Is Catholicism Pagan?
Leading up to the 500 year anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, I read and heard numerous illusions and direct statements that Catholicism was “invented” when Constantine made Christianity the preferred religion of the Roman Empire in 315 AD. Christianity was then inundated with pagans and pagan priests all attempting to garner favor with the Roman Emperor by “converting” to Christianity. Pure, Christianity – the type that was practiced before that – was mixed with all the incoming pagan practices and Catholicism was created. To put it simply: Pure Christianity + Paganism = Catholicism.
This view was popularized in the 19th Century book, “The Two Babylons” by Alexander Hislop. Adherents of this view associate anything Catholic with paganism. For example, on a local Protestant radio stations a guest stated that at the center of the courtyard of St. Peter’s Basilica – the huge church in Vatican City - was a tall obelisk. He stated this was the Catholic Church’s way of announcing that they were promoting paganism. He stated that the obelisk had come from the Circus Maximus, a pagan venue, and prior to that had come directly from Egypt where obelisks were used in pagan rituals.
Others point to Christian holidays as evidence that Catholicism welcomed paganism beliefs and practices: The word ‘Easter’ is said to come from the name “Eostre”, a Germanic pagan goddess; or that celebrating Christmas on Dec. 25th is pagan because the Roman feast of Saturnalia was right at that time. The most damning of all is the placement of All Saints Day and the celebration of Halloween, which is the Catholic Church “baptizing” the pagan feast of “Samhain”. Obviously, all of this was the Catholic Church’s attempt to inject paganism into pure Christianity as those espousing this view would say.
But there are a host of misunderstandings and misrepresentations here but I want to address two fallacies first and foremost: ‘Begging the Question’ and ‘Genetic’ fallacies. The Begging the Question fallacy assumes the conclusion of an argument in the premises. “Have you stopped beating your wife yet?” is the quintessential example of Begging the Question. It assumes I am beating my wife. No matter what answer I give (Yes, or No) I would be admitting that I have been beating my wife. If this is not true, and I don’t know to point out that fallacy, it can be very difficult to get someone to believe that I don’t beat my wife.
“I believe the Bible is God’s Word because it says it is” is another great example. It must be assumed that the Bible is the Word of God to believe the Bible when it says it is the Word of God. Interestingly enough both the Book of Mormon and the Quran state they come from God and are God’s words to us.
To the Catholic issue, and to state it simply, it goes like this: “Catholicism is pagan therefor Catholicism is pagan.” To avoid the ‘Begging the Question’ the arguer must prove the premises that Catholicism is pagan by independent evidence. Usually, when asked to do so, I have found my interlocker falls into this next fallacy.
The second fallacy that plays into this is the Genetic Fallacy. Just because one thing comes before and / or is similar to another does not automatically mean the one is the cause of the other. This means just because something in Catholicism is similar to paganism or something in one of the thousands of pagan religions came before the similar thing in Catholicism does not prove that Catholicism took it from paganism. Let me give an example. Atheists sometimes argue there are some Egyptian writings that show Christianity stole the idea of a god being born of a virgin, dying and rising from the dead from Egyptian cults. Even Protestant apologists argue back that this is an example of Genetic Fallacy. Let alone the host of other problems with the atheists argument, just because some other religion that predates Christianity has a god being born of a virgin, dying and rising from the dead (which those gods don’t actually do that), does not mean Christianity stole it from there.
Back to the Catholic issue, to avoid the Genetic Fallacy, what needs to be shown is 1) the Catholic Church purposely took something from a pagan religion 2) That thing is incompatible with Christianity 3) The Catholic Church incorporated it purposely to warp “pure Christianity.” The problem is there is no evidence of this. Most of the examples above, when removed from those two fallacies and studied in a full context, suddenly have a much different appearance.
Below are some very brief explanations of each of the accusations from above.
Prior to Constantine Christianity was completely different than after
There are a few things to say here: 1) Constantine did not make Christianity the preferred religion of the Roman Empire. The Edict of Toleration or The Edict of Milan (313 AD) merely made Christianity legal. 2) Of the actual teachings of Catholicism that some Protestants believe were pagan inventions due to the Edict, all of these teachings can be found prior to the Edict and in many cases 200 years or more prior to the Edict – including Christianity being call “The Catholic Church” Both of these are a matter of historic record, not solely Catholic record. A good, well researched book on the subject is “The Apostasy that Wasn’t” by Rod Bennett
Obelisk in St. Peter’s Basilica
Yes there is an obelisk in the center of St. Peter’s Basilica. There is also an obelisk (sometimes two) on top of most traditional churches, both Protestant and Catholic. The shape of an obelisk is the same as a church steeple. And just like those steeples, the obelisk in St. Peter’s Basilica has a crucifix on top of it, placed there at the time that the obelisk was moved from the long defunct Circus. But why would the Catholic Church do this? Several reasons: 1) Expressly to show that Christ conquered the pagan Roman Empire! 2) For so many Christians in the first 2 or 3 centuries that obelisk was the last thing they saw on this earth, including St. Peter himself. The obelisk is a memorial of all those martyrs and that their deaths helped conquer the pagan Roman Empire. 3) The Catholic Church preserves history. They have one of the – if not THE – largest free art museums in the world. Art from all time periods and places are there. A piece from the Circus Maximus is an important piece of history to remind people of all the martyrs and the Roman Empire.
