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.