Pagan Catholics?

Catholics are often blamed by Evangelical Christians for being ‘pagan’. What they mean by this is that they believe, once the Catholic faith became the state religion in 315 AD that it then simply picked up it’s religion from the surrounding pagan culture and therefore Catholicism is pagan.

There are lots of examples: Christmas is supposedly a pagan mid winter celebration that was taken up by the early Christians. So was Easter. The Marian dogmas are an import from the pagan goddess religions, and the Eucharist from Mithraism. This theory isn’t limited to Catholic doctrines. Customs and clothes are all part of it too. So the Bishop’s miter is an import from the worship of Dagon the fish god. (when you look at the miter sideways it looks like the bishop has an open mouthed fish on his head…) Incense and candles–they’re in import from paganism. So is the idea of priests and sacrifice and altars and all that stuff. Statues in churches? Pure pagan idol worship. The cross itself? The ancient ‘tau’ symbol from Egypt. Praying to saints and masses for the dead? Pagan ancestor worship. You name it, if it’s Catholic, according to the Evangelicals, it’s been imported from paganism.

Of course, the problem with this method of attack is that most everything the Evangelical wants to retain from historic Christianity also has antecedents in pagan religion. The idea of an incarnate god? Runs right through Hinduism and other pagan religions. A Trinitarian god? Check out the Hindu ‘Trinity’. A Virgin birth? It’s all over in paganism. A resurrected hero? Pagan myth abounds in such ideas. A tradition of inspired prophets who preach and write books? Loads of pagan religions have them. Worship on Sunday? Pagan worship of the Sun God.

So the Evangelical must think things through at a bit more depth. He can’t have it both ways. If supposedly pagan elements are to be purged from Christianity, then they must all go. He can’t get rid of Marian dogmas because he thinks they’re pagan, but keep the incarnation. He can’t get rid of priests and sacrifices and incense but attempt to keep the Holy Trinity. He can’t jettison prayers for the dead, but keep the Virgin Birth.

In fact, the whole ‘Catholicism is pagan’ attack must undermine every aspect of historic Christianity, and it is a favorite attack of the new atheists. They see the links with paganism and dismiss the whole of Christianity with the same ‘it’s all re-branded paganism’ that the anti-Catholics use. Evangelicals should be careful of the anti-Catholic arguments they use for they will have to abandon an awful lot of their own cherished beliefs as ‘pagan in origin’ too.

In fact there is another, more sensible way. This argument is not new. C.S.Lewis was an expert in classical languages and culture. He understood very well that the pagan religions had connections with Christianity. He said it didn’t worry him. What would really worry him is if Christianity did not have any connections with paganism. He understood that the pagan religions (like Judaism, but in a different way) were fore runners of Christ. They were pointers to the greater truths of the Christian faith. The pagan religions and myths were all true, he said, but in Christ they really happened. This is the Catholic view. Paganism (with all its horrors as well as all its glories) points to the truth of the incarnation and the pagan philosophies and myths and religious practices point forward to their fulfillment in Christ and their fullest fulfillment in the Catholic faith.

Why this should come as a surprise to Christians who pride themselves on their Biblical scholarship is beyond me. Do they not realize that the Apostle John himself, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit used terminology from pagan philosophy to explain the incarnation? The ‘logos’ was a Greek philosophical term for the ‘creative power of God’. When John wrote, “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” He was borrowing from paganism. Shock horror! He’s not the only one. St Paul speaks constantly in his epistles of ‘the mystery’ that was hidden from the beginning of time and is now made manifest. He is borrowing concepts and ideas from Gnosticism and the other pagan mystery religions which were all about mystery and secret knowledge. This was not because he thought Gnosticism was true, but because he was using concepts and religious terminology familiar to those he wanted to evangelize.

Both of the Apostles use pagan ideas and transform them into Christian theology. This became a time tested method of Evangelization.  The early Christian missionaries discovered connecting points within the culture they were evangelizing and so helped the people to understand the light of Christ. Furthermore, Evangelical missionaries today do the same thing. They are instructed when going in to primitive tribes, to find connecting points within that tribe’s culture with which to explain the gospel.

