Adapted from Francisco J. Romero Carrasquillo, "Aquinas’ Reception of John of Damascus’ Philosophy of Religious Worship," (forthcoming).
You can download the original paper (draft) from my Academia.edu page.
Protestants have always accused Catholics of "worshipping images." The standard response of Catholic apologists is simply to deny the charge, and instead respond that we really just 'venerate' the images. This type of response is not only grossly insufficient, but actually runs afoul of the language of our tradition, as expressed in the writings of the saints. For example, a Protestant can easily search through St. Thomas and find him saying that we do adore images. When a Protestant brings this up to an untrained Catholic apologist, the apologist usually has nothing intelligent to say in reply.
In order to solve this puzzle, let's do what we do best: "Go to Thomas" (Ite ad Thomam).
In order to solve this puzzle, let's do what we do best: "Go to Thomas" (Ite ad Thomam).
According to St. Thomas, the first and most important of the exterior acts of religion (religio), i.e., of the virtue of worship (ST IIa-IIae, q. 81-100) is that of ‘adoration’ (adoratio). The terminology here can be misleading. We might be inclined to think of 'adoration' as simply being synonymous with ‘worship’, the kind of reverence that is reserved to God alone. But Aquinas, who in this regard simply follows the received tradition, together with its complex and sophisticated theological language, already has a particular Latin term for divine worship, namely, látria (from the Greek, λατρεία, latréia). Adoratio for Aquinas means concretely any kind of a physical humbling of the body, such as genuflections, prostrations, bowing down, etc., before something sacred or something that is worthy of respect or veneration. As such, adoratio signifies primarily a physical act comprising a set of bodily postures. Within the context of divine worship, these acts of adoratio are of course done as signs of an interior attitude of latria, but in themselves they are physical acts. This is how it can be explained why we find St. Thomas saying that Catholics can and should 'adore' images.
But the problem is deeper than that. We actually find him saying that we should offer latria to images. Yes, the worship due to God alone, should be given to images. Why?
One of the most important practical points that St. Thomas makes in Christology is that Christ’s humanity, though in itself created, is deserving of the ‘adoration of latria’ in virtue of its Hypostatic or Personal Union with the Second Person of the Trinity: “the adoration of latria is not given to Christ’s humanity by reason of itself, but by reason of divinity to which it is united.”[i] This is in contrast to the ‘adoration of dulia’, which is the kind of veneration given to the Saints and their relics, and that of hyperdulia, which is given to the Mother of God.
Yet, perhaps surprisingly, the humanity of Christ is not the only creature which is in some way deserving of latria. There are other created things that are formally associated with Christ's humanity and thus are themselves deserving of latria (without this entailing the sin of idolatry): these are the true Cross of Christ—the actual historical instrument of Christ’s passion—as well as any image or icon of Christ. By ‘icons’ or images we mean any pictorial representation of Christ, or of the Cross of Christ, whether in fresco form, or mosaics, “made of colors, pebbles, any other material that is fit, set in the holy churches of God, on holy utensils and vestments, on walls and boards, in houses and in streets,” in the words of the Second Council of Nicaea (AD 787), which addressed the issue of Iconoclasm, the anti-icon heresy that crept into the Church due to nascent Islam's hatred of religious imagery.[iv]
And interestingly, in another text, Aquinas relies again on St. John Damascene for a quote by St. Basil on this point. “Damascene quotes Basil as saying: ‘The honor given to an image reaches to the prototype,’ that is, the exemplar. But the exemplar itself, namely, Christ, is to be adored with the adoration of latria; therefore also His image.”[v] What follows this quote is a remarkable text, where Aquinas uses Aristotelian semiotics as a basic premise to address to the issue on his own terms:
As the Philosopher says in the book De Memoria et Reminiscentia, there is a twofold movement of the mind towards an image: one indeed towards the image itself as a certain thing; another, towards the image insofar as it is the image of something else. And between these movements there is this difference; that the former, by which one is moved towards an image as a certain thing, is different from the movement towards the thing: whereas the latter movement, which is towards the image as an image, is one and the same as that which is towards the thing. Thus therefore we must say that no reverence is shown to Christ’s image, as a thing, for instance, carved or painted wood: because reverence is not due save to a rational creature. It follows therefore that reverence should be shown to it only insofar as it is an image. Consequently the same reverence should be shown to Christ’s image as to Christ Himself. Since, therefore, Christ is adored with the adoration of latria, it follows that His image should be adored with the adoration of latria.[vi]
In other words, we can think of an image in two ways: as a thing in itself, or as a sign. When we think of it as a thing in itself, we do not necessarily treat it as we treat the object of which it is a sign, but when we do think of it as a sign, we treat it in the same way as we treat the object of which it is a sign. For example, if I look at a picture of my wife, it is entirely reasonable for me to point to the picture and say “I love her.” No one would think that what I mean is that I love the picture itself, qua inanimate object. All of my affection in this case is directed at the person of my wife, almost as though the picture were not involved. I do not give the picture itself a different kind of love from the love I give my wife. To paraphrase Basil and Damascene, my attitude towards the image is directed at the exemplar. Hence, it matters not whether I point to the picture and say “I love her” or actually point to my wife and say “I love her”: it is the same love that is expressed in both cases. Aquinas is saying that similarly, in the case of religious worship, it matters not whether the latria given to Christ is given to Him directly or by means of an image or icon: it is latria all the same. The worship given is not directed at the image in itself as a thing, but to Christ through the image, the latter being only a sign that leads the mind to Christ.
