A friend once told me “once a catholic, always a catholic”–ex-catholic, lapsed catholic, non-catholic, etc. Maybe he was right. Here I am blogging about Roman Catholicism years after I’ve left the denomination. But I’ve been thinking about all the notions non-catholics, and some catholics have about devotionalism as an idolatrous catholic practice. Maybe that’s a legitimate observation, but idolatry is not limited to catholics. Idolatrous behavior happens in almost every facet of our lives. It’s a question of misplaced priorities.
Worship no god but me. No carved gods of any size, shape, or form of anything whatever, whether of things that fly or walk or swim. Don’t bow down to them and don’t serve them because I am GOD, your God, and I’m a most jealous God. (Exodus 20:3-5)
God’s Word commands us to put *nothing* before our relationship with Him. However, most current cultures have an idolatrous veneration of all things tangible-possessions like cars, money, electronic gadgets, status, clothes, jewelry, power, success, human understanding, and sexual gratification–not that any of these things are wrong in themselves, but we routinely value and pursue them before relationships with our Creator and each other.
OK, so if our Creator has issues with our misplaced focus on things over Him, how did we get there? The Old Testament documents pervasive idolatrous behavior by the Israelites, probably picked up from assimilation with indigenous pagan cultures around them. Interestingly, the Lord God approved of monuments that Jacob and others created to remember and honor Him.
Jacob got up early next morning, took the stone that was under his head, and set it up as a memorial. Then he poured olive oil on it to dedicate it to God. This memorial stone which I have set up will be the place where you are worshiped, and I will give you a tenth of everything you give me. (Genesis 28:18,22)
But like the bell for Pavlov’s dog, the material things–which were meant to symbolize the Creator’s blessings in our lives–routinely replaced their Creator in our affections. That’s idolatry.
For catholics, I believe–after a lifetime of being inside Catholicism–that the perceived abuses are a result of three factors; the Latinization of the Roman Catholic branch of Christianity with Constantine’s patronage, the subsequent introduction of legitimate teaching tools and saintly examples of holiness, and the edicts of the Magisterium. All three factors created a significant barrier between the Word of God and ordinary believers. The symbolic tools–lives of saints, religious exercises, and artifacts–despite their valid purpose to educate believers and bridge the Latin-language barrier, were misused and morphed into objects of devotion by ordinary believers who were banned, by language barriers and the Magisterium, from reading or studying the Bible on their own.
The Roman Catholic church is a lot older than most of its offshoots. It began in an age and culture where the ordinary believer, including many clerics and religious, could not read or write. Compounding that was the Latinization of the Roman church. The language of Catholic ritual was and is rapidly returning to Latin: the language of ancient scholars but not the language of ordinary Catholics. So church leaders developed tools that were graphic representations of the life and miracles of Jesus and the church, to teach ordinary people who could not read the Bible or understand the words of the liturgies for themselves.
The mysteries of the rosary are episodes in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The Stations of the Cross detailed the stages and events in the Crucifixion, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Statues, icons, and other religious symbols were meant to remind us of the life values that disciples of Jesus should model. Liturgy leads us into corporate worship using Old and New Testament symbolism, the Word, sacred music, and ritualized forms of worship.
In cultures where women were seriously devalued, Mary’s radically faithful “yes”, and her status as mother of the savior made the Mother of Jesus a powerful symbol of righteous womanhood for combating the degrading influences of secular culture. The Old Testament Hasidim and Essenes, ultra-orthodox Jews who radically separated themselves from the world to live in communion with God, became the models for New Testament hermits, desert fathers, and monastics. So, after the persecutions, early christianity produced ascetics; hermits, desert fathers, monasteries, nuns, and monks.
As ordinary clerics and religious were trained and ordained, they learned to use what they knew about christianity to convey its meaning and essence to illiterate congregations, but generally, their own understanding was limited. The church Magisterium tightly controlled the interpretation and use of scripture messages, and deviance from church doctrine and rules brought excommunication, punishment, and sometimes death for the heretic or apostate cleric. Under conditions where understanding of scripture was subordinate to eccesiastic interpretation, error was bound to arise, just as it had under the Pharisees and Sadducees in the Old Testament. The practice of christian living shifted, from a first-century understanding of radical discipleship, to doing what was humanly possible with significantly limited understanding.
Instead of pursuing a sold-out-to Jesus relationship, based on a Spirit-led knowledge of the Word, church hierarchy restricted the study and interpretation of scripture to the Magisterium, and ordinary clerics, teachers, and preachers settled for doing and preaching what they were told to do and preach. That quickly deteriorated, among preachers, teachers, and the faithful, from active discipleship and participation in the priesthood of *all believers,* into veneration of the saints, Mary, and compliance with the rules of Catholicism as a valid road to heaven.
There were other significantly corrupting influences too, but a primary reason, I believe, was the Magisterium’s ban on reading and study of scripture. If ordinary believers had access to scripture, and had been able to read and integrate its principles into their lives, that knowledge would have mitigated centuries of misinterpretation and abuse. It would not have totally eliminated them, as we see from today’s examples of watered-down, “doing only what’s humanly possible” christian practice, outright sin, and cultism, even in the most fervent Christian sects.
Saints stand out triumphantly throughout the history of Christianity, as remarkable examples of ordinary people who pursued Jesus relentlessly, and developed intense relationships with Him in spite of the devotional pseudo-religiosity and despite years of scrutiny, derision, and sometimes torture by church authorities. They bear powerful witness to the power of any human heart to experience the God who pursues us, if and when we stop long enough to listen for His presence. They’re not to be venerated, but they are heroic examples of lives lived only for the Lord!
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us. (Hebrews 12:1)
And so I say to you: Ask, and you will receive; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you. For those who ask will receive, and those who seek will find, and the door will be opened to anyone who knocks. (Luke 11:9-10)
Finally, God’s word calls all of us to Himself. There are thousands of Catholics who walk with the Lord daily, in Spirit and in Truth. Be gentle with them.
Welcome with open arms fellow believers who don’t see things the way you do. And don’t jump all over them every time they do or say something you don’t agree with–even when it seems that they are strong on opinions but weak in the faith department. Remember, they have their own history to deal with. Treat them gently.
For instance, a person who has been around for a while might well be convinced that he can eat anything on the table, while another, with a different background, might assume all Christians should be vegetarians and eat accordingly. But since both are guests at Christ’s table, wouldn’t it be terribly rude if they fell to criticizing what the other ate or didn’t eat? God, after all, invited them both to the table.
Do you have any business crossing people off the guest list or interfering with God’s welcome? If there are corrections to be made or manners to be learned, God can handle that without your help. Or, say, one person thinks that some days should be set aside as holy and another thinks that each day is pretty much like any other. There are good reasons either way. So, each person is free to follow the convictions of conscience. (Romans 14:1-5)