That Catholicism in its fullness has always does the same helps to authenticate the Catholic faith–not invalidate it.

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  • priest’s wife

    Evangelicals have a long history of wanting things both ways- EVERYTHING in the Bible is absolutely, literally true (God created everything in 6 24-hour days) except the Eucharist- Jesus was speaking metaphorically when he said "This is my body"

  • xavier

    Fr Dwight:If we Catholics were in a mean mood, we could charge the Evangelicals with importing Islamic ideas into Christanity:a) The sola scriptura which is Islamic and not Catholicb) the rejection of ritual except for the barest minimumc) Once saved always saved d) the anti-intellectualisme) the iconoclasmf)the Bible is easy to understand and if you don't it's either because your evil, stupid or just blind to the obviousg) the tension with either downplaying sin or exaggerating itxavier

  • JM

    I think we could stand to admit not all Evangelicals are of the same ilk. Many think of "Pagan Catholics" in another sense, the one in which some think right ritual without heart engagement will save you. Hence churches full of fornicators who think random confessions nullify their essentially non-Christian lives, etc. They are "OK" because they are "Catholic," part of the right team. Louis Bouyer sympathized with their apprehension on this point. Also, I have met very few Evangelicals who think EVERYTHING in the Bible is absolutely, literally true. Priest's wife either hob-nobbs with fundamentalists or is taking a pot shot. Really, I have met more Catholics who think EVERYTHING the Pope or Rome says is infallible. The tone of response comments here on this subject just seems predictably triumphalistic. Evangelicalism has some good answers to Rome, whether you buy them or not. If it were that obvious, THEY would be Catholics, 'cause if "you don't believe it's either because you are evil, stupid or just blind to the obvious," right? How about engaging their best arguments, not their silliest? On a different front, what would be really helpful is a Catholic perspective on comments in Tim Stafford's article on the apocrypha,

  • john

    Speaking of Atheists it never ceases to amaze me on how Catholic Apologists spend so much time attacking the Bible and its sufficiency trying to undermine God's peoples trust and confidence in His infallible written Word. What if it backfires on you? What if you are successful in convincing someone that Sola Scriptura is false, that person then looks at the Roman Church and instead of becoming Roman Catholic sees its contradictions and bloody History and concludes that Christianity is a load of crp and false and either becomes an Atheist or Agnostic.

  • Fr Longenecker

    What you have said is possible John, but then I know an awful lot of people brought up as Evangelical Christians who begin thinking it through and realize that the whole system is fundamentally irrational and contrary to Scripture. to history, to tradition, and so become Catholics.I need to correct you. We do not 'attack the Bible and its sufficiency'. We love and venerate the Sacred Scriptures. What we attack is the false, unScriptural, late, human-invented Protestant doctrine of sola Scriptura.I have asked you to prove sola Scriptura from Scripture and you have not bothered to do so. If sola Scriptura is correct, then sola Scriptura should be proven from Scripture itself. Please provide that proof. If you cannot provide that proof, then be honest and re-examine your beliefs.The fact of the matter is that there are only two positions: sola Scriptura or Scripture and an extra Biblical, agreed interpretive authority. If you can prove sola Scriptura from the Scriptures (and preferably also from the early Church Fathers, then use this combox to do so. If you cannot, then you must re-examine your position.

  • john

    Fr. L To defend Sola Scriptura from both the Scriptures and the Early Fathers is difficult if not impossible to do in a Blog combox. I can only suggest that you read some books on the subject by competent Evangelical Protestant Scholars here are some suggestions.1. "Holy Scripture the Ground and Pillar of Our Faith" 3 Vols. by David T. King and William Webster. extensive quotes from the ECFS that proves that Scripture is the ONLY infallible source for Dogma and Revelation and Tradition is true only when it is in conformity with Scripture. 2. "The Divine Rule of Faith and Practice" by William Goode3. "The Shape of Sola Scriptura" by Keith MathisonAfter I read these it was all over for Rome for me with finality, these books nailed it and showed how weak and paltry Rome's "Traditions" are and proved that God's written word is truly sharper than any two-edged sword cutting Rome's arguments to shreds.You are right Fr. L, there ARE only two choices God's Mighty written infallible Word which will not return to Him void or the weak Man-Centered, Man Glorifying man-made Traditions of the Roman Church.