Given this doctrine on the adoration of images, Aquinas has now the trouble of explaining why, even though in the Hebrew Scriptures the use of images was forbidden in worship, the prohibition nonetheless no longer applies since the coming of Christ. He cannot simply claim that the prohibition is only of adoring images, and that Christians only venerate them, as many contemporary Christians would argue. Rather, he is committed to the doctrine that images of Christ are deserving of latria. His response focuses instead on the doctrine of the twofold movement of the mind towards an image, affirming that whereas in the case of Old Testament idolatry, the adoration of images was adoration of the gods of the gentiles, where since the coming of Christ the adoration of images is of God Himself made man.
[B]ecause, as was said above, the movement towards the image is the same as the movement towards the thing, adoration of images is forbidden in the same way as adoration of the thing whose image it is. Therefore here we are to understand the prohibition to adore those images which the Gentiles made for the purpose of venerating their own gods.... But no corporeal image could be made of the true God Himself, since He is incorporeal; because, as Damascene says, “It is the highest absurdity and impiety to make a figure of what is Divine.” But because in the New Testament, God was made man, He can be adored in His corporeal image.[vii]
In other words, according to Aquinas, the great difference between the Judaism and Christianity in regards to the adoration of images is that in Judaism, God cannot be represented in imagery because God is strictly incorporeal, but in Christianity God is believed to have taken human flesh and it is therefore possible not only to represent Him, but also to worship him, through imagery.
A few points on the reception of this doctrine in later Catholic theology are in order here. This analysis of the use of images in worship, which Aquinas shares not only with Damascene, but also with other prominent 13th Century sources such as Albert, Bonaventure, and the Summa Fratris Alexandri, is not standard within modern Catholic theology. Later Catholic theologians such as Bellarmine, Bossuet, and Petavius taught that the proper attitude due to religious images is not that of latria, but a veneration along the lines of dulia.[viii] And this latter opinion has become a commonplace in contemporary Catholic theology, catechesis, and especially apologetics. And yet, rather inconsistently, John Damascene and Aquinas are still frequently used as reference points on the issue. For example, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (AD 1992) teaches that “[t]he honor paid to sacred images is a ‘respectful veneration’ (reverens veneratio), not the adoration (adoratio) due to God alone.”[ix] Rather astonishingly, right after making this statement, the Catechism immediately quotes Aquinas' words for support:
The cultus of religio is not rendered to images as considered in themselves, as things, but insofar as they are images leading to God incarnate. Now the movement directed to an image insofar as it is an image does not stop at the image itself, but tends towards that of which it is an image.[x]
Although the quote in the Catechism ends here, the text of St. Thomas continues: “Hence neither latria nor the virtue of religion is differentiated by the fact that religious worship is paid to the images of Christ.”[xi] Clearly, this text points to an account of the use of images in worship that is at odds with what the Catechism teaches in the preceding line, since the basic idea in this text of Aquinas is that the same latria is given to the image of Christ as to Christ Himself.
Some Thomists and commentators have used the language of ‘relative latria’, to describe the worship due to an image of Christ. This terminology should not lead us to think that the latria offered to the image is of a different sort from the latria given to Christ. The image is indeed being given latria in relation to Christ, Who is the terminus of the one movement of latria; but as Aquinas says, it is one movement of the mind that tends to both the image of Christ and to Christ Himself, one and the same latria being offered to both.
The take-home message is that we do adore images (i.e., we bow down to them, kneel before them, etc.). But 'adoring' in this sense refers to just an exterior religious act. The inner religious act that is expressed outwardly in adoration depends on what the image is of. If the image is of Christ, then, yes, we give latria to the image; or more precisely, to Christ in the image. We do not give latria to the image simply because it is an image, but because it is an image of Christ, the God-man. And if the image is of a saint, then we give dulia to the image, or rather to the saint in the image. And in the case of images of Our Lady, it is hyperdulia. There is nothing wrong with doing this: it is the same movement of the mind that is directed to the image and to the person in the image. Christ is thus deserving of the same latria, or worship, whether in person or in an image. To do otherwise would amount to a misuse of images.
