Our (Not So) Secret Idolatry

Words are associated with images. What images do you associate with the word “idolatry”? A golden calf being smashed when Charlton Heston pitches the Ten Commandments at it? Little figures of clay carried by Russell Crowe in the gladiator’s prison? A golden head being replaced with a bag of sand by Indiana Jones?

Our religion lessons push us a little beyond these movie images. Still, our “god” is our “object of ultimate concern,” said Protestant existentialist Paul Tillich. And we understand that we make gods out of money, pleasure, success, or power, if they became a concern more consequential than anything else in our lives.

I doubt if very many of us would confess to being idolaters. “All things must be kept in balance,” we would say. “There is nothing wrong pursuing these goods, so long as we still believe in God.” We justify our pursuits with the excuse that we have God in the mix.

But will believing in God really get us off the idolatry hook? Or is it actually a matter of liturgical justice: who deserves our worship?

Religion is a virtue because it renders God his due. When asked to whom latria (“supreme worship”) should be given, justice answers that only the Uncreated should be worshipped, not a creature.

But there is something more serious – and perhaps more common – than worshiping an image (eidolon-latria). It is worshiping ourselves: auto-latria. Autolatry is more secret and more serious than idolatry because the false god dwells within. It is us.

Various figures in the tradition attest to this.

Benedictine Abbess Cécile Bruyère, writes, “Now idolatry, if we are to believe the Apostle, is not confined to the worship of false gods. We can raise within ourselves many idols, and blindly offer sacrifice to them.” (The Spiritual Life and Prayer)

This stings a bit more. I can self-righteously except myself from the external idolatry of wicked sinners around me, but this implies that “there is an interior idolatry in every moment of life,” as François Fénelon says. “All that we love outside we love for self alone.” (Christian Perfection)

Both the belief in God and the love of God must manifest as obedience to God. That’s why spiritual writers refer to Samuel’s words to Saul, when he said: It is like the sin of witchcraft to rebel: and like the crime of idolatry to refuse to obey. (1 Samuel 15:23) One of the masters of asceticism (John Baptist Scaramelli, S.J. ) explains what Samuel meant: “The reason is, because, by disobedience, we set our own opinion and self-will above the will of God made known to us by holy obedience.”


Idolatry is similar to disobedience in this way: in the former, we adore an idol of wood or stone instead of the true God to whom adoration alone is due, and in the latter, we stray from the true rule and follow a deceitful one, which is that of our own judgment and of the maxims of the world. False adoration and false judgment are related. Right worship and righteousness are related.

God’s will must be received liturgically: i.e. with adoration.

This secret idolatry (i.e., autolatry) can go merrily hand-in-hand with religiosity because self-will and self-love camouflages itself even in acts of religion and acts of virtue. The autolater even does religion to please himself! He pretends to love God, but never to the point of self-abnegation.

Fénelon describes the situation thus. “They pretend to love Him on condition of in no ways lessening that blind self-love which becomes idolatry, and which, instead of referring to God as the End for which we are made, seeks to drag Him down to its own level, using Him as. . .a thing to help and comfort when the creature fails.”

My teacher, Aidan Kavanagh, used to define liturgy as “doing the world the way the world was meant to be done.” The opposite of this is worldliness, which takes the world and acting within it without reference to God.

Worldliness is an anti-liturgical state: it is misdirected latria. It is self-worship – the most secret idolatry of all. So Frederick William Faber describes a worldly man as someone who lives as if he will never have “to give an account of himself to a higher power.” (Creator and Creature)

What’s the point?

Doesn’t the discovery of this secret idolatry bring God into the public square? Bring a sacred concern into the secular circle? The crime of idolatry is not only committed when selecting which temple to worship in; it’s committed whenever self-will overrides divine will.

Autolatry is setting our own opinion and self-will above the will of God. About what? Not only religious matters (though autolatry is plenty active in those issues), but also things of the world.

How can we judge politics, social norms, sex, gender, the family, the unborn, the stranger, the criminal, the victim, etc., in a righteous manner if we have placed our self-will above the will of God? St. John Eudes says, “pride causes the sinner to make an idol of self, and put himself in God’s place, since he prefers himself to God when his own interests, his satisfactions, his own will and desires are at stake.” (Meditations)

Our interests, satisfactions, wills, and desires are always at stake. The spiritual problem of pride worms it way everywhere, not just into religious contexts. Whom will we worship? Will we choose ourselves over God?

That is a spiritual question, but it is asked from the heart of the world. So the external, social issues are not entirely separate from an internal, spiritual conflict, and about the latter, the Church knows something.

And she is happy to share her experience and wisdom with every society she occupies.


*Image: St. John Eudes statue (SANCTUS / JOAN(nes) EUDES) [St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome]

David W. Fagerberg is an emeritus professor of liturgical theology at the University of Notre Dame. His field is liturgical theology, and his latest book is Liturgical Dogmatics.