The idea that this obelisk is from Egypt and was used in pagan rituals is sketchy at best. It is not certain where the obelisk came from prior to being moved into the Circus Maximus: Historians disagree. Some say it did indeed come from Egypt; some say it was a Roman creation by someone in the Roman army. Obelisks were not carte blanche used in pagan rituals. Many were sign posts of sorts and again it cannot be determined that this obelisk was in anyway used in any pagan ritual.
Easter is from Eostre, the name of a German pagan goddess
Yes, Eostre and Easter sound similar, but it is only in German and English that these words sound similar. In Latin, Greek, Italian, French and most other languages, both ancient and modern, the word ‘Easter’ is some form of ‘Pascal’ (i.e. Pasqua in Italian, Pascuas in Spanish, Pascha in Greek and Latin). But what about all the Bunnies, chicks and eggs, surely those are pagan? Are they? Who created bunnies, chicks and eggs? Did the pagans rip this off from God so that Christians could rip it off from pagans? Or did Christians just recognize the season Christ’s Passion, Death and Resurrection occurred in (Spring for the Northern Hemisphere) and look for other symbols of new life in God’s creation? As an aside note, using the Jewish calendar, Jesus’ Resurrection may have been March 25th.
Christmas is pagan
It is not necessary to believe that Jesus Christ was born on Dec. 25th to be a Christian. The Bible is silent on the actual date. So why Dec 25th? Some Protestants believe it was the Catholic Church attempting to bring a Saturnalia celebration into Christianity. To begin with this is the Genetic Fallacy at work. Just because two dates are similarly timed (Dec 17th-21st for Saturnalia, Dec 25th for Christmas) does not mean one has anything to do with the other. One question I have is: How many days apart do two things have to be before they are no longer considered related to each other? My birthday is 4 days away from my cousins. Since mine is first did that cause my cousin’s birth day?
But wait there are the trees and candy canes and Santa Clause – who bears some similarity to some pagan deities. Clearly these are pagan! The Christmas tree comes from Germany and does have to do with paganism. An 8th Century missionary, St. Boniface, saw German pagans worshiping and offering sacrifices to an oak tree. St. Boniface cut down the tree. He then pointed them to the evergreen tree as a reminder of God, the real God: it is evergreen: sign of eternal life in Christ; shaped like an arrow: pointing to heaven. He told the German pagans to let the evergreen be their symbol of Christ. So… again the Christmas tree is not only NOT pagan, its origins were to combat paganism.
Candy canes are shaped like a shepherd’s crook (The Good Shepherd) and are red and white because the blood of the lamb washes us white as snow.
Santa Claus, as portrayed in modern secular media, has nothing to do with the original 4th Century Christian, St. Nicholas, who is honored on December 6th. Ideas about St. Nicholas may have been mixed with some pagan deities to come up with some of the particulars of Santa Claus, however, this objection is cut off at the knees: the Catholic Church has never recognized Santa as part of Christmas. For the Catholic Church Christmas is only about celebrating the birth of the Savior of the World, Jesus Christ.
Halloween is pagan
This one is huge, especially since Jack Chick decided to put out one of his pamphlets about it. Again, there are many things to say about this, but to be brief, Samhain – the Celtic pagan festival of the 3rd and 4th Centuries – is a lunar festival, meaning, it’s timing (or date) is based on the phases of the moon. Halloween – or All Hallows Eve (meaning, “the night before All Saints Day”) – is a solar calandar based holiday meaning the date is based on the 365 ¼ day journey of the earth going around the sun. The timing of the two days can vary as much as 30 days. Also, Ireland was entirely Christian by the end of the 4th Century – thank you St. Patrick – and so Samhain was no longer celebrated. All Saints Day was first celebrated only in the area of Rome during the 8th Century. Also, it was originally in Spring. Later, it was made a full Church holiday and because of all the feast days already in spring, it was moved to fall. So, for Halloween to be a “baptized” pagan holiday an 8th Century Pope must have known of an obscure, extinct, 400 year old pagan festival, celebrated thousands of miles away and wanted to incorporate it into Catholicism. What about the Trick or Treating, Pumpkins, costumes etc? There are many cultures that have fall festivals, harvest festivals and such that were not attached to any pagan practice or religion. There are also customs that seem strange to modern ears that grew up in correlation to All Saints Day. Again, though, the Catholic Church has never sanctioned any of these as official teaching / practices of the Catholic Church. There have even been several bishops and priests warning of the dangers of some of the modern practices of Halloween.
As an aside, I find it sad and rather ironic that between modern pagans (who have no connection physically or religiously to the ancient pagans) claiming Halloween as their own and many Christians convinced it is “Devil’s Day” we are literally changing a wholly Christian holiday into a pagan one!
There are many, many more we could go over. Feel free to ask a specific “Catholic is Pagan because of _______” question in the comments here or on the Facebook page.
 It should be noted that many Protestants have disputed Hislop’s claims and commented on his poor Biblical exegesis and historical scholarship.
 Letter of Ignatius of Antioch to the Smyrnaeans, 107 AD