Is Catholicism Pagan?

I’ve enjoyed welcoming a good number of new readers to the blog since coming over to Patheos. The comment box has been filled with lively discussion, and I always enjoy attracting some of the err, more eccentric readers who are out there. Here’s a comment in response to a picture post I had of Pope Benedict.

What nonsense – the Pope is a demonstration of the old fish hat from Philistine times and the worship of Mithras the mythical son of the sun god who died and rose on the third day know as “the Son of God”, “the Saviour”, “the Lord of Lords”, “the Good Shepard”, “the way the truth and the light”, “the redeemer” and “the Angel of Light”. Mithras’ disciples were baptised in his blood which magically washed away their sins and obtained them a ticket to nirvana if they simply believed. Perhaps Catholics should learn more about the 13 catacombs below the Vatican where the Illuminati are indicted in another sort of sacrifice… or the ET skulls that were found when they renovated the Vatican’s library… any idiot that thinks they can obtain some benefit from murdering another being in a bloody sacrifice as got to be insane… The Truth Will Set You Free and the Vatican’s evil empire is about to implode.

Geesh! I hardly know where to start! ET skulls that were found when they renovated the Vatican’s library? Where are they? But then they wouldn’t exist anymore would they– because the Vatican in cahoots with the One World Government covered it up!! You can read all about it here, and remember it was on the internet so it must be true! And remember…when there’s no evidence for a conspiracy theory that just goes to show how effective their cover up is.

Readers who are not totally initiated in the arcane mysteries of the “Catholicism is just old paganism warmed up” conspiracy theory may not pick up the reference to the “old fish hat from Philistine times”. This is the fascinating theory that the bishop’s miter is a pagan carry over from the garb of the Philistine priests of Dagon from Old Testament times. The theory was developed from a picture which is supposed to be an ancient drawing of a priest of Dagon. Never mind that the Philistines didn’t do art like that or that the religion of Dagon died out thousands of years before Christianity. But if you’re a conspiracy nut you mustn’t let facts confuse you. I’ve written more about the Dagon priest-Bishop’s miter link here.

Protestants of the more extreme variety have always tried to condemn Catholicism as being paganism warmed up. Tenuous links with ancient religious practices and images are tied together with the conspiracy theorist’s usual wide eyed ingenuity. Linguistic links that seem to make sense (until you study the history of language) are woven together to build up a case that ancient paganism evolved into Catholicism. In fact there are links between Christianity and paganism, just as there are links between Judaism and Christianity. What they don’t stop to ask is whether this matters or not. Catholics put flowers in front of the image of Mary. Hindus present flower offerings to their gods. Does this mean Catholicism is derived from Hinduism? Do Catholics make pagan flower offerings or is it simply that it’s kind of nice to have flowers around the place? They smell nice and they look pretty. This post explores the issue further.

The fact of the matter is, there are some elements of Catholic thought and religious practice that connect with paganism. But that does not necessarily prove a causal relationship. Just because two things are similar does not mean that one influenced the other. Furthermore, Protestants who protest at “paganism” in Catholicism will have to answer to the fact that there are “pagan elements” in the things they believe and do. Shall we equate their baptism by immersion to the “baptism” of the followers of Mithras? Shall we equate their belief in the Virgin Birth with the Virgin Birth of Horus the Egyptian deity? For that matter, is their reliance on their Holy Book make them the same as Muslims?

Similarities do not prove a causal connection, nor do they prove that a particular practice or image or belief is untrue or wrong. Like the Hindus who put flowers in their temple, so religious people from many different cultures and religions do similar things and have similar beliefs. Different tribes from around the world worshipped the Sun. It’s a perfectly reasonable thing to do, given the knowledge they had. When the Christians built their churches facing East were they secretly worshipping the Sun god like pagans or was the answer more mundane? Maybe what they said they were doing is the obvious and clear answer: “Our churches face East toward the rising sun because we are worshipping the Son of God who rose in Jerusalem and is the Light of the World.” There may be links between Christianity and paganism, but does that mean Christianity is wrong or that paganism was right?

What I mean is this: Every religion–paganism included–is right inasmuch as it points to the Christian truth.  Christianity’s relationship to paganism is similar to its relationship to Judaism. Judaism is the fore-runner and the pointer to Christianity. Same with the ancient pagan religions. They were debased and primitive, but they pointed in their own way to the fulfillment that comes through Christ the King. I’ve uploaded an article I published in This Rock magazine which goes into this in more detail. It’s called Paganism, Prophecies and Propaganda.

