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What is idolatry and how does it break the First Commandment?

what-is-idolatry-and-how-does-it-break-the-first-commandmentThe First Commandment prohibits idolatry, the worship of false gods. In ancient times, people worshiped created things such as the sun, moon, stars, trees, bulls, eagles, and serpents. In some cases, emperors and kings were considered divine, and worship of them was expected.

Israel was forbidden to make images of God: Do not “degrade yourselves by fashioning an idol to represent any figure” (Dt 4:16). This injunction against “graven images” was based on the conviction that God is greater and more mysterious than any artistic representation of him. It also restrained Israel from carving idols like the pagans and lapsing into idolatry. But the people of Israel could make images that symbolically pointed toward salvation by the Messiah, such as the bronze serpent, the Ark of the Covenant, and the cherubim (cf. CCC, no. 2130).

Christians, however, have been permitted to fashion religious art. The veneration of icons—religious images of Christ, Mary, the angels, and the saints—was upheld by the seventh Ecumenical Council at Nicea (AD 787), in opposition to the iconoclasts—those who rejected the use of religious images such as statues, paintings, and mosaics. The fact that, in the Incarnation, Christ took on human nature provided the foundation for the Church’s tradition that artistic images such as icons can portray mysteries of salvation. Whoever venerates a holy image venerates the person portrayed. This veneration of Mary and the saints—and images of them—differs from the adoration that belongs to God alone.

Today idolatry has emerged in new forms, whenever something created is given absolute value. Examples of where this happens include power, money, materialism, and sports. Also, those who resort to astrology, palm reading, and interpretation of omens by mediums, clairvoyants, and others who claim to control time and history weaken their faith in God, lapse into superstition, and sometimes fall into sin. Those who get involved with cults or the occult (e.g., magic, witchcraft, Satanism) open themselves to evil influence, undermine their faith in the true God, and commit sin.

Some contemporary individuals turn to a New Age spirituality. This spirituality does not have a doctrinal basis but reflects many religious strands from the non-Christian East, various occult practices like astrology, and some insights from psychology. Practitioners tend to abandon doctrinal teaching on the Trinity, Jesus Christ, the Church, and the sacraments. They also ignore the moral teaching of God and the Church.

You can read more from the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults, order your own copy, or read questions about it at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops website.

Copyright © 2006, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, D.C. All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the copyright holder.