Swimming the Tiber 22: Holy Water, Crucifixes, and Other Vampire-Killing Miscellany

When it comes to holy objects and Catholicism, Protestants (like the old me) usually have two objections: “holy” and “objects.”

Here’s what I mean: As a Protestant, I frequently objected to the idea that Catholics could have “blessed” or “holy” objects. Material things were just that: material. They could not have any effect on the eternal. Any object referred to as “holy” or “blessed” was automatically suspect and probably an idol.

At the same time, I was basically raised to be an iconoclast. “Iconoclast” comes from the Greek words εἰκών (eikon, “likeness” or “image,” from which we get “icon”) and κλάω (klao, “to break”); it refers to those, generally, who destroy statues, icons, and other religious imagery on the claim that it is all idolatrous.

There are a few issues at work here. The first is that, when I was a Protestant, I was a dualist. Here’s what I mean by that: on some level (not an especially conscious one, but somewhere in there), I believed that the material world was entirely broken, entirely flawed, and ultimately, a prison for us human “souls.” Any praise for the material, then, was idolatrous, because “it is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless” (John 6:63). (In case you’ve forgotten, I rebutted such use of that verse about six weeks ago.)

This sort of anti-materialism is heretical wherever it is found. It was common in early heresies and led to severe austerities (starving to death) or severe indulgence (gluttony and sexual promiscuity). It goes directly against Scripture (Genesis 1 tells us that the material world, which God created, is good). It defies our unified nature (we are whole persons; we have souls and bodies, but we cannot be reduced to either). Worst of all, it suggests that God Himself could not overcome the “wretchedness” of the flesh even by being incarnate in it. That Jesus was born should be enough to refute any claim that the material world is inherently worthless.

Another issue was my fear that objects could be too easily elevated, especially when there was no evidence that they should be. But that’s not true; there’s plenty of evidence for objects being made holy by God. It began in the Old Testament, when God declared some things blessed (so blessed, in fact, that they should be in his very Presence: Exodus 3:5; 30:34-36; Deuteronomy 28:5). God then prescribed a method for blessing things with salt, whether sacrifices or other objects, which is still used by the Catholic Church today (Leviticus 2:13; 2 Kings 2:19-22; Ezekiel 43:24).

“Wait, wait, wait!” you say, “Catholics sprinkle things with holy water, not salt.” Sure, because there is a lot tied up in holy water besides the blessing of salt (baptism, the water flowing from the side of Christ, the water flowing from the temple in Ezekiel 47, and so on), but holy water only becomes holy water through a fairly complicated blessing that includes the exorcism of salt and blessing the water with that salt. (Recall also the “salt and light” of Matthew 5.)

But the holiness of objects doesn’t stop with salt and holy water. Consider that the hem of Jesus’ cloak could heal people (Matthew 9:20-22; Luke 8:43-48). But this extension of holiness from a saintly person to their possessions did not end with Jesus; the personal possessions of Paul were the same way (Acts 19:11-12). Holiness can be imputed, then, from a holy person (such as God’s own Son or the most prolific writer in the New Testament, the latter of whom called himself the chief of sinners) into an object, and that object can retain that power for a time. A man whose faith I trust has himself witnessed a piece of the True Cross (a shard of wood from the very Cross of Christ, that bore his Body and Blood) heal a man in the midst of a violent seizure.

But as with all things, it is the faith of those around the objects that binds them, and any power is really the power of God. But to say that the objects are worthless, or that to keep them and bless them and use them in order to bless is idolatry… these are not statements grounded in Scripture.

But there is another part to this discussion: aren’t images of God idolatrous? Isn’t it wicked to keep any sort of depiction of the Lord among your possessions? If so, Catholics are the worst of idolaters; every Catholic parish has at least one crucifix, which alone would be enough to condemn us.

