Did you know that Catholic bishops are actually high priests of Dagon, the ancient fish deity of the Philistines? You see, the miter the bishop wears is a replica of the costumes worn by the priests of Dagon. That’s right, the priests of Dagon wore a head dress that looked like the head of a fish with an open mouth, and down their back they wore a long cape that looked like the skin of a big fish. When you look at a Catholic bishop sideways you can see the open-mouthed fish head, and his cope looks just like that fish skin they wore! This proves that Catholicism is really just old-fashioned devil-worshipping paganism, right? Wrong.
The bishop’s miter developed from the camelaucum, a form of crown worn in the imperial court in Byzantium. There are no pictures of a Catholic bishop wearing what we would recognize as a miter until the 11th century—and then it was a shorter, softer hat which only developed into its present form in the late middle ages, long after the worshippers of Dagon were dead and gone.
Three Forms of Anti-Catholicism
The true history of the bishop’s miter can be found with a simple Internet search, but explain it to the kind of Protestant who believes everything Catholic is simply warmed-up paganism, and he will think you have been brainwashed, that you are a naive dupe of a sinister regime, and the source of your information is part of a cover-up by the vast Catholic disinformation machine deep within the bowels of the secret walled city of the Vatican.
A second Protestant friend may not be quite so extreme in his “Catholice-equals-pagan" beliefs, and he eschews the wild-eyed fundamentalism of the Chick Tracts. Nevertheless, he shakes his head sadly and informs you that Catholic doctrine is not Scriptural. It is a mishmash of pagan philosophy and religious customs. He tells you how veneration of the Virgin Mary and prayers to the saints have their roots in pagan goddess religions and ancestor worship. He will tell you how the doctrines of purgatory and the sacraments (which we call “mysteries") have come from Gnosticism, how transubstantiation is imported from Aristotelianism, and how your beliefs about heaven and hell and the afterlife are infected with the pagan philosophies of neo-Platonism.
Finally, there is your secular friend with his own brand of “Catholic-equalspagan" anti-Catholicism. He does not fear Catholicism because it is pagan; he dismisses it because it is pagan. Secularists don’t realize how influenced they are by old-fashioned Protestant anti- Catholicism. They have uncritically imbibed “Catholic-equals-pagan," and they ridicule or dismiss Catholicism because “all religions are merely different versions of primitive pagan superstition."
The idea that the Catholic Church is the pagan anti-Christ has been around since the Protestant Reformation. If your sect had been persecuted by Catholics, it was easy enough to see the corrupt Roman hierarchy in the ominous warnings from the Book of Revelation:
I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was covered with blasphemous names and had seven heads and ten horns. The woman was dressed in purple and scarlet, and was glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls. She held a golden cup in her hand, filled with abominable things and the filth of her adulteries. The name written on her forehead was a mystery: Babylon the Great, the mother of prostitutes, and of the abominations of the earth. I saw that the woman was drunk with the blood of God’s holy people, the blood of those who bore testimony to Jesus. (Rv 17:3-6)
As a Protestant reading those words, you couldn’t help but think of the opulence of the Roman prelates in their palaces. You see the cardinals and canons in their robes of purple and scarlet celebrating Mass at an altar glittering with jewels and holding up a golden cup. Then when you read that the “seven heads" were the seven hills on which the harlot sat, and you knew that Rome was the city of seven hills: The Roman Catholic Church was that great whore, and she had sold her soul to the disgusting, devil-worshipping pagan religions of ancient Rome.
Never mind that the writer of Revelation was actually referring to the decadent court of the Roman emperors; it is only a short hop from there to see in every manner of Catholic beliefs and practices a reenactment of the pagan religions. With only a little bit of imagination, you see that Christmas and Easter are versions of the pagan spring and winter celebrations, that the “worship" of the Blessed Virgin Mary is derived from the ancient cult of Diana, that the Eucharist is taken from Egyptian fertility rites, that the cross was the ancient Egyptian tau symbol, that baptism and the idea of the sacraments were lifted from Mithraism, and that not only was the bishop’s miter part of the secret worship of Dagon the fish god of the Philistines, but the icthus fish sign of the early Christians was part of the pagan conspiracy too!
