Dear Fr. Joe: Do Catholics only have 9 commandments?

Dear Fr. Joe: I have a Protestant friend who tells me that we only have nine commandments and we leave out the commandment about idols. She showed me in her Bible how we left it out. Is that true? Also, why do we have statues in churches if God says not to do it?

Nope, not true. Let’s take a look at the commandment format, because the answer lies there. Turn your Bible to Exodus 20:1-17. You there? Exodus! After Genesis and before Leviticus. Got it? Good!

Okay, now in the first part of the commandments, we see there are two ideas: first that we should worship God alone and second that we should not carve idols and worship them. If we then look at verse 17, we see again two ideas, first that we should not covet our neighbor’s goods, and second that we should not covet our neighbor’s wife.

So, an abbreviated version of the commandments would look like this:

1    Worship God alone; do not carve and worship idols.

  Do not take God’s name in vain.

3    Keep the Sabbath holy.

4    Honor your parents.

5    Do not kill.

6    Do not commit adultery.

  Do not steal.

8    Do not bear false witness.

9    Do not covet your neighbor’s spouse.

10  Do not covet your neighbor’s goods.

That is our ten. (cf. Deut 5:6-21) Some translations – like the one above – combine the first two commandments and split the last two, others split the first two and join the last two. Some of our well-meaning Protestant brothers and sisters may have seen our list and wondered where the injunction against carving and worshiping idols is.

Now, if the commandment forbids us from carving “graven images,” why do we have statues in churches? Again, let’s go to the source. Exodus 20:4-6 goes like this:

“You shall not carve idols for yourselves in the shape of anything in the sky above or on the earth below or in the waters beneath the earth; you shall not bow down before them or worship them. For I, the Lord, your God, am a jealous God, inflicting punishment for their fathers’ wickedness on the children of those who hate me, down to the third and fourth generation; but bestowing mercy down to the thousandth generation, on the children of those who love me and keep my commandments.”

So, why do we make statues? The commandment forbids the creation of images that we worship, but not the creation of holy images to help our worship. At times in the Scriptures, God commanded the creation of images and statues to help people pray. Here are a few examples:

In the book of Numbers, God has the Israelites construct a bronze serpent that they should look at when bitten by snakes so that they could be healed.

Another example comes from God giving instructions to David concerning how to build the first temple. According to the Bible, God gave David explicit instructions, which included the creation of statues of angels. (1 Chron 28:18-19)

In this second example, God is explaining how to decorate the tent of the Lord’s presence: “And you shall make two cherubim of gold (i.e., two gold statues of angels); of hammered work shall you make them, on the two ends of the mercy seat. Make one cherub on the one end, and one cherub on the other end; of one piece of the mercy seat shall you make the cherubim on its two ends. The cherubim shall spread out their wings above, overshadowing the mercy seat with their wings, their faces one to another; toward the mercy seat shall the faces of the cherubim be.” (Exod 25:18–20)

Now, look at Ezekiel 41:17–18. Here, God is describing the construction of graven (carved) images in the future temple. God gives Ezekiel a vision and describes the walls of the temple as having carvings of angels.

Now, in a previous issue, I wrote about why we pray to saints, so I will hit this one real quick. We believe that saints are people who are in heaven and standing in the sight of God. We ask them for prayers, just like we ask our friends and neighbors that we can see for prayers. We don’t worship the statues. We use them to stimulate our imagination while we ask them to pray for us or when we remember their stories of faith.

I could keep going, but you get the idea. God understands that we are physical beings who need physical signs. In the same way that you and I carry around pictures of our family, we need to carry in our hearts the images of people who inspire our faith and teach us how to live.

So, go to your church, see the statues and thank God for the men and women who inspire us. For a great site on how to defend our faith, I highly recommend www.catholic.com.

It absolutely rocks!

Enjoy another day in God’s presence!