In case you’re unfamiliar, a crucifix is distinguished from the Protestant cross in that a crucifix depicts the Lord in his time of suffering, whereas Protestant crosses are empty. Protestants say that this is because the cross is empty now, because Christ is risen. And Catholics say, “Yes, of course he is; we’re not disputing that.” The crucifix does not depict Christ on the cross because we are continually crucifying him; it is a reminder. It is a reminder, first of all, that he did die on the cross (and that he rose again); it is a reminder, too, of that once-for-all sacrifice being made present continually in the Eucharist (see my posts 5-6 weeks ago on that subject for more info).

In many ways, holy objects are designed to serve that exact purpose (i.e., as a reminder). All images of Christ point not to some idol but to God through Christ. This is what it means to “bless” others, and that is the explicit purpose of blessed objects, which are often called “sacramentals” because they point toward the sacraments (all of which point to Christ). See the Catechism section 1667 and following. How can it be wrong to point people to Christ?

Some say the sin is in the numbering of the Ten Commandments. Iconoclastic Protestants generally number the Ten Commandments thus:

  1. Do not have any other gods before Me (Exodus 20:2-3; Deuteronomy 5:6-7)
  2. Do not make any idols or graven images (Exodus 20:4-6; Deuteronomy 5:8-10)
  3. Do not use the Lord’s name in vain (Exodus 20:7; Deuteronomy 5:11)
  4. Do not bear false witness (Exodus 20:16; Deuteronomy 5:20)
  5. Do not covet (Exodus 20:17; Deuteronomy 5:21)

By calling out a ban on graven images in a separate commandment, some try to argue that any graven image of Christ is sinful, but the logic doesn’t follow that. If we are prevented from making a graven image, then it should not matter whose image it is; but if we are allowed some images (e.g., paintings, sculptures, photographs), then the issue must not lie with the images themselves, but with how they are used.

Catholics, on the other hand, number the commandments in this way:

  1. Do not have any other gods before Me (Exodus 20:2-6; Deuteronomy 5:6-10)
  2. Do not use the Lord’s name in vain (Exodus 20:7; Deuteronomy 5:11)
  3. Do not covet your neighbor’s wife (Exodus 20:17a; Deuteronomy 5:21a)
  4. Do not covet your neighbor’s goods (Exodus 20:17b; Deuteronomy 5:21b)

The injunction against graven images is pretty clearly tied to worship of other gods and idolatry, meaning that idolatry is the sin, not the images themselves. This reinforces my point from a moment ago: the issue lies with how images are used, not that images exist. If we do not worship images, then there should be no injunction against them.

For the rest the list, this is another area where I prefer to lean on the strength of Tradition. The Deuteronomy passage makes the distinction between Catholics’ #9 and #10 clearer, but it’s not obviously meant to be set apart from the rest of that verse. Given the ambiguity, as I said, I lean on Tradition, and Tradition is in better keeping with the point that the material world is good (see above, where I argued against my former heresy).

After all, depictions of Jesus’ appearance are not idolatry unless we worship the depictions, because Jesus really does have a face; that he possesses a human nature should encourage us to represent it in art and in holy objects as a reminder. (In the same way, we keep photographs of our beloved friends and family, to remind us how they look, what they have done, and what they mean to us–at no point and in no way do we treat the photos as if they were really our friends and family. Images of Christ work on the same level.)

Some will also argue against the use of any holy object on the grounds of temptation for some (1 Corinthians 8). This is, in many respects, a legitimate concern. But it is also a matter of prudence. How many people are there that you know of who struggle with literal idolatry? I don’t mean the worship of abstract objects (like wealth), materialism, or self in place of God (this is indeed common), but how many struggle daily with the temptation to worship man-made images? Is it realistic, in the cultural context of the present, to say that images are a temptation in the same way as food offered to idols was in the time of Paul? I think not, but I am open to more information.

So I stand with the Church and say that sacramental objects, like holy water and blessed crucifixes and the Cross of Christ and the kerchief of St. Paul, are not evil and do not constitute idolatry, but are a boon to us, both by the power God gives them through our faith and by the reminder they serve in pointing to Christ. Next week, then, I will take this issue to the next level: if the use of holy objects is not idolatry, what about the veneration of holy people?