The list could go on and on. In fact, it is only limited by the imagination of those who wish to discover pagan connections to Catholicism. It’s simple. As with any conspiracy theory, look hard enough, and you will find what you seek. Begin with your theory and then find the “facts" to support it. All of these “historical" connections of paganism with Catholicism can be easily refuted with a bit of research and explanation, but instead of tackling the different particular theories, I would like to unlock the thinking behind the fable that Catholicism is rehashed paganism and show how best to counter it.
The Missing Link
First, you have to do your homework: There are connecting points between early Christianity and the pagan culture in which it was born, but what are they? Are the connections real or just coincidental? Just because two things happened at the same time does not demand a link between them, and it certainly does not demand a causal link. So, for example, the decline of the number of Catholic priests and nuns in the United States coincided with the popularity of Elvis Presley and the decline in popularity of Bing Crosby. This does not mean that the two phenomena were linked (even though Bing Crosby played the part of a Catholic priest), and it certainly doesn’t mean that the popularity of Elvis Presley caused the decline in the number of priests.
Likewise, to see the similarity between two things and their coincidence in history does not require that they be linked in any way, and it certainly does not prove a causal link between the two. Even if a cultural link can be proved, a causal link must also be proved. If a causal link is proved, then it must also be proved which way the causal link flows. Does the existence of a winter-solstice celebration in oth Christianity and Roman paganism demand that one caused the other? If so, which influenced the other? It used to be a commonplace that the Christians borrowed the pagan winter Saturnalia and replaced it with Christmas. It now seems that the celebration of the Nativity of Christ was established first, and the pagans invented the Saturnalia to compete with the increasingly popular Christian celebrations.
These are interesting questions, but they are complex and cannot be truly answered without solid historical research and scholarship.
We’re All Pagan
Second, all the major doctrines of the Christian faith can be seen to have pagan antecedents. A Protestant may say that veneration of the Blessed Virgin Mary hearkens back to pagan goddess worship, but the Virgin Birth (which he will affirm) also has multiple echoes in the myths of the pagan religions.
He sees as pagan belief in purgatory or prayers for the dead, but he believes in the Incarnation—and pagan religions abound in stories of god-men coming down to be born on earth. Does he believe in the Resurrection? Does he celebrate it at Easter? How does he fit that in with all the pagan myths of the dying and rising god who was worshiped annually at the springtime of the year? Does he believe in the inspiration of the Holy Spirit? The Ascension? Does he practice baptism? The Lord’s Supper? All of these beliefs and practices have parallels in paganism. You can’t blame Catholics for being pagan in some beliefs and practices while happily endorsing beliefs that might just as readily have their origins in paganism. If Catholic doctrine and devotions are pagan, then Protestantism’s must be too.
This is the crunch of the argument. There are links between paganism and Christianity. That is natural because the Church was born in a particular culture, and that culture was bound to have some influence on it. Furthermore, there is nothing wrong with this interaction. From the very beginning it was considered to be good missionary method: Find what connects with the Christian story in the culture you are preaching to and make the connection. Build on that and use it to share the Christian gospel through images and concepts with which they are familiar. This is precisely what we see taking place in the New Testament. In Acts 17, St. Paul preaches in Athens and sees an altar to an “unknown god." He picks up on this idea and uses it to preach the gospel.
Infected by Philosophy?
Now, let’s address the less-extreme Protestant, who thinks Catholic doctrines are non-scriptural and infected by pagan philosophy. He needs to see that borrowing concepts from the philosophers of the time is exactly what the writers of the New Testament did. John used the existing Greek philosophical concept of the logos (the Word) to articulate the doctrine of the pre-existing Son of God and the Incarnation of the Son of Man. In doing so he was borrowing a concept from Greek philosophy. Throughout his writings, Paul uses the concept of “the mystery of godliness," and in doing so he connects with his pagan audience’s awareness of the mystery religions. Likewise, the Epistle to the Hebrews talks of an “earthly temple." The image of the “heavenly temple" is steeped in a Platonic metaphysical understanding. In both these cases, as in the borrowings in early Church theology, the writers take a concept and change it from the inside out.
