“Professing to be wise, they became fools.”
In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul tells us that, “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of people who suppress the truth by their unrighteousness, because what can be known about God is plain to them…through what has been made” (Rom. 1:18-20 cf. Dei Filius, 2.1). This knowledge of God is called “natural revelation” because nature (the created world) reveals God’s existence and attributes to all people. But if God is so clearly revealed by creation, then why is there so much unbelief in the world? The cause is not so much intellectual as it is willful. As St. Paul said above, people do not simply miss the truth – they suppress it. And doing so has consequences both temporal and eternal.
The problem is that the God revealed by nature is worthy of worship and obedience – neither of which sit well with people who are often “selfish, lovers of themselves” (2 Tim. 3:2) and want to act accordingly. Guilt-free disobedience of God requires disbelief in God, but God can’t be easily dismissed.
Which is why people turn to idols.
Whether made-up gods, animal carvings, other people, or mere objects of desire, idols are essentially worship of self. Idolatry makes it easy to feel religious without having to deny our desires, because idols do not truly deserve worship and obedience (nor, conveniently, do they require them). Idolatry, then, makes no sense (see Isa. 44), and its practice is therefore senseless. The foolishness of worshiping a creature rather than the creator is spelled out in Romans 1:21-32. When people willfully exchange truth for lies, the intellect (which is designed to grasp truth) becomes disordered, as does the will which steered it away from truth. But letting go of an idol would mean obedience to God, which becomes more difficult when irrational and immoral choices continue. This cycle causes the soul to become more and more disordered as it spirals down farther and farther away from both truth and goodness. At bottom, the mind itself becomes depraved – and its actions follow.
No wonder the author of the Book of Wisdom (which influenced this chapter in Romans) believed that “the worship of idols…is the beginning and cause and end of every evil” (14:27).