Gene Koprowski, director of marketing at the Chicago-based Heartland Institute, said in a Philadelphia press conference Thursday that through Pope Francis and his focus on fighting climate change, “Paganism” has “entered the Church.”
Heartland Institute, which has previously exerted great efforts in convincing people that second-hand smoke is not at all harmful, also believes that climate change his not harmful, if it is taking place at all. These are purely economic positions of course. Cigarettes are big business. So are oil, gas, and coal. Capitalism must not knuckle under for the sake of health of mere humans, not when the almighty dollar is at stake.
Never mind the idolatry of worshiping money. But let’s not let logic or common sense get in the way of a good, mindless, ideological diatribe:
When the Vatican leapt into the controversy on climate science, we were initially under the impression that His Holiness was a victim of bad advice from bad advisers. There were people from the UN who were population control advocates. There were people from other left-wing groups who were advising the pontiff.
Then came the Pope’s encyclical “On Care for Our Common Home,” which hardly broke new ground as it began with a quote from St. Francis of Assisi, referring to the earth, “our common home” as a sister, and traces the climate concerns of his predecessors, Paul VI and John Paul II.
This was too much for Koprowski: “While we initially thought it was bad advisors, I think that something more may be afoot,” he said.
What was more serious was that same old bogeyman, science, but Koprowski sees something more sinister afoot:
It was a medieval festival, where masqueraders with grotesque masks took over the church and elected what was called a ‘fool’s pope.’ This is a pagan ritual, pagan remnants that were seeping into the church. One of them also was ‘nature worship.’ What is environmentalism but nature worship?
“I would say, contrary to some of the criticism, that this is not communism that has entered the church. It’s, rather, paganism.”
That’s right. Far from being a communist, the Pope is something worse: a Pagan.
This is not the first time the Catholic Church has been accused of Paganism, and with good reason; Christianity grew up in a Pagan context and was not left untouched by it, and after all, the religion Christianity grew out of, Judaism, comes out of a shared background with Canaanite Paganism.
Religious syncretism is almost unavoidable, and the Church accommodated itself to Northern European Paganism as it spread into Europe, becoming changed again in the process.
These are inescapable historical facts. Martin Luther charged that the Catholic Eucharist was “sacrifice” and Catholics have been accused to Goddess worship with Mary substituting for the missing goddesses of polytheism.
Then there are the more obvious Pagan trappings, like the Pope’s title of the Pagan High Priest of Rome, his hat, and of course, more broadly speaking, there is the “Jesus fish” which is a Pagan fertility symbol representing the vagina, the dates of Christmas, Easter, and so forth.
Another question might be to ask whether, as Koprowski insists, environmentalism is not to be distinguished from nature worship, and therefore, Paganism. That is, does Koprowski’s charge hold water?
Not really, and for two reasons. Environmentalism is not nature worship, and Pagans don’t worship nature. Seeing holiness in nature is not the same as worshiping it. Pagan gods are part of this world, as opposed to outside of it, as is the God of the Bible, so it is perhaps natural that Pagans are seen as worshiping trees and rocks and so forth.
Christianity, like Judaism, is, as well as being a religion of the book, a “revealed” religion. Paganism, on the other hand, is not revealed. As historian Clifford Ando writes, “in contrast to the Christians, who had faith, the Romans had knowledge; and…their knowledge was empirical in orientation…the Romans did not need faith; they had an orthopraxy” – that is, rather than “orthodoxy” (correct belief) they had correct practice (orthopraxy).
Rather than belief in the absurd, as Kierkegaard described Christianity, Roman Pagans based their focus on ritual on practices that worked. If things did not work, they had either been done incorrectly (an error made, demanding repetition) or the ritual itself was flawed, which demanded, Ando tells us, “an alteration in the script.”
This is a vastly different thing than a Christian believing (as some still do) that God simply did not want, for whatever inscrutable reasons, for you to get what you wanted, or to blame it on sin or wrongdoing that must first be expatiated, but rather on the idea that you had made an error of a much more practical kind.
The Pope believes that humans must care for the earth, for creation, because yes, creation is from the hands of God, but also because it is what God wants.
This is a vastly different rationale than that of your garden variety Pagan, who sees her gods and goddess – the divine – all around her. The Pope has an outside God demanding something while a Pagan has inside gods and goddesses all around her.
This is not to say Pagans did not abuse the environment. They did. Pollution at the height of the Roman Empire was not again matched until the Industrial Revolution. The Heathen Vikings denuded Iceland of trees, essentially stranding themselves there without timber or ships from Europe.
And these lessons from history are another reason to put a damper on Koprowski’s misguided enthusiasm. The Pope is not Pagan. Nor is the Catholic Church. The Church appropriated things Pagan in the same way that Nazis incorporated things Pagan, repurposing them for their own uses.
However much conservatives with the Pope would adhere to their modern, capitalist-centered ideology, Francis is on firm – if shared – theological ground when he condemns capitalism’s abuse not only of people, but of the environment.
The problem for conservatives is really not that the Pope has made room for Paganism in the Church, but rather that he refuses to make room for capitalism and all its attendant abuses.
Further Reading: Clifford Ando. The Matter of the Gods: Religion and the Roman Empire. University of California Press, 2008.