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“Fake News” – The Paganization of the Church

June 13, AD2017 7 Comments

Social media today is flooded with what some call ‘fake news’ stories. Whether it is a falsification about an archaeological discovery, an allegation of criminal activity by a company, or a ploy to demean a political figure, it is amazing the lies people will tell – and believe. These stories, often with very convincing details, spread like wildfire. I admit I have been a victim more than once and now I read stories on the web with some initial skepticism.

As Catholics, we know that the Church has been the subject of ‘fake news’ for centuries. From the Crusades and the Inquisitions to the misconstrued notion the Church rejects science or the propaganda the Church did not want the laity reading the Bible, we see clearly false charges come up again and again. Another popular accusation, and one which I have heard recently from several non-Catholics, is the notion Catholic beliefs reflect a paganization of the Church since the time of Constantine. At the foundation of their claim is the grave charge of idolatry and blasphemy so, as Catholics, it is important that we recognize this as ‘fake news’ and can fact-check these charges.

Jesus – Extension of Pagan Myths?

Those who reject the Christian God have long argued Jesus and the stories about Him were invented by His disciples – simply an amalgamation of various elements of existing pagan myths. It is contended the Jesus accounts are a mere reflection of the pagan gods who were known for descending to earth taking on human form, dying and rising, being born miraculously, battling the powers of darkness, walking on water, having twelve followers, casting out demons, healing the sick, judging the souls of the dead and being crucified. They claim these parallels are evidence the Jesus stories are fictional legends.

There are several key points to make in refuting these theories. Firstly, Christianity is grounded in events that happened centered on Jesus Christ, a historical figure. This is unlike these mystery cults whose myths were not historical. Secondly, the idea that the Apostles, who were faithful Jews, would invent a legend based on abhorrent pagan beliefs and then be martyred rather than renounce the lies is outlandish. Thirdly, with these accusations, similarity does not prove dependence. For example, when God commanded Abraham to perform circumcision, this divine ordinance was not in imitation of the neighboring Egyptians. Though similar actions were performed, their significance was vastly different.

Finally, anytime these claims are made, we must ask for primary sources. In some cases, these pagan myths have undergone a great deal of revisionism. In other cases, tremendous liberties have been taken to create parallels. For example, despite the fact there is no evidence in mythological stories before Christ that the pagans had a crucified savior, this is not a deterrent for promoting this Christ event had pagan origins. Another comparison is the birth of Jesus with the god Mithras, who had no human father thus the alleged basis for the virgin birth. However, they usually withhold the fact the god Mithras was formed from a rock. It is also claimed the pagans worshiped a Triune god long before the Christians did (see Robert Ingersoll, Why I am an Agnostic). However, when explored, this accusation refers to Isis, Osiris and Horus who are three separate divinities among a pantheon of other gods. There was never the belief of ‘one God and three Divine Persons within the Godhead’ as Christians believe. These examples help to demonstrate it is essential to ask for sources in these discussions because often when trying to make parallels, there can be a lot of inaccuracies with much misinformation propagated on the internet.

(More detailed articles on countering these charges can be found here, here and here).

A Pagan Foundation for Catholic Beliefs?

When false accusations are made specifically of the paganization of the Catholic Church, one key point in our response is that similarity does not prove causation. One common comparison used to “prove” the Church is “paganized” is the prolific use of the mother/child theme in Catholic artwork. As the pagans worshiped goddesses and their sons, such as Isis and her son Horus or Ishtar and her son Tammuz, images of Mary with the child Jesus “demonstrate,” they claim, this same goddess/child worship exists within the Church. But Catholics do not worship Mary and do not hold her to be divine, facts which by themselves counter this charge. But additionally, throughout human history there have always been mothers, so it does not come as a surprise that various cultures, including both the pagans and Christians, would independently recognize and honor motherhood. It is also a unifying Christian truth that Mary was the virgin mother of Jesus – God Incarnate. Merely depicting this in art is in no way an act of idolatry. Furthermore, these images of Christ as an infant or child are a beautiful portrayal of the love, obedience and humility of Christ Jesus.

Additionally, many of the alleged parallels given as evidence are either based on inaccurate accounts or false claims, so it is important to ask for primary sources. Some assert the Catholic practice of fasting forty days during Lent is based on the pagan practices in Egypt, yet this is incomplete information. Though pagans in Egypt did fast, it was for variable periods of time, not strictly “forty days,” and the Catholic practice of fasting is of biblical origin. Another charge is the Catholic Church chose December 25 for the birth of Christ to celebrate either the birth of the pagan god Tammuz or the feast of Saturnalia (honoring the pagan sun god). These assertions are outright false. Tammuz was honored by pagans during the summer solstice not in the winter. The celebration of Saturnalia was never later than December 23 and, more importantly, the dating of Christmas is found in the Church long before any records discussing the pagan celebration of this feast. Some also maintain the round host used in Mass is of pagan origin, substantiated, they say, because at times the host is marked with the letters “IHS” representing the gods Isis, Horus and Seth. However, the fact pagans viewed round objects as symbolic of the sun god is merely coincidence as we see even in the Old Testament the divinely created manna was also round (Exodus 16:14). And the letters “IHS” are an abbreviation of the Latinized version of the name of Jesus in Greek – IHSOUS. With the belief in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, handed down to us from Christ Himself through the Apostles, it is not surprising the tradition developed at times to mark the host with the Holy Name.

