Is Catholicism Half-Pagan?

Tuesday, February 21, 2006


[originally uploaded in 1999; revised in one section on 22 February 2006]

A non-Catholic wrote to me asking some questions (her words will be in 

Please help me to understand why the Catholic church mingles pagan practices and feast into their worship?

First of all, one would have to define "pagan," I suppose. All of God's creation is good. Even one of God's greatest gifts, sexual intercourse, can be utterly immoral outside of marriage (fornication or adultery), but entirely sacred and righteous within marriage. The same physical act (or "practice") can be good or evil depending on the circumstances and meaning given to it. Likewise with many pagan practices, if they are not objectively or inherently immoral in and of themselves (e.g., cannibalism would be wrong in any event).

I have been studying the Catholic Catechism and The Concise History of the Catholic Church by Thomas Bokenkotter. Mr. Bokenkotter quite plainly says that during the 4th century, due to influx of many pagans "forced" into the church, many pagan rituals were blended into the Christian faith (such as genuflection, incense, lighting candles,...).

Bokenkotter is not an orthodox Catholic, as I understand it. So his account is not entirely trustworthy (though it interprets true events). His book was so bad I got rid of it (and I have dozens of books on Church history - many by non-Catholics).

But this is a case in point. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with candles (one had to have light at night somehow prior to electric light bulbs), incense (which represented prayer in OT temple worship), or the submissive, venerating gesture of genuflection (after all, we make similar gestures to earthly kings and judges - even the innocent and quaint curtsey is a form of this, as is the oriental bow). So what if the pagans used them in a sense foreign to Christianity? We can adopt them, give them a new meaning, and so "reclaim" them for God and the Church, because the key to true worship and religion is the inner attitude and disposition; the heart (see, e.g., Mark 7:6-8, among many other passages). The outward gestures merely represent whatever meaning we choose to give them (except for the sacraments, which work and dispense grace in and of themselves).

He also says that the feast instituted for Christmas and Epiphany were intentionally mingled with the pagan celebrations on those days.

The standard reply to this charge has been to assert that the quickest way to get rid of an old pagan religious belief and festival is to incorporate its outward aspects, while not compromising any Christian belief in so doing. Thus (by this reasoning) the Church placed the feast day of Christmas on December 25th precisely because that was the date of the Roman feast of the Unconquered Sun, or Sol Invictus (it is now thought by many scholars that Jesus was actually born in October). Result?: Sol Invictus eventually went the way of the dinosaur. Again, according to this reasoning, the Roman Feast of Saturnalia, which was held from December 1-23 also disappeared (by conscious design), having been superseded by Advent. Thus paganism was defeated, and no one remembered the meaning of the old customs. The inner meaning became primary (the application of the practice to Christmas, the Christ-child, etc.).

Recently (February 2006), an article by Catholic historian (and acquaintance) William Tighe was brought to my attention. In this paper,Calculating Christmas, Tighe argues (I think, compellingly) that the "Christmas replaced Roman festivals" argument was itself of a late origin, and that it is more likely that the reverse was true: Roman festivals were an attempt to replace the chosen date of Christmas. He maintains that the date was chosen based on the ancient Jewish belief that prophets died on the date of their conception:

At this point, we have to introduce a belief that seems to have been widespread in Judaism at the time of Christ, but which, as it is nowhere taught in the Bible, has completely fallen from the awareness of Christians. The idea is that of the "integral age" of the great Jewish prophets: the idea that the prophets of Israel died on the same dates as their birth or conception.

This notion is a key factor in understanding how some early Christians came to believe that December 25th is the date of Christ's birth. The early Christians applied this idea to Jesus, so that March 25th and April 6th were not only the supposed dates of Christ's death, but of his conception or birth as well. There is some fleeting evidence that at least some first- and second-century Christians thought of March 25th or April 6th as the date of Christ's birth, but rather quickly the assignment of March 25th as the date of Christ's conception prevailed.

It is to this day, commemorated almost universally among Christians as the Feast of the Annunciation, when the Archangel Gabriel brought the good tidings of a savior to the Virgin Mary, upon whose acquiescence the Eternal Word of God ("Light of Light, True God of True God, begotten of the Father before all ages") forthwith became incarnate in her womb. What is the length of pregnancy? Nine months. Add nine months to March 25th and you get December 25th; add it to April 6th and you get January 6th. December 25th is Christmas, and January 6th is Epiphany.

In any event, there were other practices or Christmas customs which seem to have been adapted from pagan customs: thus "Christianizing" them. The pagans of northern Europe (like the ancient enemies of the Hebrews) used trees as idols; we use the evergreen Christmas tree as a symbol of everlasting life: life in the dead of winter - just as Christ brought life to the deadness of humanity and the Fall and original sin. The tree itself is a neutral (and, I might add, beautiful) object: a part of God's good creation. To think otherwise is pure superstition, which is ironic because it typifies the attitude of many rabidly anti-Catholic fundamentalists in their dislike (hatred?) of Catholic sacramentalism and such things as crucifixes and rosary beads and statues of Paul and Peter, or the archangel Michael (not to mention . . . . . egads!: the Blessed Virgin Mary!!!).

