Is there such a thing as “Harmless” Idolatry?

14779551701_3ca5405fa4_oThe First Commandment given by God to Moses says:

I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them.

It is written: “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.”

14761911056_3ec1ca43f7_oNowadays most of us don’t find ourselves out in the desert melting precious metals to form the likeness of a cat, or a bull, or whatever, which we then bow down before and adore as another god. Yet, the Catholic Church rightly teaches that there is far more to idolatry than to worship graven images:

The first commandment requires us to nourish and protect our faith with prudence and vigilance, and to reject everything that is opposed to it….. (CCC 2088). 

The social duty of Christians is to respect and awaken in each man the love of the true and the good. It requires them to make known the worship of the one true religion which subsists in the Catholic and apostolic Church. Christians are called to be the light of the world. Thus the Church shows forth the kingship of Christ over all creation and in particular over human societies. (CCC 2105). 

It is under this framework that the Church states that “Human life finds its unity in the adoration of the one God” (CCC 2114) and thus that idolatry is such a grave problem for those who indulge in it: “Jesus says, ‘You cannot serve God and mammon.’ … Idolatry rejects the unique Lordship of God; it is therefore incompatible with communion with God.” (CCC 2113). 14597409667_14699ab50b_o

In the simplest terms, whenever we intentionally put anything ahead of God, we are guilty of idolatry. In our first world culture, idolatry takes on a number of forms, some of which are immediately recognizable while others require a bit more examination to properly discern.

This week I was impressed with a blog post by Msgr. Charles Pope, who writes about idolatry in the form of “service to the poor”. Anti-Catholics frequently raise the Church’s “wealth” or inclination to build “grand edifices” as a red herring argument that the Church is self-serving and avaricious with regard to the poor.

Msgr. Pope states: “Nothing, absolutely nothing, not even the service of the poor, takes precedence over the worship, honor, and obedience due to God. Nothing. If the service of the poor takes precedence over this, then it becomes an idol—an idol in sheep’s clothing—but an idol nonetheless.”

14801092223_3574f78d47_oJesus said, “What you do to the least of my brethren, you do unto me.” In essence, it is possible to worship and adore Jesus by doing to the least of these, but it never supplants the duty and honor that we owe to Jesus by following the precepts of the Church and attending holy mass. Replacing adoration and worship of Jesus with something even so laudable as service to the poor would be idolatry indeed.

If something as virtuous and charitable as caring for the poor can be a form of idolatry, exactly where does that leave us when instead of caritas, we attempt to get our fill of things without similar value — things like television, celebrity gossip, mindless tabloids and magazines, spending on consumer products like cosmetics, gadgets, wardrobe accessories, wasted time on social media, and so on?

Sadly, we are still a people wandering the desert — albeit figuratively. Consider that one clever writer asks “Would Jesus watch ‘Game of Thrones’?” and returns a surprising answer: Jesus not only would, but in fact does watch such programming, just as He watches pornography as it’s made, brutalizing the participants and killing the spiritual life of the end consumer, and just as He watches slavery and children laboring in sweatshops to make the stuff we buy. Jesus watches because He loves us, and He suffers to see us there.

14596578227_0d6f52b83a_oRather than burning incense to an ancient ancestor, how often do we elevate the celebrity or famous athlete (or a sports team) to demigod status? How often do we exhibit our devotion to the Dallas Cowboys or Oakland A’s while wearing our crucifixes under our clothes? Are we visible {insert music group here} fans but invisible Christians?

The sad part is — and I’m speaking from experience now — that the objects of our idolatry never bring us any of the joy or comfort that we expect. “I deserve it” and “I believe it will make me happy” are simply untruths whispered in our ear that will only lead to greater cravings and stronger attachments to things other than God.

Idolatry is enslavement. Whether we make ourselves, someone else, or a thing into an idol is irrelevant; the result is always the same: we return ourselves to the house of bondage. And it doesn’t matter how many shades of grey, bondage is never harmless. 

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2 thoughts on “Is there such a thing as “Harmless” Idolatry?

  1. Awesome article! It amazes me how much time and resources are spent on professional sports, especially football, which often occupies all day Sunday. The new, state-of-the-art stadiums, with all their amenities, have become temples to many. Meanwhile, churches are struggling to stay open in many places due to lack of support. I’m not judging, but the Lord sees how we use our resources which He has given to us.

  2. “Msgr. Pope states: “Nothing, absolutely nothing, not even the service of the poor, takes precedence over the worship, honor, and obedience due to God. Nothing. If the service of the poor takes precedence over this, then it becomes an idol—an idol in sheep’s clothing—but an idol nonetheless.”

    Hmmm – Jesus should have consulted Msgr. Pope before he told the story of the Good Smaritan because the priest and the levite did not stop for the poor man because most likely they were off to worship at the temple first and put the poor man in the ditch second. The Samaritan put God first by his actions rather than his lip service. Your comment above taken at face value would lead some catholics to believe that it would be wrong to help a brother in need if you were on your way to Mass. Jesus’ leaders constantly were upset with Him because He constantly seemed to break to Law. No he just knew how to obey the heart of the Law. Can’t believe people still don’t get it.

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