Paganization of the Church?

The pagan corruption of the Church is usually argued to have begun after Constantine legalized Christianity with the Edict of Milan (313 AD) and it continues today, as they contend, in the Catholic Church. However, when we look at history, we see God at work through the Church transforming the profane making it holy. The result is a Christianization of the pagan world and not the other way around.

Some claim this is not possible yet we see that God used the pagan Greek language to transmit His inspired words to us in the New Testament. When Jesus became Incarnate He used mud, spittle and other material things as instruments of His divine healing power. Jesus also made a Roman device of torture and humiliation become a sacred sign of our redemption. Following in His footsteps, Christians have transformed pagan symbols, such as the fish, the Christmas tree and the wedding ring, into signs that point us to God. In a similar fashion, the Church converted many of the pagan temples in Rome into Catholic churches, not to sustain pagan beliefs, but to have these witnesses in stone proclaim the ultimate victory of Jesus Christ in the world. Likewise, the obelisk in St. Peter’s Square in Rome is no longer symbolic of the pagan sun god but stands to testify to the triumph of the cross of Christ. This silent eyewitness to the martyrdom of numerous Christians in the Vatican circus now stands with a cross on top, containing relics of the true cross, with this dedication:

Christus vincit, Christus regnat, Christus imperat. Christus ab omni malo plebem suam defendat. (Translation: Christ conquerors, Christ reigns, Christ commands. May Christ defend His people from all evil.)

Christian missionaries past and present, in imitation of the first and greatest Christian evangelist St. Paul, have converted things familiar to the pagans to be vehicles to proclaim the Gospel. They have also been eager to reveal the proper meaning of any truths discovered among them. Paul finds an altar to an ‘unknown God’ in Athens and he uses this to preach to the pagans about Christ and the one true God (Acts 17:23). In the first century, the idea of a golden crown or wreath was well-known among pagans. The winner of the Greek Olympic games would receive this, as would teenage boys in the Roman Empire upon completion of athletic and military training. Paul takes this imagery but gives it a new meaning – those who persevere in Christ until the end can receive the crown of eternal life (1 Corinthians 9:25; 2 Timothy 4:8). Paul also quotes pagan poets on more than one occasion using them to communicate divine truths (Titus 1:12; Acts 17:28; 1 Corinthians 15:33).

Objections to this transformation of the profane is not new but, from the earliest times, Christians have praised these practices, recognizing how they can lead one to Christ.

St. Athanasius in De Synodis (39):

Yet though a man uses terms not in Scripture, it makes no difference so that his meaning be religious. But the heretic, though he use scriptural terms, yet, as being equally dangerous and depraved, shall be asked in the words of the Spirit, ‘Why do you preach My laws and take My covenant in your mouth’ (Psalm 50:16)? Thus whereas the devil, though speaking from the Scriptures, is silenced by the Savior, the blessed Paul, though he speaks from profane writers, ‘The Cretans are always liars,’ and ‘For we are his offspring,’ and ‘Evil communications corrupt good manners,’ yet has a religious meaning, as being holy – is ‘doctor of the nations, in faith and verity,’ as having the ‘mind of Christ?’ (Titus 1:12; Acts 17:28; 1 Corinthians 15:33; 1 Timothy 2:7; 1 Corinthians 2:16), and what he speaks, he utters religiously.

St. Augustine in Answer to Petilian the Donatist (Book II, 30, 69):

If, therefore, the apostle even himself bore witness to the testimony of some obscure prophet of a foreign race (Titus 1:12-13), because he found it to be true, why do not we, when we find in any one what belongs to Christ, and is true even though the man with whom it may be found be deceitful and perverse, why do not we in such a case make a distinction between the fault which is found in the man and the truth which he has not of his own but of God’s …?

Christians, from the beginning, recognize truth wherever it is found. Rather than rejecting it because it is found among unbelievers, they redeem it. If truth has been misused or misappropriated, Christians restore truth back to its divine purpose – leading us to God. This is in no way a “paganization” of the Church but the Church acting as an instrument of God to reconcile the world to Himself.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

Allison Tobola Low is a lifelong Catholic, passionate for sharing Christ and the Catholic faith with others. She works full time as a physician in Tyler, Texas, and also received a Master's degree in Theology from the Augustine Institute in Denver, CO. Allison finds time to teach and share the Catholic faith every opportunity she can find, including being a catechist for Adult Faith Formation and RCIA at her local parish. Allison enjoys giving talks in parishes on a variety of faith-related topics and is also a regional leader for St. Paul Street Evangelization. Her website is where you can find short simple Catholic videos she creates (that are especially for children/young adults).

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