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 sc
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 sc
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.