So for John, the vague philosophical concept of the logos is clarified and fulfilled in the incarnate Christ. For Paul, the “mystery" is a mystery no longer, for that hidden wisdom is now revealed clearly in Christ Jesus. For the writer of the letter to the Hebrews, the earthly temple and the heavenly temple are united in the body of Christ on earth. The early Christians did use the philosophical concepts of their culture, but as theydid so, they transformed those ideas and fulfilled them with a new and radiant expression of the truth, and this transaction indicates the real answer to the riddle of the relationship between paganism and Catholicism.
The Riddle and the Revelation
The secular critic also argues that Catholicism is simply a rehash of paganism, but for him it is a reason to reject Christianity altogether. “Ha!" he cries, “I’ve seen through it all. Christianity was nothing new. The myth of the virgin-born God-man saving mankind by his death and rising was around for centuries! Don’t you see" he continues, “all religions developed when human beings were primitive. They looked at the sun, moon, and stars and were awed by them. They gave them personalities and made up stories about them. These became the gods and goddesses of ancient myths. They told stories of how the gods sent one of their own to earth to save the human race. Then some Hebrews wanted people to believe their teacher was also a god, so they spliced all these myths into the story of his life, and then they had a top-notch product: Once the emperor bought into this newfangled hodgepodge of myths and mysteries, Christianity never looked back."
Having worked out a seemingly credible alternative history, the secularist sits back and smugly dismisses its claims. The problem is that his version of anti-Catholicism is just as leaky and insubstantial as the various forms of Protestant anti-Catholicism. In his version, the early Christians enthusiastically graft paganism into their new religion; in reality, the early Christians were Jews and as such were thoroughly opposed to paganism. Nor does his version account for the persecution of Christians. The early Christians died to defend Christianity from compromise with paganism. The idea that they heartily adopted pagan myths to boost their popularity is ridiculous. Finally, if early Christianity was a cleverly concocted amalgamation of paganism and the stories of a wandering rabbi, why would anyone be tortured and die for such a fraud?
The links between paganism and Catholicism require another answer. They require an explanation of just how and why there are connections and links between Christianity and other religions, and the answer is riddle and revelation: Paganism in all its forms was the riddle, and Christ was the revelation.
Hints and Glimpses
C.S. Lewis said that it didn’t bother him that Christianity has links with earlier religions: What would have bothered him was if it didn’t have links with earlier religions. The fact is, you can find echoes and connecting points between Christianity and all the other religions both ancient and modern, and it is this fact which validates rather than invalidates Christianity. If a religion is not only true but more true than all the other religions, then it should connect with all those other religions at the points where they are true.
The Catholic understanding is that there are echoes, connections, and similarities among Catholicism and all the other religions because Catholicism fulfills them and transforms them from within. The other religions are partial truths. They are hints and guesses at the truth. They are the riddles and Christ is the revelation which completes them and answers their questions. The Hebrew religion was the one which most perfectly pointed to the coming Christ, but each of the pagan religions and philosophies in their own way—some better than others—point to and prophesy the coming of Christ.
The Church Fathers saw that every aspect of the ancient world (not just the religions) were imperfect but definite pointers to Christ. In the myths and philosophies, in both the horrors and the glories of the ancient world, they heard echoes of the Word of God and saw glimpses of glory. So the Fathers loved to use quotes from the ancient philosophers which hinted at the fullness of revelation that would come in Christ. The most famous is from Virgil’s fourth Eclogue, written the century before the coming of Christ. It expresses the longing of the pagan heart for a coming Redeemer.
The virgin is returning . . . A new human race is descending from the heights of heaven . . . The birth of a child, with whom the iron age of humanity will end and the golden age begin . . .
Catholicism is not the practice of paganism, but the fulfillment of the hints and glimpses of revelation that are given in every ancient religion, philosophy, and prophecy. Truth, wherever it appears, is Catholic truth, and once we see the beautiful and true relationship between other religions and philosophiesand the Catholic faith, the sooner we will see their beautiful fulfillment in one faith, one baptism, one flock, one Shepherd, and one Lord.