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).