In passing to a detailed examination of the Catholic doctrine on this subject of the cult due to the Cross, it will be well to notice the theories of Brock, the Abbé Ansault, le Mortillet, and others who pretend to have discovered that cult among the pagans before the time of Christ. For a demonstration of the purely Christian origin of the Christian devotion the reader is referred to ARCHAEOLOGY OF THE CROSS AND CRUCIFIX. See also the works of Harlay, Lafargue, and others cited at the end of this section. With reference, in particular, to the ansated cross of Egypt, Letronne, Raoul-Rochette, and Lajard discuss with much learning the symbolism of that simple hieroglyphic of life, in which the Christians of Egypt seem to have recognized an anticipatory revelation of the Christian Cross, and which they employed in their monuments. According to the text of the Second Council of Nicæa cited above, the cult of the Cross is based upon the same principles as that of relics and images in general, although, to be sure, the True Cross holds the highest place in dignity among all relics. The observation of Petavius (XV, xiii, 1) should be noted here: that this cult must be considered as not belonging to the substance of religion, but as being one of the adiaphora, or things not absolutely necessary to salvation. Indeed, while it is of faith that this cult is useful, lawful, even pious and worthy of praise and of encouragement, and while we are not permitted to speak against it as something pernicious, still it is one of those devotional practices which the church can encourage, or restrain, or stop, according to circumstances. This explains how the veneration of images was forbidden to the Jews by that text of Exodus (xx, 4 sqq.) which has been so grossly abused by Iconoclasts and Protestants: “Thou shalt not make to thyself a graven thing, nor the likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or in the earth beneath, nor of those things that are in the waters under the earth. Thou shalt not adore them, nor serve them: I am the Lord thy God,” etc. It also explains the fact that in the first ages of Christianity, when converts from paganism were so numerous, and the impression of idol-worship was so fresh, the Church found it advisable not to permit the development of this cult of images; but later, when that danger had disappeared, when Christian traditions and Christian instinct had gained strength, the cult developed more freely. Again, it should be noted that the cult of images and relics is not that of latria, which is the adoration due to God alone, but is, as the Second Council of Nicæa teaches, a relative veneration paid to the image or relic and referring to that which it represents. Precisely this same doctrine is repeated in Sess. XXV of the Council of Trent: “Images are not to be worshipped because it is believed that some divinity or power resides in them and that they must be worshipped on that account, or because we ought to ask anything of them, or because we should put our trust in them, as was done by the gentiles of old who placed their hope in idols but because the honour which is shown to them is referred to the prototypes which they represent; so that through the images which we kiss, and before which we kneel, we may adore Christ, and venerate the saints, whose resemblances they bear.” (See also IMAGES.)
This clear doctrine, which cuts short every objection, is also that taught by Bellarmine, by Bossuet, and by Petavius. It must be said, however, that this view was not always so clearly taught. Following Bl. Albertus Magnus and Alexander of Hales, St. Bonaventure St. Thomas, and a, section of the Schoolmen who appear to have overlooked the Second Council of Nicæa teach that the worship rendered to the Cross and the image of Christ is that of latria, but with a distinction: the same worship is due to the image and its exemplar but the exemplar is honoured for Himself (or for itself), with an absolute worship; the image because of its exemplar, with a relative worship. The object of the adoration is the same, primary in regard to the exemplar and secondary in regard to the image. To the image of Christ, then, we owe a worship of latria as well as to His Person. The image, in fact, is morally one with its prototype, and, thus considered, if a lesser degree of worship be rendered to the image, that worship must reach the exemplar lessened in degree. Against this theory an attack has recently been made in “The Tablet”, the opinion attributed to the Thomists being sharply combated. Its adversaries have endeavoured to prove that the image of Christ should be venerated but with a lesser degree of honour than its exemplar.
The cult paid to it, they say, is simply analogous to the cult of latria, but in its nature different and inferior. No image of Christ, then, should be honoured with the worship of latria, and, moreover, the term “relative latria“, invented by the Thomists, ought to be banished from theological language as equivocal and dangerous.– Of these opinions the former rests chiefly upon consideration of pure reason, the latter upon ecclesiastical tradition, notably upon the Second Council of Nicæa and its confirmation by the Fourth Council of Constantinople and upon the decree of the Council of Trent. 1914 Catholic Encyclopedia
The original author of this blog passed away in July of 2016. RIP Father Carota.