C.S.Lewis summed it up when he observed that the similarities between Christianity and paganism didn’t bother him. What would have disturbed him greatly is if there were no similarities between Christianity and paganism. Rather than the similarities disproving Christianity, it was the similarities between Christianity and all the other world religions that validated his Christian faith. If all the world’s people worshipped in a particular way and were drawn to certain beliefs and practices and one religion came along and drew all that was good and true from them and fulfilled them all, then that must be the religion that is most true.

If you’re interested, I’ve written a few other connected articles about this topic. This article for Crisis Magazine squelches the idea that Christmas is a pagan carry over, and this post from guest blogger Ed Blanch gets satirical about the dumb secular “Catholicism is paganism” critic.


Is This a Miraculous Image of the Divine Mercy?
Atheism or Catholicism - You Choose
The Puri-Fire
Apologetics 101
  • Will

    On the other hand, neo-pagans keep ranting that Christianity “stole” every practice they happen to like from something called “Paganism” which holds the trademark on them. One Usenet poster asserted that the cross was “stolen” from ancient Egyptians (since, of course human beings could not possibly have come up with perpendicular lines as a symbol more than once.) Never mind that lumping everything else together as “Paganism” to avoid the question of what “Pagans” “stole” from each other implies that they are legitimate for everyone EXCEPT Christians.

    Along these lines, Chesterton responded that if, e.g., certain dances and festivals are “pagan”, we might as well say that legs are pagan.

    And the seasons are pagan, and the sun and moon are pagan, and Barack Obama is pagan, and Ron Paul is pagan, I’m a pagan, he’s a pagan, she’s a pagan, wouldn’t you like to be a pagan too?

    If we think, we realized that any element in a given religion either will or will not resemble things in other religions. Now the odd thing, as Lewis would say, is that both of these are used to attack Christianity. If something has resemblances elsewhere, that proves it was “stolen”, showing how reprehensible is Christianity. If it does not, that shows how “unnatural” it is, proving how reprehensible is Christianity.

  • Rachel M.

    Thanks for this post! I just encountered some fanatical anti-Catholicism the other day and needed a push-back to that. :) It left me flabbergasted…and, unfortunately, a tiny bit of “Am I part of a pagan cult?!” crept into my mind. Despite the strong anti-Catholic sentiment I was raised with, I became a candidate this past November and will be brought in on Pentecost. Every once in a while, things told to me prior to learning about Catholicism crop back up. Again…Thanks!

  • Christian
  • Jonathan Cariveau

    Great post, Father. I have always actually been rather pleased, as C.S. Lewis was, with the connections that Christianity has to paganism. They aren’t derivative connections, proving that paganism evolved into Christianity or any other such nonsense; rather, they demonstrate that Christianity is ‘organic:’ springing from the ancient Hebrew monotheistic people of God and drawing its life from those roots, but also in its branches touching other religions and validating the hopes, fears, psychology, and intuition of many of the various pagan groups of people, who had profound wisdom at times. It’s sort of like the core of what we’ve inherited from the Hebrew religion are the iron-clad boundaries per se that define what we believe, such as the non-negotiable “There is only one God,” but other aspects that remind one of the rest of the world, the world of the gentiles, fit into those iron-clad boundaries. I would definitely agree with C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton – I am a converted pagan living in the modern world, and, because of that, I am a man at war with my times.

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    good one! I want to steal it.

  • Susan

    As a former archaeologist, the pagan claims always irritate me. Thank you, Father. By the way, if I recall correctly, Hous was conceived after the death of Osiris, but it wasn’t a virginal conception. Of course, there are often multiple versions of the myths, too.

    God bless

  • Vince

    What a great post, Will. I enjoyed it as much as the article.

  • Patrick

    “What they don’t stop to ask is whether this matters or not.”

    That’s what I was thinking through the whole post. I couldn’t see what difference it made if the Catholic Church *actively* designed it’s whole apparatus from existing pagan apparatii – so long as Christ is the object of worship and not the idols.

    I can’t believe the *design of a bishop’s hat* is what’s keeping some people from taking the Church’s claims seriously. That’s not even an interesting conspiracy – the extraterrestrials are kind of interesting, though I don’t see why the Pope doesn’t trot these things out every once in a while to prove descending from somewhere else is totally reasonable.

