING USED DIFFERENTLY throughout the Church's Tradition -- it is not the particular word which is important, it is the true doctrine behind the words. However, some words have been used in such a way that we cannot really use them differently anymore (example: Transubstantiation).

What is my evidence for my claim? It is clear that St. Thomas is coming at the whole question in a manner different than Nicea II.
St. Thomas very explicitly discusses the idea that the latria we give to the Cross passes on to Christ (in his humanity) and then to the Divine Essence.
Nicea II, on the other hand, is just trying to emphasize that we shouldn't destroy Icons. Also, it is trying to establish the relation between the veneration of saints and the adoration of God (and Christ as man).

Finally, regarding your question about latria according to Nicea's use of the word -- I would say that we ought not to try to go back in time and use words from the early Church as though there were no theological development in the Church's Tradition.

I hope that my position (and St. Thomas') is clear. I am open to continuing our discussion, but I must admit that I am not sure what more I can say. If you offer specific critiques (as you did in your 6:57pm comment), I will do my best to answer them.

Peace to you in Christ.

una fides said...

I have one quick question for now, and I'll have more to discuss for later when I have more time.

Q) Do you worship the books of the gospel with latria?

Seraphim said...

Answering Toma Blizanac's question:

The Greek Church (Catholic and Orthodox) has never accepted statues, for two reasons:

(1) They are realistic and naturalistic - they do not have the stylized symbolism that depicts transfigured reality as opposed to this one. (The aesthetic integrity of the Western Church represents the Incarnation from the viewpoint of Earth - hence the reverential silence veiling the mystery at the Canon of the Mass, the statues, the kneeling, the precise, scholastic theology. The aesthetic integrity of the Eastern Church represents the Incarnation from the viewpoint of Heaven - hence the iconostas veiling the altar which represents that which is above Heaven [the nave represents Heaven], the stylized icons, the chanting, the prohibition against kneeling during Liturgies on Sunday, the emphasis on paradox and mystery in the words of the Liturgy and in the theology, etc.)

(2) Icons, because they are flat, convey a sense of pointing behind themselves. Statues are self-enclosed and self-contained, and it is feared that it blurs the distinction between sacramentality and worshipping the statue itself.

In Christ,


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