The Pope Calls Failed Christians Pagans – He is Wrong and This is Why

I have spoken highly of Pope Francis up until this point. He has shown himself to be a far different man than his Hitler Youth predecessor. But in one respect, Pope Francis seems much like Benedict XVI: his view of Paganism. Francis might see the light where economics is concerned, but like all of his predecessors, he is completely in the dark when addressing Paganism.

On Wednesday, Pope Francis used his weekly General Audience to preach humility to the faithful. God by coming down to earth has become “poor and small” he said, and his followers should be the “small among the small.”

“Jesus Himself reminds us: He who has fed, welcomed, visited, loved one of the smallest and poorest of people, has done it for the Son of God.”

Yes, Pope Francis has denounced the prosperity gospel, a thing that very much needs denouncing. Jesus was not running a get-rich-quick scheme. Jesus himself was poor and told his followers to give away their possessions, not accumulate them in his name.

So far, so good.

But then Francis said,

It is an ugly thing when you see a Christian who doesn’t want to humble himself, who doesn’t want to serve, a Christian who struts about everywhere: it’s ugly, eh? That is not a Christian: that’s a pagan!

Watch courtesy of

No. In point of fact, it is not.

Whoa! Remember us? We’re the idolaters who worship rocks and trees and when we get really wild, the whole damn earth! Just because Heathen folk like me believe that it is this life we are living that matters rather than some insubstantial (and far from guaranteed) hope of future paradise, does not mean our “materialism” compares to or has anything to do with the teachings of Christian prosperity preachers.

Most liberals and progressives are celebrating, I suppose. I, for one, speaking as a Heathen, am a bit upset.

It’s difficult enough being Pagan these days, a minority religion among minority religions. Bad enough we get saddled with your Satan and your endless flocks of demons; don’t go dumping your unwanted preachers on us too.

Look, it is hardly surprising that the Pope holds to his Church’s centuries old belief that Paganism is inferior. I get that and I don’t expect it to change any time soon. The entire Old Testament is an anti-Pagan diatribe, a rejection as Pagan of everything outside itself. As Gerd Lüdemann, Jan Assmann, and others have observed, the minute you say “you shall have no other gods before me” you’ve gone down Intolerance Road and there is no turning back.[1]

So, according to Christian teaching since Paul of Tarsus, everything is inferior to the “one true religion.” But you’d expect better of your fellow liberals and progressives who live in a country where the Constitution says all religions are equal, where denominational conceit doesn’t count.

The Daily Kos headline is, “Yes! Yes! Yes!! Pope Francis trashes the ‘prosperity gospel.'” We are told by a writer at that most progressive of websites that “Pope [Francis] calls them ugly pagans, I call them phony xtians, but pretty sure we mean the same thing.”

Same thing? Phony xtians are ugly Pagans? Really? That is hardly what I would expect a progressive to say. I mean, is that really progressive thinking? Demote failed Christians to Pagans?

Think about it: when was the last time you saw a Pagan priest or priestess stand up and preach the prosperity gospel? Like never. I can’t remember a single time in the past two thousand plus years.

Let Christianity’s problems be its own, please. Ugly Christians are ugly Christians. They need be nothing else. Don’t go dragging Paganism into it. Pagan morality is not the problem anymore than is atheist morality.

But it gets worse. The Daily Kos goes on to say: “But I won’t be 100% sold on him until he truly addresses and gives justice to all the children the ugly pagan pedophiles hurt.”

Ugly Pagan pedophiles? WTF? How did Christians who betray their own religion suddenly become “ugly pagan pedophiles”? When did pedophilia become a Pagan affliction?

Look, just because the Papacy stole many exterior trappings of Paganism, including the title of the Pagan high priest of Rome (Pontifex Maximus) and the Pagan priest hat and even some of the inner trappings like liturgy, doesn’t mean the Papacy is Pagan, whatever the Puritans said. The genocidal Papacy exterminated Paganism root and branch with ruthless persecutions lasting half a millennium.

Millions died. Don’t go calling Christians who now abuse the teachings of their own Bible “Pagans” because it just ain’t so and it betrays profound ignorance to think it does.

A Christian who shows off is not a Pagan. Paganism is not about showing off and it was not about showing off in Jesus’ day. As any atheist will surely tell you, there is no need for a divinely ordained set of laws for a society to be ethical and moral, nor does ethics and morality need to be defined by a Judeo-Christian understanding of the terms.

Why would any liberal or so-called progressive embrace the Church’s exclusive thinking that everything outside itself is somehow illegitimate. Would Daily Kos, for example, be celebrating if the Pope had called them failed Chrsitians “ugly atheists”? Would Daily Kos then be calling them “ugly atheist pedophiles”?

You can bet there would be an uproar then, though Fox News would get a kick out of it.

Here’s the straight dope: The idea of philanthropia was well known by Pagan society – and long before Christianity appeared – and even the idea of loving one’s enemies is well attested in Pagan writings. Diogenes Laertius (8.23) mentions Pythagoras on this score and it is found in Seneca too (De vita beata 20.5). The wealthy, in the Classical Pagan world, were expected to be civic benefactors.

John Whittaker’s findings are impossible to argue with: “We have no choice but to conclude that the pertinent conception was deeply entrenched in the popular morality of the ancient world.” Whittaker goes on to say: “We may conclude that pagan critics had not been slow to note that the Christian ideal of morality, lofty though it might be, was well anchored in the Hellenistic tradition.”

