An anti-Catholic points out the golden sun which decorates a priest’s vestments and exclaims, “Catholicism is paganism! Catholics worship the sun!”
Another points out that the practices of Catholicism are based on ancient pagan practices: Christmas is the birth of the new sun, Easter is the coming of spring, the veneration of Mary is the worship of Isis or some other Mother Goddess.
What should we say to such accusations?
The easiest way to defend Catholic practices with pagan origins is to point out that the Catholic Church was not born and did not grow up in a vacuum. It was born in a Jewish province of the Roman Empire and grew up there before venturing on an adventure, first around pagan Rome, then around pagan Europe, then all over the pagan world. Catholicism adopts what it deems correct from each of the cultures it experiences, e.g. the 10 Commandments from the Jewish faith, monogamy from Roman Stoicism, a complex understanding of virtue from Ancient Greek philosophy, and yes, even pagan forms of worship like yearly religious feasts.
Thus, if the anti-Catholic is to be consistent with his accusations, he should also accuse Catholics of being Jewish, Greek, Roman, pagan and many others. Yet to accuse a religion of being Jewish, Greek and Roman is not to insult it. The only insult here is to accuse a religion of being pagan because the monotheistic world insists on belief in the one true God, not some nature god like the sun.
Is Catholicism paganism? Do Catholics necessarily worship pagan nature gods because some of their practices are pagan in origin?
To answer this, let consider the analogy of the all-American hamburger: Americans have adopted the hamburger patty from the Germans but they made it their own by putting it in a bun with various condiments and served with a side of fries. Should we insist that since the hamburger is German in origin, it is incorrect to call the hamburger sandwich all-American? Should we call it half-American, half-German? That is absurd. The all-American hamburger, though not of American origin, is nevertheless all-American because the Americans have adopted it and made it their own.
If the argument above on the hamburger sandwich is correct, then it is also correct to say that we should not simply look at the origin of a practice and proclaim it to always be of that origin. Thus, even if Christmas and Easter started out as pagan festivals, it would be incorrect to say that Catholicism is paganism. The original pagan festivals were adopted by the Catholic Church and made her own. When a Catholic celebrates these two special days, he does not think of a pagan god; rather he thinks of Jesus. If anyone asks why he celebrates pagan festivals, he would reply in confusion, ‘I do not.’ Christmas and Easter, even if they are pagan in origin, ceases to be pagan because the meaning of those festivals has changed.
Indeed, if we can imagine Jesus and the pagan god sitting side by side during Christmas or Easter celebrations, Jesus would get all the attention while the pagan god is snubbed. The pagan god may cry out, ‘Hey, it’s my party! I sent the invitations!’ to which Jesus may say, ‘Yes, but I am the star!’
Anti-Catholics may be quick to point out that the pagan god is simply clothed to look like Jesus, but if a pagan god looks like Jesus, speaks like Jesus, thinks like Jesus, acts like Jesus, loves like Jesus, has the power to forgive and make miracles like Jesus, then should we wonder if this pagan god is actually Jesus? And even if this pagan god is simply an effective imitator of Jesus, in the Catholics’ hearts, they still worship Jesus. In other words, even if the pagan god has the power to deceive, this does not make the festival for his honor since the worshippers still seek Jesus, not the pagan god.
To strengthen my argument further, let us consider the practice of saying ‘Bless you’ when someone sneezes. People used to believe that the soul temporarily left the body when someone sneezed making it possible for a demon to possess the body. Someone should say ‘Bless you’ as a precaution against this possibility.
Now if someone says ‘Bless you’ when someone else sneezes, would you snicker and say to him, ‘You know, the soul doesn’t leave the body when a person sneezes’? This is absurd because saying ‘Bless you’ is no longer a precaution against demonic possession, but merely a form of politeness.
If my arguments are correct, then we cannot say Catholicism is paganism simply because some of its practices are pagan in origin. If one insists on this, then one must also insist that the hamburger is not American but German, that the person who says ‘Bless you’ when someone sneezes is an idiot because he believes the soul jumps out of the body, and other absurdities like these.
If these arguments seem lacking to our anti-Catholic friend, perhaps a more striking example is necessary: the crucifixion. The crucifixion, now symbolized by the cross, is a horrible Roman punishment. It is so horrible that most people at the time found it difficult to mention outright. They had to use euphemisms to refer to it. Yet what is the cross now? Christians place it in their churches, wear it as jewelry, use it to decorate their homes and clothes, etc. Should we insist that since the cross originated as a horrible Roman punishment, we should not use it to decorate our churches? We should not even refer to it or think if it because it is too horrible. How can we wear such a horrible torture device around our necks? How can we hang it in our homes and even – gasp! – in our children’s bedrooms? How morbid!
The above is absurd because the Christian no longer understands the cross in the same way the ancient Roman did. The cross is no longer a horrible punishment and torture device. It has become something entirely different. Yet its origin cannot be erased! Anyone who doubts this need only look up ancient history. What are we to make of the morbid origin of the cross and the deep reverence Christians have for it?
It is still possible for the anti-Catholic to point out that Catholics could have chosen to create new festivals rather than adopt pagan ones. Yes, it is possible to do this, but we have to go back to the first important point made earlier, that Catholicism was not born and did not grow up in a culture-less vacuum. If we look at the way human institutions, practices and beliefs develop, they are all influenced by the culture they developed in.
However, a better attack to this attitude is to ask whether it is important for Catholic beliefs to not be pagan in origin. Should American cuisine be purely American with no foreign influences? What would be left? Macaroni and cheese? But both macaroni and cheese are European in origin and brought to the new world by European immigrants. The only thing left would be the native foods of the American Indians. But to insist on this is to deny the fact that American culture is rich in foreign influences because it is an immigrant culture, a hodgepodge of various ways of life and tastes united by a democratic outlook.
It is possible to give more absurd examples: France used to be Gaul with its own language and culture. To be truly French is to be Gallic. Hence the Gauls must return to their original language that is not influenced by Latin. They must destroy their cities because that is also Roman. The Gauls are tribal people and have no cities in the Roman sense.
The English language must be purified. Words like ‘beef’ and ‘pork’ are French in origin brought to Britain by the Norman conquerors. Henceforth all English speakers must say ‘ox’ and ‘pig’ when talking about these animals’ meat. All other words of foreign origin must be removed and replaced with original words even if this means creating totally new words.
I think the adoption of pagan practices is not unfortunate; rather it is a sign that Christianity has won. As long as the practice does not go against the basic beliefs of Christianity, e.g. sacrifice of infants, it can be adopted. After all, what is so evil about the celebration of Christmas though it used to be the celebration of the coming of the new sun?
If we understand human nature, we will know that people like festivals. People like to celebrate what they consider important like the coming of the new sun for pagans and the coming of the Messiah for Christians. If the celebration of Christmas makes people jump for joy at the birth of Christ, and makes them think of Christ and makes them love Christ, why should we take it away from them simply because it started out as a pagan festival? Indeed, why should we care about the origins of Christmas if it fulfills its purpose anyway which is to remind us that we must celebrate because Jesus our savior is born?
In the same way, why should we care where macaroni and cheese originally came from, or who made the first ground meat patty? Eating macaroni and cheese, and hamburger and fries are common American experiences which have become part of the American way of life. Similarly, Roman ways have become French ways, and foreign words have become English words.
In conclusion: We cannot pluck out Catholicism from human history and judge it according to standards that are ignorant of its more than 2000 years of existence. To do this is to admit one’s ignorance of the way human institutions develop. Further, to insist that all practices and symbols must be judged according to their original meanings almost always leads to absurd conclusions.