The Catholic Faith has a Great Empathy for Pagans, But Not Paganism

The Catholic Faith has a Great Empathy for Pagans, But Not Paganism June 3, 2015

As Chesterton once remarked, “Paganism was the biggest thing in the world.  Christianity was bigger.  And everything since then has been comparatively small.”

Christianity affirms everything that is true and good in paganism (and was, indeed, largely responsible for preserving the best of pagan antiquity from vermin, Vandals, and Vikings–the latter of whom were some of the worst of pagan antiquity).  That’s because the last thing the pagans did was ask to be baptized and they were pretty fond of Grandma’s first edition copies of Plato, Galen, and Euclid.  Christians understood that all truth is God’s truth and there was not Christian, Greek, Roman and Egyptian truth, but simply Truth.

But at the same time, Christianity wisely held firm to the fact that where paganism really contradicted Christ, the pagans were wrong.  In particular, the error of the pagans was, as Paul put it, “Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles.” (Ro 1:22–23). What that meant was that paganism inevitably wound up battening on mere created goods as the Highest Good and therefore was doomed to frustration since the four big pretenders in this world for Highest Good are Money, Pleasure, Power and Honor–and none of them deliver in the Happiness department.

Paul is, of course, not such a fool as to think that only pagans seek earthly good. He knows that we all do. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, as he puts it. And so he writes the Romans, not primarily to say “Look at those pagans over there”, but to say, “Look at us acting like pagans over here. And we do it so much that “God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.” – Rom 2:24.

This is no small part of the story the Old Testament tells too. The prophets spend almost all their fire, not on pagans, nor even indeed on the pagans who treat Israel with brutality. Instead, they spend it on Israel and her infidelity to the covenant.

Why? Because as Jesus says, “That servant who knew his master’s will, but did not make ready or act according to his will, shall receive a severe beating. But he who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, shall receive a light beating. Every one to whom much is given, of him will much be required; and of him to whom men commit much they will demand the more. (Lk 12:47–48).

So when Pope Francis warns about the dangers of paganism, it is pagan Christians he criticizes as “enemies of the cross” since it is we–who have heard the warnings about the Golden Calf, Mammon, Mars, and Venus–who, as Pope Benedict says, act like pagans in our love of worldly things and crucify him again in our worship of money, pleasure, power, and honor. As the Roman Catechism says:

We must regard as guilty all those who continue to relapse into their sins. Since our sins made the Lord Christ suffer the torment of the cross, those who plunge themselves into disorders and crimes crucify the Son of God anew in their hearts (for he is in them) and hold him up to contempt. And it can be seen that our crime in this case is greater in us than in the Jews. As for them, according to the witness of the Apostle, “None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.” We, however, profess to know him. And when we deny him by our deeds, we in some way seem to lay violent hands on him.

This, by the way, is why the seductive faux friend, and not the openly hostile enemy, is always the more dangerous threat to the Faith. An enemy can very seldom get you to turn against God. It is our friends who teach us that it’ll be okay, just this once, to steal the candy, to raid the parent’s liquor cabinet, to try the cocaine, to get laid, to lie, to cheat on the wife, and to kill and torture for the Greater Good. As Jesus also says:

And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.(Mt 10:28).

There’s a reason Jesus called Peter, but not Caiaphas or Pilate, “Satan”. It is the friend who seduces us to come along “for fellowship” who can be the real snare and deception. So Jesus warns us as well, “If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” (Lk 14:26).

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  • neoconned

    Just what I needed today. Thank you!

  • CJ

    Great post Mark.

  • Dan13

    I’m going to be really pedantic here and one should give you poetic license for alliteration, but weren’t the Vandals Arian Christians and not pagans?

    • PalaceGuard

      How about the Visigoths?

      • wlinden

        “Alaric was crowned the first Christian king — not emperor — anywhere.” — R.A. Lafferty

        • PalaceGuard

          Oh, well.

          • Alma Peregrina

            Try the lombards. They were the less christian of them all.

            • PalaceGuard

              Yeah, but they were great football players!

        • Artevelde

          The Armenians, and perhaps even more so, the Ethiopians, would probably contest that, although I must add that I don’t exactly know whether their forms of kingship involved the actual ritual of crowning.

