Some Protestants still charge Catholics with worshiping statues, because Catholics have statues in their churches and kneel before them. This, they say, violates the commandment that "you shall not make for yourself a graven image or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in earth beneath, or that is in water under the earth: you shall not bow down to them or serve them" (Ex. 20:4-5).
The first mistake that these Protestants make is to say it is wrong to make statues and images. God actually commanded the Israelites to make statues: "And you shall make two cherubim of gold, of hammered work shall you make them, on the two ends of the mercy seat" (Ex. 25:18-20); "the golden chariot of the cherubim that spread their wings and covered the ark of the covenant of the Lord" (1 Chr. 28:18-19); "on the walls round about in the inner room and the nave were carved likenesses of cherubim" (Ez. 41:15).
And there is a Biblical example of the religious use of an image, as God said to Moses: "‘make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and every one who is bitten, when he sees it shall live.' So Moses made a bronze serpent, and set it on a pole; and if a serpent bit any man, he would look at the bronze serpent and live" (Num. 21:8-9). Here we have an example of a statue being used religiously. They were not worshiping the statue by making use of it. This is demonstrated by the fact that when they did worship it (they gave it a name, thereby making a god out of it like the pagans whom they were surrounded by did) the king had it destroyed (2 Kgs. 18:4).
So what does this passage from Exodus mean? The passage from Exodus refers to idolatry–the worship of statues–rather than the Catholic practice of the veneration of images. An idol was seen as a god in itself, thereby making the statue worthy of worship. Of course, Catholics know that statues are not gods. So the making of statues was never condemned, only the making of idols for the purpose of worshiping these statues as deities.
If all statues were prohibited, then it would be wrong to make statues of public figures, or any other statues for that matter. In fact, since statues are simply three-dimensional images, it follows that it would also be wrong to paint portraits or take pictures. But Protestants fear statues because even though they may be used properly, it reminds them too much of pagan idolatry.
Catholics do not worship or even honor statues. They know statues are just marble or plaster, made to resemble Jesus or a saint, and no Catholic pays homage to such things. In fact, it would be more appropriate to say Catholics venerate Jesus and the saints through images, rather than venerate images.
An image serves as a reminder of what the image represents, so it has a representational or symbolic value. Protestants can even appreciate this. When soldiers salute the flag, they do not do it to honor a strip of colored fabric. They do it in honor of the nation represented by the flag.
The veneration we give to images are outward gestures that reflect internal veneration directed solely to the person represented by the image. The veneration given to images–kneeling before them, kissing them, praying in front of them–are not intended to be received by the images, but are directed to the person the image represents, just as the man who kisses the photograph of his wife is expressing his love for his wife, and not to cardboard. Images are used as an aid to prayer and devotion, because these images make Jesus and the Saints seem more real and present to us, just as pictures of loved ones do. All acts of veneration given to the image redounds to the prototype. Among idolaters, it is given to the statue proper.
Some Protestants argue against the veneration given to images by citing Deuteronomy 5:9: "You shall not bow down to them [idols]." Since Catholics bow or kneel before images, they say, they are in violation of this command. But bowing is not always an act of worship. In some Eastern countries, for instance, bowing is the equivalent of the Western practice of shaking hands. In the Bible, kneeling was simply a sign of honor or respect: "He himself went on before them, bowing himself to the ground seven times, until he came near to his brother. But Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his knees and kissed him, and they wept" (Gen. 33, 3-4). "Now when the sons of the prophets who were at Jericho saw him over against them, they said, ‘The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha.' And they came to meet him, and bowed to the ground before him" (2 Kgs. 2, 15). Deuteronomy 5 prohibits idol worship, not the veneration of images.
Protestants also say that the prohibition of idols has been deliberately deleted from the Catholic version of the Ten Commandments because Catholics indulge in the practice. But Catholics delete the prohibition against idols because that commandment is really covered a verse earlier, when God commanded: "You shall have no other Gods before me" (Ex. 20:3). The worship of idols does place other gods before the Lord, so making a separate commandment for the worship of idols would be repetitive and unnecessary. The same grouping was made by Martin Luther in his version of the Ten Commandments. There are many ways to "group" the Ten Commandments. Some Protestants, of course, group them differently.
Some Protestants appeal to Deuteronomy 4:15-18, which says "since you saw no form on the day that the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, beware lest you act corruptly by making a graven image for yourselves, in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any beast that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the air, the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the water under the earth." They try to use this text to "prove" the prohibition of statues and images.
God does not forbid the likeness of creatures (angels, snakes, etc.) to be made into images (1 Kings 6:29-32; 8:6-67; 2 Chr. 3:7-14). But how about images of God? Protestants say it is wrong to make images of God, because God said: "Since you saw no form (of God) beware lest you act corruptly by making a graven image for yourselves, in the form of any figure" (Deut. 4:15-18).
This was a command given when God had not yet made Himself visible. The Israelites would have been tempted to fall into the same type of idol worship that those around them committed had they made images of God. Once God had revealed Himself visibly, "As I looked, thrones were placed and one that was Ancient of Days took his seat; his raiment was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool; his throne was fiery flames, its wheels were burning fire" (Dan. 7:9), it was acceptable to depict God in the forms He had revealed Himself. Jesus, of course, appeared visibly, and the Holy Spirit appeared as a dove (Matt. 3:16, Mark 1:10, Luke 3:22, John 1:32), and as tongues of fire (Acts 2:1-4).
Are Catholics guilty of idolatry? No. In fact, while upholding the proper veneration given to images, the Church has always condemned idolatry–at Nicaea II, at Trent, and today (CCC 2112).