Some Protestants (usually anti-Catholic ones) falsely accuse Catholics (and often other Protestants as well) of superstition and paganism, even as they themselves hypocritically and ironically blatantly indulge in it, neglecting the crucial role of inner meaning and the heart (very Pharisaical . . .). They view a crucifix as a talisman or a charm. We view it simply as an aid to devotion to our Lord Jesus (an entirely different concept), just as Passover was a means of remembrance to the Jews for God's deliverance of them (Ex 12:13-14). Many other similar biblical analogies could be brought forth also.

To the early Calvinists, church organs and stained glass windows - indeed statues of Christ Himself - were "clearly" idolatrous, so they smashed them. This is the ancient heresy known as iconoclasm (which some have traced to the influence of Islam). Much of this thought (knowingly or not) stems from a quasi-Gnostic suspicion of God's creation as evil.

Well-known Protestant Church historian Philip Schaff - often a severe critic of the Catholic Church -, while deeply ambivalent about some of these "pagan customs," nevertheless sees the essential utility and "Christianness" of the Catholic Church's traditional approach to such things:

This connection [to pagan Roman festivals] accounts for many customs of the Christmas season, . . . and gives them a Christian import; while it also betrays the origin of the many excesses in which the unbelieving world indulges in this season, in wanton perversion of the true Christmas mirth, but which, of course, no more forbid right use, than the abuses of the Bible or any other gift of God . . .

Besides, there lurked in those pagan festivals themselves, in spite of all their sensual abuses, a deep meaning and an adaptation to a real want; they might be called unconscious prophecies of the Christmas feast. Finally, the church fathers themselves confirm the symbolical reference of the feast of the birth of Christ, the Sun of righteousness, the Light of the world, to the birth-festival of the unconquered sun, which on the 25th of December, after the winter solstice, breaks the growing power of darkness, and begins anew his heroic career.

(History of the Christian Church, vol. 3: Nicene and Post-Nicene Christianity: A.D. 311-600, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974; reprint of the rev. 5th ed. of 1910, 396-397)

Another question I have is why is Easter called Easter, which the Catholic Encyclopedia clearly states is the name of a goddess of some sort. I don't understand.

The etymological derivation of Easter is said to be uncertain. The Venerable Bede (8th c.) thought it was connected to the Anglo-Saxon spring goddess Eostre. But see (if that is true), this is again the incorporation of an old custom into Christianity ("Christianizing" or "baptizing" human custom) in order to supersede the old paganism and give the rituals an entirely new meaning. A word is not evil in and of itself. Even sacred words usually have secular origins (e.g., the Greek Christ simply meant "anointed one").

We observe the Apostle Paul "incorporating paganism" in a sense when he dialogues with the Greek intellectuals and philosophers on Mars Hill in Athens (Acts 17). He compliments their religiosity (17:22), and comments on a pagan "altar with the inscription, 'To an unknown god.' " (17:23). He then goes on to preach that this "unknown god" is indeed Yahweh, the God of the OT and of the Jews (17:23-24). Then he expands upon the understanding of the true God as opposed to "shrines made by human hands" (17:24-25), and God as Sovereign and Sustaining Creator (17:26-28). In doing so he cites two pagan poets and/or philosophers: Epimenides of Crete (whom he also cites in Titus 1:12) and Aratus of Cilicia (17:28) and expands upon their understanding as well (17:29).

This is basically the same thing that the Church does with regard to pagan customs: it takes whatever is not sinful and Christianizes it. To me, this is great practical wisdom and a profound understanding of human nature. The frequent Protestant assumption that this is a wholesale adoption of paganism per se, and an evil and diabolical mixture of idolatry and paganism with Christianity is way off the mark. Hopefully, the above defense will answer this "reasoning" adequately. After all, the Apostle Paul is clearly guilty of mixing paganism and Christianity also. :-) Remember, it was Paul who stated,

To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.

(1 Cor 9:22; NRSV - read the context of 9:19-21)

In my opinion, the Church's practice concerning Easter, Christmas, All Souls Day, All Saints Day, etc., is a straightforward application of Paul's own "evangelistic strategy," if you will. That puts all this in quite a different light, when it is backed up explicitly from Scripture. The early Church merely followed Paul's lead. Furthermore, skeptics of Christianity trace the Trinity itself to Babylonian three-headed gods and suchlike, and the Resurrection of Christ to Mithraism or other pagan religious beliefs, but that doesn't stop Protestants from believing in the Triune God or the Resurrection. So this whole critique eventually backfires on those who give it.

I have made great strides in understanding the faith of the Catholic church and the need for Apostolic Tradition, but these things are tremendous stumbling blocks to me, a pentecostal, Bible beater.

It never hurts to ask for further understanding. You asked honest questions without a judgmental attitude from the outset. I appreciate that. You let me present a Catholic defense. Many non-Catholics (sadly) never even get to that point: they assume that the Catholic Church is pagan, the Beast, antichrist, etc., etc. without ever allowing it a chance to explain its teaching and practices. So I highly commend you.