  • Archaeology cat

    I have ranted about similar things, Father. Being a former archaeologist who focused on religious iconography, these claims annoy me, to put it mildly. I wrote a rant about Hislop on my blog, actually. I try explaining that something having been used in pagan worship doesn't make it pagan when it is restored to being used to point to God.

  • Paul

    Mark Shea's posted a related article today, here:

  • Fr Longenecker

    Come now John, surely if Scripture is clear and simple to understand, and sola Scriptura is so important, then there must be some easy proof texts to share with us. Instead you duck for cover with three of your theologians. I'm not asking for a total defense from Protestant theologians, just simple texts from Scripture which teach sola Scriptura.Let's put the shoe on the other foot. If we're talking about the Immaculate Conception you want chapter and verse from us. But you can't provide the same when we ask you? And you're the ones who demand that everything must be proven from Scripture alone? Scripture alone, and then you turn to theologians? Why do you need those theologians if it is Scripture alone?Don't you see the total contradiction?You say, "It's Scripture and Scripture alone, but I can't prove that from Scripture, so here are three theologians."What if we offered no support at all from Scripture for the Immaculate Conception but said, "You really must read 'Ineffabilis Deus'that will explain it. Yet, when we ask you for proof of, what is after all, your foundational belief you cannot do so.Let us take our foundational belief in comparison. We believe in papal authority. Not only is the support for this a clear statement from Christ himself: "You are Peter and on this rock I will build my church" but it is supported and corroborated with the following image of Peter as steward of the kingdom who bears the keys of Christ's authority and finally, Christ the Good Shepherd handing his pastoral authority on to Peter after his resurrection.As sola Scriptura is your foundational principle surely you must be able to support it simply and clearly from Scripture.Go on. Give it another try.

  • ExcelsiorBob

    Father Dwight,I have always enjoyed GKC's exposition on this topic, from "The Catholic Church and Conversion:""What is any man who has been in the real outer world, for instance, to make of the everlasting cry that Catholic traditions are condemned by the Bible? It indicates a jumble of topsy-turvy tests and tail-foremost arguments, of which I never could at any time see the sense. The ordinary sensible sceptic or pagan is standing in the street (in the supreme character of the man in the street) and he sees a procession go by of the priests of some strange cult, carrying their object of worship under a canopy, some of them wearing high head-dresses and carrying symbolical staffs, others carrying scrolls and sacred records, others carrying sacred images and lighted candles before them, others sacred relics in caskets or cases, and so on. I can understand the spectator saying, “This is all hocus-pocus”; I can even understand him, in moments of irritation, breaking up the procession, throwing down the images, tearing up the scrolls, dancing on the priests and anything else that might express that general view. I can understand his saying, “Your croziers are bosh, your candles are bosh, your statues and scrolls and relics and all the rest of it are bosh.” But in what conceivable frame of mind does he rush in to select one particular scroll of the scriptures of this one particular group (a scroll which had always belonged to them and been a part of their hocus-pocus, if it was hocus-pocus); why in the world should the man in the street say that one particular scroll was not bosh, but was the one and only truth by which all the other things were to be condemned? Why should it not be as superstitious to worship the scrolls as the statues, of that one particular procession? Why should it not be as reasonable to preserve the statues as the scrolls, by the tenets of that particular creed? To say to the priests, “Your statues and scrolls are condemned by our common sense,” is sensible. To say, “Your statues are condemned by your scrolls, and we are going to worship one part of your procession and wreck the rest,” is not sensible from any standpoint, least of all that of the man in the street.""The Catholic Church and Conversion" (1926)

  • Mark M

    John, Catholic tradition and dogma is in conformity with Scripture. Be specific on why you believe it is not (i.e. provide details).