  • Scotty Ellis

    It’s difficult to talk about anything as nebulous as “paganism,” a term that is Christian in origin and pejorative in connotation – basically, “ignorant country bumpkin” as opposed to the civilized – and by civilized, Christian is meant – city dwellers of the dwindling Roman Empire and medieval West. Is Catholicism pagan? By its own definition, no – pagan was meant as the increasingly marginalized “other,” the old religions and faiths that had been exorcised from the city by the political triumph of Christianity and thus lingered on in the backwoods (and, indeed, in every folk tradition, Christian or not, the old gods still have their place).

    However, Catholicism’s political and cultural triumph was also both a cause and a result of widespread appropriations of pagan traditions, customs, and ideas – one does not simply fill the vacuum opened by the expulsion of that noisy pantheon of gods, stories, rites, and festivals without the new substance taking on some of the character of the old.

    But to a great extent I think that anyone concerned about the “pagan” characteristics and traditions within Catholicism is barking up an empty tree: no religion arises “ex nihilo,” summoned out of thin air. There are going to be similarities across concurrently developing religions. As a social and historical institution, the Catholic Church cannot help but have continuity with the religious traditions before it and during it, and while the more conservative are willing to accept this in the case of Judaism they often overlook the fact that Catholicism in some ways has more in common with what it would label “paganism” than with Judaism – right down to the saint shrines which sometimes were used as direct analogues for the shrines to the old gods (even if someone like St. Brigit really did exist – and there is no real reason not to believe she did – this does not mean that her sainthood did not also serve as a useful replacement for devotion to the goddess Brigid). I think a proper response to these claims is a simple and honest “yes;” sure, the Church makes use of pagan things. This should be followed up with the quite honest question, “so what of it?”

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    Yes and No. Catholicism was always firmly against paganism in its pure form. However, the Catholic missionaries did ‘baptize’ certain pagan customs and beliefs and weave them into the Catholic faith. The articles I linked to make this clear.

  • Scotty Ellis

    “However, the Catholic missionaries did ‘baptize’ certain pagan customs and beliefs and weave them into the Catholic faith.”

    We’ve had this conversation before, methinks – and I think that this is a matter of terminological tastes more than a disagreement on the actual reality involved. Christians most certainly did appropriate pagan culture – they could not have really done otherwise without literally destroying everything that existed before their triumph (in some cases, this “baptism” was as crude as slapping the chi rho on a legionary standard). You can call it baptism, but it is indeed appropriation.

    Of course, you are also right that the Christians rejected a lot of pagan practices.

  • Jonathan Cariveau

    I think that what Fr. Longnecker is trying to avoid is language that reflects a certain mindset of predetermined and lofty academic cynicism that sometimes gets mingled in with professing objectivity. There are different ways of looking at things that all acknowledge the same underlying reality but differ in attitude and perspective toward that reality. When Catholics went into a certain area and absorbed various social customs, they did so willingly and for the benefit of becoming all things to all men, since that is an Apostolic practice so long as the core fundamental teachings of Christianity were not done away with. It’s essentially like have a Judeo-Christian core of ritualistic, Messianic monotheism, that is expressed through various gentile-influenced customs, rituals, and cultures. It’s actual a basic New Testament idea that “the Greeks,” or the Gentiles, were sanctified and brought into the same Body of Christians in equal status as Jews, and that includes the lives of the Greeks and cultures that they came from. The same basic core of Christianity remains, however.

  • russ rentler, md

    @Rachel, There were a few times when I first returned to the Church after a 31 year detour into charismatic evangelicalism, that I had some “old thoughts” creep in. But I helped myself by realizing, you would’nt take Greek language lessons from your calculus teacher, nor should you learn about the Catholic faith from non-Catholics. When I actually read what it is that Catholicism said about itself, the fears and doubts disappeared, and the truths of the faith resonated with me. Not overnight, mind you but certainly with time and prayer. I use to pray, “Jesus make me more Catholic” and after 8 years I can say He has really answered that prayer. God bless you on the journey and don’t let those anti-Catholics get to you!

  • Howard Richards

    A quibble: The incident between the Ark of the Covenant and the idol of Dagon in 1 Samuel 5 occurred around 1000 B.C., so it is not quite correct to say, “the religion of Dagon died out thousands of years before Christianity.” In fact, given the plasticity of pagan gods, Dagon may have simply morphed and mixed with another god, perhaps Poseidon.

