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Pagan Idolaters?

I am answering a charge that was recently made here on EP against Catholics, but I have come across it many times both here and elsewhere.  I feel that the time has come to answer the charge and to help my fellow Catholics understand where it comes from, exactly what it consists of, and how we can refute it.

The charge is predominantly a Fundamentalist one, though not all Fundamentalists think this way. There are other Protestants who think this way as well, though many who do not.

It arises from a somewhat fanciful rewriting of history. 

It goes something like this:  All was well with the Church until the reign of Constantine.  There were a few minor heresies in the three centuries following Pentecost, but nothing major.  There were no Catholics then, and no Protestants, just Christians.  They took the Bible as their sole guide.  They faced persecutions, first from the Jews and then from the Empire.  But all that ended when Constantine made Christianity the state religion.

In his famous book on anti-Catholicism, Lorraine Boettner, the father of Fundamentalism, put it like this:

thousands of people who still were pagans pressed into the church to gain special advantages and favours that went with such membership.  They came in far greater numbers than could be instructed or assimilated.  Having been used to the more elaborate pagan rituals, they were not satisfied with the simple Christian worship but began to introduce  their heathen beliefs and practices.  Gradually, through the neglect of the Bible and the ignorance of the people, more and more heathen ideas were introduced until the church became more heathen than Christian.  (Lorraine Boettner, Roman Catholicism,  p11)

But there were always some "real" Christians keeping the true faith alive until at last,  in the Reformation, they gained a certain ascendancy.  And these people were the ancestors of today's fundamentalists.

I hope some of you are having a good laugh at this!  I know I did when I first read it!  But the tragic reality is, that many thousands of people have been totally taken in by this idiotic, totally false and slanderous presentation of ecclesiastical history.  And strange as it may seem, it has become necessary to point out why it is erroneous.

First, there is a problem with the dating.  If Catholicism didn't emerge until after the reign of Constantine, then one would expect to find no references to peculiarly Catholic practices such as a sacrificing priesthood,  a hierachy of priests and bishops, prayers for the dead, veneration of the saints, Mass vestments etc  

But the truth is, that there are many references to Catholic doctrines and practices in the first, second and third century writings of the early Church.  The Apostolic Fathers, for example, wrote prolifically on many Catholic subjects and specifically referred to the Catholic Church whose headquarters are in Rome!  (eg see Letter of St Ignatius of Antioch written to Christians in Smyrna in 106 AD, the Letters of St Irenaeus etc See the pictures in the ancient Church of St Clement in Rome, and paintings of the saint vested for Mass that are on the walls.  See pictures of the church of St Peter in Antioch with its altar etc)

Second, if the Fundamentalist version of history were true, we would expect to see the truth defended against "Catholic inventions" in the decades and centuries following Constantine.  But we do not.   

Third, the Bible wasn't in existence until the fourth century!  The Faith until that time was handed on by oral Tradition.

Fourth, it was the authority of the Catholic church which declared the Bible to be the inspired Word of God in the first place, which decided those books that were to be included and those that were to be rejected.

I will come back to the charge of pagan practices in a moment, but first I would like to make my Catholic readers aware of the "***** of Babylon" theory, espoused in a book by Ralph Woodrow, called, "Babylon Mystery Religion", and another similar, earlier work, "The Two Babylons" by Alexander Hislop.

Instead of attributing Catholicism to the legalisation of Christianity by Constantine, Woodrow, Hislop et al explore the superficial similarities between Catholicism and the ancient mystery religions, particularly the Babylonian cults.  They make the logically false argument that similarity implies descent.

From Egyptian devotion to Isis, the reader is told, comes Catholic devotion to Mary.  From Buddhism comes the Sign of the Cross.  Lent was derived from festivals in honour of the death and resurrection of Tammuz.

None of the charges stands up to scrutiny; similarities are strained to breaking point.  Finding a few coincidences these authors take them as far as they can go!  And beyond!  Let us look at one example.

In Woodrow's chapter on the Mass, there is a photograph of the interior of St Peter's.  It "shows the altar of St Peter's and [the] huge canopy (the baldachinum [sic] ) - ninety-five feet high - which is supported by four columns - 'on high above' the most important altar in Catholicism - are sun-images 
like those that were used in pagan worship... high on the wall, as the photograph shows, is a huge and elaborate sunburst image which, from the entrance of the church, also appears 'above' the altar....Interestingly enough, the great temple at Babylon also featured a golden sun-image.'"  
(Woodrow, Babylon, pp 130-131)

Woodrow is forgetting here that scripture uses the sun image for the Lord:  "But unto you that fear my name, the Sun  of justice shall arise, and health in his wings: and you shall go forth, and shall leap like calves of the herd.  And you shall trample down the wicked when they shall be ashes under the sole of your feet in the day that I do this, saith the Lord of hosts."  (Malachi 3:20-21)

Bur more significant is the fact that this slur on the Church is nothing more than a gigantic blunder.  Woodrow has obviously never been to St Peter's and seen the altar.  If he had, he would have seen for himself that this "sunburst" borrowed from Babylonian cults is in fact a depiction of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, exuding rays of light.