Indeed, in the Iambi ad Seleucum of Amphilochius of Iconium, friend of the Cappadocians and cousin of Gregory Nazianzen, the exhortation is to follow the ethics of the pagans but not their theology.” This amounts to less than a damning condemnation of Pagan ethics and morality. Pope Francis, sadly, has regressed.[2]

Christianity’s second-century Pagan critic Celsus went so far as to accuse the Christians of a lack of originality in the area of morality.[3] Origen, the Christian author of “Against Celsus” does not even try to contest the point, but settles for asserting that “basic moral principles are by divine disposition universally one and the same.” Whittaker notes that Christian apologists of the second century “took pains to emphasize the similarities rather than the divergences between their beliefs and the pagan wisdom of the Roman Empire.”[4] Even the bigoted Augustine insisted that philosophers converting to Christianity leave only their false doctrines behind, not their way of life.[5]

Of course, this charge about Christianity’s humility-challenged is coming from a man who lives in his palace in his own city, even if his personal habits seem to be more austere than is generally the case with vicars of God.

Francis said “God has become poor and small” but this is not true of his Church. Kristopher Morrison wrote at the National Post in March that,

There is no doubt, however, that between the church’s priceless art, land, gold and investments across the globe, it is one of the wealthiest institutions on Earth.

And it was ill-gotten gains that gave it this wealth:

Since 313 A.D., when Catholicism became the official religion of the Roman Empire, its power has been in near-constant growth.
The church was able to acquire land, most notably the Papal States surrounding Rome, convert pagan temples and claim relics for itself. Over 300 years, it became one of Europe’s largest landowners.

For the next thousand years, tithes and tributes flowed in from all over Europe. Non-Christians and even fellow Christians were killed and their property confiscated. For example, the Fourth Crusade and the sack of Constantinople in the early 13th century brought it gold, money and jewels.

And here Jesus said to give away your possessions. Yeah, about that…

The Pope draws no salary, granted. So Pope Francis is not accumulating personal wealth the way you and I do, through accumulation of “stuff.” But the Church he represents is one of the biggest accumulators of stuff in the history of the world, if not THE greatest.

If the Roman Catholic Church was serious about not showing off, was serious about humility, it would relocate to a more humble home and turn the Vatican into a hospice. Jesus, after all, had only the cloak on his back and his sandals. He thought those who lived in palaces were in league with the dark powers that ruled this age – about as far from spokesmen for God as can be.

The Pope might want to remember that adage about people who live in glass houses. Though originating with Chaucer in the fourteenth century, it has firm roots in the teachings of Jesus himself. Normative Christianity, as has been demonstrated, has no more room than did normative Paganism for radical ascetics like Jesus.

Conservative men of culture within the Church found radical Christian ascetics objectionable in the same way as their counterparts outside the Church. Within Christianity, the ascetics, with their claims to charismatic authority, posed the same sort of threat to hierarchical authority as they did to the institutional authority of the state. Faced with a similar conflict, Christianity effected a similar resolution. Conservative Christian missionaries developed a way of sidestepping the ‘hard sayings’ of the Gospels – the proof texts of the radical ascetics – by spiritualizing the ideals of poverty, chastity, and equality. In this they borrowed the concepts of apatheia and ataraxia from the Stoics, making virtue more an internal question of attitude than an external matter of physical practice. These ideals were thus stripped of their radical social character and their threat to the social order. This also allowed Christianity to appeal to many more people of higher rank and property than if it had attacked their riches and status in plain material terms. It showed that the ‘rich man’ could, indeed, be saved.[6]

You can see then that the Papacy can look in a mirror if it wants to know who is to blame for the prosperity gospel. And it ain’t Pagans.

Speaking of Christianity’s early leaders, Ramsay MacMullen writes that “their appeals could be heard over a general background of terms such as “mad,” “laughable,” “loathsome,” “disgusting,” “contaminating,” “wicked,” “ignorant,” and so forth, characteristic of ancient invective and freely applied by Christians to everything religious that was not also Christian.” “We might suppose,” he writes, that “Christians lived in a fog of dark disapproval which they were supposed to breathe in and make part of themselves, if they listened to their leaders or read their works…” [7]

Boy, if that isn’t still true.

I think about the words of the Roman proconsul Vigellius Saturninus said when he refused to allow a Christian to expound his faith, which was, inevitably, bound inextricably to a condemnation of all other faiths: “I shall not listen if you speak evil of what is sacred to us.” [8]

For we, too, Pope Francis, are a devout people, and we are not failed Christians.


[1] See Gerd Lüdemann, Intolerance and the Gospel: Selected Texts from the New Testament (Prometheus Books, 2007) and Jan Assmann, Moses the Egyptian: The Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism (Harvard University Press, 1997).
[2] John Whittaker “Christianity and Morality in the Roman Empire” Vigiliae Christianae 33 (1979) 210.
[3] Origen, Contra Cels. 1.4 (PG 11.661).
[4] Whittaker, 212-213.
[5] Augustine, Civ. Dei 19.19.
[6] See James M. Francis, Subversive Virtue: Asceticism and Authority in the Second-Century Pagan World (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995), 188.
[7] Ramsay MacMullen , Christianity & Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries (Yale University Press, 1997), 13.
[8] Acta Scill. 5: ‘initianti tibi mals de sacris nostris aures non praebebo’

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