So let us be traditional Catholics. Let us not feel pressured by un-Catholic (ultimately Protestant) cultural sensibilities to miss the importance and value of Catholic iconography, religious sculpture, and sacred art in general. Let us confidently adore Christ in our icons and statues. And venerate our Saints in our images. That is why these sacramentals fill our churches (or should fill them). They are there as a powerful religious resource, and not as a 'mere symbol' or decoration. The Church has so much confidence in them as powerful sacramentals, as "windows to heaven," that she dedicated a whole Ecumenical Council to defending them.
The Eastern Churches have the beautiful tradition of celebrating this council, "The Triumph of Orthodoxy" as they call it, in their liturgies every year on the first Sunday of Great Lent by processing around their churches holding icons up high. It is quite a spectacle to behold. Let us imitate them in defending the faith through these wonderful trophies of the Incarnation.
[i] ST III.25.2 ad 1: “Adoratio latriae non exhibetur humanitati Christi ratione sui ipsius, sed ratione divinitatis cui unitur.”
[ii] Ibid. s.c.: “Adoratio latriae non exhibetur humanitati Christi ratione sui ipsius, sed ratione divinitatis cui unitur.”
[iii] Ibid., c.: “Sed quia, ut dicit Damascenus, si dividas subtilibus intelligentiis quod videtur ab eo quod intelligitur, inadorabilis est ut creatura, scilicet adoratione latriae. Et tunc sic intellectae ut separatae a Dei verbo, debetur sibi adoratio duliae, non cuiuscumque, puta quae communiter exhibetur aliis creaturis; sed quadam excellentiori, quam hyperduliam vocant.”
[iv] Second Council of Nicaea (Denzinger 302 ; Mansi 12, 377D): “tam quae de coloribus et tessellis, quam quae ex alia materia congruenter in sanctis Dei ecclesiis, et sacris vasis et vestibus, et in parietibus ac tabulis, domibus et viis....”
[v] ST III.25.3 s.c.: “Damascenus inducit Basilium dicentem, imaginis honor ad prototypum pervenit, idest exemplar. Sed ipsum exemplar, scilicet Christus, est adorandus adoratione latriae. Ergo et eius imago.”
[vi] ST III.25.3c: “Respondeo dicendum quod, sicut philosophus dicit, in libro de Mem. et Remin., duplex est motus animae in imaginem, unus quidem in imaginem ipsam secundum quod est res quaedam; alio modo, in imaginem inquantum est imago alterius. Et inter hos motus est haec differentia, quia primus motus, quo quis movetur in imaginem prout est res quaedam, est alius a motu qui est in rem, secundus autem motus, qui est in imaginem inquantum est imago, est unus et idem cum illo qui est in rem. Sic igitur dicendum est quod imagini Christi inquantum est res quaedam, puta lignum sculptum vel pictum, nulla reverentia exhibetur, quia reverentia debetur non nisi rationali naturae. Relinquitur ergo quod exhibeatur ei reverentia solum inquantum est imago. Et sic sequitur quod eadem reverentia exhibeatur imagini Christi et ipsi Christo. Cum igitur Christus adoretur adoratione latriae, consequens est quod eius imago sit adoratione latriae adoranda.”
[vii] ST III.25.3 ad 1: “Et quia, sicut dictum est, idem est motus in imaginem et in rem, eo modo prohibetur adoratio quo prohibetur adoratio rei cuius est imago. Unde ibi intelligitur prohiberi adoratio imaginum quas gentiles faciebant in venerationem deorum suorum.... Ipsi autem Deo vero, cum sit incorporeus, nulla imago corporalis poterat poni, quia, ut Damascenus dicit, insipientiae summae est et impietatis figurare quod est divinum. Sed quia in novo testamento Deus factus est homo, potest in sua imagine corporali adorari.”
[ix] Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 2132: “Honor sanctis imaginibus tributus est reverens veneratio, non adoratio quae soli Deo convenit.”
[x] ST II-II.81.3 ad 3: “Imaginibus non exhibetur religionis cultus secundum quod in seipsis considerantur, quasi res quaedam: sed secundum quod sunt imagines ducentes in Deum incarnatum. Motus autem qui est in imaginem prout est imago, non sistit in ipsa, sed tendit in id cuius est imago.”
[xi] Ibid.: “Et ideo ex hoc quod imaginibus Christi exhibetur religionis cultus, non diversificatur ratio latriae, nec virtus religionis.”