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    I don’t think Poseidon was a fish god, and either way the Philistine religion was dead by the time Christianity emerged.

  • TeaPot562

    One pagan item appropriated is the fir tree picked up by missionaries to Germany, becoming the Christmas Tree.
    So, what of it?

  • tubbs

    Why, as much as I love Christmas, I’ll never have a Thomas Nast’ St. Nick image in my home.

  • Jim from Utah

    The argument that the Universal Faith is pagan is the greatest tool in my tool-box for evangelisation.

    I am a man utterly of the pagan-type, for I reside in the country-side, but not just any countryside. I am a mile from where the Rocky Mountains begin. A mile behind my house is a 5,500-ft rise in elevation toward the 10,000′ mark. One couldn’t get much more pagan.

    Catholicism is not a religion of the city, and yet She retains metropolitans. She is a both/and faith. Of course, we are pagan. Things before Christ point toward Christ and things that come after Him walk in His great footprints.

  • Martin Wheaton

    When I’m chatting to fundamentalists about Christianity and they attempt to suggest that the Church uses elements of paganism I simply point to the ‘wedding ring’. It is the best way to explain the rationale between paganism and Christianity. It comes directly from paganism and is used by all those that call themselves Christian in their wedding ceremonies, as far as I’m aware.

  • alex

    Wonderful blog and comments. I am proud to be part of a faith that includes people who THINK. Before I became Catholic I was a “pagan new-ager” and so was a bit terrified of honoring Mary out of fear that I would be performing some type of goddess worship like I did as a hindu new-ager…But with a little thought I was able to realize that putting a flower in a vase in front of Mary’s statue in church was not the same thing as when I used to dress and feed and bow down to a statue of my guru’s guru “thinking” that the spirit of the guru was actually present in the statue. We do not worship Mary when we stick a flower in a vase in front of a statue of her because we don’t worship Mary PERIOD. All it takes is a brain to realize this, but I did not really use mine until I found my way back to the Catholic Church of my birth. Of course, I must say it was a bit intriguing and exciting that within 5 minutes of my placing a flower, on Mother’s day, very reluctantly, into the vase in front of Mary’s statue, while making a mental assent to at least giving Mary the respect she deserves as a currently ALIVE being who lives in the Presence of God continually for eternity, my parish priest came up to me excitedly to inform me that someone, that minute (!) had just anonymously donated the entire $500 that my husband needed to cover the costs of his annullment so that our marriage could belatedly be convalidated! The most wonderful thing about Catholicism to me is that while being intellectually rigorous and totally supported by reason, She makes room and embraces the mystical and miraculous!!!! My old guru statue never did anything for me …and what a waste of all that food that other folks in the ashram would secretly make disappear so as to convince the gullible westerner “seekers” that the spirit of the guru was actually eating the food. I’ll take real miracles and God’s divine Providence any day to the counterfeit “experiences” of modern day pagan practices!

  • Scotty Ellis

    “I think that what Fr. Longnecker is trying to avoid is language that reflects a certain mindset of predetermined and lofty academic cynicism that sometimes gets mingled in with professing objectivity.”

    While I agree that no description can be simply objective I think it is a reasonable if unattainable goal. In any case, you are assuming that cynicism is always going to obscure something, which a priori excludes the possibility that a cynical analysis might actually be insightful as well.

    “When Catholics went into a certain area and absorbed various social customs, they did so willingly and for the benefit of becoming all things to all men, since that is an Apostolic practice so long as the core fundamental teachings of Christianity were not done away with.”

    You are assuming motivation, and what’s more you are assuming universal motivation for a widespread group of people engaging in a wide range of activities. While I see no reason to doubt that this was a motivation of some of the Christian appropriation of paganism, I also see no reason to assume that it was the only motivation – especially when considering the shaky but extraordinary influence of the Eastern Emperors on the development of Christianity into a political institution. This, among other reasons, is why I think it somewhat dishonest to label the entire Christian appropriation of paganism as simply “baptism” and would prefer “appropriation,” as the latter term leaves motivation more broad – but, again, this may be simply a matter of taste.

    “It’s essentially like have a Judeo-Christian core of ritualistic, Messianic monotheism, that is expressed through various gentile-influenced customs, rituals, and cultures.”