  • Marija

    Whenever I mention to family members that I plan to unite with the Catholic Church, they all recoil in horror with "Catholics worship Mary! That is pagan." They have chosen to believe this from what they have heard or read. I wish more people would read about Mary from a Catholic perspective just to see what Catholics really believe about her, but no, most people who believe this will never try to read or ask further. I have read Fr. Longenecker's excellent book, MORE CHRISTIANITY, and have passed it on to my kinfolk so they will not remain fearful of my plans to unite with the Catholic Church at the Easter 2011 Vigil. The book is gentle leaven.

  • Dr. Eric

    Fr. Longenecker,You forgot other pagan uses that Protestants are quite willing to use such as: a 365 day calendar- many pagan cultures did this, the names of the days of the week (named for Norse and one Roman god), wearing the wedding ring on the fourth digit (the ring finger) which is the one the Romans believed connected to the heart, dividing the day into 24 hours as the Babylonian mystery religions did, having 60 seconds in a minute and 60 minutes in an hour also was a Babylonian mystery religious practice based on Greek geometry (60 I considered a magic number as there are many many ways to divide it equally), I could go on but I'll stop there.

  • Marilyn

    J.R.R. Tolkien’s “On Fairy-Stories” is a great read. Truth is often disguised in metaphoric fairy tales and he argues that the Gospel is most proven by its being the most desirable and effective narrative ever written, an alpha-omega fairy tale.

  • Ismael

    @ XavierYes, but unlike evangelicals we do NOT need to do that.We have the truth on our side, we don't need to make contious (ignorant) accusations and smear campains to prove our point, we just need to point at the facts.I find quite sad that many Christians in the protestant churches are indoctrinated into hating other Christians just because.—"" Evangelicalism has some good answers to Rome, whether you buy them or not.""Hardly.""If it were that obvious, THEY would be Catholics, 'cause if "you don't believe it's either because you are evil, stupid or just blind to the obvious," right? How about engaging their best arguments, not their silliest? ""First of all many evangelicals are indoctrinated to think the Catholic Church is evil.Most of them do NOT know what the Catholic Church teaches, but only know the lies that other evangelicals tell them about the Catholic Church.In fact many Evangelicals who DO learn the true teachings of the Catholic Church, often convert to it.—————-@John""What if you are successful in convincing someone that Sola Scriptura is false, that person then looks at the Roman Church and instead of becoming Roman Catholic sees its contradictions and bloody History and concludes that Christianity is a load of crp and false and either becomes an Atheist or Agnostic.""Nonsense.Many protestants do convert to the Church after knowing it.It's more probabile that they become agnostic because of the disillusionment often one encounters in protestant circles (like smearing with accusation all who do not belong to their own church)

  • john

    Since the topic of this thread is "Pagan Catholics" I will stay on topic. I never said Roman Catholics are pagans. What I said was and want to re-emphasize that many RC Dogmas were a result of BOTH Pagan religion and worldly human Philosophy, Platonism, neo-Platonism, and later in the Middle ages Aristotelian and Nominalist Philosophy. St. Paul warned Christians against human wisdom and Philosophy and elemental principles of the world and not according to Christ. For example the Roman idea that revelation comes through both the written Word of God and "unwritten Tradition" was the exact same line of reasoning the Gnostics used, that in order to "understand" the written Scriptures one also needed the "unwritten oral Tradition" handed on through a succession of "wise enlightened teachers".