  • johnnysc

    You have to wonder if any of this crosses the minds of those Bishops and other clergy within the Church that advocate going against the teachings of Jesus on marriage.

  • Mark R

    What this really does is underscore the need for continuous repentance. Without it, any of us can be worse than the worst pagan.

  • Elmwood

    are you saying we are doomed to hell for raiding our parents liquor cabinet?

    • kenofken

      No. It’s only a mortal sin if you nick my Jade Absinthe or 18+year old Scotch. A special program of eternal torment awaits those who steal top-shelf booze and then use it as a mixer or to maintain a buzz they started hours ago on rotgut!

      • etme

        Your post should be rated R. Horrific scenes, that you describe there…

  • Dave G.

    Good points. However, a couple thoughts. First, the point has always been to go to the believers first. But the message must always be in love, even if it’s firm. It can never be anger. Sort of like kids. You don’t punish them because you’re pissed at them. You do so because you love them and they need corrected. Second, Jesus did say ‘get behind me Satan’ to Peter. That is true. And more than once he chastised his disciples. But he never called them a brood of vipers, or whitewashed sepulchers. Those were reserved for the other ones who posed problems for Him and the people of Israel.

    So, as they used to tell me in my ministry days, don’t spend your ministry days pointing out the windows and getting your congregation to think of everyone else. You have to challenge them. But you do so to win souls, not arguments. And you never, ever do it without 3 times the reminder of God’s love and grace as well as giving credit where it is due. You keep things in perspective. And you never forget who the enemy really is in it all. For as angry as the people in your congregation can make you, you can never see them as they enemy. Since that is exactly what the enemy would have us do.

    Just a couple meager additions to an otherwise very fine post.

  • kenofken

    “The last thing the pagans did was ask to be baptized…”

    Technically, that’s also true of the Jews of the Iberian Peninsula in the 1490s, the Hindus in Goa under Portuguese rule in the following century, and all of the New World natives worked to death in mines and plantations. They all “asked for it.” The question becomes what were the inducements, motivations and cost for failing to ask, or refusing if offered. The rising Christian majority had some programs to help those on the fence make the right leap. There was the Massacre of Verden, when Charlemagne had 4,500 captured Saxons slaughtered for resisting his rule and for refusing to convert to Christianity. He followed that up with a set of legal codes to keep the remaining Saxons in line:

    “If any one of the race of the Saxons hereafter concealed among them shall have wished to hide himself unbaptized, and shall have scorned to come to baptism and shall have wished to remain a pagan, let him be punished by death.”

    Four centuries earlier, Theodosius effectively outlawed paganism:

    “It is Our will that all the peoples who are ruled by the administration of Our Clemency shall practice that religion which the divine Peter the Apostle transmitted to the Romans….The rest, whom We adjudge demented and insane, shall sustain the infamy of heretical dogmas, their meeting places shall not receive the name of churches, and they shall be smitten first by divine vengeance and secondly by the retribution of Our own initiative”

    Throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance, you had popes affirming the legitimacy of force to maintain Christian practice even in those who had been tortured or coerced into it, and papal bulls expressly authorizing the conquest and enslavement of pagans. Religious freedom was not even recognized in concept until Vatican II, and 19th Century popes expressly condemned it.

    There were, to be sure, plenty of people who freely adopted Christianity, or took the identity by custom in keeping with their rulers ( who were variously motivated by personal piety, political, military and economic considerations). Of course the alternative to not asking or receiving baptism was death, expulsion or, far more commonly, inexorable marginalization and existence as a non-person under the law.

    • Alma Peregrina

      Yep. There were christian massacres on pagans. And, by the way, there were pagan massacres on christians. Let’s not forget those.

      However, from what I gather, a large amount of the pagan Roman Empire population converted to Christianity, and not by force. You are right to say that many converted to keep up with their rulers. But they were not forced and that’s what matters.

      When Emperor Theodosius outlawed paganism, the Roman Empire was scarce years before its fall. The legal ban on Paganism was very short-lived compared with the legal ban on Christianity that the same empire enforced with coercion during centuries (and let’s not forget the jewish persecutions as well).

      And yet, the first time that the Roman Empire enjoyed religious freedom for both pagans and christians was at the time of the Edict of Milan, signed by a christian emperor.