    Less and less Judeo as it became more and more gentile, I would say. As I mentioned before, Christianity by the fourth and fifth centuries probably had a lot more in common with various “pagan” religions than with Judaism. The incarnation was certainly non-Jewish; the Trinity was non-Jewish; the saints took on a non-Jewish flavor of devotion; and while the rites of Christianity always bore great resemblance to their Jewish prototypes, such prayers and meal-sacrifices were also parts of paganism and it is difficult to imagine such developments occurring without interaction with paganism. My point is not that Christianity was not Jewish – it is simply that it became more and more “pagan,” if not in explicit content, then in the simple course of absorbing the pagan world.

    “The same basic core of Christianity remains, however.”

    It is nearly always possible to track unity within a given religious tradition, not the least because most religions, such as Christianity, already contain mechanisms by which the content of belief can be developed “safely” (that is, in a manner explained by the religion and thus harmless as a matter of disruption in the life and practice of the believer). Of course, this means that a great deal of change (and there has been a great deal of change over the centuries in Christianity) must be either explained in a safe way or cordoned off as “unimportant,” one of the primary uses of the distinction between the unchanging core or “Tradition” and the more Protean “traditions.”

  • Troy

    As a kid, I was taught that the mitre symbolizes the flame given to the Apostle’s at Pentecost, which is passed on through apostolic succession. When I see a bishop, I think fire of the Holy Spirit. Paganism is boring.

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    I wouldn’t agree that paganism is boring–I mean it is pretty interesting to imagine that the bishop’s miter is an indication that he is secretly a high priest of Dagon, the Philistine fish god…

  • Jonathan Cariveau

    Fiction is always interesting! ;)

  • Susan

    True! Philistine religion isn’t my forte, but I did read recently that it’s actually not conclusive that Dagon was a fish god, but may have been a god of grain. If I get a chance I’ll have to see what sources I can find for that.

    God bless!

  • Doug

    Patrick writes: “the *design of a bishop’s hat* is what’s keeping some people from taking the Church’s claims seriously.”
    Perhaps for a few. But many have been more impressed with the contrast between a picture of, let’s say, a Pope or a Canterbury in his Easter finest and this statement from the one whose vicar Benedict claims to be:
    “Jesus said to him: The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air nests: but the Son of man has not where to lay his head.” Luke 9:58, Douay
    Most of us find this to be a better picture of ourselves than ‘Easter finery’:
    ” But when he saw the multitudes, he was moved with compassion on them, because they fainted, and were scattered abroad, as sheep having no shepherd.” Mt 9:36
    We respond to the Jesus of the Bible, not to his self-appointed vicar.

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    We have Franciscans and Missionaries of Charity and Little Sisters of the Poor and many more who live with and serve the poor. Have you ever stopped to think that maybe the bishops and priests have thought of that criticism already and have an answer? Or did you just want to shoot the gun of criticism and ask questions later?

  • Doug

    Dwight Longnecker writes: “the Catholic missionaries did ‘baptize’ certain pagan customs”
    Christmas being perhaps the foremost example, especially given its ubiquity in our modern life. Yet not a single element of Christmas is Biblical; all are pagan. The date is certainly wrong and from paganism; the [unnumbered] magoi were pagan, and would have got the toddler [not "infant"] Jesus killed except for divine intervention; on and on and on.
    The birth of Jesus was never commanded as a celebration- his death was, of course. (Ec 7:1) So the pine trees, the “Xmas presents” and others were better left alone, not “baptized” into any form of Christianity. (2 cor 6:14)

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    I encourage you to gather more facts on all this before you simply state what you believe to be true. You might start with my article linked in the post to the question of the “pagan” date for Christmas. Once you’ve learned the facts then let’s discuss.

  • William Tighe
  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    As usual, your writing is far more detailed, researched and scholarly than what I attempt. Me lazy.

  • James P. Breslin

    When Aaron allowed the Israelites to create a Calf as a representation of Jehovah Jehovah was enraged. Why do Catholics use graven images?

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    Jehovah did not ban all graven images. He commanded Moses to raise the bronze serpent in the wilderness for the people to gaze on for their healing. He also commanded Moses to make graven images of cherubim to be placed over the ark of the covenant. He also did not forbid the use of two dimensional images in worship for walls of the tabernacle were adorned with seven foot high embroidered images of angels. Neither did he even forbid graven calves, for he commanded Solomon, when he was building the temple to make four graven images of cattle on which the great laver was to be placed.

    You should read your Bible more.