Catholics use statues, paintings, and other artistic devices to recall the person or thing depicted. Just as it helps to remember one’s mother by looking at her photograph, so it helps to recall the example of the saints by looking at pictures or statues of them.
Catholics also use statues as teaching tools. In the early Church they were especially useful for the instruction of the illiterate. Many Protestants have pictures of Jesus and other Bible pictures in Sunday school for teaching certain people and have three-dimensional nativity scenes at Christmas.
God forbids the worship of images as gods, but he doesn’t ban the making of images. If he had, religious movies, videos, photographs, paintings, and all similar things would be banned. It is when people begin to adore a statue as a god that the Lord becomes angry. Thus when people did start to worship the bronze serpent as a snake-god (whom they named “Nehushtan”), the righteous king Hezekiah had it destroyed (2 Kgs. 18:4).
Think about Mt. Rushmore, the Lincoln Memorial, the 911 Memorial in New York, and all the statues in Washington D.C. and around the world. People go to see these statues and stand in front of them, sometimes bow their heads in prayer, or stand their staring at the statue or piece of marble in awe. Does this mean these people are worshiping these statues? Absolutely not.
Since many Catholics sometimes bow or kneel in front of statues of Jesus and the saints, many non-Catholics confuse the legitimate veneration of a sacred image with the sin of idolatry. Catholics do not believe their statues, made of plaster, are God. A statue, or any other piece of religious art, is intended to draw the soul deeper into prayer by helping the senses to recall the mystery that it represents. Crucifixes, a statue of Mary or stain glass windows help for a soul to meditate and contemplate the great mysteries of God.
Though bowing can be used as a posture in worship, not all bowing is worship. In Japan, people show respect by bowing in greeting (the equivalent of the Western handshake). Similarly, a person can kneel before a king without worshiping him as a god. In the same way, a Catholic who may kneel in front of a statue while praying isn’t worshiping the statue or even praying to it, any more than the Protestant who kneels with a Bible in his hands when praying is worshiping the Bible or praying to it.
The bottom line is, when God made the New Covenant with us, he did reveal himself under a visible form in Jesus Christ. For that reason, we can make representations of God in Christ. Even Protestants use all sorts of religious images: Pictures of Jesus and other biblical persons appear on a myriad of Bibles, picture books, T-shirts, jewelry, bumper stickers, greeting cards, compact discs, and manger scenes. Christ is even symbolically represented through the Icthus or “fish emblem.”
Common sense tells us that, since God has revealed himself in various images, most especially in the incarnate Jesus Christ, it’s not wrong for us to use images of these forms to deepen our knowledge and love of God. That’s why God revealed himself in these visible forms, and that’s why statues and pictures are made of them.
The Church absolutely recognizes and condemns the sin of idolatry. What non-Catholics fail to recognize is the distinction between thinking a piece of stone or plaster is a god and desiring to visually remember Christ and the saints(who are alive in heaven, not dead) by making statues in their honor.
The making and use of religious statues is a thoroughly biblical practice, and a beautiful way to deepen your faith and grow closer to Christ.