  • Fr Longenecker

    John, did you actually read the original post?My point is that you can't blame Catholicism for being influenced by paganism without undermining plenty of ordinary Christian doctrines that you, yourself wish to uphold.The Incarnation, Virgin Birth, Holy Trinity, the prophetic tradition, the Ascension, the Resurrection, Baptism, the Eucharist…All of these, it could be argued, have precedents in ancient pagan religions.Why should the 'Catholic' doctrines and practices be 'influenced by paganism' but the other Christian doctrines you hold to be miraculously free of such influence?Do me the honor of reading the whole post carefully and see if you can grasp my point.Also, why have you declined to answer my previous comment? You expect us to come up with Scriptural support for doctrines like the Immaculate Conception, but you offer none for sola Scriptura.You say, 'Scripture is sufficient alone!' but when we ask you for Scriptural support you offer us three Protestant theologians instead of Scripture!This would be like you saying, "Give Scriptural support for the Immaculate Conception" and we say, "You must read St Louis de Montfort…

  • Suburbanbanshee

    Paul quoted that bit about "live and move and have our being" from a pagan poet. Will you take Paul's position — that this was a gleam of the Holy Spirit in a piece of pagan poetry, and belonged to Christians by right — or will you reject it and never quote it again, despite it being in the Bible?If it turned out that, say, wrenches were invented by pagans, would you reject wrenches? Or would you regard wrenches as a gift given by God to the world through pagans, and use the wrench as a tool to build Christian things to the glory of God?Philosophical theories are tools of thought. If they are useful and true and beautiful, they are gifts given to the world by Truth Himself. Early Christians delighted to give glory to Jesus Christ the Truth by looking for Him wherever He could be found — and using what they found as a tool to build new Christian things. You seem to propose that when we find Truth in a pagan place, we bury Him in an ignominious tomb and bar the door behind Him. :)In which case, you shouldn't be talking theology at all, because theology was a Christian synthesis of Jewish study of Scripture and pagan study of philosophy. Neither source expected that God would tell you more about Himself if you just inquired into the truth of things; Christianity expected that Truth (who had revealed Himself already) wanted you to understand the whole nature of God the same way He wanted us to understand His explanation of the Scriptures at Emmaus. The books of the world were as open to study and unfolding as the books of the OT (and later, NT).

  • Shaughn

    Fr. L,John's claim is even worse than you're demonstrating with elements of Christian culture that have similarities found in other religions or cultures.Several sections of The New Testament depend on a metaphysical system which isn't biblical in origin at all — that of Platonism. We can only comprehend the Epistle to the Hebrews' language about a temple in Jerusalem and a heavenly temple which is superior, to give but one example, if we buy into Plato's Realist system of metaphysics and universals. When Protestants insist on the sort of sola scriptura you describe, they in fact render the New Testament not fully comprehensible in several key passages.

  • xavier

    Ismael:You're right. I said if we were in a mean mood. Personally, I favour reasoning with them since the Evangelicals do take argument seriously because they love the truth.

  • Andy

    "Pagan Catholics?… A bit like saying "Christian Atheists" me thinks. I believe that much of this notion stems from two sources, the first being the fact that a frightning majority of subscribers to American evangelicalism walk around with a notion that the Church was born when Moody or Billy Sunday rolled into town, or somewhere on Azuza ST. As they're woefully ignorant of their own belief and practice, they're hardly in a place to critique the church across the Tiber. Too, I believe that sadly, their image of the Roman Catholicism has been tarnished by trogs the likes of Jack Chick and Alberto Rivera and their ilk.

  • radio45

    This may be far away from the original post, but let me state that Protestantism is not bad for Christianity and has a place in God's plan of salvation and evangelism. That said, Protestants get 2 things totally wrong, the role of Mary in the Church and the role of the Eucharist. If you reread Scripture in a Catholic perspective regarding these beliefs, Scripture takes on a whole new meaning and perspective. Scripture reinforces Catholicism. It does not defy it. In fact if you reread Scripture with the Catholic tradition in mind you will find that the teaching of Mary and the Eucharist are the foundational glue that bind Old and New Testament together. And if the Church is right about that, maybe the Church is right about other things as well. But I know there are some who can never accept the Catholic teaching on anything, and that must be part of God's plan as well.