Misuse of the term “Idolatry”

Misuse of the term "Idolatry"

by William C. Michael

In the Baltimore Catechism, we learn this helpful lesson:

In speaking of worship, theologians generally distinguish three kinds, namely: latria, or that supreme worship due to God alone, which cannot be transferred to any creature without committing the sin of idolatry; dulia, or that secondary veneration we give to saints and angels as the special friends of God; hyperdulia, or that higher veneration which we give to the Blessed Virgin as the most exalted of all God’s creatures.Baltimore Catechism, Book IV, Question 9

In modern circles, Protestants don’t make these distinctions and falsely accuse Catholics of “worshipping Mary” or “worshipping the Saints”. This isn’t a serious accusation because any honest Protestant will understand the difference between the worship of God and veneration or honor shown to others. In fact, St. Paul commands us:

Render therefore to all men their dues. Tribute, to whom tribute is due: custom, to whom custom: fear, to whom fear: honour, to whom honour.Romans 13:7

We are commanded to honor other men because God has created a social order among men and we are not all equals. Children are commanded to “honor” their father and mother, wives are commanded to “obey” their husbands, all men are commanded to “honor the king”, and “obey their bishops”. Men are not all equals, obliged to honor God alone.

At the same time, we understand that there is a hierarchy of persons to whom honor is due, and different levels of honor are due to different persons. This is what the catechism quote above explains.

If we look at the three kinds of “worship”, we find important distinctions:

- latria — the worship given to God alone
- hyperdulia — worship or veneration given to the most honorable of all creatures, e.g., the Blessed Virgin Mary.
- dulia — worship or veneration given to honorable creatures, namely, the saints (men and angels).

Included in all three kinds of “worship” (used in several senses) is prayer, but the different levels of honor are seen in the words of these prayers. To God alone to we make direct requests for graces. To Mary and the Saints, we pray that they will pray to God for us. We most certainly make distinctions in our devotional activities. We do not worship Mary or the Saints as we worship God. If anyone does so, it is their own fault, for the Church neither directs nor permits them to do so.

The important point I wish to make is the distinction between latria and the other two forms of worship, because I’d like to discuss a problem in modern Christian society.

It is common today to hear Christians accusing others of “idolatry”. As I mentioned above, Protestants accuse Catholics of “idolatry”, but Catholics also accuse other Catholics of “idolatry”. For example, Catholics accused Pope Francis of “idolatry” for attending a ceremony where visitors to the Vatican from the Amazon performed a traditional ceremony related to “Mother Earth” whom they refer to traditionally as “Pachamama”. In the modern context, they presented this image to the Catholic Church as “Our Lady of the Amazon”, noting the similarities between the ancient Amazonian traditions and Catholic veneration for the Blessed Virgin Mary — the “Queen of Heaven”.

For attending this ceremony, Pope Francis was accused of “idolatry”, but this is impossible.

The word “idolatry” is derived from the Greek words eidolon and latreia. The word eidolon is the name for an image of a spirit — whether it is a painting, a statue, or whatever else is sued to make an image. It’s important to not that this word is similar in meaning to the word icon (eikon):

- eidolon (idol): An image or similitude of a deity or divinity, used as an object of worship
- eikon (icon): A representation of some sacred personage and honoured with a relative worship or adoration.

The difference appears to be, in Christian use, that an icon is an image that represents the true God, whereas an idol is an image that represents another god or spirit.

So, first, for someone to commit “idolatry”, an image of a false god or spirit must be present. Could “Pachamama” be considered an “idol”? Sure, it its ancient context. However, this has to be considered more carefully as it was presented to the Church with the intention of representing the Blessed Virgin Mary, the “Mother of God”, which would make it more of an icon than an idol. Regardless, let’s grant that the image was that of a false god and is, therefore, an “idol”.

This fact alone would not convict the Pope of “idolatry”.

As said above, the word “idolatry” is derived from two words: eidolon (idol) and latreia (divine worship). Thus, for a man to actually commit “idolatry”, he must give that form of worship which is due to God alone to an idol, or image of a false god or spirit.

Did Pope Francis do this? Of course not.

We can see this sin committed explicitly by the Jews in Exodus 32:

made a molten calf. And they said: “These are thy gods, O Israel, that have brought thee out of the land of Egypt”.Exodus 32:4

Note here both conditions of idolatry: (1) an image of a false god, (2) worship given to the image that is — literally — due to God alone.

Pope Francis’s behavior during the visit from the Amazonian guests is nothing like idolatry, but is a baseless accusation from his enemies, who are desperate to find fault with the supreme ruler of the Catholic Church. No, Pope Francis didn’t grab a sword and smash the image to pieces, or grab it and throw it into the Tiber River. But, failing to destroy the gift offered by the Amazonian visitors is not to commit idolatry. If the failure to destroy an image of a false god was “idolatry”, we would all be guilty of this sin because the world is filled with such images and we drive and walk past them every day. This is ridiculous and the act one man made to throw an image of Pachamama into the Tiber River in Rome made for a good publicity stunt, but it was neither necessary nor prudent. Paul did no such thing while he was in Athens:

Now whilst Paul waited for them at Athens, his spirit was stirred within him, seeing the city wholly given to idolatry. He disputed, therefore, in the synagogue with the Jews and with them that served God: and in the market place, every day, with them that were there.Acts 17:16–17

Paul didn’t attack the idols or put on some zealous show for social media attention. He disputed with the philosophers of the city, in a respectful manner, at an appropriate time, in an appropriate place. You can read what he actually did in Acts 17 if you’d like to see the example of an inspired Apostle.

Pope Francis did not bow down to Pachamama — even though it would not necessarily be “latria” to do so.

Pope Francis did not ask Pachamama to pray for him — even though it would not necessarily be “latria” to do so.

Pope Francis did not praise Pachamama in any way — even though it would not necessarily be “latria” to do so.

Seeing that Pope Francis did none of these things, even if we grant that the image from the Amazonian people was an “idol”, there is no evidence of “idolatry” and accusations of such are comparable to the accusations of Protestants that Catholics commit the same with regard to Mary and the Saints. These are ignorant, careless and false accusations.

The use of this term “idolatry” is a lazy accusation made by a Christian against another when no substantial argument is actually available. For a Christian to commit idolatry, two things would need to be true:

- an image representing a false god or spirit would need to be present, and
- the person would need to show to the image worship that is due exclusively to God.

This will rarely ever be found to be true in Christian circles, and the accusations are irrational and desperate attempts to dishonor another person.

It’s no surprise that those who make these false accusations do so against men whom they owe honor: political leaders, teachers, priests, bishops and even the Pope himself.

Let’s avoid this irrational talk and understand what “idolatry” actually is. If we wish to dispute with others, let us make the effort to learn how to dispute in an orderly and respectful manner that is edifying and useful. If men are not willing to do so, they need to be ignored because they are simply trouble-makers seeking to dishonor fellow Christians through false accusations — which is the work of the devil and not the Holy Spirit.

God bless,William C. MichaelClassical Liberal Arts Academy


Mr. William C. Michael is the founding headmaster of the <a href=”https://classicalliberalarts.com">Classical Liberal Arts Academy</a>. He graduated from Rutge

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William C. Michael

Mr. William C. Michael is the founding headmaster of the <a href=”https://classicalliberalarts.com">Classical Liberal Arts Academy</a>. He graduated from Rutge