There is no need to give a blow by blow refutation of every single point made by these writers.  Catholics would be better spending their time on more worthy subjects.  But the sad fact remains that they have convinced many. Woodrow's book has sold over 250 000 copies since it was first published.  

If a Catholic was so motivated by bigotry as to try to prove that Fundamentalist belief derives from pagan practices it would not be hard to do.  A Catholic could demonstrate that some mystery religions venerated a holy book as containing all religious truths (their version of sola scriptura), just like Fundamentalism.  He could illustrate how the mystery religions claimed to give "an assurance of salvation", just like Fundamentalism.  

When they look at the mystery religions, writers such as Woodrow think that by using Catholic labels for pagan practices they have shown Catholicism's origin.  That simply is not logical; the abundance of literature from the early Church proves it.  We should, in fact, expect the true religion to be a fulfilment of, but not a complete contradiction of , mankind's earlier stabs at religious truth.  After all, each ancient religion had something true in it, even if what was true was buried under much that was false and even pernicious. Ancient religions were a remote preparation for Christ's coming which occurred in the fullness of time, when mankind had taken itself about as far as it could go on its own.

We should expect that  the religion that is the fullness of truth, coming in the fullness of time, would incorporate the good points of earlier religions while rejecting their errors.  We would expect that the truths contained in that true religion were unadulterated, and that is what we find with Catholicism.  When Fundamentalists charge that we have "invented" doctrines, they are referring to promulgations that perhaps give a name to a belief and practice held from the beginning, such as "transubstantiation"  proclaimed by Pope Innocent111 in 1215.  They say we "invented" the doctrine then.  No, we didn't!  The Church always believed in it!  It was merely called transubstantiation officially in this document! etc

Now, I am not trying to start a squabble here, I am merely answering a charge; I am exercising the right of reply.  The charge was made publicly and so is the refutation.  I know that all people of good will love the truth and will, if they have been inclined to believe the tall tales of some Fundamentalist writers and preachers, think twice before subscribing to such bias in the future.



perseverer perseverer 51-55, F 6 Responses Feb 18, 2012

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Thank you for your comment, JB4J. There is certainly a lacuna in the education of Catholics about Church history. Plus, those actively educating about the Faith in higher education circles were not, in the days of our youth, concentrating on Bible proofs against Fundamentalists, but rather, where the Church stands on the Trade Union movement and labour, and Communism, against Liberation Theology. Thirty years ago when I was a student, we were getting Papal encyclicals such as Rerum Novarum and at home, my Protestant flat mates were reading Keith Green's, "Catholic Chronicles". Either the clergy weren't aware of the Fundamentalist movement at that time or did not attach enough importance to it. In Australia, Pentecostalism has been the fastest growing movement for many years now and it consists largely of former Catholics.

Quite interesting. Alot of knowledge here that I did'nt know even thou I grew up Catholic. Thanks for posting perseverer.

Thanks Nellkellicus. God forbid we should ever resist the known truth!

Well said Perserverer. You have given a well researched and supported refutation against the Fundamentalists accusations. I like the way you point out (indirectly) the necessity of reading widely and researching both Catholicism and Fundamentalism to get a balanced view of the picture. As you said, with the internet we have a wealth of easy references at our fingertips. The information is available to the person wanting proof.

Thank you for reading this and for your positive affirmation.<br />
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For many years I and undoubtedly many other Catholics have remained silent in the face of these insinuations against the integrity of the Catholic Church. And although i have had Fundamentalist friends, only a few have ever asked me for the Catholic side of the story, and I have been left with the uncomfortable feeling of wondering if that is what their opinion of Catholics really is.<br />
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When this particular correspondent, a former Catholic turned Fundamentalist, made the charge, I thought, the time has come to speak out. Why stand by in silence while Our Lord and His Bride are accused by false witnesses?<br />
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Catholics should have a ready defence of the Faith, especially in this day of the internet when it is so easy and quick to find information and cross reference.<br />
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Three books I have found particularly helpful are, "Catholicism and Fundamentalism" by Karl Keating, "Bible Proofs For Catholic Truths" by Dave Armstrong and "The One Minute Apologist" by Dave Armstrong. The Haydock version of the Douay Rheims bible is excellent for its large commentaries on each verse by the Fathers and Doctors of the Church. These are also easily found online.

The depth of your knowledge and history never fails to amaze me.<br />
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Please write more.<br />
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The Fundalmentalists in general are not well read or versed in history. Their faith ba<x>sed presc<x>riptions come from a non-intellectual ba<x>se. Many fundamentalists are good and humble people. But they tend to be ignorant when it comes to the part of taking a splinter out of your neighbors eye, when you have a log in your own.