      So, what I’m saying is this: There were christian massacres on pagans. And there were pagan massacres on christians. And both are inexcusable.

      But a vast pagan empire converted to Christianity mainly by choice and not force. Do pagans have such a history of mass conversion without coercion?

      • kenofken

        “Do pagans have such a history of mass conversion without coercion?”

        The most immediate example is the modern pagan/neopagan movement. We went from essentially zero in the United States 50 years ago to (roughly) 750,000 today. Not a single one to my knowledge came by coercion, and more than a few came in the face of coercion from their families/former churches etc. Even in ancient times, pagans were generally not interested in converting anyone or punishing the “wrong” theology. There certainly was religious persecution and demands to show at least nominal piety toward the official gods of the state, but that was about political and civic allegiance, not orthodoxy.

        The Edict of Milan was not exactly the first official proclamation of religious freedom. Galerius issued his Edict of Toleration a few years prior, though it was more a realpolitik concession to the failure to eliminate Christianity. The Edict of Milan did create a policy of widespread freedom of religion, but it was primarily written to benefit Christians. Constantine certainly signed off on it, but it was mostly a joint memo between himself and co-emperor Licinius directing the eastern governors to knock off the persecution of Christians in their provinces. It was about restoring central authority and preserving the social order as much as anything.

        The question of “force” in conversion is central to my point. Certainly many did convert freely. They found the religion’s claims persuasive, and the empire was chock full of people who were ignored or brutalized by the pagan social order and elite – slaves, foreigners, the poor etc. By no means did everyone convert at the tip of a sword. But neither was it as simple as pagans all coming to their senses and embracing baptism purely of free will. It was a free choice until Christian missionaries built a critical mass of converts and consolidated political and economic power in a given area. From that point on, within a generation or perhaps two, there was no choice in the matter.

        • Alma Peregrina

          I was expecting that you would bring up the neopagan movement. It is true that it has been largely non-coercive. However, it is far from being “mass conversion”, like Christianity was.

          750.000 might seem a great number, but we have to take the population increase into acount. Proportionaly, that amount is nothing compared with the boom of Christianity in its heydays. 750.000 is less than the population of one of the cities of my small country.

          So, when pagans have used non-coercive methods, they were very unsucessful compared to christians (or even atheists for that matter).
          Now, what I wasn’t expecting, was everything else you wrote.

          From saying that family/clergy resistance to a conversion to other faiths is “coercion”… which would mean that no religion whatsoever (or even lack thereof) can be “non-coercive”. Are you serious? Of course families would like their kin to share their faiths and would offer resistance to their conversions to other religions… are you comparing that to systematic religious persecution?

          To saying that everything seems to be politically driven. I’m not naively suggesting that people don’t have second intentions motivated by politics and power and whatnot… but I won’t fall cynically on the other extreme of thinking that’s all that matters to people. If Constantine (or Galerius for that matter) made a political decision, it may very well be that they did it because they believed it to be acording to their values. Do you have windows into their hearts to judge?
          But what really got me, was this “There certainly was religious persecution and demands to show at least nominal piety toward the official gods of the state, but that was about political and civic allegiance, not orthodoxy.”

          So, acording to this logic, when the Inquisition handed heretics over to the proper authorities so that they would punish them with death for crimes against the State, in order to maintain the political and civic order of the kingdoms under the cuius regio eius religio principle… that was justified and not truly a religious persecution?

          After all, everything the roman christians had to do was to burn a pint of incense to the emperro (a pagan god). Likewise, everything the cristãos-novos had to do was to be baptised and attend Mass.

          I do understand that we should judge the acts of people from former ages acording to their historical context. But it doesn’t sit very well to you when you start a conversation that consists of pointing fingers to christians for persecutions in the past… and then try to whitewash your own persecutions away by contextualizing them.

          If you can do that for the shameful roman persecutions of christians, we can certainly do the same for the massacres of the Saxons.
          The only reasonable argument you provided was the edict of tolerance of Empero Galerius. Didn’t know that and I’ll have to study further. Even though, I think that the Edict of Milan was very much ahead of its time and nothing shall change that. But still, you may have a point there.

  • Stephen

    More “love the sinner, hate the sin” crap